The Frozen Ones

Dzintars Dreibergs' BLIZZARD OF SOULS (2019)

Blizzard of Souls begins and ends in the snow. The violent opening sequence, shrouded in darkness amid dense forrest terrain, throws the viewer immediately into a battle of unpredictable 360° chaos. Latvian riflemen endure sniper rounds, tracer fire, and mortars while advancing on an enemy German pillbox during WWI. Death comes from all angles. Explosions turn branch fragments into shrapnel. Bullets pierce bodies like wind passing through trees. Very few even have a chance to suffer.

The final sequence finds some of these same men trudging through an afterlife of impenetrable icy white out that nearly erases their faces from the history books. And it comes after many a scene where they’ve been asked to lay down their bodies and minds in order to serve an uncaring chain of command. Blizzard of Souls remembers their righteous sacrifice through symbolic imagery and prayers, but also critiques the political and social forces that pushed them into battle in the first place.

Dzintars Dreibergs’ harrowing combat opus is Latvia’s Academy Award submission for Best International Film award, and it fits the bill as an effective piece of historical propaganda about sacrifice and rebirth. The country’s homegrown soldiers, individually epitomized by new recruit Arturs (Oto Brantevics), are naive patriots who learn the horrific lessons of combat while being put through the meat grinder by Romanov and later Communist superiors.

Blizzard of Souls examines the mounting psychological toll on grunts whose purpose and sense of direction grows increasingly disoriented, instilling them as shell-shocked witnesses to the ebbs and flows of a horrific, gap-riddled history. Whatever heroics they perform in battle, whatever atrocities they survive or commit, simply delays the inevitable. Because war doesn’t end; it simply transforms. Uniforms change, military orders get tweaked, policies and ideologies inevitably shift. But corpses in the snowy mud are a constant.

This sense of collective trauma is expressed early in Blizzard of Souls. After a particularly terrible battle that brings them face-to-face with the Germans, Arturs and his platoon try to rest, spending the night in a cramped cabin. Arms, legs, and torsos are packed into every corner. Then the nightmares begin. As night passes, most of the men experience muscle tremors and night terrors, screaming in staggered unison like a group of colicky newborns. It’s a collective unconscious symphony of PTSD that I’ve never seen portrayed before in a film.

Thankfully, Dreibergs doesn’t conflate stoicism with strength. Almost every single character in Blizzard of Souls must find some way to express themselves in between the killing, be it through comedic banter or friendly camaraderie. When most every waking moment becomes filled with images of dead comrades and blown out landscapes, these small moments of respite matter a great deal.

Unlike most WWI films, which limit the Great War’s scope to trench warfare, Blizzard of Souls expands the iconography in a diverse set of skirmishes. These include unflinching gas attacks, assaults by strafing single engine airplanes, and devastating hand-to-hand bayonet fights. Images of the horrific aftermath are equally stunning. For instance, after one costly fight family members come to identify their fallen sons and brothers only to find dead bodies lying on top of each other, frozen solid like one big human iceberg.

Lenin’s rise during this timeframe would be a direct result of the masses becoming fed up with scenes such as this one. One can only bury so many friends, and be betrayed by so many superiors and politicians before the party line begins to break for good.

“War is not for boys,” a surgeon tells Arturs as he operates on the young man’s bullet riddled neck. The sentiment is, of course, patently false. Because history tells us that’s exactly who war is for, the young men conned or forced into thinking they’ll find glory through bullets and bloodshed, and the politicians and military leaders who know just how to manipulate them into pulling the trigger for love of country.

Blizzard of Souls grows increasingly meandering and incoherent, mirroring the turnover in power and scattered focus that dominates Latvia’s involvement in the war. By this point, Arturs and his fellow conscripts, now mostly young teenagers, are basically left to fend for themselves. They are leaderless, outnumbered and outgunned. All they have is their training, courage, and faith in each other.

According to the film’s final credits, Latvia lost nearly half of its population (1.3 million people) in WWI. Blizzard of Souls attempts to capture different ways in which that tragic magnitude can be measured through the eyes of one young man, who is neither especially memorable or forgettable. He is just another soldier asked to do the unthinkable for an unthinkable amount of time.

- Blizzard of Souls can be rented at virtual cinemas across the country here. Distributed by Film Movement.