A friend made me aware of The Rifleman (also known by the title of the autobiographical novel on which it is based, Blizzard of Souls). As far as I know, it has not been released in the US, though given its favorable international reception, it probably will be eventually. An often explicitly violent depiction of the Latvian front in World War I and the period immediately following, it is a tense reminder that all political struggles are fierce, deeply rooted and rarely resolved without tragedy.
Arturs Vanags, (Oto Brantevics) is a 17-year-old farmboy who enlists in the imperial Russian army to fight the Germans largely in vengeance for the death of his mother. We follow him through training and combat, meet his friends, share his grief and horror as some, including his father (Martins Vilsons) and older brother Edgars (Raimonds Celms), are killed and wallow with all of them in the muck of the trenches. While much of this detail is familiar from other films, it is shot and cut with tremendous skill, with the unpredictable arrival of death in the blink of an eye a constant reminder of the vulnerability of all involved.
Effective as these sequences are, however, they point to the film’s biggest weakness. Immersed in Arturs’s struggles for survival, we have virtually no chance to understand the larger conflict. If The Rifleman were a simple war film, that would not be an issue, but its focus on the development of Latvian national consciousness demands more. One character’s experience, no matter how vividly depicted, cannot adequately express such a large theme. Whatever his skill as a soldier, Arturs is a blank politically. Indeed, his brief enthusiasm for the communists occurs literally in a fade out, so that in one scene he is a battle-hardened, apolitical veteran, while the next he is writing letters from Moscow praising the Bolsheviks.
His switch to Latvian nationalism is equally sudden. It is at least made dramatically plausible by Arturs’s revulsion at being put in a firing squad to execute some of his former comrades. His desertion thus has a personal, but not a political grounding. Put simply, we get no real sense of what it means to be “Latvian” generally, or for Arturs individually.
Hovering over all of this is the knowledge that there is no way his story or Latvia’s can end well. (After a period of self-determination, the Baltic states were again subjugated by the Russians and did not regain independence until 1991.) The challenge becomes to find a way to end the film without cheapening what is good in it with synthetic, Hollywood-style uplift. The solution is an initially off-putting switch to Expressionism that, once we understand the reason for it, proves deeply moving and ends The Rifleman on a determined note of faith. Neither falsely hopeful nor grimly pessimistic, the ending may be the strongest political argument in the film.