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Reimagining futures past: on Nova Lituania

The film Nova Lituania, explores a geographer’s idea of a “reserve Lithuania” on the eve of the Second World War.

January 8, 2021 - Alexander Langstaff - Books and Reviews

Nova Lituania, directed by Karolis Kaupinis, M-Films 2019.

It is 1938 and distinguished Lithuanian geographer Kazys Pakštas predicts the end of the world. Hatching a plan to setup a “back-up Lithuania” abroad, he fails to convince anyone except the country’s solitary prime minister. In his beautiful debut feature film, Karolis Kaupinis recasts the familiar terrain of Europe’s demise with a bold adaptation of this true story. I talked with him about his mysterious film, Lithuania’s official submission for the 2021 Oscars.

Kaupinis first got interested in Pakštas after seeing a new play about his life, Madagascar, by Marius Ivaškevičius at Vilnius’ Small State Theatre. “It was a fantasy based on interwar figures that everyone knows. But nobody had used the material like that before.” Kaupinis saw the possibilities of telling Lithuanian history in a new way. The play “was kind of a postmodern interpretation where everything is allowed, and any mashup can be made from the facts. So, it caused a bit of a scandal in Lithuania because people are not used to historical material as a subject for art. A lot of films that appear are treated as historical films — not period films — if you understand the distinction.”

Pakštas had long been mocked as a kind of holy fool. One of Lithuania’s major postwar films Adam Wants to be a Man (Dir. Vytautas Zalakevicius, 1959/Adomas Nori Būti Žmogumi) parodied him as a bizarre castaway from another century. And in Madagascar, his name is literally altered to Pokštas or “Joke.” But when Kaupinis dug deeper into his life and writings, he found someone far more interesting. “This real person basically tries to save himself, his family by saving this bigger entity — the nation, the state.” Those parallels between domestic and national ties — upon emigrating to America, Pakštas’ wife left him and never talked to him again after Lithuania lost independence — emerge as the crux of the film.

“A country or state should endure longer than an individual,” Vilnius-native Czesław Miłosz wrote, but “one is constantly running across survivors of various Atlantises.” Pakštas’ outlandish scheme to relocate Lithuania to another continent evokes the convulsing borders and imaginary geographies of the 1920s and 1930s. Kaupinis noticed that Egyptian or Israeli audiences often connected with the film more than those in Europe. “If you think about the colonial narrative, in a way we are a postcolonial country too. And it’s easier to identify with another colony.” As for Europe, “there’s always this Eastern European desire to show we ‘are part of you,’ but much less of that desire the other way.” Though thinking of recent events in Minsk, he adds that the region isn’t exempt from this tendency in 2020 either. “How much desire is there in Eastern Europe to take Belarusians into our history? Because now we shift roles, and suddenly we are the ones who have everything, and there is someone who is struggling, but we make excuses.”

Nova Lituania brims with a sense of historical possibility that films about this period often don’t have. There is no recurring Schubert quintet refrain; no tragic inevitability of destruction. There is often a crackling radio on and lots of melancholy, to be sure. But the radio plays salsa alongside news broadcasts, and daily life goes on for Kaupinis’ characters. He credits some of this with the advice he received from the great Polish director Andrzej Wajda. “He read the script and said you must decide whether you’re doing a film before the apocalypse or after!” What was Wajda like? “It was the last year of his life, but he was very lively. He would come in the afternoon, read the script and in five minutes, immediately grasp what was not working.”

Developing good characters, Kaupinis believes, requires the skill of a professional historian. “The historian knows what happens, but must pretend he does not so that he won’t bias his work. I think it’s the same when you’re making a period piece. The characters can’t know what happened, just a feeling that something major is coming.” Kaupinis tells me he drew a lot upon his own feelings of uncertainty in the unpredictable 21st century too. “Sometimes you have a strong feeling that something is going to happen, and you’re right and it does. But then another day, this wave subsides, and you feel ‘I’m being too paranoid.’” He wanted to frame Pakštas as a modern-day Cassandra, knocking on the doors of government with a prophecy no one would —or could — believe.

Kaupinis has a new project and it’s also historical, but a dark chapter from his own childhood. In early 1991, Vilnius awoke to a Soviet military coup. It failed to capture anything except Lithuania’s national TV station. When the station’s 700 employees couldn’t go to work, they launched a hunger strike in a small cabin outside the building. It lasted nine months. “Mostly I want to show people who isolated themselves in a confined space for liberation. A bit of what we are going through now. I’ve been thinking about this story a long time, and this pandemic brought an answer…These were ordinary people, not big heroes. They just wanted to do something meaningful with their lives for once. Taking nothing and turning it into something. And what are they doing? Talking with each other; sharing bits of their lives. Dreams that never came true.”

Nova Lituania was screened in the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival’s 2019 East of the West competition and won best film at the 25th Athens Film Festival. It streams exclusively on MUBI.

Alexander Langstaff is a history PhD candidate and lecturer based in New York. He focuses on interwar Eastern Europe and is currently researching the intellectual origins of Cold War ‘containment’ policy and its legacies. He writes on history, culture and politics at places like Artforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Journal of the History of Ideas.

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