[…] The beauty and efficacy of «Nova Lituania» lies in its subdued, non-hysterical approach to dramatic content. The choice to film in black and white distils a paradoxical simplicity and depth from each frame and is deliberate in its dialectics of light and dark across scenes.
[…] Here we are exposed to the idea that colonisation is a movement that transcends moral and humanitarian consequence; it is a neutral law of physical nature.
The beauty and efficacy of Nova Lituania lies in its subdued, non-hysterical approach to dramatic content. The choice to film in black and white distils a paradoxical simplicity and depth from each frame and is deliberate in its dialectics of light and dark across scenes. These decisions flatten the emotion of its characters, expertly played in an understated Mametian style of acting, but not purposely wooden. The erasure of colour frees us from the oftentimes overwrought symbolic suggestions of a visual palette, and allows us to enter and understand the crisis of their political and personal stakes without an overbearing emotional register.
Lithuania is a sitting duck in a destabilised Europe. It is a Europe pulling itself out from the wreckage of WWI with diplomacy while plummeting into a second, prolonged horror. Director/Writer Karolis Kaupinis appeals to none of the tensions and fears that we know from history in his storytelling. The film is temporally located at a moment when Lithuania’s 20-year independence is threatened by both German and (more cruelly) Soviet occupations, the consequence being the death of 1/3 of its population between 1940 and 1959, but Kaupinis’ exploration is spatial. We are cinematically and conceptually led to experience space sensorially through image and abstractly by principle.
The sensibilities of a geographer enable this narrative. Protagonist Professor Feliksas Gruodis (Aleksas Kazanavičius) is fictionally derived from Lithuanian Independent activist and political geographer Kazys Pakstas who managed to escape to the US on the strength of his predictions before the beginning of the war. Feliksas has been working on an exit strategy called “Back-up Lithuania” in the face of this small Baltic country being invaded by its mightier, more densely populated neighbours who are raring at the bit to take all the territory they can. This is explained by the scientific principle of “diffusion”, one of the film’s main concepts that echoes through every area of Feliksas’ life. «Emptiness attracts fullness» and when «deprived of substance, a form becomes very susceptible to external forces». Equating these laws of physical science with the machinations of occupying nation states, he predicts/diagnoses Lithuania’s bleak future: its relative emptiness will attract nations with exceeding populations to colonise it. From this premise of vulnerability, Feliksas sees Lithuania as a «concave mirror» of the African Continent; it is a non-political, and non-economic reasoning that provocatively makes an essentialist parallel between a European nation with a black colonised world. This potentially raises the ire of some post-colonial thinkers who flinch at the crudity of such comparisons, and yet, it is a critique manifestly under control by the filmmaker.
Diffusion is found within the emptiness of Feliksas’ wife’s womb (Rasa Samuolyté) made barren by his ineffectual sperm, and by the sudden invasion of his authoritarian mother-in-law (Eglé Gabrénaité) whose reflex is to fill this empty space with her dominant presence and the sperm of another: «emptiness attracts fulness». More unnerving in this story is Feliksas’ solution to Lithuania’s plight, which is to relocate the country to an island — bought and not plundered in a traditional sense — somewhere far from this geographic risk. While the idea capitulates to a strongly colonialist motive here (treating like with like), I wonder if there is an apologetic emerging from the fact that relocation only happens in a place outside of their climate zone because the latter is already too occupied, hereby suggesting that there was never an attempt to colonise specific people or places for resources etc., but to occupy emptiness when things get a bit tight. Here we are exposed to the idea that colonisation is a movement that transcends moral and humanitarian consequence; it is a neutral law of physical nature. Rather than a solution that saves the whole nation, Feliksas’ project resembles the worst of social eugenics: take only those members of society who are useful and capable of creating a better nova Lithuania. Intimating to us even further that any white European claim to being occupied as a form of colonisation is preposterous.
Feliksas’ crazy project only manages to capture the attention of the more intellectually inclined Prime Minister, Jonas Servus (Vaidotas Martinaitus) who is quietly fierce in his conviction to maintain independence, but debilitated by his President’s diplomatic concessions to a Soviet take over. The frames of Jonas are captivating. We find a worry-stricken face, or crumpled posture cloaked in darkness with very little light to filter his concern and conscience. This is juxtaposed with the starkly illuminated interiors of the university’s neo-renaissance architecture with its recto-linear material bulk and non-human-scaled spaces resounding with ideas once free to thrive during independence, but now under threat with the President’s insistence upon an «education serving the nation». The sound track is noticeably minimalist, punctuated by military glory tunes, radio announcements, and the occasional inclusion of an orchestral track. It allows us to disentangle our thoughts in the pockets of silence and recorded sounds from unnecessary connotation.
The ideals of independence and the virtues of diplomacy in geopolitics is placed into question with subtle grace, forcing us to ponder the absurdity of their meaning in the repetition of ambiguous gestures within political practice. In the last scene where the President rides with his General Švégžda (Julius Žalakevičius) and learns the detail of a meeting with the Soviets of what is to historically become a bloody end to their independence, the film poignantly raises a question that has always puzzled me about foreign relations: how do oppressed nations come together with their oppressors to negotiate their oppression in the name of diplomacy? Also rousing thoughts about other, more silent forms of occupation and colonisation when borders are no longer physical,
Nova Lituania is a film offering both breath, volume and a delicate humour that gets to the heart of this absurdity. The experience is one of easing into this history and these issues that are often so emotively charged by a cinematic apparatus that takes us hostage with anger or sadness. Nova Lituania balances feeling with reason and opens another important space for ongoing reflection. It is a refreshing approach to ficto-historical film making that some contemporary documentary makers could even learn from.
Text: Jodie McNeilly-Renaudie
First published: January 26, 2020