by Srikanth Srinivasan
Dāvis Sīmanis’ The Year Before the War, which premiered in the Big Screen Competition section of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) in February, has all the potential to be one of the great festival hits of the year. It’s certainly among the most polished, good-looking films at the IFFR. Presented in a striking monochrome palette, it’s a period picture unfolding over several European locations and in multiple languages. As such, it has the finish of a high-end arthouse production that is bound to appeal to a larger audience. Most importantly, it has got, yes, a vision.
Set in 1913, Sīmanis’ film centres on Hans (Petr Buchta), a doorman at a hotel for international visitors in Riga, Latvia. When we first see him, he obsequiously bows to a German tourist who injures and racially abuses a black porter trying to pick up his luggage. He is told off by a colleague for this abhorrent behaviour – a minor reprimand that triggers a major change of attitude in Hans, who starts by tossing a coin from his ill-begotten Trinkgeld to the porter on the ground.
In the following weeks, Hans begins to stand up against quotidian acts of injustice, without actually adhering to a cause like his colleague had advised. When he is falsely implicated in a bombing carried out by anarchists at his hotel, he flees Riga to shuttle from one European capital to another for the rest of this momentous year.
The Europe that Hans traverses is less a real geography than an abstract zone of competing political currents. War is around the corner, and there are several groups trying to influence the course of history. Over the course of his cross-continental flight, Hans encounters figures like Lenin, Freud, Mata Hari, Hitler and Stalin. Everyone recognizes him instantly, identifying him as a certain Peter (in reference to the mysterious Latvian-born London anarchist Peter the Painter).
Like in a wrong man thriller by Hitchcock, Hans disowns the name at first, but eventually slips into the role, getting admitted to a mental asylum, serving as a shill at Lenin’s demonstration, and even carrying out acts of violence in Peter’s stead. Over the course of these events, zealous ideologues seek to entice and co-opt him, subjecting him to what Louis Althusser called “interpellation”: the recruitment of the individual as a subject of a Grand Narrative.
All through, Peter fights hard to follow his own moral compass, to flee subjecthood, and to retain his individuality. As the Great War ends, however, he finds himself a hero and in the upper echelons of the Soviet state, dispatching dissidents to gulags with a wave of the hand. So, in line with his friend’s counsel, Hans does indeed become the flag-bearer for a cause, ‘turning into’ Peter wholeheartedly, but he is not necessarily any better than the man who bowed down to a bigot at the entrance of a hotel. In the scheme of The Year Before the War, it’s those who believe in an ideal that are capable of much greater violence than apolitical opportunists.
Sīmanis’ film is essentially a historical picaresque. But where the protagonist of a picaresque is a fully-formed subject, Hans is a cipher in the process of becoming one, rendering The Year Before the War something of a commentary on the genre. Simaris is interested in the singularity of this particular juncture in Western history – a point at which fin de siècle optimism about technology and human rationality came crashing against the reality of trench warfare, all the paths of glory leading to the grave – where countless isms sought to impose their own vision on the world.
The Year Before the War translates the torrid atmosphere of this period into a frenzied mise en scène that is as effective as it is film-aware, Simaris’s style here echoing the ironic textures of Lindsay Anderson and Guy Maddin. Hans’ increasing confusion and loss of a sense of self is conveyed through expressionistic devices that also pay homage to post-war silent cinema. The performances of the actors are similarly stylized, poised above naturalism and steadily developing towards a fever pitch; the political personalities, especially Lauris Dzelzitis’s glass-eyed Lenin, are virtually high-strung puppets.
In Escaping Riga (2014), Sīmanis zeroed in on two 20th-century figures born in the Latvian capital – the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein and the philosopher Isaiah Berlin – who were swept along by intellectual waves of the time and ended up on the opposite sides of the Iron Curtain. There’s something of them in Hans, a small man caught up in big events, who might have been a doorman all his life in any other era. It would seem that Sīmanis views Latvia of the early 20th century as something of an ideological waystation, an unstable intellectual field where free radicals like Hans can’t help but be neutralized. And that vision isn’t without contemporary resonance.