Sunday 29 May 2022

The Year Before the War [2021]

 The gold standard for picaresque works centred on impassive and amoral protagonists – who drift through historical moments through a mix of lucky coincidences and ability to change political colours based on what’s expedient – have been, for me, the blazing Polish filmmaker Andrzej Munk’s Bad Luck and the towering Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England, alongside, to a marginally lesser degree, Czech New Way giant Jiri Menzel’s adaptation of the latter novel. Latvian filmmaker and university professor Dāvis Sīmanis’ audacious, feverish, flamboyant and politically ambiguous movie is a fascinating addition to that list. He captured the singularly fragile point of inflection that Europe was in, in 1913 – with its nationalist hysteria, warmongering and violence – and which would soon explode into a devastating war engulfing and ravaging the continent, through formal bravura – it’s made in the veins of silent-era German Expressionism, through dazzling high-contrast visuals, disorienting compositions, chiaroscuro, and changing film-speeds – lacerating satire, bleak ironies, brash historical evocations and bold surrealist splashes. Peter (Petr Buchta) – a.k.a. Hans – starts out as a doorman at a luxury hotel in Riga, until he loses his job upon an attack by anarchists. The inscrutable anti-hero, thereafter, traverses across Switzerland, Prague, London, Vienna, etc. over this tumultuous year, has dramatic interactions with various historical figures – a hideously cartoonish Lenin (Lauris Dzelzītis), a sultry Mata Hari (Inga Siliņa), a lascivious Freud, a buffoonish Hitler –, and participates in defining incidents that literally triggered the Great War. While the film’s politics can be troubling at times, there were some striking displays of empathy towards the little people facing bigotry, brutality and discrimination at the hands of those in power that underscored its humanist core.

Director: Davis Simanis

Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire

Language: Latvian/French/Russian/German

Country: Latvia

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