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Forgotten Baltic Tragedy – The Missed Chance of “Ashes in the Snow”

Hinnerk Frech talks about "Ashes in the Snow", a movie about the history of Eastern Europe.

By Hinnerk Frech

The history of Eastern Europe1 during World War II and its aftermath is a history often forgotten in many Western European countries. Inaccessible for most, the history of Eastern Europe remained hidden and closed off from the West behind the borders of the GDR and the communist block. In history classes, at least in Germany, you somehow learn that Stalin was a horrible dictator and that there was something called the Gulag and Siberia, where many innocent people lost their lives in sheer dread. That was about it and things are probably not very different in other countries west from the former block-dividing, inner-European border. But even though many archives in the East were not opened at least until the 1990s (or remain closed), the story of Eastern Europe– and the story of its many nations and people – is a story very much worthy to tell. Two examples, of very different style and aim, are the German author Navid Kermani’s Entlang der Gräben and Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. The former is an enlightening and moving travel report dealing with each of its stops history, terrifically connecting developments of the past with the present. Bloodlands is a detailed and lauded historical investigation of the atrocities taking place in the East during Soviet and Nazi-German occupation during and before World War II. Despite these two very different but both excellent examples, Eastern European history remains a black box for many. The Lithuanian – American author Ruta Sepetys has sought to change this with her two bestselling novels Salt to the Sea and Between Shades of Grey. The latter book has recently been the basis for the American movie Ashes in the Snow. Ashes in the Snow tells the story of young Lina Vilkas, daughter of a university professor in Lithuania in the late 1930s, who dreams of becoming an artist one day. Her dreams are violently interrupted by the invasion of Lithuania by the Soviet Union. The movie then follows the story of Lina’s family and their deportation to Siberian labour camps.

About a year ago, the movie was shown by the Lithuanian Youth Society in a cinema in Copenhagen. This showing and my growing interest for Eastern European history has inspired the following review of Ashes in the Snow

I hoped that the movie would spark some thoughts and inspire people to investigate the subject further – just as Ruta Sepety’s novels have managed to do remarkably well in my opinion. The presence of the Lithuanian Ambassador and Youth Society representatives supported my hope that this movie could be a way to introduce the terrible history of the Baltic countries during World War II and thereafter to a broad audience.

Unfortunately – apart from some few parts and scenes – I was left disappointed by Ashes in the Snow. The introductory scenes seemed promising: The happy days of the Vilkas family in the forests and at the coast of Lithuania and the main character Lina’s application to Kaunas Art School were nicely pictured and could just as well have been the beginning of a nice love story or a light summer movie. After receiving the letter from Kaunas Arts School, Lina decided not to open it and to wait for her father to come back home. Sitting by her window, she decorated the lights on the street in the distance with the drawing of a sun on her wet window panes. But: The lights on the streets were not the distant sun, but instead the lights of the feared black trucks of the NKVD2, haunting the city of Kaunas at night – coming to deport the Vilkas family and tens of thousands of others.

Those are powerful scenes – making the viewer feel right at the centre of the events of 1941. One almost feels like standing on Kaunas’ streets in 1941, watching the random arrests and violence, cruelty, fear and desperation. And so the movie continues, showing hundreds of Lithuanians crammed into overcrowded freight wagons, treated like cattle by ruthless NKVD officers. The film then arrives at its most horrible scene: A woman’s baby dies during the train ride to Siberia – refusing to drink its mother’s’ milk. To protect the other “passengers”, the mother of Lina throws the dead baby onto the tracks – through a hole in the train, which is usually used as the lavatory. The second the small corpse disappears, a silent cry from the audience fills the cinema. Here, Ashes in the Snow is probably as close as one can get to showing the cruelty and horror of the deportations in a 90-minute movie based on a novel. It arguably is the most captivating scene of the movie as it captures emotions of dread, cruelty, sadness, despair, and sheer callousness of the deportations in one scene.

Unfortunately, in my view, the movie was not able to keep this high level. Soon the plot would occasionally derail to a (one-sided) love story between the NKVD officer Kretzky and Lina’s mother Elena. In Sepety’s novel, Kretzky somewhat helps the Vilkas family – but mostly due to bribery. In the movie, he does so on his own. He is pictured as a young sensitive soldier who misses his love, his home, and  who suffers from constant bullying by his fellow officers, on account of his Ukraininan origins. He does not like to fight and is disgusted by the others’ pleasure to kill and torture. Here, the movie created an, in my view, unnecessary side plot: The conflict between the sensitive, involuntary soldier and the ruthless NKVD troops. This side plot was certainly a good watch – especially because of the acting of Peter Franzèn as Commander Komarov, who watches Kretzky’s struggle with mild amusement and cruel arrogance. However, the story of an NKVD soldier the audience could sympathise with was certainly too far off the book’s blueprint. Moreover, this is a distortion of Between Shades of Grey‘s core topic– the indescribable suffering of Lithuanians and others under Stalin’s regime and the deportations.

Soldiers as the movie’s character Kretzky surely existed. In the movie however, the character was rather misplaced. All this culminates in Kretzky signing a document of amnesty for Lina and her brother Jonas, after he learns about Elena Vilkas, Lina’s mother’s, death – hanging himself right after. The children’s amnesty set the stage for the movie’s eventual happy ending. Again, it was quite far off from the book’s version. A sentimental NKVD officer committing suicide because of his Lithuanian love in the cold of Siberia, only after giving her children their freedom. The ending takes creative liberty to quite some lengths as it not only betrays the message of the book but also glosses over a dark period. A sentimental, in love NKVD officer as a final note is as bad as it can get for a movie “based on true events”, as the intro so meaning-laden stated. The ending could not get any more wrong than this.

At this point I have to question what it does to the critical examination of Soviet history if a popular movie like Ashes in the Snow chooses to build its plot so strongly based on a Soviet soldier that the viewer can sympathise with. Of course not every single individual in the NKVD was evil. As Hanna Ahrendt has taught us, it is the banality of evil that makes totalitarian systems so dangerous – it’s figures are not obviously evil, but human beings similar to everyone else. Driven by their personal ambitions, conformity, egoism. In that sense, I am not asking Ashes in the Snow to portray each NKVD officer as obviously evil – Kretzky’s commander pretty much does the job of being the symbol of the cliché evil Soviet soldier. But: To make us sympathise with a personification of the repressive Soviet system may lead us, as the viewers, to believe that the system was not that as bad as it truly was, since we learn that there were good people, too. Through humanisation and personification, the totalitarian, suppressive structure of the NKVD gets, at least to some degree, lost in the movie. Especially through the happy end. We see too much of the good sides of Kretzky – and too little in comparison of the cruelty and ruthlessness of the Soviet regime. Therefore, Ashes in the Snow, in my view, distorts the historical facts in an inappropriate way. It may make us lose sight of the ruthless system behind young Kretzky. The stories of young Ukrainians who got forced into the machinery of the NKVD is another story which is worth telling as part of the overall story of Soviet repression for sure. But to tell that story by making such a young Ukranian the sympathetic face of the NKVD in a movie about the deportation of Lithuanians is, in my opinion, too far fetched. By looking at the individual here, we lose sight of the totalitarian structure of the Soviet Union, of the repressive and violent surges of the NKVD.

Naturally, compromises between a book and a movie have to be made. Not all the details of a book can be portrayed in a movie. Therefore,. characters like Kretzky are often used to tell a story in a way which is easier to understand and digest for the viewer. Personification is not necessarily a bad thing. However, Ashes in the snow too often departed from the blueprint too much and in misleading ways, in inaccurate ways. This went at the expense of the book’s pitiless description of Soviet horror most of the time – for the benefit of Kretzky becoming something like a second main character. Especially in regard to the important task of enlightenment and education that such a movie could – and should – fulfill, this choice leaves me puzzled and upset. Why would one introduce a Soviet soldier as a hero in a movie that deals with the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union?

Luckily, at least at times, the movie succeeded in portraying the cruelty of the deportations. There were some truly well made moments in the movie: When Lina has to portray commander Komarov and draw a monster instead of a glorifying portrait in a truly remarkable scene. Or the ending minutes of the movie which captures the endless, white and frozen, deathly plains of Siberia. Scenes like this, where the movie made the horror to some extent graspable, were what I had hoped for more often. Instead, the plot was repeatedly disturbed by different inaccuracies. The train to Siberia: It was clearly American and in one take pushed by a Diesel locomotive. Imagine the outcry if a movie about US history featured Russian Railways instead of Union Pacific – not even looking at the fact that modern US diesel locomotives were certainly not pulling the deportation trains in Siberia. In the working camps of Altai, all of a sudden Christmas tree decoration was appearing out of nowhere. The mental terror of the Altai woman, and thereby the conflict between the deported and the natives described in the novel, was reduced to one snapped sentence. Most prominently, the role of Lina’s drawing and the search for her father were reduced to relatively unimportant side aspects of the main plot.

Generally, I am not capable of denying the impression that Ashes in the Snow chose to be a movie as soft as possible, avoiding as much of the cruelty, horror, terror, desperation, and sadness which had made Between Shades of Grey such a well written historical novel. The novel was able to give the reader an impression of the Soviet atrocities, while simultaneously being a popular novel appealing to a broad audience. Ashes in the Snow, in my opinion, was not. Seemingly trying to be a more comfortable watch, it sacrificed too much of what had made the book strong. The movie had too few standing out moments such as the dropped infant body. Unfortunately, there remains a movie that could not fulfill the hopes which I initially had. For the sake of the movie’s story, too many compromises were made, too many departures from the novel were allowed and too many inaccuracies included. Ashes in the snow clearly does not manage to fill the shoes of its novel template. Being quite soft, it may address a wide audience of which some hopefully will feel the interest to go beyond the cheap love story of Kretzky, into the dark of Soviet and Baltic history. It could have done this in many better ways, while still addressing a broad audience. Ruta Sepety’s novels managed to do this, Navid Kermani managed to do this. Others did.In hundreds of thousands, even millions of cases, there was no NKVD officer to the rescue, freeing a couple of children and committing suicide afterwards There was deportation, Gulag and death. The end of Ashes in the Snow therefore, leaves a slighty bitter taste of whitewashing in my mouth. As unintended as this might be, it is surely the most unforgiving flaw of a movie, which fails to go beyond its promising beginning.

Footnotes

1. For the sake of a more comfortable flow of reading, the Baltics will be included in the term “Eastern Europe” for this article. Eastern Europe for this article refers to the area similar to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands.

2. The NKVD was the interior ministry of the Soviet Union, which was given the monopoly over law enforcement activities in 1934. The NKVD included secret police activities and is known for its prominent role in the political repression of the Soviet Union, for instance in the Great Purge and the Gulag System.


About the Author

Hinnerk Frech, 22, is studying International Social Sciences at Roskilde Universitet, Denmark. He is interested in a variety of different issues from philosophical discussions in the social sciences to the influence of social networks or smart homes on society and enjoys writing about these issues and discussing them.  

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