War sucks. That is a revealing statement for a historian who came to be interested in the subject because of military history. I am not sure what other fathers talked to their sons about, but mine regaled me with tales of the campaigns of Napoleon. There was a romance to this past, which my young mind absorbed in the various paintings of the Napoleonic Age that adorned the thick books I routinely checked out from the library. I rarely read much of them. The other vehicle by which I absorbed knowledge of these events was through film. War movies have an excitement to them. Be thankful that you do not have to live through these experiences. This has steadily become my position on these movies as I have grown in my Faith. Yet, because The Legionnaire has already taken a look at all the titles with which you would be familiar, we have to cast the net further. Most of the time, these films do not have much to offer. Today’s selection, 1944 (2015), which I landed on out of desperation, is little different.
1944 is further evidence that war sucks. It is set in Estonia during the title year. The first place we go is to a group of Estonian soldiers fighting for Germany. Their leader is Karl Tammik (Kaspar Velberg), and he and his dwindling supply of men are attempting to hold back the Soviet onslaught. I will get to what might be your confusion at this point as to the political ramifications of all this later. For now, we will leave it at they are not thrilled with the prospect of fighting for the Nazis as evidenced by their barely contained derision when they are visited by officers higher up the chain of command. In the quieter moments, they dream of an Estonia free of invaders. Karl shares many of these thoughts with his sister, Aino (Maiken Schmidt), who lives in the nearby town of Tallinn. The louder moments are filled with fighting, and eventually maneuvers on other parts of their defensive lines forces them to retreat. In doing so, they join a number of other civilians and troops fleeing before the Red Army. At one point, they are forced to give battle. Karl is among those who fall during this fight, and the man who kills him is an Estonian soldier fighting for the Russians, Jüri Jögi (Kristjan Üksküla). While burying the slain proxy German soldiers, Jüri finds a yet to be sent letter from Karl to Aino. With Tallinn recently in Soviet hands, Jüri takes it upon himself to deliver the letter to Aino. He finds her living by herself in town, and she welcomes him into his home. In doing so, they begin to be friendly with one another, despite the fact that Jüri eventually admits that he had been the one to kill Karl. Though Aino is saddened, she understands that it was simply a part of war. The one person not so keen on this new friendship blossoming between Aino and Jüri is the political officer attached to Jüri’s unit, Kreml (Peeter Tammearu). Though Jüri protests loyalty to the Soviet cause, the fact that he is fraternizing with somebody who had ties to the Nazis is potentially traitorous. Of course, Kreml does not know about the complicated feelings regarding the war in Estonia. His only job is to maintain fealty to the communist party. As such, he increasingly becomes suspicious of Jüri, who has taken a position of leadership in his unit. Though Jüri has escaped for the moment, the biggest test comes a few months later during fighting in order to take the last remnants of Estonia from the Germans. His men captured a group of underaged German soldiers who are understandably scared out of their minds. Kreml orders Jüri to kill the teenagers, an order he refuses. In response, Kreml takes out his pistol and summarily executes Jüri on the spot. The captured German soldiers are then murdered anyway. One of Jüri’s men, echoing what had happened earlier with Karl, finds a letter addressed to Aino. In turn, he takes it to her, and that is where our film ends.
1944 is not a terribly complicated movie. The plot is divided neatly in two, though the happenings in either of the halves are not the overall point. Instead, the message is to show you what World War II did to Estonia. Anyone clamoring to learn this forgotten chapter of the war outside of Estonians? I do not wish to impugn the fine Baltic country. Other than these factors, it is a pretty standard war movie. As such, if you have seen any other picture dealing with World War II, you have seen this one. Where it strikes a nerve with this Catholic reviewer is in the anti-war message. Estonians were caught between two different ideologies that were beyond their control. The film, while a bit dull, does a good job of showing these two sides. Karl and his men were not raving Nazis, which is a refreshing approach as they are so often depicted as one-dimensional in cinema. They fought because they did not agree with communism. While my Faith tells me that political squabbles, or anything else, is not worth killing anyone over, the historian in me can acknowledge that this is as good a reason as there has ever been for warfare. On the other side of the matter are the Estonians like Jüri who see the Germans as invaders, and turned to the more powerful Soviet Union for help, or rather to pitch-in to take back their country. Either way, it is not a good solution because neither the Germans or the Soviets are offering autonomy to Estonia. Hence, it is little wonder that Aino forgives Jüri. This is not without precedence in the Catholic Faith. St. Maria Goretti, for example, died forgiving the young man who first raped and then stabbed her to death. She survived to give this witness, and began her path to sainthood. In this, there is a lesson in avoiding war in the first place. If we could only approach national slights predisposed towards forgiveness rather than anger, perhaps we might avoid situations like what you see in the film.
As I have said, there is little remarkable about 1944 as a war movie. Yes, it tells a story about a little covered moment in World War II. It is also based on actual events. If these are the parts of a war dramas that interest you, by all means have at it. There is nothing too objectionable about it, other than the violence. As I related in the introduction, such themes have become increasingly difficult for me to handle. What is does have going for it is that it does not glorify war. That is more than I can say for many films.