The slaughter of World War I is seen from the Eastern Front point of view in “The Rifleman,” a Latvian saga about that conflict and the Russian Civil War and Latvian fight for independence that followed.
Documentary filmmaker Dzintars Dreibergs makes a sturdy. engrossing and moving fictional feature directing debut in this adaptation (scripted by Boris Frumin) of a celebrated Latvian novel by Aleksandrs Grins novel.
The story begins in a visually striking nighttime firefight in a snowy forest where a fresh-faced soldier (Oto Brantevics) displays the combat prowess and survival instincts of a veteran.
“Two years earlier” we see how he came to be there. The war begins, the Germans invade Latvia and his mother hides him under the bed. She and the family dog are killed, and young Arturs (Brantevics) then helps his much older father (Martins Vilsons) bury the family possessions, kill the livestock so that it won’t fall into enemy hands, and ridse off to enlist.
His dad was a famed marksmen in earlier conflicts. Now, after Father uses his reputation to pull some strings, he and both his sons (Raimonds Celms plays older brother Edgars) will be fighting for the Tsar under Latvian command, a concession granted by the teetering monarchy.
Dad is pressed into service, adding more notches to his bolt-action sniper’s rifle, and brother Edgars moves up the chain of command. But Arturs — just 16 when he enlisted — shows little aptitude for combat, despite the eagerness for revenge he’d professed in enlisting, and his constant volunteering for dangerous scout duty and pathfinder patrols.
He’s reluctant to use the bayonet. He can’t pull the trigger when Dad gives him a shot from his sniper’s position.
“If your mother could see you now,” Dad starts in, and then thinks better of criticizing his youngest. And Arturs, faced with his first true kill-or-be-killed challenges, soon gets the hang of this soldiering business, acquitting himself with honor on the Island of Death battles that many Latvians died in.
Arturs is gassed, blown up and shot more than once in the conflict, which is how he meets and falls in love with the young nurse Marta (Greta Trusina), staying in touch with visits and letters as the war goes badly for Russia, the Russian Revolution breaks out and Arturs’ services are employed in the Red Army, then in Lenin’s Guard, and finally in a Latvian corps hellbent on obtaining independence from Russia and everybody else when the smoke clears.
If the movies have taught us nothing about this period and place, it’s that the Germans had no compunction about killing civilians long before the Austrian corporal took over, and they were quick to introduce chemical weapons — the original “weapon of mass destruction” — to give themselves the edge.
The Russians? They were an army run by trigger happy autocrats, quick to threaten any soldier who didn’t follow orders with a firing squad, something true of both the Imperial Army and Red Army.
We’re treated to “The bloody shirt” motivation for Arturs’ enlistment, see basic training and the nightmare of the trenches, slip into the Hemingway cliche of falling for a nurse, Red Army “purges” of the disloyal that are terminal in nature.
Brantevics is pretty effective in the lead role…for someone who’d never acted before. And as you can discern from the plot description, there’s not a lot that’s truly novel in this version of The Great War.
“Doctor Zhivago” this isn’t, something that is never clearer than in the under-developed love story.
“Rifleman” has a choppy, episodic nature with some glorious set-piece battles and “tests” in The Hero’s Journey to amnhood and Latvian patriotism. That may be a result of “Blizzard of Souls (Dveselu putenis in Latvian)” being retitled for its North American release, cut by nearly 20 minutes and dubbed into English by Film Movement. Each of those decisions robs the film of something.
But grimly realistic and chaotic combat scenes and a hero whose “journey” we become invested in ensure that this Latvian film deserves a place in the canon of movies of the Great War, one that doesn’t leave out the chaos that followed that upheaval, even if it shortchanges the particulars.
Rating: unrated, combat violence
Cast: Oto Brantevics, Greta Trusina, Martins Vilsons, Raimonds Celms and Jekabs Reinis
Credits: Directed by Dzintars Dreibergs, scripted by Boris Frumin, based on a novel by Aleksandrs Grins. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:46