Aigars Grauba: The Defenders of Riga (Rīgas Sargi, 2007)
reviewed by Klāra Brūvere © 2012
The Defenders of Riga is a film that encourages the arousal of a new wave of nationalism in a country desperately in need of growth and renewal. The film’s plot revolves around the most important battle in modern Latvian history, the battle that secured Latvia’s sovereignty. The Defenders of Riga is set in 1919, the year when Latvia had tentatively gained its independence after hundreds of years of occupation under various forces. The film depicts the events leading up to, and the actual fight of, 11 November, when an outnumbered, underdog Latvian army defeated the joint invading powers of Germany and Tsarist Russia, lead by Russia’s General Pavel Bermont-Avalov.
Martin, a World War I veteran, drives the narrative. After fighting for both the Tsarists and the Soviets, Martin decides to return to his homeland upon learning that it gained independence. He returns to his fiancée Elza and they start planning their wedding, which is interrupted not only by the invading forces, but also because Elza has begun to question Martin’s devotion to her. Martin’s lengthy absence and the fact that he seems to always choose Latvia over her, leads Elza to question his love for her. However, it is this love for Latvia that leads Elza back to Martin at his moment of need, when those closest to him desert him due to his radical plans for the defeat of Bermont-Avalov’s army. After Elza realizes that Martin’s priorities are in the right place, she returns, and those who deserted Martin also return. From then on Martin single-handedly designs a winning tactical plan, wins over the government to deploy his plan, saves Riga—and gets the girl.
Aesthetically and thematically this film is very similar to Alexander Kott’s The Brest Fortress (Brestkaia krepost’, Belarus/Russia, 2010). First of all, both films depict events of immense importance to national security, arguably both with the aim to re-awaken nationalism. The techniques they employ are also very similar: both plots are composed of stretched historical fact and fictitious personal stories; both films employ narrators who are not part of the action but onlookers: in The Defenders of Riga it is Elza, and in Brest Fortress it is the orphan boy Alexander Akimov. Finally, both films create a similar mood through the use of particular visual techniques. The opening sequences of both films are almost dream-like with constant use of over-exposure to accentuate the idea that what is being shown is an idealized and perhaps, impossible image of the world. The vibrancy of the costumes and the perfection of the make-up make the actors look like dolls. This adds to the dream-like aesthetic quality of both films and creates a sense of unease and foreboding, as this perfection seems fake and unattainable, although this “fakeness” seems more accentuated in The Defenders of Riga.
The Defenders of Riga has many flaws. Unlike Brest Fortress, this film has low-quality special effects, probably due to the small budget (approximately $3,87 million). The narrative is somewhat underdeveloped, especially in regards to how Elza and Martin’s relationship is interwoven with the fight to save Latvia. At times it feels clumsy, almost as if this romance has been an afterthought. Further criticism has been made regarding the two-dimensional character of Martin (Cockey 2008: 60), who is deemed too stereotypical and naïve for an audience to be able to connect with him emotionally (Oks 2008: 66). Furthermore, the racial stereotyping in this film has made it almost completely impossible to export to other European countries, thus severely narrowing its market (Cockey 2008: 60).
Despite this criticism, The Defenders of Riga was an immense success for the Latvian film industry. The film smashed box office records not only as the most-watched Latvian film since 1991, attracting over 200,000 spectators (Latvijas Kino Gads 2008), but it also beat foreign films screened in Latvia since independence. Until The Defenders of Riga, James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) was the most-watched film in Latvia after the dissolution of the USSR (Matīsa 2008: 29). Moreover, The Defenders of Riga may have had a small budget, but it is the most expensive Latvian film ever made. Furthermore, it is one of the first films to have strong producer input throughout the production process in the re-established Latvian film industry. Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, it is the film that marks the return of national melodrama (Pērkone 2011: 21) as a popular genre. National melodramas have been absent from Latvia’s screens for almost half a century. The success of The Defenders of Riga marks the rebirth of national melodrama as a popular genre with other films also returning to this melodramatic form, such as Rudolf’s Inheritance (Jānis Streics, 2010), The Dream Team: 1935 (Aigars Grauba, 2011), and A Dance With Three (Andris Krievs, 2011).
It can be argued that this film has been so successful in Latvia due to the way it constructs a patriotic image of the Latvian nation by continuing the national imagining that had begun in Latvian films in the 1920s and 1930s, which are still quite popular amongst a broad spectrum of Latvian society today. These films were focused on securing the Latvian nation by encouraging unifying nationalistic sentiments through the use of stories of Latvia’s existence as a nation and ancient battles for freedom (Pērkone 2011: 16-18). These films were centered around characters based on Latvian folklore, attempting to create what Susan Hayward calls “continuity with the past” (Hayward 2000: 89).
The most obvious way in which The Defenders of Riga continues this earlier nation-building project is the uncanny similarity between the film’s hero Martin and his cinematic predecessors. The male heroes of the earlier films were all based on Lačplēsis, the central character of Latvia’s national epos, which describes how Lāčplēsis fought against the German crusaders. In films, Lāčplēsis was represented through typical characteristics and typical actions. Martin, like his ancestor, is broad-shouldered, with robust facial features and polished expressions (Pērkone 2011: 20). Furthermore, his ancestors always delivered uplifting speeches intended not only to motivate their diegetic audience, but also those in the auditorium. These characters, without fail, always knew what was best for the nation and never gave up hope for a brighter future (Lavrentjevs 2008: 63). Martin behaves in a similar manner.
The Defenders of Riga contains a scene where Martin delivers one of these uplifting speeches, which seems to quote an episode from the 1940 film The Fisherman’s Son. On a war-ridden street in the middle of Riga, the Prime Minister announces in a derailed tramcar that the Latvians will surrender to the occupying forces. Martin interrupts him, standing on a pile of rubble to distinguish himself from the crowd, and delivers a rousing speech about the need to continue their fight. Everyone in the crowd, of course, listens to him. Similarly, in The Fisherman’s Son the hero Oskars is perched on top of a fisherman’s boat, surrounded by a devoted crowd listening to him deliver a speech on the strength of Latvia and its people and their never-tiring desire for a free country. Although one speech is delivered in a moment of turmoil and the other in victory, the camera angles and placement of the actors within the mise-en-scene act as a reminder of the earlier film to contemporary audiences, reinforcing the continuity with the past.
The Defenders of Riga received harsh criticism from international critics and no purchase offer from other European countries. For international standards it is too simplistic and too nationalistic. However, when producing a film, the director and producer must ask themselves if they wish to create an international film with universal themes or a national film, aimed only at a minority national audience. The Defenders of Riga is one such film, evidenced through the continuation of the techniques of national melodramas of the 1920s and 1930s, creating a sense of legitimacy for a young nation that is still in political, social and economic turmoil.
Klāra Brūvere, University of New South Wales
Cockey, Charley, (2008), “Lielāki nekā dzīvē,” Kino Raksti 3 (16), p. 60
Defenders of Riga, imdb.com
Hayward, Susan (2000), “Framing National Cinemas,” in Hjort, M and Mackenzie, S (eds), Cinema and Nation, London, New York: Routledge, pp. 88-102
Lavrentjevs, S (2008), “Blokbasters ir,” Kino Raksti 3 (16), p. 63
Matīsa, Kristīne (2009), Latvijas Kino Gads 2008, Nacionālais Kino Centrs
Matīsa, Kristīne (2008), “Rīgas Sargi,” Kino Raksti, 1 (14), pp. 29-33
Oks, Arko (2008), “Svētki Rīgas Sirdī,” Kino Raksti, 3 (16), pp. 64-67
Pērkone, Inga (2011), “Latviešu Aktierfilmas 1920-1940,” Inscenējumu Realitāte: Latvijas Aktierkino vēsture, Rīga: Mansards, pp. 15-45
Defenders of Riga (Battle of Riga), 118 minutes, 2007
Director: Aigars Grauba
Script: Lisa Eichhorn, Andrejs Ekis, Aigars Grauba, Valentin Jemeljanov, Andris Kolbergs (story)
Cast: Janis Reinis (Martin), Elita Klavina (Elza), Girts Krumins, Romualds Ancans, Girts Kesteris, Andris Keiss, Vilis Daudzins, Arturs Skrastins, Kestutis Jakstas
Producers: Lisa Eichhorn, Andrejs Ekis
Music: Aigars Grauba ("Jumprava")
Cinematography: Gvido Skulte
Editing: Liga Pipare
Production Design: Neils Matiss, Martins Milbrets
Costume Design: Sandra Sila
Production: Platforma Filma, Ruut Pictures, Valsts Kulturkapitala Fonds (VKF)
Aigars Grauba: The Defenders of Riga (Rīgas Sargi, 2007)
reviewed by Klāra Brūvere © 2012