ASHES IN THE SNOW (2019)

January 10, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Most World War II films focus on the atrocities committed by Hitler’s German forces, but this adaptation of Ruta Sepetys’ novel (“Between Shades of Gray”) reminds us of the evils under Stalin and the Russian seizure of the Baltic States. Director Marius A Markevicius delivers a feature film debut that is both historical drama and tale of human perseverance.

We have long since been educated on just how cruel humans can and have been to other humans, and director Markevicius – with a script from Ben York Jones (LIKE CRAZY, 2011) – doesn’t shy away from the cruelty or atrocities, but he and cinematographer Ramunus Greicius capture the harshness and brutality of the Siberian environment, as well as the brief moments when those being held captive feel sparks of life.

Bel Powley (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, 2015) stars as Lina, a young Lithuanian artist who lives with her family: mother Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli, FORCE MAJEUR) and brother Jonas (Tom Sweet). The father/husband is played by Sam Hazeldine and we learn of his secret agenda and activism later in the film. When Russian troops forcibly remove mother and the two kids from their home, a long train ride ends with their working the fields in the Altai Labor Camp in Siberia.

Martin Wallstrom is excellent as Kretzky, a conflicted Russian soldier from the Ukraine. He’s kind of persona non-grata on both sides, and as an outsider to the troops and the “devil” to the prisoners, he is somewhat of a sympathetic character. A year later (1942), the family and Officer Kretzky are shipped off to Laptev Sea in the Arctic Circle. This frozen tundra is no place for human beings and death seems preferable to freezing in misery. When giving the relocation order, Kretzky’s commanding officer calls them “one big happy family in frozen hell”. It’s a great line. An acutely descriptive line.

Young Lina’s childhood innocence has been shattered, but she possesses an inner strength that only such miserable circumstances could unveil. She carries on finding brief respites in her art and in fleeting romance with fellow prisoner Andrius (Jonah Hauer-King).

There is a story told, a legend really, about a fishing boat and its survivors – the correlation made late in the film. The devastating circumstances and desolate landscape are accompanied aptly by German composer Volker Bertelmann. But let’s face it, war crimes against the innocent are tough to watch even in movie form, and this film, regardless of how expertly it’s crafted, is relentless in bleakness – though heartfelt and sincere.

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FORCE MAJEURE (2014, Sweden)

November 2, 2014

force majeure Greetings again from the darkness. No one has sung the words “I’m a MAN” better than the great Muddy Waters, but even he would have been unable to bounce back from the ramifications of the split-second reaction of Tomas when things go awry at a mountainside family lunch.

Writer/director Ruben Ostland delivers an intriguing and thought-provoking look at gender roles and the definition and expectations of masculinity, especially within a family. What makes a real man? What is a hero? Is our predilection of survivalist or protector hard-wired into our DNA? And what happens to a relationship when the foundation of respect crumbles? Would you believe this film tackles these emotional issues, and does so in such a brilliant manner, that we often find ourselves chuckling (albeit with a tinge of guilt)?

A family vacation in the French Alps takes a turn when, while lunching on a veranda overlooking the ski slopes, a controlled avalanche goes wrong and the café is threatened. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) grabs his phone and goes scurrying for protection, while his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) covers the kids and calls for his help. Both are instinctive reactions, and while one recalls George in a “Seinfeld” episode, the other is more in line with what we expect from a parent.

Although the avalanche turns out harmless and the family members are physically fine, the emotional shockwaves of Tomas’ actions reverberate through the family … and even through another couple (Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius). There is a exceptional dinner party scene with the two couples which brings the issue to a head, and it’s excruciatingly painful and funny to witness. This is terrific story telling and filmmaking and acting.

The film is Sweden’s submission for Best Foreign Language Oscar, and it must be considered a favorite so far. Though I’m not a huge fan of the final 10-15 minutes, that doesn’t take away from the questions as the characters try to come to grips with the situation. The filmmakers provide some really nice contrasts between dark humor, disappointment and broken trust.  I challenge you to find scenes of toothbrushing that generate more tension and relationship insight.

**NOTE: I wasn’t familiar with the actors who play Tomas and Ebba, but they reminded me very much of Stephen Dorff and Bridget Moynahan

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