There’s an inherent level of absurdity to any war, decisions made and tactics created that make sense back at HQ but are horribly out of kilter with the reality of the man in the trenches. Films like Catch-22 have captured this in a comic way, but the darker, gritty Estonian war drama 1944 shows another side of World War II that few people know: Estonia was first seized by Russia early in the war, then occupied by Nazi Germany, with the Russians pushing to regain territory.
The height of the battle was July 1944, the Battle of the Tannenberg Line, where 70,000 Estonian men conscripted to become part of the German Army dug in and fought off the advance of the Red Army which included over 50,000 conscripted Estonians. All taking place in Estonia, leading to much confusion and angst from the locals who never knew if a young man in uniform was going to see themselves as Estonian, a German soldier or a Red Army soldier.
Great war movies are about individuals and bring the conflict down to the personal level, and director Elmo Nüganen tells the tale first of Karl (Kasper Velberg), a country boy turned SS officer who must motivate and lead his men in the trenches as bullets whiz overhead and mortars rain down upon them. A pivotal event occurs partway through the film and the tale switches to up-and-coming Red Army collaborator Juri (Kristjan Ukskula).
Each man is tortured by their situation, trapped by circumstances far beyond their control (abandon your post and you’re shot as a deserter), but as soldiers also faced during the American Civil War, how can you shoot your kin just because they have a different emblem on their arm?
Quite different to the blockbuster Dunkirk, 1944 in its own way is also a compelling and well assembled movie, particularly as an independent film from Estonia, where it enjoyed tremendous box office success and is Estonia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2016 Academy Awards.
1944 opens with explosions, chaos, and you’re immediately right in the trenches with the soldiers. Indeed, it takes a while to figure who’s on which side, a conscious decision by the director to highlight the insanity of this particular battle and the entire situation Estonia faced during World War II. Production values are splendid, the acting is entirely believable and as with all good war films, you don’t want to start liking anyone too quickly because not everyone makes it out alive.
Offering a dubbed English soundtrack, the film is far more effective in its native Estonian with English subtitles. As with almost all foreign films, this greatly adds to the verisimilitude of the storytelling, particularly with soldiers in the trenches in Eastern Europe.
1944 might be hard to find but it’s a powerful story, well told, and a glimpse into one of the bloodiest battles of World War II and how it tore an entire nation asunder, even as the Germans and Russians looked on, uncaring. Recommended.
Not for children, though a late teen will enjoy the effects and storytelling and it can spawn some excellent conversations about war and morality versus following orders.