Film "In the Shadow of Death", 1971, by Director Gunārs Piesis (1935–1996)
“In the Shadow of Death” (Nāves ēnā) at the time of its release was a critically acclaimed film, receiving almost no criticism from Soviet censorship and film critics. This was generally something unheard of in the Soviet era, due to heavy censorship and strict requirements to adhere to socialist realism, but in the case of this film it is even more incredible when you consider the history of the film.
“In the Shadow of Death” is an adaptation of a novella by the same name, written by one of Latvia’s most well-known authors Rūdolfs Blaumanis (1863−1908). The plot of the film revolves around 14 fishermen who become stranded on a piece of ice that has broken away from the shore. The 14 fishermen eventually become only 8 through a number of dramatic events. When all hope is thought to be lost an Estonian fishing boat sails past. However, everything is not resolved with the Estonians only able to take 5 men onboard.
This was not the first adaptation of Blaumanis’ work to film, but it was definitely one of the most controversial at the time, with many thinking that the film would be a complete failure. This was mostly to do with the length of Blaumanis’ original work, which is only 22 pages long. Many could not see how the director Gunārs Piesis would be able to turn such a short literary work into a feature length film. The material of the novella was also particularly challenging to turn into an interesting film. The entire novel is set on a floating piece of ice and focusses mostly on the characterisation of the fishermen stranded on the ice.
Piesis, however, was quite comfortable with writing himself, so he added a number of scenes to the film to make the material more appropriate for the cinematic medium. These scenes were flashbacks to the fishermen’s life back on shore and revealed the true character and personality of each: their hope and dreams, sins, secrets and good deeds. The film cannot be equated to a usual blockbuster, but the drama and the interest is created in the psychological tension which builds between the fishermen. As they struggle to survive on the drifting ice, these flashbacks help to develop. The characters and the drama between them are enriched with the performance of a who’s who of Latvian actors at the time including Eduards Pāvuls, Gunārs Cilinskis, and Ģirts Jakovļevs, just to name a few. The youngest fisherman was played by a teenager who had been selected through national auditions (Pēteris Šogolovs).
The filming process was also very challenging and stressful. Piesis insisted on filming on location, arguing that filming it on a set would not work as it would not look realistic enough to the audience. However, that year the winter was quite warm. They had to build an artificial iceberg, which was then put in the harbour not far from a town called Lapmežciems. The warm weather did not pose problems only for the film crew and set designers, but also for the actors. Dressed in heavy winter coats, the actors were often forced to physically exert themselves in large heavy clothes inappropriate for the unseasonably warm weather. Instead of freezing on the ice they were in fact boiling under the winter attire. These tough working conditions were heightened by Piesis himself who was known as a brilliant talent but someone with a foul temper and challenging personality, often exacerbated by stressful filming situations such as this.
It is incredible to consider that this was Piesis’ first time directing a feature length fiction film. After graduating from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematograph (Moscow, Russia) he worked mostly making chronicles before coming back to Latvia and deciding to embark on this challenging project. The film is considered one of Piesis’ best films, followed closely by his next film “Blow, Wind, Blow!” (Pūt, vējiņi!, 1973), another adaptation of Blaumanis’ work.
There are plans to restore this film in 2018/2019.
You can watch the film online for free within Latvia on the portal www.filmas.lv.
Dita Rietuma on the film "In the Shadow of Death" in the Latvian Culturel Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Brochure for the film "In the Shadow of Death". (1971). Rīga: Latvijas Republikāniskais filmu iznomāšanas kantoris. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian and Russian)
Dita Rietuma on the film "In the Shadow of Death" in the Latvian Culturel Canon, 2008.
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Nāves ēnā: [atmiņas un raksti par filmas uzņemšanu un tās režisoru – L. Purs, M. O. Kleins, K. Matīsa, I. Kārkliņa, J. Pilskalns, P. Šogolovs, O. Dreģe, E. Pāvuls, G. Piesis. (2003). No: Dzidra Sondore. Talantīgs, interesants, kašķīgs (48.-79. lpp.). Rīga: Antēra.
Lejiņš, Armīns. (2001). Nāves ēnā: [saruna ar kinorež. G. Piesi]. Kino Raksti, Nr. 5, 110.-114. lpp.