Written by Tristan Olav Torgersen
Originally posted on IndieEntertainmentMagazine.com
In the past few weeks, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has taken the box offices by storm reaching nearly $105 million in American theaters and just over $130 million in foreign theaters (Source: Box Office Mojo). This success of a World War II film harks back to the releases of Saving Private Ryan and Pearl Harbor in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Yet, while Dunkirk continues to generate revenue at the box office, Elmo Nüganen’s 1944 makes its American release. 1944 is an Estonian film which places its focus on the Battles of Tannenberg Line and Tehumardi in Sõrve Peninsula between July and November of that same year.
Whereas the battles and events are unknown to Western nations, with the exception of military and Baltic historians, the film set new records of ticket sales for an opening release and first week ticket sales in Estonia. It Estonia’s submission for the 88th Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film, and for good reason.
The director, Elmo Nüganen, hails from the town of Jõhvi, Estonia. He has spent his life and career between the classical theatre and theaters as an actor and director. He has even spent time as a professor, teaching at the Estonian Academy of Music and Theatre.
His love of country and culture shines through his work, and I know his dedication to telling the story of his people has bolstered the film’s success and positive reviews.
The story Nüganen presents is uniquely enthralling, the special effects impressive, characters and story captivating, and impact enduring. The film places the viewer in the middle of the fighting, and into the personal lives of Estonian soldiers on the front lines.
Due to Estonia’s geography, it became a battleground between Nazi and Soviet forces in 1944, with both sides impressing citizens into their army. The result was often Estonians fighting Estonians across artillery-torn landscapes and towns.
The storytelling allows the viewer to see the humanity in these young soldiers on both sides, leaving the usual single main character for a couple main characters in order to provide broader perspectives and scope.
The film makes clear the Estonians were reluctant to fight on behalf of Hitler or Stalin, their camaraderie amidst grim circumstances, and the emotions they experience below their battle-hardened demeanor.
Unlike so many other war films, the director does not shy away from moments of weakness, tears, and helplessness. Rather he delivers humanity and bravery in the same scene. Soldiers are not courageous machines devoid of fear and tenderness but young men faced with almost certain death.
While the storytelling, plot, visuals, and battle scenes captivated me, it was the overall message and tone that has continued to weigh upon my mind. I couldn’t help but realize how oblivious and near-sighted I have been, and how much more I need to broaden my worldview and understanding.
I hearkened back to a powerful TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled The Danger of a Single Story. In it she discusses how having one defined story of a people, event, or idea can be damaging and limiting to our minds and to our understanding.
The same idea applied to 1944 allowed me to realize that Western cultures and nations forget, if they even recognize at all, that World War II was much more expansive and tragic than the events of Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Britain, the Invasion of Normandy, Battle at Iwo Jima, and the dropping of the atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. How simplistic our nation’s memory has become to take one of the most destructive wars and bring it to five or six main events.
In Estonia alone, over 7% of the population died throughout the war. 34,000 men, women, and children from a population of 1,134,000. To put that into perspective, both the United States and United Kingdom lost less than 1% of their population during the war.
Elmo Nüganen is not simply telling a story of a few soldiers from the same country fighting each other in opposite trenches.
Films are our gateways to other cultures, times, experiences, and world views. They invite the audience to suspend their prejudices, foreknowledge, and comfort for an opportunity to learn and feel what the director is portraying.
1944 is not a film about Estonians for Estonians only, it is the story of a people caught in between two warring factions in a brutal war that they have no place in.
It is the story of a people and country that many citizens in Western nations may not know the first thing about. It is the story of the human condition in the direst of circumstances when lives are on the line.
I want everyone to watch this film. Don’t watch it merely to have a background to your Facebook scrolling. Watch it to experience a part of history and the story of a people which you may not be familiar with.
Seeing as the film broke the box office records in its home country, it should warrant the attention of any lover of film or history as well as anyone wanting to step into the shoes of an Estonian in 1944.
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