Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Film Atlas (Latvia): In the Shadow of Death

Country: Latvia
Title: In the Shadow of Death / Naves Ena (1971)
A group of Latvian fisherman are stranded at sea when the peninsula of ice they are on breaks free from the mainland. One man leaps into the water and attempts to swim back, but dies immediately in the churning cold. An old man says a brief funeral oration over him: “There was a man and then there was not.” This grim unadorned stoicism characterizes the film as the remainder are left to confront death, and each other, as their supply of fish dwindles and their iceberg shrinks.

Our viewpoint character is Birkenbaums, an affianced slightly angsty young man. Through flashbacks he reflects on his previously charmed existence, his faith that he would always remain unscathed by misfortune, and his lover back home, who once playfully wrestled with him while dressed as a grim reaper (ominously foreshadowing the real thing). He witnesses various reactions to their predicament in the men around him: a rich old patriarch hoards fish (one of the few explicit concessions to the Soviet propaganda agenda), another turns to prayer, a third succumbs to madness. 

Birkenbaums’s closest friend, a fair-haired teen, begins to fade first. When the others vote against killing their only horse to provide him nourishment, Birkenbaums feeds him with his own blood. As time and space melts away, a chance of rescue presents itself, but their hardest moment is yet to come, for there is not enough room to save them all.

Leveraging the best elements of two survival genres, mountaineering disaster films and lifeboat/shipwreck dramas, In the Shadow of Death is a cold, harsh thriller about impending death and its psychological effects, bringing out nobility and sacrifice here and selfishness and despair there. 

The film is short and rather terse. I expected the flashbacks to flesh out more of the characters, but the camera so rarely leaves their diminishing iceberg that its few brief leaps ashore have to be savored by the audience; a subtle decision by director Gunare Piesis. Although this is a film about facing hard truths and hard choices, it is also a film about hope and practical survival. You can see as much in words as in actions, like taking turns holding a makeshift flagpole because digging a hole to plant it in risks splitting their frozen island. It brings home the delicacy of civilization and of life.

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