When I said to a Lithuanian friend that I was currently watching an Estonian TV series about partisans, she sighed: “such an overdone theme in Lithuania”. And she was right: in the last decade, the theme of partisans in Lithuania has become very popular – many documentaries and feature films have been made, while at the [Vilnius] book fair, which is one of the most important events of the year in Lithuania, in 2019 I even saw shirts with the faces of partisans on them. So the Latvian series The Red Forest (“Sarkanais Mežs”) also interested me very much: would we be able to see some common features in how the three Baltic states’ collectively experienced trauma is narrated?
History has been quite similar for us; however, as historians and researchers and academics researching collective memory often remind us, people can remember one and the same event very differently.
Before I start my analysis, I would like my readers to bear in mind that I – unlike the protagonist of one classic Latvian film – cannot say “for me as a historian”1 because I am not one, so in this article I will not seek to analyse historical events and their significance in the Baltic states. I will speak only about how they are reflected in the language of cinema.
Briefly about the series and their context
The Lithuanian The Price of Freedom: Partisans (“Laisvės kaina. Partizāni”), the Latvian Red Forest and the Estonian The Land of Winds (“Tuulepealne maa”) differ first of all by their subjects. In the Estonian series, which came out in 2008, the theme is not really the partisans. It focuses on the lives of two protagonists, close friends Indrek and Toomas, until the Communist and Nazi occupations, and so the partisans appear only in the final episodes (there are 13 episodes in total). For this reason, the Estonian series is quite difficult to compare with the Latvian and Lithuanian ones.
The Lithuanian Price of Freedom is a much more voluminous work – in total, it has four series, each with 12 episodes. In the first season, the action starts in 1918 with the founding of the Lithuanian state, and it was followed by series entitled Partisans (2017), Dissidents (2019) and Sąjūdis (2019).
The second series of the show is dedicated to the whole of the Second World War (although the name of the series seems to indicate that it will be primarily about the partisans). The story starts in August 1940, when the so-called Lithuanian “people’s parliament” (tautas seima) delegation (among them a number of figures significant in Lithuanian culture, as well as a number of outstanding writers, the former head of the Lithuanian security services and one of the founders of independent Lithuania) signed the treaty annexing Lithuania [to the Soviet Union], or as Lithuanians say, “brought Stalin’s sun” (I also heard this idiom in conversations between the Estonian partisans, and for me as a young Balt this was a revelation). So this was a historical period when many of the protagonists had not yet fully grasped what was awaiting them.
Half of the series (five episodes) is dedicated to the Holocaust, and I think this is not a coincidence. It was in 2017 that Rūta Vanagaitė, who has written a number of books about the Holocaust, revealed in one interview that she had information that one of the leaders of the Lithuanian partisans, Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas, had participated in the Holocaust. Her words produced a huge reaction in Lithuanian society; both historians and the chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Faina Kukliansky, denied the possibility that this could have happened, and some publishers decided to cease selling her books.
Meanwhile the plot of the Latvian The Red Forest starts in 1949 in England, when Rūdolfs Silarājs, an MI6 officer of Latvian origin, invites English-resident Vitolds to join the British intelligence services. So the Nazi occupation and the legions are already in the past, the main protagonist Vitolds’ family members have already been forced into exile, and unlike the characters in the Lithuanian programme, the Latvians no longer have expectations of any surprises from the regime.
Our own and foreigners
In the Lithuanian and Latvian TV series, efforts can be seen on the part of the authors to remind viewers that the lines of morality cannot be drawn where the lines lie between two different ethnicities – that is, someone who by ethnicity is one of your own can turn out to be a greater enemy than someone who is considered a total foreigner. This kind of complexity is not only characteristic of partisan films and series – I’ve noticed something similar in some new Baltic historical films. For example, Paradise ‘89 (“Paradīze ‘89”) (2018) and The Comrade’s Child (“Seltsimees laps”) are set in completely different time periods, but in each there are two figures who are seemingly in opposition to one another – in Paradise ‘89, this is a non-Latvian-speaking Russian man, who hides a Lithuanian who has been called up into the Soviet army, and an old Latvian woman, who calls a militiaman on the poor lad.
Exactly the same principle is at work in the Lithuanian and Latvian series about partisans; the only difference is the minorities to be defended against stereotypes. For example, the Russian-origin protagonist Rubenis in The Red Forest doesn’t belong to any of the “ethnic” sides in the war: the Latvians don’t accept him because of his ethnicity, but his father fought against the Bolsheviks in 1919. Due to their common mission, Rubenis becomes closer to Vitolds than even the partisans he meets in the forests. Just as in the Lithuanian TV series, none of the characters in The Red Forest can fully trust people they only vaguely know – only those with whom they have shared sufferings during wartime.
It’s similar with the protagonists of The Price of Freedom, the Jewish Estere and Sara – I think that with these figures an attempt is being made to repudiate the very widespread Nazi propaganda myth that all Jews were Communists. Estere’s husband worked as an adviser to the president of Lithuania Antanas Smetona, and so he was an enemy of the Soviet regime. For her part, Estere’s friend Mira – herself Jewish – is married to the Lithuanian Antanas Sniečkus, the leader of the Communist Party, and Estere cannot believe that she would not be helping her family. Estere and her daughter Sara’s tough experiences with both regimes mean that the Lithuanian partisans, who tended not to trust simply anyone, accepted them as their own. These Jews are on the Lithuanian side. Sara’s lover is the partisan Mindaugas; she doesn’t give up the partisans’ secrets to Mira, even though she offers Sara the opportunity to take up residence at the Sniečkus family house after losing her parents’ flat, having found in it some arrogant young Russian miss (a scene common to all three series). Meanwhile, Lithuanians who worked for the Nazi regime are portrayed as uneducated bootlickers of the Germans. In this series, anyone who collaborated with a repressive regime becomes an enemy.
Traitors: Dangerous and Even More Dangerous Kinds
In the Lithuanian and Latvian TV series it’s quite interesting to observe the characters who are collaborators; I would maybe even call them the axis of the series. In order for the plot to remain intriguing until the end of the series, the authors cannot reveal the real collaborator instantly, so the viewers together with the main protagonist are misled many times. For example, in the Lithuanian series the real collaborator shoots a partisan, calling him a provocateur, while in the Latvian series the collaborator demonstrates his self-control by clarifying who the real traitor is and guaranteeing that he receives the deserved penalty.
One further common feature: the later the real collaborator or enemy is revealed, the more dangerous his work.
A farmer who is a KGB informer but at the same time hides a partisan’s pregnant wife cannot really be as dangerous as a Soviet agent working in the British secret services MI6, so the viewer finds out about the first character right at the start of the episode (besides, this figure will probably produce a definite sympathy in the viewers), but figuring out the identity of the most dangerous traitor is the central question of the final episode.
In the Estonian series I didn’t notice this kind of gradation, and my guess would be that this is probably because the show is based more on people’s life stories than on general historical events. The protagonists have known one another since school, and some of them fought together for Estonia’s independence. In tough situations, however, these characters always choose family: for example, an Estonian woman, who for some time spied on her own farming family, protests against the deportation of her heavily ill mother and at the end is shot.
Unused female potential
I think that in all three programmes much too little use is made of the genuine role of women in the partisan war. In my opinion, to do this there’s no need for any kind of special imagination or desire to support feminism – the partisans really were supported by many female combat signallers! Unfortunately we find no such characters in these Baltic TV series. Ligita in The Red Forest, who fights together with the men, seems like an interesting, if rather half-baked character – she has a distinct need for male help, she naively believes the partisans’ rumours about Vitolds, and in the end she asks Vitolds for an answer regarding her place in his life. From this we can conclude that for this young girl, this path is an unfamiliar one and was chosen for her by others. I can’t explain why but to me Ligita seems more like a theatrical than a cinematic character: here we can see a number of serious dilemmas which cinema is incapable of resolving.
I was especially disappointed that the Lithuanians decided not to use the life story of the interwar Lithuanian spy Marcelė Kubiliūtė. In the programme, she is a widow whose partisan son dies in one of the partisan battles, but in reality she was a much more complicated figure, who worked for the resistance movements under both the Soviet and Nazi occupations, and who twice refused to leave and return to her husband – Marcelė herself wrote that she had got used to the loneliness of a spy and rescuer’s life. This real-life spy could have been the prototype for Silārajs in The Red Forest, and all the more a source of inspiration for the character in the Lithuanian series, but unfortunately the authors decided not to make use of this option.
The Estonian series came out later, and maybe for this reason all of the female characters come across as fairly identical – either wives or lovers. An especially interesting, because atypically strong character is Adele, whose husband becomes a Communist and takes a lover, another young Communist. But in the end Adele finds herself in a situation where she has to save this woman, and herself has no doubt that this is indeed what she must do.
In summary – room for improvement
Even though many Lithuanians laugh about just how many Lithuanian films have been made about partisans recently, I think that this genre still has room to develop in the Baltic countries. The partisan war is a very complicated subject, and I think that our film-makers have been successful in these programmes (especially in those parts that are taken directly from the hard realities of the past – or that to me, the viewer, give this impression). I liked that all three programmes emphasised the humanity that existed in such circumstances. However, something more would be needed for me to feel the way I felt when watching Winter War (“Talvisoda”), a 1989 Finnish film about the Winter War. As the writer Neil Gaiman has said: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
1. A reference to a phrase used repeatedly by one of the central characters in the 1981 comic film A Limousine the Colour of Midsummer Night (“Limuzīns Jāņu nakts krāsā”)
Saulė Kubiliūtė is a Lithuanian translator who graduated in Political Science from the Institute of International Relations and Political Science. Her BA thesis was titled “National Identity in Baltic Centenary Cinema”
This article originally appeared on Kino Raksti. Translated by Will Mawhood.
© Deep Baltic 2022. All rights reserved.
Like what Deep Baltic does? Please consider making a monthly donation – help support our writers and in-depth coverage of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Find out more at our Patreon page.