‘Baiga vasara’ aims high, but misses mark

Baiga vasara

Soviet tanks and soldiers appear on the streets of Rīga in a scene from the film.

Director Aigars Grauba’s Baiga vasara (Dangerous Summer) reaches high, but never quite attains its lofty goals. It is technically a great-looking movie with a Dolby soundtrack, but is hampered by a weak script, uneven acting and spotty direction.

Part of the problem is that Grauba is never quite sure which story he wants to tell. On the one hand it is a romantic story about a wartime love triangle between Izolde (Inese Caune), a young Baltic German student caught between the powerful Vilhelms Munters (Uldis Dumpis), the real life Latvian foreign minister, and Roberts (Artūrs Skrastiņš), a powerless but idealistic radio reporter. On the other hand it is the story of the Latvian nation caught between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. If that wasn’t enough, it also adds two subplots. One deals with Munters’ efforts to steal some overseas Latvian funds. The other deals with the role of journalists in a democratic society and the obstacles that they face. All of these are supposed to complement each other, but unfortunately merely get in each others way. The screenplay had five co-authors, seldom a good sign.

Baiga vasara is at its best when it focuses on the journalists. This is mainly due to the performances of Skrastins and, as Roberts’ reporting partner Karlis, Jānis Reinis. They both bring a realism to their roles that takes their characters beyond the mostly two dimensional performances of the other cast members. There is a genuine chemistry between the two. Grauba seems most comfortable when telling the story of what it takes to be a reporter and the obstacles that they have to face. Grauba, who also had a hand at the screenplay, and the other writers—Pauls Bankovskis, Gabis, Jānis Leja and Andrejs Ēķis,—have all, in one way or another, actually worked in broadcasting and are intimately familiar with the subject matter. The first rule of writing is write about what you know and, in this case, it shows on the screen.

Baiga vasara is at its weakest when it tries to tell the story of the Latvian nation. Partly this is due to the performances of the two leading actors, Dumpis as Munters and Uldis Vazdiks as Kārlis Ulmanis. Their acting styles reflect the Social Realism style that was popular in the Soviet Union and the fact their craft was developed mostly on theater stages. Their performances lack the emotional depth needed for film. Their characters come across as two dimensional caricatures. This is something that might have worked on the stage where actors have to reach the cheap seats, but on screen it seems unnatural and forced.

There has been quite a bit of criticism of the historical accuracy of the film and the roles of Munters and Ulmanis. However, it is important to remember that this is a work of fiction and history is always a matter of interpretation. I cannot vouch for the historical accuracy, but from a historical perspective the film’s major weakness is that the historical story simply falls flat and never progresses beyond its two dimensional presentation. I doubt that this was by design. It was due to flawed execution.

The other major problem is that history requires scale. You basically have two cinematic choices when dealing with history. You can either choose to tell it as an epic, for example Lawrence of Arabia, and have a lot of sweeping wide angle shots and a cast of thousands to show the overwhelming obstacles and stakes, or you can choose to shoot it tight, for example The Manchurian Candidate, and concentrate on the emotional and psychological obstacles and stakes. Grauba tried the first approach, settled for the second, but succeeds at neither. Of course, not all of this is Grauba’s fault. This particular story almost demands an epic approach, but that costs money, which Latvian filmmakers simply do not have access to. Then again, scale can be demonstrated in many ways. Grauba, for example, could have used newsreel footage to show the insurmountable odds that the Latvian nation faced. Instead he tries to fake it by shooting tight shots with epic implications.

The only place where this stylistic approach seems to work is in the central plot line of the triangle between Izolde, Roberts and Vilhelms. Izolde is torn between her love for Roberts and Vilhelms’ offer of security and the chance to escape Latvia for Germany just ahead of the rolling Russian tanks. The only weakness in this portion of the film is that there is very little chemistry between Izolde and Roberts, or even Izolde and Vilhelms. Caune is a good and capable actress, but she seems to be in a tug of war between the stylistic choices of the two actors. Skrastiņš with his naturalistic approach and Dumpis with his theatrical emoting place Caune in a tough spot. She tries to respond by adopting the style of whichever character she shares the screen with, but never really makes a connection with either.

Overall, Baiga vasara is not a bad film. Had it concentrated on telling just one of the stories it could have been a great film. It spreads itself too thin and tries to accomplish something which is just slightly beyond its reach, but in doing so it does have its moments of cinematic glory when the screen comes alive with the story of the Latvian people and the hardships that they had to endure during a period of history that seldom is dealt with from a Latvian perspective.

(Editor’s note: This review originally appeared on author Andrejs Makwitz’s Web site, The Latvian Film Page, and is republished with permission.)


Baiga vasara

Aigars Grauba

Platforma Filma,  1999

Notes: In Latvian (with English subtitles). Drama, color, 110 minutes. Screenplay: Pauls Bankovskis, Gabis, Jānis Leja, Andrejs Ēķis, Aigars Grauba; director of photography: Gints Bērziņš; producer: National Film Center of Latvia; principal cast: Inese Caune, Uldis Dumpis, Jānis Reinis, Artūrs Skrastiņš, Uldis Vazdiks.

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