‘Dawn’ (‘Ausma’): Film Review

This nostalgic monochrome drama about life on a Latvian collective farm borrows from a shelved film project by legendary director Sergei Eisenstein.

Both a loving homage and a knowing critique of classic Eastern Bloc cinema, Dawn is a beautifully composed black-and-white tragicomedy from the Latvian writer-director Laila Pakalnina. Sharing basic source material with an unfinished project by fabled avant-garde Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, this Latvian-Estonian-Polish co-production world premiered in competition at Black Nights film festival in Tallinn yesterday, which also happened to be Latvian Independence Day.

Dawn opens domestically next week. After that, more festivals and specialist distributors should show interest, taking into account the rewards and awards heaped on other recent monochrome retro-dramas such as Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winner Ida.

The Bottom Line

A visually ravishing love letter to vintage Soviet cinema.

The story borrows heavily from the folklore surrounding Pavlik Morozov, a real teenager whose tragic death in 1932 was elevated into mythic martyrdom by Stalin’s propaganda machine. In the official version, Morozov was a member of the Young Pioneers, the Soviet version of the Boy Scouts, who was murdered by his own family after informing on his anti-Communist father to the authorities.

Though historians would later expose Morozov’s official biography as almost entirely fabricated, it inspired numerous literary and dramatic works during Soviet times, including Eisenstein’s unfinished feature Bezhin Meadows. But the film was suppressed for murky reasons, allegedly on orders from Stalin himself.

In Pakalnina’s reworked version, set in a deliberately vague era somewhere around the early 1960s, the hero is Janis (Antons Georgs Grauds), a cherubic Young Pioneer living on a collectivized farm commune called “Dawn” in Soviet-occupied Latvia. Indoctrinated to believe in the future utopia of unlimited plenty promised by Communism, Janis betrays his drunken, murderous father (Vilis Daudzis) and adopts the farm’s political boss Karlis (Wiktor Zborowski) as his new uncle. His actions eventually have tragic repercussions, but the dream of a classless paradise lives on. As Karlis says proudly: “we Bolsheviks never cry.”

Around this spare story, Pakalnina and Polish cinematographer Wojciech Staron weave a lush visual symphony packed with strikingly poetic images: flocks of uniformed children, crumbling industrial structures, an angel shuffling along the roof beam of a ransacked church, scythes tumbling into a wheat field in ghostly slow motion. Staron makes extensive use of elegantly extended tracking shots, poised overhead views and extreme close-ups of tiny animals, including snails and dragonflies. This combination of ravishing monochrome with painterly, stylized, dreamlike tableaux inevitably invites comparison with Russian masters like Andrei Tarkovsky and Alexsei German.

The beauty of Dawn lies in its richness, ambiguity and willfully elusive intentions. Pakalnina grew up under the Soviet system and studied film-making in Moscow, and here she reinvents the cinematic grammar of vintage Socialist Realism with more warm-hearted nostalgia than sour mockery. With its monstrous anti-Communist villains and morally opaque young hero, the dramatic set-up is certainly not some simplistic attack on Russia’s long occupation of the Baltic region, which is often vilified in contemporary Latvian culture, but something more subtle and ironic. In the credits, Pakalnina playfully cites both her own childhood memories and Vladimir Putin as inspiration.

Though visually exquisite, Dawn has its flaws. The diffuse and disjointed narrative, lack of character depth, sardonic tone and occasional lapses into broad knockabout humor will test the patience of some viewers. Those without a casual interest in Soviet Russian history and culture may also miss some of the texture, although background reading is certainly not essential. Pakalnina claims she intends the story to feel universal and timeless.

In any case, she has constructed an arrestingly beautiful and original work from the collective folklore of her nation’s troubled history. A sumptuous orchestral score by Vestards Simkus and the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra only adds to the film’s luxuriant sensory layers, by turns dark and discordant, joyful and triumphant.

Production companies: Hargla Company, Miracle Worker, Staron Film, Digitaalne Sputnik
Cast: Antons Georgs Grauds, Vilis Daudzis, Wiktor Zborowski
Director, screenwriter: Laila Pakalnina
Producers: Laila Pakalnina, Kaspar Kallas, Malgorzata Staron
Cinematographer: Wojciech Staron
Production designer: Jurgis Krasons
Editor: Kaspar Kallas
Music: Vestards Simkus
Sales company: Hargla Company, Riga
No rating, 90 minutes