When it premiered at the 1992 Berlin Film Festival, Three Days set the foundations of a remarkable track record for Šarūnas Bartas, its debutant director. Since securing his reputation with a special mention for that film from FIPRESCI, the Federation of International Film Critics, the Lithuanian filmmaker has premiered all seven of his subsequent works at one of the “big three” international film festivals. His second, The Corridor (1995), premiered again in Berlin; his third and fourth, Few of Us (1996) and The House (1997), in Cannes; his fifth, Freedom (2000), in Venice; Seven Invisible Men (2005) in Cannes; Eastern Drift (2010), Berlin; and his latest, Peace to Us in Our Dreams, premiered in Cannes earlier this year.
Before anything else, such consistency is indicative of the high regard in which certain layers of the international cinephile community hold Bartas and his work. It’s no wonder that he’s commonly cited today as the go-to representative of his nation’s cinema. For proponents of a particular, recognisable trend of auteur-driven filmmaking, Bartas is the most dependable starting point when it comes to seeing how contemporary Lithuanian cinema has both shaped and been shaped by the country’s own search for identity in the wake of its separation from (and the eventual fall of) the USSR.
Lithuanian film scholar Renata Šukaitytė is one such supporter. Writing in a book published by the Lithuanian Film Centre to mark a programme of Soviet and post-Soviet Lithuanian films (including a retrospective of Bartas’s work) at New Horizons Film Festival in Wrocław, Poland, earlier this year, Šukaitytė notes that the filmmaker has been “an inspirational figure for the 1990s generation of local filmmakers, many of whom were influenced by his filmmaking style, with its lack of emphasis on narrative, non-verbal storytelling, long takes, ambient hypnotic sound, amateur actors, etc”.
Throughout his career, Bartas has remained deeply committed to questions of national identity, social belonging and political freedom. Often dealt with in tandem, such themes are nevertheless frequently presented in an opaque, ambiguous manner, the filmmaker seemingly caught between optimism for his characters — who, lost and voiceless, trudge somnambulantly through an unremittingly bleak landscape — and a prevailing helplessness, even despair. As Šukaitytė writes, “Bartas reflects on and reveals small joys and passions, inner conflicts, fears and longings for freedom…in the presence of societal, economic and political stasis and shifts.”
In Bartas’s early films especially, very little happens in terms of action. Dialogue is sparse or altogether absent, while characters drift with little causal impetus between scenes, their purpose unclear. The very title of Three Days appears to be a wry joke, specifying a timeframe that the narrative itself does everything to complicate, as two men and a woman play out a post-apocalyptic predicament whose duration is appreciably unclear. The setting, a half-abandoned port town where incident is scarce, only magnifies their sense of limbo.
Bartas’s characters do not function dramatically. They are metaphors for a nation in purgatory, coming to terms with loss, absence and identities severed
This explicitly allegorical approach, as well as the director’s general stylistic choices, is in stark contrast to the Soviet-era filmmakers whose work was also showcased in a recent retrospective of Lithuanian films in Wrocław. Indeed, to watch notable Lithuanian films such as Vytautas Žalakevičius’s seminal Nobody Wanted to Die (1966), Algirdas Araminas’s A Short Confession (1971) or Almantas Grikevičius’s Sadūto Tūto (1975) is to encounter a national cinema openly confrontational about a history that was still unravelling, still contestable.
In these and other films of the period, the action is based in a recognisable reality, while the narrative is characterised by energetic flashbacks and forwards, freeze-frames and the sense that characters are actively engaging with and informed by their political and social environment. All of this is radically different from Bartas’s body of work, which repeatedly depicts characters as ciphers, symbols removed from the world that we, the audience, live in. Bartas’s characters do not function dramatically. They are metaphors for a nation in purgatory, coming to terms with loss, absence and identities severed.
Nevertheless, Bartas’s films chime so vividly with Nobody Wanted to Die and its ilk, whose themes anticipate the director’s own preoccupations. In this sense, while Bartas’s films can be said to look comparatively inward in the wake of a national independence actively won, those of Žalakevičius, Araminas and Grikevičius look outward in challenging the imposed falsehood of freedom under the Soviet system, following Nazi occupation during World War II. Put another way, in the Soviet era, filmmakers brushed, at their best, against a generally repressive system, whereas Bartas and contemporaries have to deal with the ramifications of that same fight having resulted in an apparent victory.
This is perhaps why, informed by deeper struggles against a falsely coded national identity — where the national was subsumed by the Soviet — the Soviet-era films tend to be active and curious in progressing onward with their narratives. In contrast, Bartas reduces things to what he feels is their essence: his and his characters’ struggles are internal. Exemplified by long takes and bouts of inertia, his films impress the sense of time — and of time passing — upon us.
Why shouldn’t such an exceptionally complex period as that which characterised and followed Lithuania’s proclamation of independence have such a lasting impact on its nation’s filmmakers?
In The Corridor, Bartas takes the abstractions set out in his debut feature even further. Named after the hallway in which various residents of an apartment block intermingle, the film inverts the relatively sprawling landscapes of Three Days and traps its ensemble of characters (Bartas himself among them) in a melting pot of domestic enervation. While extending the earlier work’s symbolism as well as its generally pessimistic tone (social freedom is a sham, it seems to suggest; no happiness can endure), The Corridor widens its scope and hints at a warmer sensibility, as in those party scenes where communal merriment prevails.
The documentary-like thrust of such scenes is intensified in Few of Us. Here, the director travels to Siberia, where the foreign setting seems to have compelled his eye to the contours of the landscape as well as to the craggily weathered faces of his non-professional cast of locals. Starring Yekaterina Golubeva, the director’s frequent muse, collaborator and one-time spouse who died aged 44 in 2011, the film is a dialogue-free contemplation of the ways in which an outward search for identity might lead a Lithuanian back into herself by way of encountering a kindred race — in this case, the Tofalars, a nomadic people who fell under Russian rule in the 17th century, before being collectivised and resettled under the Soviets. Questions of Lithuanian identity, the film reminds us in its own oblique way, must unfold in parallel to others.
It’s 15 years since Lithuania first proclaimed its independence from the Soviet Union, and 14 since its autonomy was formally recognised by other nations — firstly by Iceland, in February 1991, then by others following the August Coup later that year. That the same recurrent themes have remained at the forefront of Bartas’s work throughout this time invites two contradictory interpretations. On the one hand, there is a sense that little has changed in the decade and a half since the fall of communism. This is heightened by how singular Bartas’s films remain, by how stylistically akin Three Days’ dreary interiors and cheerless landscapes are to the dimly-lit and intensely claustrophobic close-ups in Peace to Us in Our Dreams.
On the other hand, why shouldn’t such an exceptionally complex period as that which characterised and followed Lithuania’s proclamation of independence have such a lasting impact on its nation’s filmmakers? Questions of identity are never easy, and Bartas has been nothing if not consistent in addressing, as Šukaitytė notes, “different post-communist groups (Russians, Tofalars, Lithuanians, Ukrainian, Tartars, and people in Kaliningrad Oblast) healing historical traumas and grappling with the issue of post-1989 identity, including the damage of an artificially created multi-cultural and multi-national belonging.”
Beneath apparent stasis, there are shifts. Things do develop. Peace to Us in Our Dreams — a moody, reflective drama in which a family, of sorts, contemplates existence by a woodland idyll—is a decidedly dialogue-driven affair in comparison to The House, a two-hour chamber piece in which the inhabitants of a decaying mansion fail to utter a single word to one another despite living in relative harmony (perhaps the director’s most fitting metaphor for national belonging in the aftermath of a failed Soviet identity).
To this extent, Bartas’s formal consistencies represent an unshakable viewpoint, and help perhaps to imbue stability onto an otherwise elusive reality and uncertain future. And through this unflinchingly steady lens, characters come together, and communicate at last.