An absurdist musical from Soviet Latvia that could have become a counterculture milestone: “Maritime Climates” at the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film4 min read

 In Baltics, Review, Reviews

One of the truly special screenings during the goEast Festival of Central and Eastern European Film concerned a film that almost didn’t happen. It was a rare screening of Piejūras klimats (Maritime Climates), directed by Rolands Kalniņš, released in 1992 and digitally restored in 2019. It is a short Latvian film that consists of surviving fragments of an attempt in 1974 to shoot something unlike anything else in the cinematic history of the USSR. Maritime Climates is a youthful pop extravaganza that is also, somehow, a film about a gas company and a Brechtian satire on bureaucracy, sporting a hot-pink wig.

As Eastern European luck would have it, the fate of the whole production was decided by an absurd tiny detail — a broken nose (but more on that later). Maritime Climates is 34 minutes worth of miraculously saved footage, though don’t go looking for a coherent narrative or much sense to it: it’s the weirdness and the creativity of it all that makes an incredibly entertaining and enjoyable experience. The bright colours, musical numbers, actors talking to the camera about their characters’ typage, recitals of Shakespeare, awful hippie haircuts… You might forget that there was ever supposed to be a story — one about three mischievous lads working in a gas company and a sort of romance between one of them, Ārik (Ivars Kalniņš) and a new engineer, Daina (Regīna Razuma).

Ārik seems to be an aspiring Soviet Mick Jagger, and is quite a rascal. In a bizarre sequence at his boss’ office, he receives a reprimand on paper, bites his teeth into it, and shuffles his way out with some groovy dance moves. I wonder if the end result, had the film been completed, would have been any less peculiar; but what there is is hard not to love, especially when the gas company’s chief office is located in what seems to be a white vacuum, though clad with an opulent red carpet and gold decor. This particular bit of cheeky visual commentary on the Soviet state didn’t fly over my head, but there is plenty of fascinating dialogue jousting that did, an inside banter of ‘you had to live through it to get it.’ It’s all very pop art, while simultaneously very Soviet. No wonder the authorities freaked out when they saw what was happening, and scrapped the whole project.

Which needn’t have happened, either. Historian Toms Zariņš has said of the Latvian Soviet film censorship apparatus that once the script was approved by the relevant committee, the production could advance smoothly. This was the case even if, as it sometimes happened across the USSR, what actually ended up being made was quite different from what the filmmakers proposed to the bureaucrats to make. In those cases, dissident films would be ‘shelved,’ taken out of the cinemas and into the vaults. What happened to Maritime Climates, however, was different: the actor who played Ārik broke his nose, and had to be replaced. The production paused, and the ready footage was shown in Moscow, to confused dismay. The filmmakers were ordered to restart from scratch in an aesthetic more suitable to the tastes of the Soviet authorities. However, a few months later they gave up hope on the whole thing and shut down filming, destroying the new footage (the surviving footage is from the first shoot) and putting an end to what could have been a truly unique and, undoubtedly, widely influential Baltic production.

Maritime Climates is only one of quite a few films by Rolands Kalniņš that were shadowed by censorship. His efforts at continuing New Wave filmmaking of the Thaw-era in the Baltics were thwarted again and again, and we can consider ourselves lucky that some of these efforts survived, in whatever rudimentary form. Kalniņš’ Četri balti krekli (Four White Shirts) from 1967 is another example, a film banned until the perestroika and digitally restored in recent years — it was screened in Cannes in 2018, showcasing the world that an alternative legacy of Soviet filmmaking exists. It is a history of subversive and innovative efforts that did not always see the light of day, and when it did, it always did so only by a hair’s breadth.

Feature Image: Maritime Climates
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