A small country sandwiched between the Baltic Sea and Belarus, Lithuania is not a regular backdrop for a political drama. Even less common is to see its fate drive the plot of a 95 minute black-and-white film, based on real-life events and set in 1938, at the dusk of its brief inter-war independence. At its heart lies the struggle of the geographer Feliksas Gruodis, who unlike the country’s erratic President, makes it his mission to provide a solution to the threat of imminent invasion. Few in positions of authority take his proposal seriously, until he meets the soon-to-be ex-Prime Minister, Jonas Servus, a recent victim of a political crisis and somewhat related heart attack (arguably both of the President’s making). Feliksas’ plan is as absurd as it is simple. The only chance of survival, he believes, is through the creation of a back-up state, a copy of the existing country in a new land, safe from the danger of a fascist or communist occupation — and where better than Madagascar. At first incredulous, Jonas believes in Feliksas’ plan as the Nazi and Soviet regimes creep closer to Lithuania’s borders.
It’s not a spoiler to say that the Baltic state never managed to evacuate to Madagascar before 1939. It met the same fate as many other smaller nations in central and eastern Europe at the time, and was to be carved up by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. After the war it was definitively swallowed by the USSR, of which it remained a part of until 1990. The predictability of this scenario and the context of the time, when major European powers still had colonies far from their own shores (Feliksas decides on Madagascar as it is relatively ‘empty’, presumably of Europeans rather than the people who already lived there), renders the plan radical rather than completely ludicrous. It also reflects the various proposals for a Jewish state that were being explored during the same time period, for which Madagascar was also deemed a suitable location. Though never mentioned, Jews made up nearly 10% of Lithuania’s population immediately prior to the war, nearly all of whom were murdered following the Nazi invasion in 1941. In the face of certain catastrophe, an island in the Indian Ocean is not an unbelievable chance at survival.
The film concentrates on a small cast of characters who live in comfort in Lithuania’s capital at the time, Kaunas. Today’s capital, Vilnius, had already found itself in Poland in the 1920s. The individuals experience varying levels of family stability, wealth, and career success, but unifying them is the fact that their prestige is tied to national institutions. It creates an unspoken tension — what will happen to their lives when the country (and therefore the army, government, university, or national bank) ceases to exist? The crisp camera shots evoke this anxiety by playing with light and darkness. The architecture and interiors mirror any other European city at the time, whether through the broad wooden benches of a lecture hall, clean tiles of a hospital corridor, or heavy curtains that frame an imposing ministerial office. Other than the occasional news report relaying the latest political crisis via the radio and distant jazz tune on a record-player, the soundtrack is restrained. The clink of metal soup spoons at a family meal, or the footsteps of Jonas as he paces the parquet floor of his darkened apartment while his children sleep soundly in the next room. This is part of what makes the world on screen immersive, knowing it exists on borrowed time — and that the characters know this as well as you.
Towards the end of the film, the two men drive to the coast. Feliksas’ gaze settles on the waves and he announces, “a year ago we would have been standing there. Even the sea takes 50 centimetres of our shore each year”. As nature eats away at the coastline, Klaipėda, the country’s only seaport, is given over to the Germans following an impossible ultimatum. Nowhere is safe from encroaching forces, whether the cliffs at the Baltic Sea or Felikas’ own apartment, which is almost comically occupied by the tense presence of his demanding mother-in-law. The last fifteen minutes of the film feature a single-take conversation from the back of a car as the vehicle carves its way through an unending pine forest. The same pines would later be the shelter of the partisans who resisted the Nazi and Soviet occupations. The framing of the forest through the rear window alludes to what will be the site of another kind of back-up Lithuania, bloody and tragic, and fought for from the shadows.