The Will to Survive

Amos Lassen

 Based on the memoirs of Melānija Vanaga, “Suddenly a Criminal: 16 Years in Siberia,”, “The Chronicles of Melanie” is an account of the mass deportation of residents of Soviet-occupied Latvia that took place as Stalin tightened his grip on power.

On the morning of June 15th, 1941, over 17,000 people from Latvia were taken from their family homes and forcibly relocated under suspicion of “collaborating with the enemy.” Families were torn apart with this mass deportation and people were made to work in Siberia for starvation rations. Separated at gunpoint from her husband Aleksandrs, the prominent editor of a Latvian newspaper and a target of the Soviet purge, Melanie (Sabine Timoteo) and her son, Andres, faced three-weeks on a cattle car that took them to a remote and foreign Tiukhtet village during which a diet of scraps of bread, dirty water and no bathrooms were the beginnings of a long and harsh exile. 

This is a powerful and grueling film from Director Viestur Kairiss and it is the Latvian Submission for Best International Film at the 90th Academy Awards.  We see  the true magnitude of the human spirit and the will to survive in the face of unimaginable tragedy.

Melanie was under the false belief that their destination is a small Latvian border town, but the trains end up going to Siberia. Upon their arrival, the horrible weather conditions, food shortages, hard labor and constant humiliation create a situation where it seems, at times, almost impossible to survive. Finally pardoned after Stalin’s death in 1953, Melanie returns to Latvia, only to find that under the new regime, her process of redemption is still not over. 

 The film uses black-and-white photography symbolizing the good old days. A classical-music soundtrack emphasizes the hardships. Melanie hardly has a chance to catch her breath before another problem arises and we see  doom and gloom all the way through. The merit of the film isin the educational purpose it serves for both foreign audiences and younger generations in Latvia. Developments in Europe today make it pretty evident how easily some historical events are forgotten or disregarded. Memory is tricky and one purpose of cinema is to be a chronicle that would help us to define, understand and construct the future through reflecting on past events.

There is a confounding immediacy to the Soviet guards’ intrusion into the warm and peaceful Vanaga household in the film’s opening moments. Aleksandrs (and his wife, Melanie are told they are under arrest. The lack of explanation with which the couple, along with their young son are forced out of their home to be imprisoned is instrumental in enabling us to join Melanie in her long and painful journey to Siberia.

Melanie and Andrejs are separated from Aleksandrs and forced into a cattle car together with many other prisoners, all of whom are women and children. Provisions are scarce and the conditions are inhumane. Despair is acute and, from this moment on, it is relentless. Director Kairiss never shies away from scenes of unutterable suffering.

The masterful black-and-white cinematography by award-winning cinematographer, Gints Berzins. It is striking with bleak and piercing shots that show human trauma. At the same time, it is beautiful and breathtaking when focused on nature or quiet moments with Melanie.

The first half deals strongly with the theme of maternal love and sacrifice. Melanie is sharply focused on her son’s survival. One heartbreaking moment shows her on the brink of death offering her only piece of bread to her son in a quaking, outstretched hand. Sabine Timoteo, gives a heart-wrenching performance throughout the entire film and excels in moments like these where so much emotion is conveyed through silent expression and gesture.

The second half, the film is a nuanced look at how Melanie, in the face of severely inhumane conditions, manages to hold onto compassion and empathy. She offers selfless nurturing. In an act of sacrifice that’s especially notable in an environment where proper shoes are a matter of life and death, Melanie even gives up her boots in an effort to help a loved one. The threat of death is everywhere, and yet Melanie, with a sense of inspiring dignity, is unbreakable.

This is a devastating film that aptly portrays human suffering and cruelty that I felt that I had to stop several times breaks while watching it. Yet, Melanie’s selfless love for her son and husband shows us humanity against the degrading backdrop of the prisoners’ conditions.

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