“1944” is an Estonian film directed by Elmo Nuganen. It highlights Estonia’s participation in WWII. Some of its young men fought with the Germans and others were in the Red Army. Each considered the other group to be traitors. The movie is set in 1944 on the Tannenburg Line. The Soviets are pushing into Estonia on their drive to Berlin. Estonian units on opposite sides meet each other in combat in their own country. The movie was a huge success in Estonia.
The movie begins with a title card explaining that in 1940 the Soviet Union annexed Estonia and conscripted 55,000 Estonians. In 1941, Germany took the country during its invasion of the USSR. 72,000 Estonians joined the Wehrmacht, mostly the Waffen-SS. That’s all the background we get as the movie jumps to July 27, 1944. Estonians are holding a trench line for the Germans. The first explosion in the movie comes within the first minute. It’s going to be a combat movie. The narrator is Karl (Kaspar Velberg). He and his mates have to fend off a Soviet horde attack featuring T-34/85’s. They use their panzerfausts and MG42’s effectively in a nice scene with realistic deaths. We are then introduced to the squad. Karl and his comrades are in a bunker in the trenches. There are a variety of personalities, with the focus on Karl. He is haunted by the fate of his parents who were taken away by the Soviets. He and the others have reasons for fighting the Soviets. That doesn’t mean they are fans of Hitler. In a revealing scene, a government official comes to the front to pass out photos of Hitler. When he says “Heil, Hitler”, one of the men responds with “Why Hitler?” Later, they discuss the war and the possibility of facing countrymen on the battlefield. This happens half way through the movie and we get a twist that shifts the focus to an Estonian soldier named Juri (Kristjan Ukskula) who is in the Red Army.
I had not heard of this movie until I started looking for foreign combat movies to fill out my Non-English Combat Film Tournament. The title did not give me much hope for the film. It is a terrible title. My apprehension was wrong. This is an excellent war movie. The cast is strong and it is well-acted, especially by Velberg and Ukskula. Their characters, Karl and Juri, are very appealing. You really care about both, even though they are on opposite sides. The movie is effective in creating empathy for both sides. It does not take sides on which Estonians were the traitors to their country. The men are portrayed as young men caught in a situation they did not bargain for. Their masters may be Nazis and Communists, but they are simply Estonians. It’s their “allies” that are the villains with a stereotypical evil commissar being the only weak character.
“1944” feels authentic in its depiction of Estonian soldiers. They are cynical, reluctant warriors. No one tries to be a hero. They question orders. Karl and the others fighting for the losing Germans are fatalistic. When one asks his commanding officer how many Russians are coming, he responds: “A couple.” The dialogue is terse like that. The debates are brief, but you learn the reasons why they are fighting.
The film has some noteworthy combat. There is an impressive array of appropriate weapons. This enhances the reality of the battle scenes. The tactics make sense. There is a scene where Karl and some others crawl through a minefield to take out a bunker. They enter the Soviet trench and throw grenades before going around corners. Juri’s men use fire and maneuver to attack a farm. The coordination with the tanks is good. The scene is one of the best for buffs who like to see rampaging armor. Best of all, the deaths are random, unpredictable, and heart-tugging. One of them is one of the most shocking deaths I have seen in a war movie. The movie really packs an emotional punch. This is partly through an implausible romance that connects Karl and Juri. It’s pure cinema, but it adds a female character (Maiken Schmidt) to make the movie a more rounded cinematic draw and not just a high testosterone ammo-fest.
In the tournament, “1944” tied “Unknown Soldier” in its match. I advanced “Unknown Soldier” because it has a little more combat. However, it could be argued “1944” is the better movie. It is certainly the more unique. Where “Unknown Soldier” does an excellent job as a small unit combat film, it does not break new ground. “1944” covers two small units and they are on opposing sides. There are plenty of war movies that give both sides of a conflict, but “1944” spends the first half on one side and the second half on the other. The connection between the two halves is adept and the transition is awesome. You will not see it coming. This is a must-see movie!
GRADE = A