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Monday, July 24, 2017

1944 -- DVD Review by Porfle

Some of the best war stories are the ones that humanize all soldiers, and make us feel for them whatever the greater forces that compel them to fight.  Director Elmo Nüganen's World War II epic 1944 (Film Movement, 2015) is especially effective in doing so, since its opponents consist of men from the same country who have been forcibly conscripted by two different warring nations, Germany and Russia.

Karl (Kaspar Velberg) is an Estonian peasant fighting for the Germans in hopes of someday rescuing his family from exile. Jüri (Kristjan Üksküla) is a fellow Estonian who will be haunted after killing a countryman during battle and then contacting the man's sister despite the danger of suspicion by his Russian superiors. 

The film's production values are impeccable, with a fluidly-mobile camera and stark, yet beautiful photography.  Authenticity of period and setting are also first-rate, as are the performances of an excellent cast.

There are plenty of intense, frenetic battle scenes that are down-and-dirty and, like the real thing, often confusing.  (The trench warfare sequence is stunning.) 

Since the viewer has little stake in the outcome, we tend to root for whichever main character is being focused upon at the time.  This keeps the emphasis squarely on the individuals as human beings rather than soldiers defending a national directive.

Indeed, some of 1944's most powerful scenes are its quietest, as when Jüri visits the sister and they sit together in an empty church, deriving an elusive comfort from one another's presence. 

Dialogue amongst the soldiers themselves during off hours is sensitive and knowing, yielding several moments in which joviality is laced with piercing sadness. 

This sadness is always compounded by the fact that the Estonians are killing each other for the most futile and useless reasons, and watching their homeland being destroyed as a battleground for people who view them with suspicion and contempt.

In one of the film's most telling moments, a member of the Estonian government under the Germans proudly addresses the troops in the field with the announcement that, after intensive scientific research, their people have been deemed worthy of being called "Aryans." 

The withering looks of those hearing the news are ample evidence of how little this means to them--and yet, they must continue to fight and kill their countrymen, day after grueling, heartrending day, until finally, in whatever ways they can, they rebel.

The DVD from Film Movement is in 2.39:1 widescreen with 5.1 surround sound and 2.0 stereo, both English and Estonian with English subtitles.  Extras include a bizarre short film and trailers for this and other Film Movement releases.

The hauntingly bittersweet 1944 doesn't merely try to impress us with its scope, or its sweeping battle scenes, although it has both; more than anything else, it's a celebration of humanity, and how tenuously some cling to it in the face of overwhelming oppression and despair.

DVD Available Exclusively at Walmart
Release Date: Aug. 1, 2017

Read Our Original Coverage


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