Directed by: #DāvisSīmanis
1913. The fate of Europe is balanced on a knife-edge. It's a wobble away from the catastrophic violence that would mark the fate of the continent for the next fifty years. In Dāvis Sīmanis's latest film, glimpses of the future are everywhere, from the fighting between anarchist communists and fascists to characters who appear like ghostly apparitions of their historical counterparts.
Our protagonist (Petr Buchta) shifts his name as often as violence explodes and fizzles out. Sometimes going by Hans, sometimes his name is Peter. He is a doorman in Riga until an anarchist robbery causes the hotel to go up in smoke. Mistaken for one of them, he is forced to go on an expansive quest across Europe, from Switzerland to London. He meets Sigmund Freud in his "Lebensreform" community at Monte Verita. He begins a romantic entanglement with Mata Hari, all while getting slowly eaten up by extremist values that dictate his murderous actions.
Like Robert Egger's The Lighthouse, The Year Before the War borrows many filming techniques from silent cinema. In a scene where our protagonist ends up drunk, the other party-goers blur past him in a slightly faster, jauntier speed that's welcome in old silents. Crisp, beautiful cinematography haunts Hans as his father's funeral procession passes him by. Cloaked figures slip across white snow-covered hills, making for a dramatic image in black and white. At this moment before the chaos and death that would dominate the next four years, cinematographer Andrejs Rudzāts nods to famous European artworks. Hans's black coat standing out against a woodland backdrop is reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich's The Wanderer Above the Sea. Through the framing and cinematography alone, we are reminded what Europe stands to lose.
Death permeates each scene, every edit. Within the first minute, a Latvian ice farmer – convinced that the world will end – removes his hat and jumps into a freezing lake, never to be seen again. The idea that Hans might fall in love with a pretty girl whose braided hair smells of grass seems downright laughable. It is evident, like the aforementioned lighthouse keepers, that Hans has no choice but to go slightly insane and bloodthirsty.
Europe here isn't fiercely delineated from country to country. Borders don't rein culture in, and languages transcend geography. French can be heard cut with German and Russian. Hans speaks many languages as fluently as his mother tongue. While this film is set in 1913, there are bleak nods to the future. The flexible nature of Europe is going to be shattered by a single bullet in Sarajevo. Anti-Semitism is a normalised part of the European landscape. Only Hans stands up for a young Jewish woman forced to give up her seat to sit in the train's cattle truck. It is a bleak yet needed reminder of where the road eventually takes us.
Although The Year Before The War only covers a single 365-day snapshot, it is deeply embedded in the past and future of Europe's history. The viewer too slowly descends into madness as they realise, like Hans, that war, revolution and genocide are coming.