Thursday 12 November 2020

The back-up plan: "Nova Lituania"

If you're anything like me, you won't have given a moment's thought to what life was like in Lithuania in the late 1930s. Luckily, Karolis Kaupinis's Nova Lituania is here to fill us in. This is an odd little film - shot in era-appropriate black-and-white, in the Academy ratio - about a literally outlandish plan to shore up the country's foundering national identity once and for all; Western viewers may be reminded in its early stages of certain Ealing comedies, but Kaupinis insists on presenting a quirk of history with the straightest of faces. We open in 1938, with the state in crisis: Nazi Germany is on the march, opening up the possibility of an invasion via neighbouring Poland, and stressed PM Jonas Servus (Vaidotas Martinaitis) is suffering funny turns that leave everybody feeling doubly insecure. Enter geography lecturer Feliksas Gruodis (Aleksas Kazanavicius), who strides into the corridors of power with an unusual proposal: a back-up Lithuania, located somewhere in Africa, to which assets and key individuals might be transferred or smuggled in the event of an enemy breach. One of the film's eccentricities is that Kaupinis withholds specific details of the plan, so the option of roadtesting it or enacting it as some jolly, Passport to Pimlico-like wheeze is never on the table. Instead, he shows us meetings and meetings about meetings, where men with furrowed brows are set to ponder whether to move forward with the Gruodis proposition: it's a narrative that gets stuck in committee, entirely limiting its impact. One consolation is that it's handsome viewing, taking care to pull its officials outdoors every now and again so as to show off the Lithuanian coast, and what the home of a Lithuanian university lecturer looked like back in 1938. (University lecturers of 2020 will be envious, I suspect.) And it's enlightening up to a point: I can now say I spent a full 95 minutes contemplating what Lithuania must have been like in the late 1930s. As drama, however, it's so insistently minor key as to seem almost wholly anecdotal. Have we in the West been spoiled by a century's worth of big-picture period pieces, or is it just the case that smaller countries are bound to produce smaller histories?

Nova Lituania is now streaming via MUBI UK. 

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