Nova Lituania: The Possibility of a Dream

A review for the film Nova Lituania (2020)

Week of the Festival: Druskininkai, Lithuania

Dreamers change the world. In 1918, the Republic of Lithuania was established by a handful of individuals who sought to create that which to many seemed impossible. The circumstances are sometimes favourable, the dreamers are successful in answering the longing and expectation of the collective subconscious, and finally, after the change happens, we look back and say: this is the way it should have been, there is a causal link. And that is how stories are born.

The Lithuanian interwar period (1918–1939) was a time of spectacular happenings. Having lost their historical capital city of Vilnius, which was occupied by the Polish forces, Lithuanians began to create the modern capital of Kaunas, termed the “temporary” Lithuanian capital. So many things were built, established, and invented during the course of several decades that even today we still do not have knowledge of all of them. Ignored during the Soviet period, the history of Kaunas and the illustrious individuals who were active during its heyday are now being rehabilitated and integrated into the country’s common historical narrative.

Cinema, as we know, is one of the most effective and accessible means of creating a narrative. With artistic means at one’s disposal, any historical period can be revived in great detail, but bearing in mind that any of that is a form of interpretation: however accurately we depend on the findings of historians and archaeologists, a historical film will never turn into a documentary. Historical film directors speak of their relationship with the past and the present. By raising questions and seeking answers, artists present their own attitudes and visions.

Is it possible to create a film that takes place in the past, the characters of which are known historical figures, but to avoid interpreting history? Young emerging director Karolis Kaupinis attempts to do just that – he states to have sought an objective truth and a way to reject any subjective interpretation. He does not wish to state nor criticise anything. For the sake of the argument, let’s say that it is possible – an interesting experiment, even if just in theory. But why is that necessary in the first place?

In one of his interviews, K. Kaupinis asked to be called not a director, but a filmmaker. He began making films after graduating with a degree in political science and having spent some time working in news media – he also produces informational reports for television. One is left wondering whether he learned to be unbiased thanks to studying politics or working with news agencies; however, it is true that he does not always manage to remain neutral. In the Lithuanian public sphere the name of Karolis Kaupinis became known firstly within the  #metoo context: when his partner publicly came out with allegations of sexual abuse against the famous Lithuanian director Šarūnas Bartas, K. Kaupinis wrote an open letter to the abuser and the persons defending him. His letter was not only honest, but also inventive and marked by polite sarcasm.

K. Kaupinis is an excellent writer. He writes his own screenplays and states that it is his favourite part in filmmaking – one has absolute control over the whole process and does not need to worry about financing the project. K. Kaupinis has already shot two short movies, both of which were acknowledged and received awards and paved the way towards making a full-length and more ambitious film. But is cinema his true passion? It is no doubt that strong-willed individuals who have a clear vision of things are those who find their place in cinema. Yet it is interesting, and strange, to see that K. Kaupinis does not express any passion for cinema specifically.

Films of the highest quality are not born from a financial logic or a commercial success, but from risk and loss. The story of the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo teaches us that the only individual capable of dragging a steamer from one side of the river to the other across a mountain deep into the Amazon jungle was one who was bent on doing it regardless of funding. When financial difficulties arose and continuing would have caused even more of a risk, Werner Herzog wrote the following in his diary: “I said yes; otherwise I would be someone who had no dreams left, and without dreams I would not want to live”.

The protagonist chosen by K. Kaupinis for his film Nova Lituania – Feliksas Gruodis – is based on a real individual. Kazys Pakštas (1893–1960) was a man who had a dream, a dream worthy of a whole lifetime. He was mocked by his contemporaries as the “Lithuanian Cassandra”, the “ignored prophet”, and the “professor of fantasies” – while in his play Madagaskaras, Marius Ivaškevičius changes his name from Pakštas to Pokštas (meaning “Joke” in Lithuanian). This man was an excellent example of the neoromantic interwar period, when believing in one’s dreams was a brave and decent thing to do.

A considerable part of Lithuanian ambitions would crash in the hills of reality, sometimes in the figurative sense of the word. Lithuanians have several ambivalent visionary narratives. One of those is the flight across the Atlantic by two émigré pilots Steponas Darius and Stasys Girėnas, but on the trip home their plane crashed in Polish territory. Is it a story about loss? A dream can never lose. 

K. Pakštas’s idea was to create a “backup” Lithuania, to find another geographical place where Lithuanians may establish themselves as a nation – the idea was both brilliant and mad, but from the perspective of the interwar era, not much seems shocking at all.

Kazys Pakštas, a man of sharp intellect, who had received education in scientific institutions in both Russia and the USA and had received an invitation to teach geography at the Lithuanian University, travelled to the African continent, Brazil, Palestine, and the Soviet Union, excluding the obvious European destinations. Having travelled extensively across the African continent, the one place he did not visit was Madagascar, which was specifically chosen by playwright Marius Ivaškevičius.

Kazys Pakštas, a charming, gregarious man of patriotic attitude, was also a member of several societies. In 1938, he was considered as a candidate to run for President of the state, and it is strange how little we hear about this fact. At that time, Lithuania was ruled by a single individual, President Antanas Smetona, who had instituted a so-called “velvet dictatorship”: establishing himself as President after a state coup, Smetona did nothing to promise a democracy to his people, yet he guaranteed stability in the country and urged the nation to protect itself from outer dangers rather than think of parliamentary politics. It seemed like a sound strategy at the time, and it did come in handy at the brink of the Second World War; nevertheless, it did not save the nation.

As the world stood on the verge of a disaster, K. Pakštas offered to the state a theoretically generated idea and even had developed a practical model for relocating Lithuania to another side of the world. The film Nova Lituania does a bad job in portraying this idea, giving us the misleading impression that the scholar offered to relocate only the talented, intellectual, and healthy individuals, leaving the rest to their fate (a peculiar spin on eugenics). The actual K. Pakštas believed that it was possible to educate every Lithuanian (“raise the quality”), to cultivate a nation’s elite so that it could become the core substance from which the Lithuanian identity – understood in cultural, not national terms – could grow in any place and under any circumstances. Being not only a cosmopolitan, but also a realist, he saw the difficult political situation of his time and as a scholar sought to find alternative, even drastic ways for salvation. By the way, his exploratory expedition into Africa was funded by the state, so the interest in the idea of relocation was real.

In K. Kaupinis’s film Nova Lituania we see this fiery and vigorous historical figure shown as a crippled individual who had lost the battle before it even began, while actor Aleksas Kazanavičius, who portrays the prototypical Feliksas Gruodis, is more reminiscent of Soviet intelligentsia than an Indiana Jones-type figure, whom the original prototype would have resembled better. The hero of K. Kaupinis’s film is weak-willed in his personal life, too: he cannot stand up to his mother-in-law, he is unable to kick out his wife’s lover, and feels guilty for taking care of his niece. It is little wonder is that he’s also unable to promote his ideas to his geography students, small in number as they are. Powerlessness and submission seep from every angle. The scarcity of conflict in the dialogues is unpleasant, as is the rumination of food, the excess of which in the movie is, for lack of a better word, tasteless.

According to the word’s definition, a protagonist is the character that propels the narrative forward based on their decisions and the will to resist obstacles. In this film, however, the protagonist is his own enemy, and all of his losses result from his lack of will. According to K. Kaupinis, the protagonist, as well as the whole stateapparatus, are mere victims of their surroundings, walking off a cliff to meet their historical doom. In any case, this is an interpretation of historical facts. Lithuania still exists and is a sovereign state, saved, it could be argued, particularly by the efforts of passionate dreamers. Thus, the chain of unfortunate events did not lead us to our doom. K. Pakštas devoted each of his last days spent in emigration fighting for Lithuania’s survival.

The director defends his position by saying that his narrative is based on newly discovered facts, which led him to an objective truth. Art works in a different way: artistic, not objective, truths are at work here. All that is written at once becomes fiction (Oscar Wilde), yet we can also say that only the written things exist (Fernando Pessoa). Whether on purpose or not, the young filmmaker, instead of producing an impossible dream, wrote on the impossibility of a dream. Perhaps it fits his own approach to cinema and interpreting history. To remain neutral, to not get involved, to run no risks and to provide no answers – seems fitting for a journalist, but I refuse to believe that this is also characteristic of the younger generation of filmmakers.

I got the chance to watch Werner Herzog’s masterpiece again after seeing Nova Lituania, and something caught my eye that I had not observed before: even though Fitzcarraldo drags the steamer across the mountain, he does not make enough money for the opera. What he does instead is sell the steamer and hire the opera troupe for a single performance. He buys a luxurious chair for the pig that enjoys the opera, and for himself – a pack of the best cigars. He does not feel like he has lost, and in truth, he has not.

The impossible dream is the victor because of the wonderful journey that took place to reach it, and the journey itself is a cause for celebration. I celebrate, too, together with the dreamers of cinema and with Kazys Pakštas in my thoughts, that such things are possible in our world.