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LĀČPLĒSIS (1930)

Feature film, 100 min. Director: Aleksandrs Rusteiķis. Camera: Jānis Sīlis. Cast: Voldemārs Dimze, Lilita Bērziņa, Osvalds Mednis, Jēkabs Upenieks

The very first notable work of national cinematographic art, innovative for its time because of its impressive staging and historical veracity.     

After the first attempts at feature films in the 1920s Aleksandrs Rusteiķis’s (1892—1958) "Lāčplēsis" was a project of a scale hitherto unknown in Latvia (the very first feature film "Es karā aiziedams" (As I Went Off to War), made in 1920, has been lost). It was impressive both in terms of its length – 100 minutes – and its ambition to combine history, legend, and a love story. It was also an attempt to ascertain Latvia’s national identity. The film tells the story of the Latvian deeply felt desire for freedom, presenting it in layers: there is the myth of the legendary Bearslayer (Lāčplēsis) and his struggle against the Black Knight; there is the historical element: the military battles against the Russians and the Germans in 1919, and history on the human scale: Jānis and Mirdza’s love story. 

"Lāčplēsis" was conceived as a project dedicated to the tenth anniversary of Latvia’s independence. The premiere on March 3, 1930 became an important event in Latvian cultural life.

Film critic Juris Civjans has observed that both the idea behind "Lāčplēsis" and its artistic method echo some notable and popular early 20th century films: the glorification of history in Sergei Eizenshtein’s "Oktjabr" (October, 1928); the complex dramatic structure, the action taking place on several temporal planes, as in David Work Griffith’s "Intolerance", 1916. The evil characters in the film resemble those from the German Expressionist films from the 1920s.

The main characters of "Lāčplēsis" exist in two dimensions, in two parallel realities: they are real, particular people and mythical heroes. Voldemārs Dimze, an aviator by profession, plays both the farm boy Jānis Vanags and Lāčplēsis. The female lead, Mirdza and mythical Laimdota is played by the outstanding Latvian actress Lilita Bērziņa. (Her first cinema role was in the feature melodrama "Psyche" (1922), which has been lost). The Black Knight, played by the visually impressive Osvalds Mednis, represents the enemies of the Latvian nation.     The 100 minutes of the film contain a huge amount of historical references, some of them mere allusions (for instance, the spiked German helmet by the latter-day National Theater, where Latvia’s sovereignty was proclaimed in 1918, reminds the viewer that Latvia was then under German occupation).

The acting may at times seem archaic and theatrical; there are problems of timing and rhythm, yet Rusteiķis’s versatility in his use of methods is impressive: fragments of chronicles coexist with documentary-like reconstructions (e.g., Latvia’s proclamation act) and other elements.       Even though the authors of "Lāčplēsis" do not always succeed in balancing the story line involving the relationship between Mirdza, Jānis, and the evil character and the symbolic layer, they make a credible attempt at using the ever popular method of placing the love story at the emotional center of a historical film. The film features even some special effects (in the battle scenes), which may seem naïve, but represent the first for Latvian cinematography. 

The cast of "Lāčplēsis" included 500 extras, a division of the Latvian army; the film was financed by the Aizsargi (National Guard) organization. Its budget, at LVL 40 000, was not at all large.

"Lāčplēsis" and its creative team, director Aleksandrs Rusteiķis and cameraman Jānis Sīlis, proved that Latvia was fully capable of carrying out large-scale projects – films dedicated to Latvia’s complicated history.

Dita Rietuma

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