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"NĀVES ĒNĀ" (UNDER THE SHADOW OF DEATH) (1971)

Feature film, 79. min. Script: Jānis Kalniņš, Gunārs Piesis; after a short story by Rūdolfs Blaumanis. Director: Gunārs Piesis, Camera: Mārtiņš Kleins; Art: Herberts Līkums; Music: Marģeris Zariņš. Cast: Eduards Pāvuls, Gunārs Cilinskis, Pēteris Šogolovs, Kārlis Sebris, Alfrēds Videnieks, Ģirts Jakovļevs, Vaironis Jakāns, Egons Beseris, Edgars Liepiņš, et al.

A maximum effect has been achieved with a minimum of means: a laconic yet emotionally gripping drama. An outstanding example of a creative, instead of literal, interpretation of a classic.

An absolutely timeless film. Its existentially bleak and tragic plot is played out in a limited space: on a melting piece of ice that is drifting off to the sea, carrying with it a group of fishermen. The extreme situation, which serves to sharpen everyone’s instinct for survival and exposing their innermost selves; the struggle for leadership and for life, culminating in the scene where the fishermen draw lots that will determine who is to get into a crowded rescue boat and who is to remain on the quickly melting ice, all of these combine in a tension filled drama.  After reviewing Jānis Kalniņš’s script based on a short story by Rūdolfs Blaumanis, the director Gunārs Piesis (1935—1996) considered the limited space a liability. Notwithstanding his reservations (expressed in an interview to the newspaper "Rīgas Balss"):  "One could hardly find a literary work less suited for the screen than "In the Shadow of Death": the setting is limited, there is no fast action, nor is there a change of environment – there is nothing that makes a movie gripping," (quoted from "Vecās, labās... Latviešu kinoklasikas 50 spožākās pērles" by Kristīne Matīsa) — this film, which was Gunārs Piesis’s second feature, has proved to be his best work.

The twenty-two pages of Blaumanis’s short story, whose suitability as a basis for a full feature was doubted by the director, turned out to be an excellent material for a gripping existential drama. (In the film, the developments on the ice floe are supplemented by scenes on the mainland: fishermen’s memories, the reactions of their families, which were Gunārs Piesis’s contribution.)

Each of the fishermen is a colorful individual whose confrontations with the others reveal his principles and values. The psychological burden of the drama is undoubtedly shouldered by the actors — Kārlis Sebris (Zaļga), Eduards Pāvuls (Grīntāls), Gunārs Cilinskis (Birkenbaums), Ģirts Jakovļevs (Jānis), Alfrēds Videnieks (Dalda, Sr.), and others. Even the young amateur actor Pēteris Šogolovs is a success in the role of the fragile Kārlēns whose fateful lot is to be left behind on the ice.

Gunārs Piesis’s approach is characterized by psychological depth, intense drama, and self-revealing, dynamic characters, whereas the stark visual impact of the film is shaped by the cameraman Mārtiņš Kleins.  He uses a moving camera, but at moments of emotional tension a special attention is paid to dramatic close-ups. The floating piece of ice with an empty sky for a backdrop serves as a laconic and neutral setting where the human drama is made even more poignant by unraveling under "the shadow of death".

In contrast to some other treasures that have been included in the Culture Canon, "Under the Shadow of Death" was well received by the contemporary critics. Interestingly enough, before "Under the Shadow of Death", Gunārs Piesis had spent an entire decade directing documentaries (his debut feature "Kārkli pelēkie zied" (1961) was considered a failure, to be "punished" by working on chronicles), whereas after its success he was immediately given an opportunity to direct his next feature "Pūt, vējiņi" (1973).

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