Untraditional Visual Forms in Latvian Cinematography: the Soviet Period

By Dāvis Sīmanis

© Davis Simanis, 2012

While most of Europe witnessed the introduction of innovative trends in filmmaking after World War II, contrasting sharply with the previous, classical traditions, almost no modernist developments occurred in Latvia. First, the extremely low cinematographic output in Soviet Latvia—only four feature-length live-action fiction films were produced during the first post-war decade—could not provide a sufficient platform for creative experiments. Secondly, filmmakers were subject to ideological control from Soviet officials, and the principles of Socialist Realism were enforced in Latvian cinema. Thirdly, the cinematographers who were responsible for the visual aspect of movies either came from the ranks of war cameramen or were heavily influenced by the glorification of Soviet armed forces that was common practice.

It is important to stress that the notion “untraditional” here does not imply that the visual form in the Soviet period is non-conformist. In fact, certain new cinematic techniques practiced by Latvian filmmakers had already been tried in European cinema. Thus, what is untraditional locally is actually traditional at an international level, because most elements that emerged as innovations of cinematographic practice in this period were oppositional to the previous period.

frost in springtimeIn the 1950s and 1960s innovations were rarely based on new technological resources, but more often were the result of a creative idea or dramatic emphasis. Visual solutions concealed or extenuated the glorification of Soviet man as practiced in Socialist Realism. For this purpose, long sequences of milieu enhanced the isolationist approach of the camera, focusing on the surroundings as an area unaffected by socio-political factors. Moreover, the filming of milieu allowed the juxtaposition of man to nature and demonstrated man’s non-omnipotence. In this context the relationship drama Frost in Springtime (Salna pavasarī, 1955) by Pāvels Armands and Leonīds Leimanis, based on short stories by Latvian writer Rūdolfs Blaumanis, stands out. Cinematographer Emīls Gulidovs accomplished extraordinary powerful visual effects by developing a distinct conflict between nature and individual, thus using the nature sequences to indicate the presence of human conflict. For instance, in the scene where the main protagonist Andris has left home and pushes his ailing mother in a cart, different seasons take turns in an instant, showing the rapid passage of time. The sequence ends with a shot where both characters disappear behind a hill crowned by one sombre tree, signifying man’s desperation before the power of nature, and at the same time announcing the death of the ailing mother.

white bellsHowever, the first seeds of modernist visualization in Soviet-era Latvian cinema emerged only in the latter half of the 1950s, mostly in the documentary genre (or the so-called newsreel tradition). Much simpler means of expression were sought, instead of the previous gushing heroicisation, to bring the subjects and their surroundings closer to the actual reality. Some of the most interesting visual approaches of this new tradition of cinematic humanization can be found in the documentaries of Uldis Brauns and Aivars Freimanis: both filmmakers, each in his own way, restored the emphasis on the quality of the cinematographic image, making it dominate over the film narrative and open new cinematographic dimensions. In White Bells (Baltie zvaniņi, 1961), Ivars Kraulītis’ documentary stylization with cinematography by Brauns, a small girl leaves an urban milieu, providing a contrast to the frantic movement and the rush of the city; a new kind of framing emerges, no longer rooted in the principles of classical painting. The cinematographer includes symbolic urban objects—cranes, towers, building details—into the wide, black-and-white shot; liberated from canons of standardized beauty, they take on a much deeper conceptual and poetic meaning. These experiments with framing and black-and-white anamorphic shots singled out other films made by Brauns from the rest of the Riga Film Studio production, but those were already directed by him: Beginning (Sākums, 1961); Construction (Celtne, 1962); Worker (Strādnieks, 1963).

Another non-traditional cinematographic trend in Soviet Latvian filmmaking can be traced to Aivars Freimanis. While Freimanis embraced adaptation and combined a diversity of visual approaches, his contribution to the appearance of the caméra-stylo principle in Latvian films deserves special mention. Transferred to Latvian soil, the French tradition translated as a free image shot with a moving, hand-held camera, constantly following the subject and aiming to keep it in the focus of attention—as seen, for instance, in Freimanis’ fiction film Apple in the River (Ābols upē, 1974) with cinematography by Dāvis Sīmanis. The hand-held camera ensured the credibility of the pseudo-documentary love story and helped the viewers connect with the screen. New, lighter cameras equipped with zoom options and adaptable focusing distance also helped the director Uldis Brauns in his quest for visual innovation in his fiction film debut, The Motorcycle Summer (Motociklu vasara, 1975). The cinematographers, documentary filmmakers Ivars Seleckis and Kalvis Zalcmanis, made ample use of the POV shot (hitherto rarely seen in Eastern European cinema); hand-held camera pan shots, as well as completely non-traditional high and low angles possible thanks to lighter, mobile cameras. Overall, it was the uninterrupted “lightness” and natural movement of the camera that allowed a sense of simultaneous activity and fragility of the two main characters. Footage shot with hand-held cameras was often used, creating a presence of explosive and sporadic consciousness in the filmic subjects.

In the late 1960s and in 1970s the Riga school of “poetic documentary” developed and became the driving force in the search for extraordinary visual forms in cinema. In this period documentaries rather than feature films had lesser control on the material, so they strove to determine how to overcome the content parochialisms of the commissioned topics. Visuality became the main condition of these films. On some occasions it was even possible to completely avoid the presence of ideologically charged voice-overs. The most striking paradigm of the period’s visual output is 235 000 000 (1967), a film created by the most significant documentalists of the era. It was shot by four different crews across the Soviet Union under the supervision of scriptwriter Herz Frank and director Uldis Brauns. The film captures and contrasts various moments in the life of an individual as well as society (rites, ancient traditions, official ceremonies, everyday activities), seeking the mysterious link between the individual and the masses. The cinematographers Uldis Brauns, Rihards Pīks, Valdis Kroģis, Ralfs Krūmiņš approached the event and the environment with all their skills to add artistic value to their realistic observation. The novelty was not solely in the fact that the film combined visual styles of different cinematographers, but also in the employed techniques—the film is dominated by a search for particular graphic structures in mundane activities of individuals, as well as images of abstract industrial or urban details in order to bestow a completely new metaphorical meaning upon them. To intensify the level of subjectivization, the camera focuses on close-up portraits and records the minutest emotional changes in facial expressions. This kaleidoscopic film has no text, but the camera creates its own visual narrative, and the authors managed to detect a different level of Soviet routine, not poisoned by ideological constraints.

ten minutes Experiments with visual form initiated by the school of poetic documentary continued in works by Frank and his collaborator, the great Latvian filmmaker Juris Podnieks. It was possible to discern certain elements of a cinematographic approach of a modernist style in Ten Minutes Older (Vecāks par 10 minūtēm, 1978), one of the most significant short documentaries. It captured a range of emotions without a single word being spoken. A single shot of ten minutes, no cuts, offers a perfect snapshot of observed life. The audience is drawn to watch the facial expressions of a young boy, interested in the puppet show before him. They do not see the show itself, only the terrified look on the child’s face, and later he starts to smile. The film’s key is the dramatic effect of watching somebody watching something. The omnipresent camera thus participates in two radical modes, combining two visual problems: the total presence provided by the child’s close-up and the capture of changing emotions in his facial expressions. At the same time there is the radical continuity of the long take, which alters the viewer’s temporal perception, allowing him to record emotions almost as historical phenomena. Ten Minutes Older marks one of the first examples of the use of dimmer light by Soviet Latvian filmmakers. This was done in order to provide the needed time of exposition and at the same time it emphasized the child’s unhampered concentration on the show. In this respect, Frank predicted the future: he set up the camera very precisely and waited for a progression of events. Accordingly, this elaborated visual concept works as a template for documentary cinema.

boyIn the 1970s there were also some endeavors to conceptualize the image in feature films. One of the most impressive examples is The Boy (Puika, 1977) by Aivars Freimanis, based on the autobiographical novel The White Book by Jānis Jaunsudrabiņš. The action takes place in the Latvian countryside at the end of the 19th century. The farmhand boy Janka is confronted with the strange world of adults as he tries to understand the order of things. From the very beginning the concept of the film as devised by director Freimanis and cinematographer Dāvis Sīmanis was to link the filmic images to the painting style characteristic of the period. Thereby, The Boy is a rehabilitation of painting traditions and a model of cinematic neo-pictorialism. Associated with idealism, memories and spiritual retreat, the film serves as an answer to the modernizing forces which the Soviet period presented as ideological restraints. The film shows the cinematographer’s preference for a soft focus and natural lighting. The reconstruction of natural light was closely associated with the skilful imitation of candle light, albeit at times restrained by fairly dark lenses that were available at the time. The filmed subjects were drawn from the countryside and rural domestic life, and transformed into allegoric and symbolic entities through the camera work. The effect of pictorialism was enhanced by typical of painting, as well as slow tracking shots that almost penetrate the pictorial frame.

Since the early 1970s the use of rapid- and fast-motion shots becomes apparent at the Riga Film Studios. Mostly these shots were used in comedies in order to compress or expand time. However, it was not a widespread practice. The most significant development in the visuality of Latvian filmmaking was closely linked to the socio-political and socio-economical transformations in the Soviet Union during the 1980s. This stage in the country’s history unfolded with the emergence of glasnost and perestroika and concluded with the breakdown of the Soviet Union and renewed Latvian independence in 1991. The socio-political transformations meant that the necessary conditions and opportunities for a new modernist reflection could be introduced into the local film industry.

During this period it was finally possible to locate the concept of modernism in the context of Latvian filmmaking so that it would actually fit its linguistic meaning: the topical and the new, with the topical value as sharp contrast to the old value. The modernist trends in Latvian films are best described by the French post-war film theorists’ views on the emergence of a new movement centered on the dichotomy of the classical vs. the modern. The most typical features of the trend are best captured by David Bordwell in his analysis of parametric narration: abstraction, reflection, subjectivity. Abstraction as ambiguity of interpretation; reflection as the intellectual involvement of the viewer into the construction of the storyline and subjectivity as the subjective nature of the story, as often as not connected with the character’s own mental picture of the world. The actualisation of these elements is also expressed by Alexandre Astruc: namely, that cinema offers the same intellectual expression as literature or drama; and it is echoed in Gilles Deleuze’s view that modernist cinema is the best representation of the abstraction of modern-day thinking.

The school of modernism that applies to Latvian filmmaking during the late Soviet era, as well as the works typical for it, does not represent the physical world, but focuses on the image of the mental world instead: this approach is rooted in the view that it actually is the existing world. It is a certain trip of consciousness, described by Deleuze as a mental prosthesis for the lost connection between man and the world. The narrative unfolds from the position of ‘modern alienation’ and ‘lack of faith in the world’. There is no explanatory structure, no reality-motivated episodic structure, no focusing on the character and the human condition. An ample representation of various mental states is featured instead: permanent ruptures in the narrative motivation, causal relationships, chronology and unity of space. The films are dominated by a style that produces a symbolic connection between images instead of a realistic one. These principles of forming parametric narration and parametric aesthetics actually apply to a small number of Soviet Latvian fiction films of this period: Photograph of Woman and Wild Boar (Fotogrāfija ar sievieti un mežakuili, 1987, directed by Arvīds Krievs, cinematography by Dāvis Sīmanis); Happening with MZ (Hepenings ar M.Z,. 1987, directed by Aivars Freimanis, cinematography by Andris Seleckis); Dear Life (Dzīvīte, 1989, directed by Aivars Freimanis, cinematography by Valdis Eglītis); Days of the Human (Cilvēka dienas, 1989, directed by Jevgēņijs Paškēvičs, cinematography by Dāvis Sīmanis); Beyond (Ārpus, 1989, directed by Una Celma, cinematography by Uldis Millers); Eve’s Garden of Paradise (Ievas paradīzes dārzs, 1990, directed by Arvīds Krievs, cinematography by Dāvis Sīmanis).

The objectives of cinematography have to match the director’s concept; thus we can conclude that the above-mentioned elements of Latvian films also manifested themselves in a very practical way in the stylistics of the cinematography. Undoubtedly, with the emergence of a new narrative and structure, the specific features of a cinematographer’s work changed accordingly. Modernism associates the collaboration between director and cinematographer to montage units (variations, permutations, combinations) instead of separate shots; however, in order to detect the presence of modernist trends in the work of cinematographers of the period, we have to establish sets of technical elements that define a shot.

While realistic cinematographic optics were mostly used until the 1980s (correspondingly, 18–75mm and, particularly, 40–50mm lenses that make it possible for the film shot to imitate human eyesight), new optical devices were introduced with the need to transform reality. Ultra-wide (12mm) lenses were used to illustrate the deformed and metaphoric nature of the world, as well as tele-lenses (up to 200mm), compressing space and demonstrating the fact that the subject found himself in a physical or psychological lock-up. Optical solutions were connected with the use of various reflections, mirror images and light refraction to construct the internal reality of the character. The approach of using optics in conjunction with a mirror image was well demonstrated in Photograph of Woman and Wild Boar, a detective story about an Afghanistan war veteran and a strange relationship he is drawn into with his old-time love interest—his high school teacher. In this particular film the main character’s look in a mirror signified an insight into his or her fantasies and the capture of a new, potentially non-existent social dimension. Thus the realities of past and present overlap with each other and the murder mystery serves only as a MacGuffin. The application of transfocator lenses also changed: the modernist theory branded transfocation as a certain “penetration” into the character.  To illustrate this, a good example is the fiction-documentary Happening with MZ about the Latvian composer and writer Marģeris Zariņš.

Frames with limited depth of focus range acquired wider application, thus detaching the character from the rest of the world and isolating him in his own world. The silent close-up and back close-up were developed, in both cases observing the small depth of focus-range and the static nature. On separate occasions, the extreme close-up was used as an abstract shot that bore no relevance to the narrative yet enhanced the dramatic mood by accentuating detail. Experiments with depth of focus-range can be clearly discerned in Dear Life by director Aivars Freimanis. It is a biopic about Krišjānis Barons, the man who collected and arranged thousands and thousands of Latvian folksongs in the 19th century. Although the film is biographical and reveals the protagonist’s different stages of life (becoming of age, student years, his life-work and old age), it does so in a non-linear, floating way, using contemporary stylization, folksong staging and dream sequences. Cinematographer Valdis Eglītis complemented these approaches with different filters, also a method typical of the period. Various diffusion filters created the symbolism of a dream; graduated filters transformed the color and the amount of light in various parts of the frame, resulting in a non-realistic image. Concerning the composition, the canted shot with a displaced horizon was used more frequently to allude to the subject’s eccentricity, unusual mindset or insecurity in their surroundings.

Another obvious modernist trend was the appearance of the long take, or the nothing-happens-approach in fiction films. A radical continuity segment, it presumes shooting extra long footage, separating the experience of time from the development of the narrative, which is typical for the depiction of an internal journey. A fine example is Beyond, a film about a lone human being who wanders around a post-apocalyptic world searching for the possibility of love, albeit everything that happens indicates only an increasing social dysfunction and the impossibility of communication.

In elaborated black-and-white images cinematographer Uldis Millers merges both temporal and spatial units. Alongside other Latvian cinematographers of the time, he employs an untraditional, diagonal movement of the camera and vertical movements of the camera crane to achieve an effect of parallel dimensions and facilitate the characters’ transition between them.

The use of the long take is counterbalanced by a form of fragmented discontinuity as seen in Happening with MZ: the camera interrupts actions, leaving them incomplete, and carries on in a completely different environment or time, creating a general effect of nervousness and insecurity. The emphasis is on the postmodern play between different realities, one of which is the reality of the filmmakers. Likewise, the film’s main protagonist is not the composer Zariņš himself but an actor who is wearing a rubber mask with his face, as well as cinematographer Andris Seleckis, who also becomes one of the characters.

The principle of lighting also underwent significant changes. Sīmanis used the chiaroscuro effect, retaining a low general exposure yet intensifying the contrast, and lighting only a few specific elements of the composition. What helped apply these principles of lighting was the—admittedly, limited—availability of film stock from Fujior Agfa, much more sensitive and nuanced than the Soviet-produced Svemafilm. There was a specific trend of involving unrealistically colored filters in the lighting, completely transforming the tone of the realistic environment and making its symbolic nature more vivid. With the emergence of finer technology and chemistry, some tonal changes were also achieved at the lab. For instance, in Photograph of Woman and Wild Boar the effect of red and blue filters is further enhanced by temperature changes at the lab. Thus several unmistakably symbolic episodes are easily discerned among the realistic ones, immediately indicating with the help of colors that the character is now operating in the context of their memories and internal reality while the on-screen action stays realistic throughout.

The use of various kinds of multiple exposure increased significantly; as often as not, however, the method was not used as an element of spatial consolidation, but more as a fusion of different states of consciousness. Two, three and even more exposures were produced with the camera, using exact technical calculations: creating overlapping exposures at a lab meant risking the quality of the film stock. A superb examples where the cinematographer succeeded in this process was Days of the Human. The film is based on a story by the prominent Russian writer Andrei Bitov about a man in two different stages of life—his youth and his mature years. His mother and his older girlfriend, later his wife and daughters accompany him on the strange journey through life that mixes dream, wake and different levels of reality, rendering the film as a constant subjectivization. The finale of Days of the Human saw a quadruple exposure, demonstrating the unity of past and present with the psychoanalytical world of the protagonist.

At the time, expanded technical means and the introduction or borrowing of filming techniques largely placed the aesthetic value of the cinematographic image on a par with the narrative, perhaps even allowing dominance. This phase was comparatively short, however, coming to a halt with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of centralized film production. A shortage of funding meant that films were no longer shot on 35mm film, but the use of video formats expanded. The introduction of video aesthetics into filmmaking made it impossible to use previous means of expression. The old principles of lighting could no longer be used: the video format had a small matrix, interpolations, a limited color range, a large depth of focus-range, etc. All this made it difficult to speak of visual techniques as used by Soviet-era cinematographer in more recent Latvian films. Individual cinematographers, such as Gints Bērziņš or Jānis Eglītis, borrowed different techniques to create a filming style of their own.

Finally, we can safely conclude that the arrival of a new, untraditional visuality into Soviet Latvian filmmaking was slow. Only isolated early modernist attempts and the presence of abstraction and stream of consciousness in a number of movies produced during the final years of the Soviet era can be traced back to the adoption of new filming techniques. Thanks to the introduction of aero filming, nonstandard vertical and horizontal movements of the camera, a wide range of optical devices, enhanced tonal lighting and, during the post-production process, a more complex coloring and combined shots, an opportunity arose to highlight various levels of subjectivity and intensify the presence of an internal journey by the characters or the author—namely, the defining elements of cinematic modernism.  

 


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