Russian film shown in Lithuania is suspected of being propaganda. Not all agree

Screen shot form the Cold Tango film
Organizatorių nuotr.

Lithuania, 1940. A time when no one knew who was friend or foe; a time when even people close to each other were scared to trust each other. That’s how the distributors as of Friday are punting in Lithuanian cinemas “Cold Tango”, a film by Russian director Pavel Chukhray – making a point that it’s “in no way propaganda“. There is however much opinion to the contrary.

At least one cinema has refused to show the film and critics say that this melodrama is a covert attempt to distort painful events in Lithuanian history and give a version imposed by the Kremlin. “Come on the 23rd of June to see Russian director Pavel Chukhray’s brilliant film “Cold Tango”! Set in 1940 Lithuania against a daily life of cold, gloom and danger and where love and hope most unequivocal are born” – that’s how “Forum Cinemas” are inviting audiences to see the film.

For some time now on Facebook there have been trailers where you can win tickets to see the film for ‘sharing’ or ‘liking’ or for answering a simple question on the film which Forum Cinemas are presenting as being “Our story, drama, love and inner struggles – for those who are longing for a ‘reall thing'”. This when the film has as yet not been seen on the big screen.

The distributors see no problems

Last week when Lithuania marked the anniversary of the 1940 occupation, a reader asked in an anonymous letter received by DELFI if “Cold Tango” is a propaganda film. In Russia recently there’s been a trend of making cliché-ridden propaganda films buttressed by the Russian Ministry of Culture.

“Going by its description, the film is a love story that takes place in Lithuania in 1940. Themes of the Holocaust, war and fascist repression are very much in evidence in the film. As genre the film described as an historic war drama. I wouldn’t like to jump to any conclusions but it’s obvious that the film is set in a very complex period of Lithuania’s history and the opinions of Russian politicians and historians all too often spread objectionable things about the occupation of Lithuania” notes the reader and asks for clarity as to if the cinemas guarantee that there won’t be any overt or covert propaganda, distortion of Lithuania’s history and denigration of statehood, punishable by law in Lithuania.

Forum Cinemas marketing representative Dainius Beržinis told DELPHI that Garsų Pasaulis Įrašai, the film’s distributors, will “dispel doubts” and that “Cold Tango” has already been registered with the Lithuanian Cinema Council. Furthermore, according to Mr. Berzžnis, there’s something else that should’ve made an impression.

“The film was made in Lithuania, using our actors who we hope are patriots” states Mr. Beržinis. His words are echoed by representative Daiva Laskauskienė who also stated that the film is not propaganda.

“We confirm in no uncertain terms that the film is in no way propaganda, distortion of historical fact or denigration of statehood. The film script was not contrived but rather based on the book “Sell you Mother”. The film was viewed and certified by the Lithuanian Cinema Council”, confirmed Ms. Laskauskienė. She also confirmed that although the film is set against a backdrop of war there are no actual war scenes in it, just complicated human relationships, a story about intertwined broken lives – a sensitive and painful love story of two people. “As the film’s creators themselves stated in an interview, in the film the director is making no judgments, he’s simply looking at a deplorable period of history”, emphasised Ms. Laskauskienė.

One cinema refuses to show it

Raimundas Bilinskis, a representative of Multikino another cinema centre, has a different opinion on this film. “Multkino is a commercial movie theatre but we don’t seek profit indiscriminately and always vet the content of what we show. Understanding that the film’s content is already causing a wave of debate and could be unacceptable to some audiences, we have chosen to limit and not become a possible tool of spreading propaganda” says Mr. Bilinskas. Having seen “Cold Tango”, Multikino took the decision not to show it. So what is it about the film that is raising such passions?

DELPHI managed to view “Cold Tango” even before it got to the cinema screens. After seeing the film and in view of statements made by the distributors to the effect that Cold Tango is in no way propaganda, does not denigrate the state of Lithuania and does not distort historical facts, even more doubt was cast.

What does the love story hide?

The distributors say that Cold Tango is a story about “intertwined and broken lives”; it’s about a man and a woman, two completely different people who met each other already in childhood. It’s just a moment that separates love from hatred and happiness from tragedy. War binds their lives forever with an inextricable knot”. Filmed in Vilnius, Rumsiskes, at the sea and other locations in Lithuania, Russian actors play the lead roles with Lithuanian actors being the second-liners.

It was producer Stasys Baltakis who acknowledged suggesting Lithuania to Pavel Chukhray as the location for his film. He said that at first, there was no notion of the film causing a noise. The film is about the love story between Max, a Jew (played by Rinal Mukhametov) who lives in Lithuania and a Lithuanian girl Laima (played by Julia Peresild) which began already in 1941 when the Nazis occupied Lithuania. Max manages to escape from the claws of the Nazis and their Belarussian-Lithuanian collaborators. One of them cynically takes his mother’s gemstone, and refuses to Max and his sister to her.

Although Max’s family have been massacred, he returns to his parents’ house in which Lithuanians who’ve pillaged Jewish wealth are now living. One of them is Laima’s father (played by Andrius Bialobzeskis) who used to deliver coal to the Jews and who welcomes Max albeit unwillingly and hides him from the Nazis.

The friendship that forms between Max and Laima grows inevitably into a romance however the war wrecks everything; the young girl is raped by a Nazi soldier and Max is tormented by not knowing the fate of his mother. Finally 1944 arrives when the Soviet army “liberates” Lithuania and Max as an orphan is taken off deep into Russia. From there he returns as a grown up man. He does not give up and, according to the distributors, “does all he can just to return to his beloved and beautiful Laima”.

Yet on returning and finding Laima, Max is disappointed. It’s not just Laima who has changed and who out of despair has taken to drinking, it’s also his circumstances. Max hands himself over to the Soviet soldiers, for whom he at that time feels a thinly disguised contempt.

In truth, it’s difficult to say what the opinion would be of the average cinema viewer, especially one not familiar with the events. Otherwise, the film’s distributors as well as Mr. Chukhray himself – the son of famous Soviet film director and founder of Soviet propaganda films Grigori Chukhray – painstakingly and almost innocuously, by hiding behind a love story, are assuredly conveying the Kremlin’s nurtured interpretation of history. Mr. Chukhray has himself has categorically stated that he wants to avoid any politicizing and being part of a system which he says is always difficult to do – even if his film has been sponsored by the television channel Rossiya.

Moreover, Cold Tango is about the fundamental compromises that the heroes make. “We are endeavoring not to judge anyone but simply to understand people who had to make difficult decisions. Each one makes his compromises, each one in his own way understands the difference between good and bad while trying to remain human in a war” said Mr. Chukhray at a press conference, emphasizing that he does not like the fact that the film has been “tuned for the occasion” – its premier is on 22 June on the anniversary of what Russia calls the Great Fatherland War.

“When we were travelling around Lithuania, Mr. Chukhray was only then writing the script, basing it on Ephraim Sevela’s novel. I however haven’t seen the film, I just heard bad reports about its filming in which a Soviet movie style predominates. If this film is propaganda then that will not be good at all and if I see anything like that I will be extremely angry” said Stasys Baltakis.

A clever manipulation of figures

Cold Tango starts with three sentences that Kremlin ideology seems to question when it is mentioned that “in 1939 Stalin and Hitler concluded a secret agreement to divide Eastern Europe among themselves and one year later Soviet soldiers marched into Lithuania which was then incorporated into the USSR”. Nevertheless, the word “occupation” is assiduously avoided and in its place “soldiers marched in” and “the annexation of Lithuania” are used.

Incidentally, at the end of the film which has as it were a moral, there are three more sentences. They mention horrific numbers as if to shock the audience and which are cited in the following sequence: during the Nazi occupation 200 thousand Jews were wiped out, during the Soviet occupation 260 thousand Lithuanians were deported to Siberia and when the Baltic States were liberated more than 120 thousand Soviet soldiers were killed. According to historian Arvydas Anušauskas, the figures themselves are not accurate. The films creators do not, it seems, mention that 280 thousand people were deported and imprisoned and of them 60 to 70 thousand perished.

Furthermore, no mention is made of the 20 thousand resistance fighters and civilians killed although the “Forest Brothers” (called partisans) are often mentioned in the film. Moreover, what’s blatant is the manipulation of historical facts and the apparently logical sequence: the murder of the Jews during the Nazi occupation is used by the film’s creators as if to justify the deportations which took place not during the Soviet occupation but during an undefined “Soviet period”. “That is a comparison of the incomparable. In their way of thinking, if the Lithuanians killed the Jews, the Lithuanians were deported for it. And thousands of leaders were not properly honoured for it” says Arvydas Anušauskas. By the way, although the film takes place in Lithuania only, service for the “liberation” of all the Baltic States is remembered and the sacrifice of this action made by the Soviet Union was 120 thousand who perished in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Mr. Anušauskas calculates that in Lithuania alone 90 thousand were killed and so these the figures for all of the Baltic States must have been higher.

A lesson in the Kremlin’s versions

It’s not so much the figures themselves that are blatant as is the melodramatic story which is a mixture of shrouded historical narrative and jumbled allusions. There are in the film blatant gaps in logic. It seems that there’s four hours of material of which the audience gets to see only one and a half. The heroes of the film, Max and Laima, are linked not only by feelings of love but also by a thirst for revenge; the Lithuanian girl feels hatred toward the Russians who have deported many Lithuanians and the Jew wants revenge for his people who were murdered not only by the Nazis but also their Lithuanian collaborators. Further drama and suspicion are added when the hero played by Andrius Bialobzeskis– Laima’s father – features in a photograph next the bodies of murdered Jews.

The viewer easily gets the impression that it was the majority of Lithuanians who were the depraved collaborators with the Nazis and who killed Jews and pillaged their property while those who saved the Jews or hid them did so out of selfish motivation. Moreover, in the film Lithuanian partisans are portrayed as Nazi toadies who have retreated into the forests where they become criminals, bandits and murderers who for some reason shoot at Soviet soldiers. Characters representing Soviet security and secret agents are portrayed as being determined and unshakable and most importantly as positive heroes.

For example, a character called Taratuta, played by famous Russian actor Sergei Garmash, is portrayed as a kind-hearted Soviet soldier wounded in the war, who drinks a lot and recruits Max as an “operational member of staff” – a Soviet agent in Lithuania. And although Taratuta deletes no names from the deportation list, he eventually becomes to Laima, who is suspected of having links with the partisans, a “kind uncle”, an officer who was forced to “carry out orders” and fight the “forest brothers”.

Taratuta even takes on the role of the fatalistic hero and justifies his superiors who sacrifice “one hundred thousand Soviet soldiers in the forest for Kaliningrad”. These are the generals who rightfully give everything “by driving the soldiers on like cattle, meat”. “That’s because war is always bloody. You are wrong, Max. Oh my fatherland, my bitter friend”, is what Taratuta looking dreamily at the Baltic Sea explains to Max who disagrees – and this he does distorting historical fact because in the battle for Kaliningrad the Soviet army did not sustain losses of a minimum of “one hundred thousand”.

Quite the opposite. The Soviets lost several hundred thousand soldiers, while in the meantime hundreds of thousands of German soldiers and civilians perished and far more were raped or tortured. Finally in the film there is the hackneyed narrative that it was the “bourgeois nationalists and fascist lackeys” who were deported to Siberia. And although even Max does not agree with statements like these, explaining that it’s not bandits fighting Soviet rule but simple Lithuanians, who want to be free, he is silenced by the secret police agent Jonas (played by Dainius Kazlauskas) who makes his subordinate shudder when he says coldly “it’s not for you, Jew, to judge us”.

Their squabble is symbolically interrupted by the partisans shooting at the truck that Max and Joan are driving through the forest and which is carrying bodies of murdered partisans. Even more symbolic is finding out where the partisans are after Max and Jonas torture a farmer who has been hiding them. The farmer’s guilt is proven by the concealed bodies of secret agents and attempts of his wife to kill Max with an axe. At last, the conceited and sly Jonas takes over from Taratuta, interrogates Max and decides to deport Laima to Siberia. Max is allowed to say goodbye to her but immediately thereafter he is attacked by avenging partisans at the train station from where people are deported, stabbing the hated Jew to death. The “kind uncle” Taratuta takes it upon himself to look after their daughter.

Confusion as to what’s allowed and what’s not

DELFI decided to ask the Cinema Council of the Republic of Lithuania, which according to Garsų Pasaulio Įrašai representative Daiva Laskauskienė, confirmed that Cold Tango is being shown in Lithuanian cinemas. At the meeting with the representative of the Cinema Council, she seemed to emphasise that this institution in no way assesses foreign films shown in cinemas – this is the job of the Grading Commission.

In the meantime, the previous representative Jurgita Kažukauskaitė-Šarnickienė underlined to DELFI that all films shown in Lithuania have to have a grading for age restriction. “The Commission sets an age restriction based on specific criteria such as violence, strong language and sex. Permission for viewing a film is refused only when there is pornographic content. This is the mandate given by legislation. Our Commission does not decide whether or not content makes a film a propaganda film or not. That’s the decision of the film’s distributors” stressed Ms Kažukauskaitė-Šarnickienė.

She acknowledged seeing the film but as far as her personal opinion is concerned would not say if it is propaganda. Granted, she did stress that the Commission had its doubts and in fact elements of propaganda were seen. Still, the opinion of the Commission is that “Lithuania is a democratic country with a democratic society where each person can make up their own mind and adults cannot be banned from seeing the film.

What’s more, according to Ms. Kažukauskaitė-Šarnickienė, the “Garsų Pasaulio Įrašai” representative’s statement that “Cold Tango” is registered and permitted for showing is not entirely accurate. It seems the Grading Commission does not want to impose anything from a purely legal standpoint. In the meantime, even after having noted the propagandist narrative, the Commission can make an assessment based on criteria indicated in the law. When DELFI spoke again to Forum Cinemas representative Dainius Berzinis, he stressed that the company he represents does not have the right to represent the interests of the state. “We show what the distributors bring so it’s their responsibility to not show what would be untoward in Lithuania” he said. He acknowledged that he hadn’t seen Cold Tango and advised DELPHI to contact Gintaras Plytnikas who has seen Cold Tango and who is the head of the cinema repertoire. Mr. Plytnikas denied seeing Cold Tango however he confirmed that he had seen “at least one russkie making known his ideology and so immediately took measures for the film not to be shown”.

“At this point in time however our decision is to show the film because from the material presented it’s not just the killjoys who’ll find something. I can’t comment on that because I have not seen the film and so desist” said Mr. Plytnikas, heaving a deep sigh as if to add – If I feel that the film has bad intentions against the State of Lithuania, then I’ll personally do everything to stop it being shown”.

Distributors see the opposition’s conspiracy

Taking it further, DELFI once again contacted Garsų Pasaulio Įrašai representative Daiva Laškauskienė. She acknowledged she had confused the Cinema Council with the Indexation Commission however she disagreed outright that there could be a propaganda narrative in Cold Tango. We think that this film is realistic. We saw no propaganda in it. The fact that it is being maligned by some means nothing. If someone refuses to see the film it’s maybe because they’re scared because Russian films are scrutinized with a magnifying glass. Maybe they don’t want a noise?” she argued. In her opinion, whoever wrote to DELFI and openly asked if there’s a propaganda narrative could be someone from the opposition.

“There could be all sorts of nuances here. Have you seen the film? Did you see any propaganda? The film is very sensitive and neutral when it comes to historical events; it’s raised a nasty debate but we do not in actual fact agree that it is a propaganda film. Some people may be looking at it to critically. Let people can see it and judge it for themselves” she said.

The biggest problem isn’t the film

Script writer Jonas Banys on the other hand was one of the first to note that Cold Tango could be propaganda and disagrees with the opinion of the distributor. “In the first place one needs to understand that the film is nothing big or important. It’s interesting only because after far too long a gap there’s now a film about Lithuania’s history which has been financed by the Russian government”.

It financed it, ordered the music and films like this have matching guidelines when it comes to historical narrative. The guidelines of this film are very clear: all Lithuanians are Jew killers and bandit partisans. Lithuanians are portrayed as purveyors of Jewish property and Russian soldiers as liberators who sacrificed their lives” says Mr. Banys. He admits that he has not seen the film and is relying only on what people he knows have told him.

“That person was worried about the impact of this film. But the main question is not the assessment of the film but the fact that Russia is starting to work with Lithuanian history and finance films just about that” he stressed. In his opinion if there was no history in Cold Tango and all it did was blindly push some propaganda narrative, nobody would bother with it. “Imagine someone comes along with propaganda and says: ‘Dear viewers, I’ve brought you all propaganda. It’s been created for you to feel like shit and to convince you that your country is worth nothing”.

Can we indeed hope that they will or won’t do that? The Kremlin’s propaganda line is well camouflaged and they’re learning more. Did the creator specially make a propaganda film for Lithuania after receiving written instructions? Probably not. We have no moral right to accuse the director of being a soldier on the propaganda front. Yet that’s why nothing changes. It’s not the actual content of the film that is important or what the film is about. What’s important is that our history is being told from the Kremlin’s point of view. The storyline of the film just about denies the Soviet occupation because the position of the creator is very clear: the Soviet army liberated Lithuania. There’s nothing strange in their thinking that” argues Mr. Banys. In his opinion falsification of history like this means that a film like this can be considered a propaganda film.

Mr. Banys however was quick to stress that Lithuania is a democratic country. “I have heard demands to ban showing this film. That would be completely stupid. There is no censorship in Lithuania and there shouldn’t be. They can make films like that and nobody bans me from getting outraged. So the film is being showed in certain cinemas? That’s life and I find it surprising that some cinemas are refusing to show it” said Mr. Banys. He nevertheless sees another problem.

“What is it in our country that evaluates things like this and what does it do with them? The tragedy isn’t the fact that we import films that Russia makes about our history. The tragedy is that we avoid making films about our own history. And we avoid making films about history targeting a mass audience” he highlighted. To his way of thinking, Cold Tango is only the first swallow – the first sign that Russia is starting to invest in films about Lithuania’s history. In the meantime Lithuanian cinema and the financing mechanism is being created in a way where there are big obstacles to showing films like this.

“If historical films are shown, it’s not the mass audiences that are targeted. Films like that are evaluated by artists who say “let’s not confuse art with politics”. They do not have the power to ban films from Russia and that’s good because that’s not their task. The problem is that the Russians create what they want to and we do not have to respond. Far too little attention is given over to educating our society. It’s not that we can’t it’s that we won’t” said Mr. Banys.

“If an educated country which is hostile says that Lithuania is not a legitimate country and never was and shouldn’t be, then this is where the state starts forming our historical narrative according to what it thinks and for us that is a threat. When the president said that we are living under information war conditions, what’s happening? Nothing actually. Imagine what would happen if the Russian army invaded and seized a piece of Lithuania’s territory. What would we do about it? There’d be an attempt to drive out or destroy them. And now the enemy’s army has occupied our informational space. And what are we doing about it? Nothing. We argue that what we have here is propaganda aren’t we? If our history is under attack then let’s ask ourselves – what are we doing about it?

Banning something is never a way out because all it does is arouse curiosity. Let’s however not also be scared to talk because people will nevertheless find a way to see this film. We simply want people to know beforehand what they are watching, i.e. that it’s not a love story in the tragic context, with the Kremlin dictating everything on the way. We have to be aware that Russia’s historical doctrine is very clearly formulated and its stance is clear: Lithuania never existed – that’s what is stated in their school text books” said Mr. Banys as a reminder.

Mr. Banys believes that the funds allocated to historical films are ridiculously small – only the budget allocated to films for the centennial is smaller; neither are there any funds allocated to rejuvenating Lithuanian theatre. What’s more, some of the said films will probably not even get to be shown in 2018. “We’re making films for the centennial but when Lithuania celebrates there’ll be no films. That’s because there’s no will and initiative. What should they be about? Good question, especially when there’s an information war going on and one which we recognise. At this point in time we are not doing enough in terms of informational defence. Cinema and television are still capable of reaching our mass audience” said Mr. Banys adding that Cold Tango was created as a four-part mini-series, however from the start it was shown in cinemas because it’s an easier way to sell it.

In Lithuania it’s “art” they create not cinema

Mr. Banys also acknowledged that in Lithuania up to now a perception about the cinema in that it can still be art that apportioned to satisfying only the upper echelons of art. “All of the rules and regulations for making it possible to finance only festival cinema as if it’s high art target a niche and not a mass audience” said Mr. Banys criticizing the financing allocated to the Cinema Council and reminding us that previously in this council there were cinema, social and commercial broadcasting representatives who used to work with the audience.

All that’s left now are cinema artists, critics and producers who can had out money to the cinema. I know that when the head of the Cinema Centre was invited to a consultation on governmental level, as to how to fight this propaganda, his answer was this: “don’t confuse politics with art”. And strictly speaking he is right, because in the law it is not written that he should take part in the information fight” said Mr. Banys indicating the problem. He thinks that there is still a point of view that is cinema as art or as cinema or as brazen commercialization. When a film is made for a mass audience it mustn’t be simply be about a “second ending”, rather it should encourage the necessary values which won’t be compromised.

According to Mr. Banys when creating films for a mass audience one mustn’t forget the qualifcative criteria, however a non-existent spectator factor for the time being is directed at any initiatives to create big budget historical films. For example, at least several million euro would be needed to make an historical film about the middle ages. In the meantime director Raimundas Banionis’s stage film “Purple Mist”, a drama about a protagonist in post-war Lithuania which has a budget of almost 800 thousand euro. This year the government allocated 450 thousand euro from these funds.

“There must be accountable people who should answer the simple question as to whether or not it’s important to us. If the answer is yes, then clear criteria must be found – which narratives, which pages of history are the most important? These currently don’t exist and Russia has been doing the work instead of us. This is why we should start listening. Do we want our youth to see our history the way Russia shows it or the way we do? Let them label it as being our propaganda but that’s our business” said Mr. Banys reminding us that there were no problems about financing when the Latvians and Estonians made historical films.

About Vaidas Saldziunas 37 Articles
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