“Ashes in the Snow” is a game attempt at adding Stalin’s gulags to the horrors of Hitler’s Holocaust to our collective memory of the crimes of World War II.
The Russians beat the Germans in the institution of slave labor concentration camps where political prisoners, dissidents, those who “fell out of favor” and mistrusted nationalities were sentenced — often to be worked to death. And the first of them were carved out of the Siberian wilderness — by those imprisoned there — in 1930.
“Ashes” is the fictional story of a Lithuanian family headed by an activist academic (Sam Hazeldine) shipped to Siberia after the Russo-Soviet Empire occupied the Baltic countries, and half of Poland, in 1939-40. Father’s efforts to “help” people was noticed and they were arrested, hustled onto a train and separated in 1941.
Father was an art professor, and daughter Lina (Bel Powley) a talented teen portrait painter and sketch artist awaiting word on if she’d gotten into art school. The day she received her letter from the admissions office is the day they were taken. She vows to not open it and see if she was accepted until her dad is there to open it with her.
The sufferings of Lina, her mother (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and younger brother (Tom Sweet) are many, and straight out of the World War II catalog of the oppressed — packed into freight cars, starved and manhandled for the weeks it takes to cross the vastness of Mother Russia, prisoners dying, a woman losing her infant along the way.
It’s a sobering reminder of what happens when good people are helpless in the face of a state that thinks “putting them in camps” is something it should be doing in everyone’s name. The NKVD (pre-KGB) uniformed police were already indoctrinated and accustomed to the dehumanizing brutality they exercised over the helpless. Complain about your treatment and summary executions were the rule.
Except for young Ukrainian Kretzky (Martin Wallström). He has to be bullied into brutishness by his silky smooth sadist of a commander (Peter Franzén).
Lina’s art her lifeline to her humanity in this script. She scribbles maps, still-lifes and portraits on anything she can find to draw on, with any pencil or pen offered. The handsome young prisoner Andrius (Jonah Hauer-King) is a favorite subject. And once at the camp, he supplies her with paper and pencils.
The film’s catalog of atrocities is all too familiar. Its melodramatic touches — Andrius magically transforming into a master pilferer, other prisoners begging Lina to document their horrors — “People, they must know what is happening here.”
Lina has taken Papa’s “perception” lessons to heart — “I draw what I see.” So no, Commander. You might not want her to draw your portrait. She sees your ugliness.
The art drops into the background as lives narrow into the desperation of simply surviving the work — harvesting beets or herring — the bitter cold, disease sweeping the camps, starvation setting in. Kretzky must face tests of his humanity, like everyone else.
Starving people denounce each other to save their own skins.
Powley, a delight in “”Diary of a Teenage Girl” and “A Royal Night Out,” can be applauded for trying something darker, but the checkbox script and pedestrian direction Marius A. Markevicius, who produced Peter Weir’s escape from Siberia thriller “The Way Back,” let her down.
It’s hard for anybody to make much of an impression, although Kongsli (“Force Majeure,” “Wonder Woman”) has moments of pathos and defiance that stick with you.
I appreciate the film’s ambition and message, and the meticulous period detail, but there’s no getting around it all goes for naught in this, a dull tour of a grimly compelling historic subject.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, nudity
Cast: Bel Powley, Jonah Hauer-King, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Martin Wallström, Sam Hazeldine and Peter Franzén.
Credits: Directed by Marius A. Markevicius, script by Ben York Jones, based on the novel by Ruta Sepetys. A Vertical Entertainment release
Running time: 1:38