A timely reckoning with the horrific past of a Lithuanian cultural icon: “The Poet” at the Tbilisi International Film Festival5 min read
The Poet (2022), a Lithuanian film written and directed by Giedrius Tamoševičius and Vytautas V. Landsbergis, was screened at the Tbilisi International Film Festival as part of the European Film Forum, and has already garnered the award for best Baltic film at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. The film shows a real Faustian account of a famous children’s poet collaborating with the NKVD in the aftermath of WW2. The Poet is a much-needed reckoning with the less savoury side of Lithuania’s anti-communist guerrilla war, which lasted into the mid-1950s, but the story digs deeper. The film reflects on the choices (or lack thereof) that Lithuanians, and specifically artists, had to make under the Soviet occupation. It also prompts us to re-evaluate the legacy of Soviet art that is stained by the circumstances of its creation.
Kostas Kubilinskas’ children’s poetry continues to be a cultural mammoth to this day. I was born in an already independent Lithuania, but I learned his poems in primary school and could recognise almost all of them as they were awkwardly recited by schoolchildren in The Poet. Kubilinskas was a fervent, uncompromising artist who could not have imagined a life without writing poetry, and would have done anything to pursue his vocation. So far, so laudable. Only he did compromise himself, as so many artists did in order to be allowed to work. Yet, no one went as far as he did, betraying the Lithuanian independence fight on a scale not heard of at the time. Under the German occupation, he published satirical anti-bolshevik poems, which got him into trouble once the Red Army re-invaded, this time to stay. A conformist par excellence, he quickly joined the Communist Youth and got a job in a bolshevik newspaper (where, this time, he published Stalinist poems). This worked until the Soviets expelled him from the newspaper, his studies at Vilnius University and the Writers’ Union because of past publications.
Spoilers ahead, if historical fact can be called that. Kubilinskas moved to rural Lithuania to teach in a primary school in 1946 and, not long after, was approached by initially suspicious partisans. After long deliberation, they decided that the poet, after all, had a “national conscience” and recruited him as a liaison officer. Kubilinskas, in turn, made a deal with the NKVD that he could return to the university, publish his writings and receive monetary support if he were to become an informant. He succeeded in this morbid mission by personally executing the regional partisan leader Benediktas Labėnas-Kariūnas (a fellow poet) in his sleep and revealing the location of other partisans. He became personally responsible for 15 deaths.
The Poet thinly disguises this account by changing Kostas’ surname, but the story is readily recognisable to the Lithuanian public. For international audiences, the film could have been more generous by giving an in-depth context of the partisan movement — the uninitiated will have to look it up afterwards. The film functions more as a character piece than a particular biography, turning this story into a general depiction of the circumstances which Soviet artists had to navigate. Donatas Želvys plays the leading role in a muted and particularly enigmatic way — Kostas must always wear a poker face and keep everyone from seeing into his soul. For this reason, it is difficult for the viewers to position themselves in Kostas’ place and reflect on what they would do in his stead, his actions desperate but not inevitable; in this regard the film may fall short, but it compensates for it through its cinematic value.
The cinematography is immersive and memorable, its rich colour palette making rural life seem almost idyllic, a contrast to the constant threat of violence. The film could have used the opportunity to paint the countryside of Soviet Lithuania more vividly: there is a beautiful sequence of midsummer celebrations and a glance or two at the local marketplace, which seems enough to build the atmosphere, but just so. Nevertheless, The Poet shines most in its key location of the forest, which comes alive in all its lush light, texture, and sound. The partisans, also known as the forest brothers, had to hide in the woods for years, which may seem unbearable, but the film shows that the forest acted as a space of freedom, not exile. It seems appropriate that the villagers would withdraw into the forest to hold a midsummer’s feast away from the overbearing Soviet surveillance machine. In a way, the village appears to be the gloomy appendix of the forest, not vice versa.
The Poet relies on these contrasts to push the key dilemmas of the story — liberty vs. responsibility, success vs. conscience, art vs. propaganda. The contrast between the village and the lifestyle of the capital — filled with decadent partying of Communist Party insiders — makes a joke of the Soviet label of the partisans as bourgeois nationalists. Recitals of Kubilinskas’s children’s poetry is the most jarring contrast of all, as it well should be. It seems too cynical to be true that he wrote such naive poems, but he did — and I knew them by heart.
Significantly, The Poet shows that the constant threat of betrayal during the Soviet occupation came from fellow Lithuanians, not only Russian occupiers. They barely appear in the film and only give orders, not execute them. The film does not shy away from the understandably sensitive issue of local collaboration. This is where the film’s importance truly lies as it showcases the wide-spread paranoia that permeated the occupation period, the trauma of which, I think, still affects Lithuanian society.
I also wish there had been an epilogue clarifying Kubilinskas’ fate. He died in 1962, at the young age of 38. He drank himself to death, lauded but avoided by all. It seems that all the fame and fortune could not drown out the ghosts of his past. I am glad we now have a film that confronts them.
So, what do we do with the legacy of collaboration in Lithuania? Can we ever understand, or empathise, with the artists of the Soviet era who conformed to the brutal regime in order to make art, and is this art completely compromised? And what of Kubilinskas, whose collaboration went so much further than writing propaganda pieces? I’m not sure The Poet will make international audiences ask these complex questions, but despite its few shortcomings, it is a tense and artistically solid endeavour, attempting to untangle the legacy of the Soviet period.