Director Dzintars Dreibergs: Blizzard of Souls is the story of the birth of the Latvian state
How can you make such a believable and emotionally powerful film about war if you have never been in a war yourself?
The answer is quite simple: you have to put in a lot of work. You have to read letters, memories, watch 20th century war films, the makers of which were not influenced by the Second World War. There are, of course, lazy directors who do not want to study war, but are influenced by films in which it is glorified. When you start to study it in depth, you realize that you know nothing about war.
When I read Blizzard of Souls as a teenager, it made an extremely strong impression on me. After that, I had never been able to imagine that this book could be turned into a movie. The book is so deep, it is like a wide river of life and death...
But in reality, many had thought about it. Uldis Pūcītis also wrote in his Diaries that the next thing he wanted to bring to screen was Blizzard of Souls.
Your film is likely to get our domestic Oscars equivalent - Lielais Kristaps.
My Oscars are first and foremost the people who came see to the film. I was hoping and working towards it, but this many visits is incredibly big for Latvia in these days… Especially now, in the Netflix era, when you can watch literally any film digitally. There were more than 250,000 viewers - those who came to the cinemas.
I had the impression that millions went to see it...
Yes, we can be counted in the millions! (Laughs). If in Latvia some 100,000 viewers go to the cinema, then it is already a high figure. But, of course, I very much appreciate Lielais Kristaps, because it is our own Latvian award, and our awards are important to us. People who decide on who will receive the awards are given a very difficult task: to maintain objectivity and professionalism, to distribute prizes so that no one feels... shortchanged. Our film has 11 nominations, but at the same time it seems that so many more deserve them. Wouldn't Grēta deserve it for Marta's role? But I understand that the jury has a very difficult task, because there are a lot of films and compromises are inevitable. In addition, there are many cinema professions for which the nomination does not exist, for example, visual effects master Māris Āboliņš has long deserved Lielais Kristaps and not just for Blizzard of Souls alone.
With your first big war film, you got 11 Lielais Kristaps nominations - that requires skill. How did you do that? After all, you are a graduate of the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, not a cinematographer in the third generation.
If one does not have any relatives from the cultural environment, it is difficult to imagine that at the end of the last century and the beginning of the 2000s it would be a choice of profession. Cinema could then remain as just a happy hobby. At that time, however, there were no telephones with which to film. At the time, one of my friends got a small movie camera as a gift from his father, and that’s how it all started. We enjoyed filming, we did it with enthusiasm. I was 18 at the time. But I never thought of it as a possible profession. I knew at the time that it was important to enter a good university, to get a good job so that I could provide for myself. When I reached all of that, I slowly began to wonder: what does my heart long for? And then director Viesturs Meikšāns told me: Latvian Academy of Culture has a directors' course for the first time, you already have some nine films, you have to go! I went... My path turned in another direction.
But why the Blizzard of Souls? You probably could have chosen something easier.
I believe that cinema has a huge impact that affects people in the long run. Good or bad, but impact, nonetheless. When cinema is done well, we begin to associate ourselves with the main character and gain new experience along with him. And we do not easily forget what we have experienced. I am interested in films that allow me to experience something new and important.
Do you remember the first movie you saw in the cinema?
Not the first one, but I remember how my grandmother took me to the Spartaks and Palladium cinemas, I remember Robocop and Jungle Jane, I remember seeing a naked woman in a waterfall, but I not asking my grandma anything about that...
But still - why did you choose Blizzard of Souls?
If I feel that there is some white, unfilled spot in the growth of the Latvian people, that there is something untold in our history, I want to fill that empty space. It seems to me that we know the history of other countries more than the history of Latvia. But the Blizzard of Souls was not really my initiative. I was called and invited to take part in a competition for the rights to make this film. The competition was organized by the authors of the idea and the heirs of Aleksandrs Grīns. Later, when I got to know the heirs more closely, I realized that it is extremely important for them that someone does not ruin this work... I was asked what I understood from the Blizzard of Souls, what I did I glean from it.
When you started making the film - didn't you feel like you touched upon eternity? Maybe you were a little scared?
No, I did not feel fear, rather a huge responsibility. Responsibility towards the riflemen. I set for myself that my measure for success or failure will be determined by the feeling I’ll have when I will step foot in the Brethren Cemetery. I wanted to find the essence that is encoded in the book. I wanted to take the main lesson from the times of riflemen, which can be used today.
Did you find the main lesson?
Yes. I realized that Aleksandrs Grīns had written the story of the birth and maturity of our nation and country. There were people who immediately knew what the Latvian state should be like. But this idea of a new state must be born in all people, it must mature step by step. When you have been part of the tsar's army, when you have lived under his boot and seen how he does not take into account the thousands who fall for him, you must be disappointed in the ideals of the tsar's army; you need to realize the moment when they start to be afraid of you as a Latvian, the moment when no one wants you to have your own battalions. Then during a battle, you realize your strength, realize that you are fighting for your land and become invincible. When they try to tell you that Christmas battles are the most important ones, you believe that you will be in Kurzeme in a moment, but everyone around you is slaughtered, and you realize that you are only part of the tsar's great maneuver... But still: you have won, you are a part of victory, because you conclude that our strength comes when we are all together. This is followed by disappointment in the tsar, later disappointment in the red ideology, a turning point in the battles of Cēsis and finally the battle against Bermont. And then the nation believes in itself and grows to a certain conclusion: only when we ourselves are the masters of our country, only then can we be happy here and take care of ourselves, our family.
Is there a war now?
No, there is no war in Latvia right now. We musn’t blaspheme. I don't like it when Covid times or information attacks are being called a war. This is absolutely not a war. None of us realizes what it is like to live in war for even one day. And it must serve as the biggest warning: to think that war can solve something, only sick maniacs can think that. War cannot solve anything. It is a loss at its core. Of course, much more is happening in parallel with the war. For example, propaganda machines have always been next to it. But they are strikingly laughable when we look at them from a historical point of view. If they try to tell us that we are small and weak, that our country can be occupied in three days, then it is clear at that moment that this is not true.
The lead actor Oto Brantevics is also a modern man. How did you choose him?
There were about 1,300 guys in casting. Oto had come along a friend, both from Turlava. It was not easy - to find a young man these days who balances naivety, future plans, thoughts of love and clearly visible stubbornness, meaning that he could be the one who does not give up in a difficult time, who fights and wins. First of all - wins over himself. What Oto had to do during the film: he had to grow from a naive boy to a young man, alongside whom the others would rise up. It's hard even for a professional actor, let alone a fifteen-year-old boy. The filming process is physically tiring: to run up the mountain once - no problem, but twenty times? At that moment, you ask Oto: can you continue? Throughout the filming, Oto never said he couldn't. He understood that it was necessary and that the result was important. He did not feel like a star for a moment, he does not have such qualities. Of course, I was afraid that he might start acting an entitled celebrity, but no, what was important for him was to tell the story of the Blizzard of Souls. Now he says that he has become more open, but it seems that his soul has remained as it was when he came to us.
Maybe he's thinking of becoming an actor?
No, he doesn't care about that. But the remark was: if something historically significant will be in the works, then he will consider it. But really he wants to be a historian.
But how was it - to create the believability of the war? Oto is a young boy, after all.
Hard work again... I remember my grandpa, I have tried a lot to talk to him, with those who have really been on the battlefield. But they don't like to talk about it. Soldiers don't really talk about war. The halfwits who sent them to war are the ones who most often speak about it... When looking for the key to the Blizzard of Souls, this was an important question for me: why are they silent? And why do they break at one point, seeing death so close? How do they feel when taking someone's life in war? You take part in a battle, you run, your feet in your boots are rubbed to blood, you see your comrade who is dead, and you tear off his boots without even thinking, because they will not rub your feet... What is this madness that war wreaks with the head?
What is the difference between Blizzard of Souls' and today's youth?
I was surprised that the difference turned out to be much smaller than I expected. Young people then and now were and are convinced that there will be no war. Longing for love and life - this is identical for both young people. Yes, today's young people are physically weaker, because back then young people had to do physical work in the field, on the farm. Now they have elevators, public transport and computers. I find the thoughts of today's young people funny: if anything happens, we could flee to Gotland by boat. I'd like to see who could row that far. Yes, we are weaker physically, but very similar in heart: we all want to see the good and the light and to prove ourselves. We never know which young person will be ready to defend the ideals at the right time. During school, I was a confident pacifist, I was opposed to various military matters, to compulsory military service, because I wanted to study, not run around with a wooden stick for two years, miming shooting. My conviction was: war is impossible. But now - let's see, the war is happening next door. And it's a shame that in the 21st century, we have not stopped wars in the world and that all the money that is spent on militarization, is not placed in, for example, researching and stopping cancer.
Do you have a recipe for teaching young people patriotism? Maybe you don't have to teach it at all?
I think too much is being said today about what to teach these young people. In their youth people learn from the examples that can be seen around them. If I see parents for whom November 18 is important, if I see people for whom it is important to talk about it, it changes and develops me. Maybe someone needs some specific advice, but others need nothing, and they will find themselves despite it. Young people develop themselves, they are looking for something of their own at each stage: there is time for Vonnegut, time for Nirvana, time for Līvi and time for completely different moments of connection. Everything is quite simple: we have no time be ashamed of our search, we have to stand with our back straight and realize that neither luck, nor the correct answers live beyond the borders. It's all here. We are strong ourselves, we are building this country ourselves.
You are already a patriot, you have no problem finding yourself.
But where did this patriotism in me come from?
From parents probably.
As a child, no one told me about our history or our flag. I was not even taken to the Baltic Way on August 23, 1989, which I am very sad about. I was seven at the time. For a moment, I glued comics at home: The People's Front versus the Interfront... Probably it was the environment and the feelings it created that brought me up. I was also brought up by people who were not afraid to tell the truth during the National Awakening.
Sometimes I am afraid for the Latvian state. All kinds of multiculturalism, other abominations come to the top...
No, I'm not afraid. I know many people who are ready to defend their country. After the beginning of the events in Ukraine in 2014, I was once in a guy company, and they seriously discussed what would happen if something similar happened in Latvia... They decided: they will stand until their last breath, because Latvia is important. The fact that there is multiculturalism does not change the awareness that Latvia is a country where we want to live and - God forbid! - if it has to be defended with weapons. But if we have to, we will do it, I have felt it in the people around me. Same feeling was also given by the Blizzard of Souls: we are a strong nation, which a foreign force has tried to convince that we are weak. This strength rests inside us, and the foreign force is afraid that this strength may wake up...
So why am I crying while watching Blizzard of Souls?
Someone called me after watching the movie and said, “I thought for a long time: why did I cry during the movie?” And then he also gave the answer, “You have given us a funeral with an open coffin. We have never had the opportunity to say goodbye to the Latvian riflemen. It was taken from us, we couldn't even talk to them..." Yes, a funeral is not just a sad event, it is acceptance of what has taken place and an understanding of the journey. These are our unconscious and unshed tears, and cinema is a wonderful opportunity to let go.