A booze smuggler’s metamorphosis into the Righteous Among Nations
A review of The Mover. A film written and directed by Dāvis Sīmanis. Released in Latvia, October 2018.
“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” No, I am not quoting from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List (1993), although it has popularised the saying. Actually this quote, taken from the Talmud, is the leitmotif of the recent Latvian film The Mover, directed by Dāvis Sīmanis. Though the quote is never mentioned in the movie, it stays in the back of your mind all the time. The Mover is a film based on the true story of Žanis Lipke and his family, who risked their lives to save more than 50 Jews in Latvia during the Second World War, and were later honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
River of destiny
The film opens on a dark stream of water – the Daugava River, our “river of destiny”. This scene sets the heavy mood, yet it is not only a poetic introduction: Lipke’s son Zigis is drowning. After pulling Zigis out of the water, Lipke and his children return home. The day is bright and colourful. This is the only actual colourful scene of the film, as the rest of it is tinged with a grey filter, at least emotionally. Horror, fear, helplessness and an unknown future sucked all the colour away from the lives of the Jews during the Second World War, and the film both literally and emotionally demonstrates this to the audience.
Žanis Lipke, played by Artūrs Skrastiņš, is not the typical good hero we are used to seeing on the big screen. Viewers learn at the beginning that in addition to his official job working in a German warehouses he smuggles alcohol. Quite ironically, the same places he uses to stash the booze turn out to be very handy for hiding Jews. Žanis does not play the hero from the beginning, though. When the Nazis first arrive in Riga and oblige the Jews to walk around with yellow stars, Žanis’s Jewish friend asks him to hide his daughter. He begs Žanis and offers all of his jewels, but Žanis rejects the proposal and asks him to leave. As the film progresses, Lipke’s conscience grows stronger than his fear, and denying help for his friend acts as a trigger for his change. Eventually he decides to save the Jews from Riga’s ghetto and shelter them on his own property, in an underground bunker under his shed.
Arke’s daughter is not the only person Žanis fails to hide. He cannot manage to hide his own daughter, a supporter of the Soviets. Žanis offers to hide her when the Nazis take over Riga, but she says, “No, I will run away with the Russians.” He does not insist on his offer. Žanis’s wife Johanna exploits this misstep, furious that he can hide his booze but not his own daughter. We cannot know if it is his conscience, his regret of failing to save his friend’s daughter, his adventurous spirit or his humanity, but for some reason Žanis slowly starts saving the Jews. At the beginning a sense of fear and conscience clash in his mind, but over the course of the film his courage and stubbornness grows more steadfast to the point he does not lose his audacity even when interrogated by the German military leaders. His audacity saves him several times, as when his car is stopped by the German soldiers and is asked, “What do you carry in your trunk?” to which he replies: “Only a few Russians!” In this way, he tactfully avoids having to endure an actual search of the car.
One wrinkle says everything
Although Žanis might be perceived as the main character, a no less important figure is his wife Johanna, played by Ilze Blauberga. She is a fragile yet strong woman who becomes a reliable source of support for him. Her strength and ideals are first revealed in the scene where a Jewish person wants to buy potatoes but the merchant refuses, shouting, “Go away! I don’t need any Jews here!” Johanna gives her groceries to the Jew. Later she becomes the main supporter of her husband’s mission; she secretly raised more chickens than allowed and killed them herself; she cooked for the hiding Jews and washes their clothes. The clothes-washing scene is especially impressive. It is winter and all of the clothes on the line are frozen, and she takes them off piece by piece. Johanna does not talk much throughout the film, but you can read the emotions in her face and eyes. Sometimes one wrinkle says everything.
The characters do not speak often, but the few words they use prove very powerful. Still, there is something even more powerful than those words: silence. The Mover is full of scenes where nothing really happens. Žanis stands and stares into the emptiness and Johanna rows the boat. But these silent and empty scenes are very intense, full of hidden thoughts, oppressed emotions and deep meanings. In many other pictures you see, empty scenes often slow or drag the film down. But this is not the case here: it gives movement to the story and increases the tension with double speed. Although the silent scenes might seem quite empty at first sight, they actually are full of detail: strong facial expressions, eyes focused in the distance, Germans talking in the background, metal work sounds from the port.
The score was composed by Edgars Rubenis and it perfectly elevates the tension. It is not music you will recognise as a soundtrack. You do not really hear it as music; instead it feels like the film is breathing with these sounds. It is a masterful combination of music, silence and everyday background sounds, such as water drops, clock-ticking and background conversations. It is a slow, horrific meditation of sound that reels viewers into the film.
The cinematography is especially strong. Each scene is a piece of art itself. Minimalism, intensity and talking “between the lines” are the main characteristics. However, a few scenes do not fit into the general cinematographic style, such as the bombarding and burning of Riga. Scenes like this suddenly seem very unnatural and computerised. Luckily, these moments are few and short-lived.
Sometimes the truth is unbelievable
There are many scenes which seem unbelievable. How could the Germans remain oblivious to the fact that Lipke’s backyard is full of clothes hanging and drying? Or how is it possible that the Germans fail to discover the bunker during their search of Lipke’s shed, even though they are only few centimetres away from it? If this was a fiction movie, I would say they needed to rework on the plot and make it more believable, but this is a real story. A real story that is more unbelievable than any scriptwriters could ever create in their imagination. After the Germans unsuccessfully search the property, Lipke lays beaten in the mud and says to Johanna: “We are lucky, damn!” Indeed, they are lucky.
According to various opinions, including my own, The Mover is one of the best Latvian movies in recent years. At the Lielais Kristaps Latvian National Film Festival, it received awards for best director (Dāvis Sīmanis), best actress in a supporting role (Ilze Blauberga), best cinematographer (Andrejs Rudzāts) and best production designer (Kristīne Jurjāne). This is an even more remarkable achievement considering that 2018 marked 100 years of Latvian independence, and many films were released so the competition was tough.
The film ends with a scene of the road – Žanis drives away, probably with some Jews hidden in the back of his car, as he continues his mission. Just as the river pulled you into the movie, the road leads you out. This is not a story only about a brave man and his family. This is a story about life choices – are you going to stay a smuggler for all your life, living an ordinary way, bending to one ruler or another one, or are you going to be a hero and try to make the world a little bit better? Are you going to follow your fear or your conscience? What is going to be your choice?
Although the story is heavy, it ends with optimism. As long as there are people who follow their conscience, we all have hope. And if you happen to be in Riga, it is worth paying a visit to the Žanis Lipke Memorial. It is located in exactly the same place as the bunker he used for hiding the Jews.
Solveiga Kaļva, originally from Riga, is a Master’s student of folkloristics and applied heritage studies at the University of Tartu in Estonia.