Film "Bearslayer", 1930, by Director Aleksandrs Rusteiķis (1892–1958)
“Bearslayer” (Lāčplēsis) is one of Latvia’s only surviving fiction films from the silent era of film. It is also the first attempt by the newly independent Latvian nation to make a full-length feature film and begin to experiment with themes of nationalism and national identity in cinema. The film is included in the canon not only for these reasons, but also for its ability to capture the imagination of the Latvian nation and for its own artistic merits outside the framework of populist national cinema.
The film consists of two parallel narratives that, while separate, complete one another through their similarities. The first follows the narrative line of a famous epic poem called “Bearslayer”, written in the late 1800s by Latvian writer Andrejs Pumpurs (1841–1902). The poem is based on characters and themes from Latvian mythology which were woven together by Pumpurs to create one of the first pieces of literature that would be crucial in creating a national collective identity. The story follows the hero Bearslayer. Someone so strong that he is said to be able to pull apart a bear’s jaw with his bare hands. The central love interest is Laimdota who is trapped by Kangars, the betrayer of the Latvian people. While the narrative in the epic poem is complex, in the film it focusses on the relationship between these 3 characters and the love story between Bearslayer and Laimdota. Parallel to this is the story of Vanags and Mirdza, meant to be the modern-day incarnations of Bearslayer and Laimdota, but set at the time of the first World War and the pivotal year of 1918 where crucial battles were fought to establish the modern Latvian nation. Interspersed with the love story are scenes from these battles.
As it becomes clear from the synopsis above “Bearslayer” is a technical and artistic feat – very ambitious for a small nation that had yet to produce a feature length fiction film. The film was commissioned in honour of Latvia’s first decade as a modern nation. The film’s director Aleksandrs Rusteiķis was given 40,000 Latvian Lats, approximately 65,000 USD, which is not a lot for a feature length film. 10,000 Lats were donated by the Latvian Government and the rest of the money came from the National Guard Organisation and the Ministry of War.
While the budget for the film was small, unaligned with the size of the project and Rusteiķis’ vision, the film received donations in kind to help ensure the final film came to fruition. The National Guard Organisation and the Ministry of War donated man power and props for the larger group scenes, with many of the extra’s in the group scenes played by unpaid soldiers.
The film was hotly anticipated and premiered on the 3 March 1930 at the cinema Palladium in Rīga. An impressive venue itself, built in 1913 boasting cutting edge design and an unusually large cinema hall (now a concert hall). The premiere was attended by dignitaries and the President of the time. The event was so popular that audiences spilt out onto the surrounding streets, trying to see the film.
The film was restored in 2010 and is available to watch online for free within the Latvian territory at www.filmas.lv.
Dita Rietuma on the film "Bearslayer" in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Brochure for the film "Bearslayer". (1930). Rīga: Aizsargu organizācija. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Advertisement handout for the film "Bearslayer" in the cinema "Kino-Gloria". (1930). Rīga: Izdevējs, 1930. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian and Russian)
Dita Rietuma on the film "Bearslayer" in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Pērkone, Inga. (2011). Inscenējumu realitāte: Latvijas aktierkino vēsture (30.-34. lpp.). Rīga: Mansards.
Sila, Tatjana. (2003). Atmiņu lokos: par režisoru Aleksandru Rusteiķi. Rīga: Apgāds Mantojums.