The recent film Nova Lituania opens with worrying news being conveyed to Lithuanian government officials in Kaunas: a Polish soldier has been shot in uncertain circumstances on their mutual border, and Warsaw is demanding the restoration of the diplomatic relations suspended over a decade previously (and along with it, a tacit acceptance of Polish control over the disputed city of Vilnius/Wilno). Based on a real event in 1938, this underlines the plight faced by the small Republic of Lithuania, hemmed in by an expansionist Germany and Soviet Union and also with strained to non-existent relations with its other large neighbour, Poland. Then, before long, Lithuania receives a second ultimatum this time from Nazi Germany, demanding they hand over their only large port, Klaipėda.

Nova Lituania, the first full-length film by director Karolis Kaupinis, is a character study of a remarkable man who proposes a way out of this dilemma. Feliksas Gruodis has spent years travelling the world, scouting out locations where a “back-up Lithuania” could be set up at a moment of crisis, with much of the population relocated. Based on the real-life figure of Kazys Pakštas, who advocated a number of solutions for how Lithuania could escape from its difficult geographical position, Gruodis is intermittently given a hearing by figures ranging from student bodies to the president himself, but spends much of his time struggling with domestic problems and strained relationships with his wife and her family.

Despite its central theme, it’s received attention and praise beyond Lithuania’s borders, being described as a “strange, elegant film” by the Calvert Journal and “a densely detailed, slyly comic collision between international politics and absurdity” by The Observer, and was Lithuania’s nomination for the Best International Feature Film category at this year’s Oscars. Deep Baltic’s Will Mawhood recently spoke to Kaupinis about his experiences making the film, and what Gruodis’s story can tell us about modern Lithuania and the wider world.

Map of the Republic of Lithuania between the wars. Vilnius and the surrounding region was de facto under the control of Poland between 1922 and 1939, but was claimed by Lithuania as its historic capital [Image: Adomas Klimantas]

As was commented in the review of Nova Lituania in the British paper The Guardian, the film requires quite an amount of knowledge about Lithuanian history to fully appreciate. It begins with the shooting of a Polish border guard by a Lithuanian soldier and the subsequent pressure from Warsaw to reinstate the diplomatic relations broken off in 1920, also features Nazi Germany’s ultimatum to Lithuania and subsequent occupation of Klaipėda, and concludes with the government, under duress, consenting to the placement of tens of thousands of Soviet troops in the country. This requires not only a knowledge of Lithuania’s relationship with its neighbours – including complicated issues like the status of Vilnius – as well as geography which differs considerably from the current map. 

It can seem increasingly that directors and authors try to ensure as much as possible is clarified, with an international audience in mind, or even leave out specific cultural references, but this doesn’t seem to be a concern for you – or did you primarily envisage this as a film for a Lithuanian audience, who would be very aware of all these events?

If there’s one thing I value these days it’s authentic thinking and speaking. (in various meanings of that word). I am Lithuanian and I am shaped by Lithuanian history. I see no reason to seek some other point of view for the sake of “a bigger audience”. But in order to show the situation I can’t avoid details and factuality because that’s exactly what makes the situation particular. Now, stories or themes are universal. If the details don’t sink the theme or story, people from the most diverse backgrounds will get it. Finding a right balance between the local and the universal is what one should seek. It was interesting to see how some audiences in Kurdistan or Uruguay understood the film perfectly while some Lithuanians missed the point completely. I also noticed that audiences from countries with imperial history feel the vibe of the film less than countries that have the experience of being objects of geopolitical and ideological battles. 

Karolis Kaupinis

I know you first had the idea for the film after seeing a play about the character of Kazys Pakštas (the prototype for Feliksas Gruodis in Nova Lituania) – Madagascar by Marius Ivaškevičius. How does Nova Lituania differ from the play? And what was it that appealed to you about the story? 

The play or the main character in it is actually closer to the real Pakštas. My Gruodis is bureaucratic, calm, almost without any fervour regarding his idea. Pakštas wasn’t like that. But Pakštas was a man of the interwar optimism. I assume there was a bigger belief in a happy ending in general. After the Second World War and the massive exterminations that followed it all around the world, it’s way more difficult to believe that what awaits us in the future is something bright. Pakštas did believe in the possibility of a solution. He tried as long as he lived. Today these efforts usually seem naïve and idealistic, as we’re cynical. Madagascar uses our cynicism by exaggerating those naive features of the interwar characters. We laugh at them. I wanted a sad smile, not laughter. To make Gruodis one of us – hoping for a happy ending and not believing in it at the same time.

A teacher in a school in interwar Lithuania shows pupils the map of the country [Image: Vytautas Augustinas]

In the film, Gruodis refers to “nine islands” as the intended destination, which makes it unclear whether Lithuania’s intentions would have involved displacing local people. Nonetheless, it’s easy to imagine a contemporary viewer being alarmed by what could be seen as a sympathetic portrait of a figure who endorsed colonialism – but it’s from a perspective that’s a little different from what Western European viewers are used to, as Lithuania itself was in danger of being colonised by its much larger neighbours. Do you think the outlook of smaller countries on this subject differed in any way from larger European powers?

I don’t have in-depth knowledge about the situation in other countries. Lithuania did not officially declare any intentions of acquiring colonies in the current meaning of that word. When using the word “colony” state officials usually meant the Lithuanian diaspora in the US, Canada or South American countries, which mainly consisted of hard labourers who had left Lithuania in search of a buck in the factories of Chicago or the Brazilian plantations. Pakštas was a separate case. He truly researched the continents of Africa and the Americas, thinking about the possibility of Lithuania purchasing a piece of land there. His initial purpose was the concentration of the widely dispersed Lithuanian diaspora, but his later idea comes closer to a territory that could provide continuity of statehood in case the real Lithuania was colonised. Having in mind that Lithuania was a small, rather backward culture, he saw danger in the vicinity of bigger western powers not only militarily but also culturally or civilisationally (for lack of a better term). So he looked for a territory that would be free of western nations and imagined equal co-existence, even an eventual mixture of locals and Lithuanians. 

Image: Nova Lituania/Karolis Kaupinis

Perhaps another director would have tried to dramatise the realisation of Gruodis’s bizarre plan, but it’s obvious you’re at least as interested in the conditions that have brought it about, and by the personal life of Gruodis, a well-meaning but awkward figure whose relations with his wife and her family are obviously strained, partly as a result of his constant travels and preoccupations. Why did you decide to highlight the personal aspect just as much as the broader geopolitical tension? 

The real Pakštas went through the gradual collapse of his marriage while trying to avoid the annihilation of the country. Searching for solutions on a large scale, he didn’t find any on the small scale. That’s pretty usual among people. We tend to preach big solutions when we find no escape from our personal dead ends. I always pay attention to this discrepancy. The contradiction between what one preaches and how one actually lives is one of the most fundamental human features, I think. 

You commented about Nova Lituania on MUBI: “I wanted to make a period piece that would seem historical and contemporary at the same time. To escape the linear understanding of history because so often the past helps me to understand the present better than anything in the present.” What do you think this particular period and location can help us understand about our present situation?

The main similarity I see between then and now is the idleness of society. Currently there is no dictatorship but we don’t act, we swallow what we don’t like, until some of us do “rise” and then we don’t want anything in common with them as their fury erupts in a very ugly form. I’m talking about the direct connection between what’s political in my daily life and my bigger political choices. I believe that my idleness regarding what’s being done with the yard of my apartment building leads to my ultimate desire to support somebody who promises to “sort it ALL out” – if not to support, then at least to an active lack of resistance to such a figure or movement. That might be part of the unfortunate heritage of serfdom, which existed here until the mid-19th century.

If as individuals we are still able and eager to take care of ourselves and our fates, as anything larger we often fail. The Soviet period made it way worse as even separate individuals lost the belief in their own ability to change things. Although the interwar independence as well as the independence of today was the result of swift and timely self-organisation, it was mainly done by the cultural elite. Lots of the people then and today remain indifferent (although usually dissatisfied) regarding anything that is beyond their family circle. They want things to be different. But they want somebody else to take responsibility and risk for it. That’s not the result of laziness, usually it’s fear of losing the fragile status quo. So anyone who comes along with a pro-active stance is looked at with suspicion, but if he or she insists strongly enough, we end up obeying. That obedience isn’t frank though; it’s just a “leave me in peace” kind of obedience. I won’t believe in what you want me to believe in but I’ll pretend I do until a stronger current comes and I quickly adapt. Maybe it is just human, I don’t know, but our society lacks the capacity and desire to organise and take the initiative into their own hands. So you might dethrone a dictator, but it’s way more difficult to eradicate the dictatorship from hearts and heads. 

Hitler in the port of Klaipėda (Memel in German) in 1939, following the Lithuanian government’s acceptance of an ultimatum to hand over the city

The slogan of the interwar period in Lithuania was Mes be Vilniaus nenurimsim (“without Vilnius we will not calm down”). We get something of a sense from the beginning of the film of a bluff being called – even if a confrontation with Poland and the return of Vilnius may have been desired in general, it probably was not desired at that precise moment, at least by most of those in power. There’s also the scene near Klaipėda, where a lieutenant who has been told to withdraw before the Germans aggressively confronts Gruodis and former prime minister Jonas Servus, contrasting the words spoken by the president about duty at his military graduation the previous year with the command he has been given to retreat without a fight. 

Timothy Snyder claims in his book The Reconstruction of Nations, which is in large part about Lithuanian-Polish relations throughout history, “the very success of Lithuanian nationalism rendered the reversal of Lithuanian foreign policy exceedingly difficult”. I imagine you’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about the geopolitical context during this period. Do you think the Lithuanian government put themselves in a worse position than they needed to be in by their actions during this period, or was it simply an impossible situation?

German and Russian expansionist foreign policy didn’t depend either on Lithuanian or Polish actions or desires. That is, they probably would have done what they did anyway. However, the division between Poland and Lithuania has always been in the interest of German and Russian imperial ambitions. Understanding that, you might say that getting closer to Poland was in Lithuania’s interest because Germany and Russia, not Poland, were the major threats. However, Poland itself didn’t believe much in compromise regarding Lithuania. What do you do when the country that’s supposed to be your geopolitical ally believes into “might is right”? You probably make a bit of a concession for the sake of not remaining alone against all three. But that was done. Lozoraitis as a foreign affairs minister understood the importance of Polish–Lithuanian relations and was actively seeking to heal the dispute.

Pakštas himself proposed dividing Lithuania into cantons following the example of Switzerland, so that Vilnius region would remain kind of a separate district on its own, with separate legislative power that would safeguard Polish interests but would represent Lithuanian and Jewish minorities too. But neither Smetona nor Poland were fans of such a compromise. Finally, both countries fell prey to Germany and Russia. We cannot know if a strong alliance between Poland and Lithuania would have changed Russian and German intentions, but the division certainly made their actions easier.

The interwar song “Ei, Pasauli, mes be Vilniaus nenurimsim!” (“Hey World, without Vilnius we won’t calm down!”)

Officially everybody was made to believe that there’s the leader of the nation and he’s going to take care of everything. But among the political elite the feeling was gradually that of a freezing immobility. They were afraid of aggression but they were afraid to resist either. They didn’t know what to do. That‘s what interested me and what still bothers me. When Russians attacked Finland, none of the remaining three Baltic capitals issued a note of protest; they abstained at the League of Nations. The political elite expected that if they don‘t infuriate Moscow or Berlin, it won‘t touch them. But they did. You might think that abandoning your principles would stop the bully, while fighting for those principles might infuriate him so that he attacks you with redoubled rage. But refusing to fight for them was treated by the bully as willing submission.

Kazys Pakštas also advocated a Balto-Scandinavian Union (a confederation of the three Baltic states, in addition to Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland) – touring the Nordic countries in the mid-’30s. Did he ever completely give up on this idea, and did it coexist with his plans for colonisation outside Europe?

“Baltoskandija” was one of his ”idées fixes”. They coexisted. All of them were different solutions for strengthening statehood and safeguarding independence. Pakštas believes that historically Lithuania wrongly expanded eastwards, towards the Black Sea, and the real direction is “face to the sea” – the Baltic. One must keep in mind that the societal differences between Scandinavia and the Baltic countries weren’t as big as they became after 50 years of Soviet occupation, although they certainly existed and Lithuania was probably culturally the most different due to its Catholic culture.

Is there an extent to which it whitewashes this period of Lithuania’s history? We get a sense of a country which is, by Gruodis’s description, poor, and seems somewhat turbulent; likewise we see the evidence of some interference in the press, but it’s not clearly indicated that it is a dictatorship, which at this point in history it was (under the rule of Antanas Smetona).

It certainly isn’t a film about how bad Smetona’s dictatorship was. The dictatorship was mild if you compare it with other dictatorships in interwar Europe. Cinema deals with emotions: if you make a film about a lukewarm dictatorship, the film itself will be lukewarm unless you exaggerate or make that tepidness a central zeitgeist of the film and the time it portrays. I think I did the latter. I was trying to understand what and why happened. How did we lose the country, the societal balance, the independence that was so hard fought for? The answer isn’t “we lost it because it was a dictatorship”. Democratic Czechoslovakia was one of the first to crumble. “Because they came” is also too easy as an answer.

An image of Antanas Smetona (left), Lithuania’s leader from 1926 to 1940, closely mirrored by a still from Nova Lituania [Image: Vytautas Augustinas/Nova Lituania/Karolis Kaupinis]

Gruodis refers to “Backup Lithuania” as “a state like no other, a state like never before”. As is calculated in the film, it would have required 112 trips by a fleet of ships, and a period of over two years, to relocate all of Lithuania’s population. What do you think a Lithuanian colony in Madagascar would have been like, if somehow it had been achieved?

I intentionally avoided “what if…”. Otherwise I would have made a film about that. If I did, and maybe one day I will, that would have been a dream about a terrestrial paradise. I have a strong desire for it. But in reality, paradise on earth isn’t possible – only an attempt to make our surroundings as harmonious as possible. This attempt takes place against constant backlash. Dialectics, if I correctly understand what that word means. Lithuania is a glass that is half-full, half-empty, and so would be the colony, wherever it was. There’s no geographical solution for our problems.

Madagascar was Ivaškevičius’s idea – Pakštas doesn’t even talk about Madagascar.

The final, ominous words of the film come immediately after the government’s reluctant agreement for Soviet troops to be placed on Lithuanian territory, receiving the historic capital Vilnius in return – with the president declaring “if they try anything funny here, we’ll chase them out like we mean it”. Was Kazys Pakštas remembered in Soviet-occupied Lithuania, and how if so? 

He was mostly ridiculed as a joker and fantasist, both in magazines and in films. Petras Cvirka, the collaborationist writer who went to Moscow in 1940 to “bring Stalin’s sun”, referred to Pakštas as “a cock of Smetona’s yard” who wanted to move us to Africa instead of “unifying with the brotherly Soviet Union”. It’s funny because Pakštas was just as opposed to Smetona’s regime as Cvirka – only that the former saw it as dangerous because it might lead to the loss of independence while the latter saw it as an obstacle to the loss of independence he desired.

What are you working on now? 

A story set in 1991. The Soviets take over Lithuanian Radio and Television and part of the staff go on hunger strike. They shut themselves up in a little hut in front of the TV building and try to starve themselves into the long-desired fulfilment. Once again, it’s partially based on something that really happened.

All images credit – Nova Lituania/Karolis Kaupinis unless otherwise specified

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