The Year Before the War IFFR Film Review

  1. The fate of Europe is balanced on a knife-edge War movie. 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 War movie 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.

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.