During the Soviet era, Latvia was considered the most “European” and elegant of the 15 Soviet republics (or, as it was jokingly referred to then, “15 barracks of the Soviet concentration camp”): Jūrmala with its pristine sandy beaches and the legendary night bar “Jūras pērle”, which served the best cocktails in the Soviet Union, the popular “almost French” perfumes from the “Dzintars” factory, bebop by Raimonds Raubiško, the famous “Rīgas Melnais balzams” (Riga Black Balsam), which, according to legend, was exported to the English Queen’s court, and the hit song “Noktirne” by Aleksandrs Brežģis and Juris Kublinskis, to which even those who couldn’t waltz would waltz.

Latvian cinema was also an important part of this “western” image – works by Irwin Shaw, Cyril Hare, James Hadley Chase, and Charles Percy Snow were adapted in Riga. However, Latvian directors also had plenty of original scripts.

“Four White Shirts” (“Četri balti krekli”), directed by Rolands Kalniņš, 1967

The premiere of this film, now included in Latvia’s Cultural Canon, did not take place in 1967 when it was made, but only 19 years later, and even then with a limited release in the Baltic republics. The world premiere of “Four White Shirts” took place in 2018 at the Cannes Film Festival in the “Classics” programme. Today’s viewers might find the plot of this film, banned in the USSR, quite simple: in his free time, telephone technician Cēzars Kalniņš, nicknamed Julius, writes songs and plays in the Riga rock band “The Optimists”; the musicians try to get permission for public performances, but Anita Sondore, a member of the Committee for Aesthetic Education of Youth, writes a report criticising Cēzars’ lyrics as “immoral” and “corrupting the younger generation”. Cēzars flatly refuses to make any changes to his lyrics to please the Soviet censors, leading to a conflict with the rest of the band, who are ready to compromise for a chance to perform on TV. The fate of the film turned out to be identical to its plot (it’s no coincidence that the main character and the director share the same surname), although what exactly prompted Soviet cultural officials to ban this light musical drama about a “generation conflict” remains unknown even to Rolands Kalniņš himself – the film doesn’t touch on sharp political issues and is not overly experimental (the influence of the French “New Wave” is barely noticeable, although some critics in Cannes saw Cēzars Kalniņš as a “Baltic Antoine Doinel”, a character in several François Truffaut films). Most likely, the plot’s criticism of the unequal relationship between creative individuals and the ideological system was also perceived by the party leadership as “immoral” and “corrupting the younger generation”.

“Keys to Paradise” (“Paradīzes atslēgas”), directed by Aloizs Brenčs, 1975

In the 1970s and 1980s, crime films were actively produced by all Soviet film studios, but it was the Riga Film Studio that became synonymous with this genre – the dominance of quality thrillers and detective stories here was “eye-catching”. One of the most prominent directors of Baltic crime was Aloizs Brenčs – his films “Rallye”, “Gifts by phone”, “Check of the Queen of Diamonds”, “Double trap” were box office hits, and his three-part TV film “Mirage”, based on James Hadley Chase’s novel “The World in My Pocket”, was more spectacular than the German adaptation of this novel by Alvin Rakoff with Nadja Tiller in one of the roles. Even Brenčs’ early film “When the Rain and Wind Knock at the Window”, perceived by critics as a Latvian response to Andrzej Wajda’s famous film “Ashes and Diamonds”, resembled French noir more than the existentialist reflections of the great Pole. In “Keys to Paradise”, Aloizs Brenčs steps into the territory of giallo – there are as many models and mannequins (the action partially takes place in the Riga Fashion House, the headquarters of the legendary magazine “Rīgas Modes”) here as in Mario Bava’s films, and more ballerinas than in Dario Argento’s. But the director is not only keen to play out a detective plot note by note, where the investigation of a dental prosthetist’s murder leads to smugglers exchanging diamonds for gold, but also to provide a social slice on screen, allowing the viewer to walk with the film’s characters through the darkest streets of the old port city.

“A Photo of a Woman and a Wild Boar” (“Fotogrāfija ar sievieti un mežakuili”), directed by Arvīds Krievs, 1987

When embarking on the making of “A Photo of a Woman and a Wild Boar,” Arvīds Krievs deliberately aimed for an experiment. Unlike his previous film, “Raspberry Wine,” a detective story in the spirit of Agatha Christie, he wanted the narrative to be driven not so much by the rational logic of investigation, but by the reflections of the characters, their unformed feelings, uncertain maturation, and false memories. Hence, “A Photo of a Woman and a Wild Boar” turned out to be a melancholic, ethereal, and aesthetic detective story. A fashionable Riga photographer, who fancies himself a Don Juan, is shot with a hunting rifle in the courtyard of an apartment building. A young prosecutor’s investigator, who recently returned from the war in Afghanistan, tries to uncover the true motives behind the murder, although the responsibility for the crime has already been taken by the photographer’s neighbour in the communal apartment, also a veteran of the Afghan war who is unable to move without a wheelchair. However, the real killer left the scene through an attic window, which would have been impossible for a partially paralysed person. The investigator suspects that the murder is somehow connected to the portrait of a mysterious naked woman found in the ill-fated “Don Juan’s” photo archive. The disabled veteran in the film was played by Alvis Hermanis, a young actor in the late 1980s, who is now one of Latvia’s most famous theatre directors, staging his productions at the Vienna Burgtheater, the Paris Opera, and Milan’s La Scala. The beautiful mysterious woman in the photograph, a true femme fatale who carelessly manipulates men’s feelings, was played by one of the most charming actresses of Baltic cinema, Mirdza Martinsone. Interestingly, when the investigator tries to identify the woman in the photo, he often hears from people that she “looks very much like the actress Mirdza Martinsone.” Such is the postmodern irony.

“Spider” (“Zirneklis”), directed by Vasili Mass, 1992

The production designer for “A Photo of a Woman and a Wild Boar” was Vasili Mass, who made his directorial debut five years later with “Spider,” based on the short story of the same name by the “Latvian Stephen King” Vladimirs Kaijaks. A rough and reclusive artist, long living in his own fantasies, unexpectedly agrees to paint an Annunciation for a monastery, but with the condition that the image of the Virgin Mary will be modelled by a young student from the monastery’s educational institution, whose luxurious red hair reminds him of the famous models of the Pre-Raphaelites like Elizabeth Siddal or Alexa Wilding. The artist, his studio, and his works, which resemble a fusion of Jheronimus Bosch and Boris Vallejo, leave conflicting impressions on the girl, and after posing sessions, she begins to have bizarre erotic nightmares in which the artist appears to her as a giant spider trying to possess her. A psychiatrist recommends sending the girl to a village on the island of Saaremaa, but the hallucinations follow her there. In essence, Vasili Mass’s film itself is an erotic-mystical hallucination, through which the story of a young girl’s maturation with her unconscious sexual desires emerges. It was one of the first post-Soviet films where the euphoria from broken ideological barriers led directors to explore previously unacceptable genres. Today, critics find in this Latvian weird film both a melancholic decadence in the best traditions of typical settings by Jean Rollin and Jess Franco, influences of early Andrzej Żuławski films like “Possession” or David Cronenberg’s “The Fly,” and even a homage to the stunning Czechoslovakian fantasy “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders” by Jaromil Jireš.

“Maria’s Silence” (“Marijas klusums”), directed by Dāvis Sīmanis, 2024

This film is based on the real tragic story of Marija Leiko and the Latvian theatre “Skatuve” during Stalin’s Great Terror. Latvian actress Marija Leiko, who shone on the stages of Frankfurt, Leipzig, and Berlin, worked with some of the greatest theatrical directors of the 20th century, Max Reinhardt and Erwin Piscator, and starred in over 20 European films (including “Satanas” by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau). She arrives in Tbilisi (where her daughter lived and died in childbirth) to take her newborn granddaughter to Riga. On her way to Latvia, Marija Leiko stops in Moscow, where she is persuaded to return to the stage with the Latvian theatre troupe “Skatuve” under the direction of Osvalds Glāznieks and to perform for several seasons in a drama by Rūdolfs Blaumanis. The actress, succumbing to the charm of the Soviet party elite, agrees, not realising that she is signing her own death warrant. In 1937, Marija Leiko was declared an “agent of foreign imperialism” and, accused of belonging to the “Latvian counter-revolutionary nationalist fascist organisation,” was executed on 3 February 1938, along with all the artists and staff of the “Skatuve” theatre. Critics call Dāvis Sīmanis one of Latvia’s most promising directors, praising his documentaries and feature films, and the premiere of “Maria’s Silence” took place at the 74th Berlin International Film Festival. Although after this premiere, the director was criticised for insufficiently delving into the characters of his protagonists, his stunningly precise, detailed, and nuanced reconstruction of the era was noted. “I have made many historical films and always think of them as reminders,” said Dāvis Sīmanis in an interview. “We must remember the disasters in history so as not to repeat the same mistakes.”

Source: The Gaze