Film Review – The Rifleman (2019)

Dzintars Dreibergs harrowing and eye-opening Latvian World War I film The Rifleman shows the heartbreak and unrelenting devastation of WWI through the lens of a country not spoken about during the war.

17-year-old Arthurs Vanags (Otto Brantevics) joins the Latvian rifleman regiment with his father (Martin Vilsons) and brother Edgars (Taimond Celms) after his mother is shot by Germans. They train and go to war together in the same regiment as they fight the Germans, switch sides to help the Bolsheviks fight for independence for Russia against the Tsar to Latvia’s own war for independence.

When the matriarch of the family is accidentally gunned down at the beginning of the film we are quickly taken to the sons and husband of the family packing up and evacuating their home to escape death from the incoming German army. There is no pause for reflection on the loss which seems odd as for two of the family this is their reason for fighting in the war. This is perhaps on purpose, not to allow Arthurs and the audience settle into what is going on, but a moment or two on this devastating moment would not have been remiss.

This soon changes when the war truly begins. A haunting sequence after Arthurs first battle when he awakens from a nightmare to find that almost every one of his comrades is also having nightmares as they try and find rest piled upon one another in a small room. From this point on the film becomes a harrowing experience for Arthur. Traumatised by his first kill and forced to continue on by his father.

The focus to show how much the conflict is distressing these soldiers allows the audience for little rest, with the occasional stops at hospitals or towns to try and alleviate the stark depression that everyone in the film is having to go through. It is practically relentless with how it drags you down and that is a testament to Dreiberg, who has been supremely faithful to the book. The horrors of war are not lost here and we are left in no doubt that no matter the outcome for Arthurs, he and many others like him will never fully recover. This focus on the soldiers is the rule of thumb for a film about the Great War. Where some try to create a large scope for their picture, sometimes it is simply better to get a closer perspective for us to truly understand.

Our first look at how the conflict changes Arthur are simple, when he is training with his regiment he is jovial and relaxed, catching how he looks in a reflection before they go off to war. After his first battle, the trauma is evident. Constantly being shown the face of his victims, Arthurs change continues throughout the film as he becomes more and more frustrated with each loss of someone close to him. When we look at the first shot of him in the film to that last shot in the blizzard we can see the change he has gone through in the resulting years. He is no longer the boy who was cuddled up onto his mother, he is disillusioned with life and is nothing more than just a shell of a human. It is heartbreaking.

As devastating as the film is, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous and rivals many of the great work seen recently in similar films. A prime example of this is the long tracking shot following Arthurs as he watches as family members look at increasing piles of dead soldiers to see if one of them is a family member. It is truly haunting, and the stillness as we look at these poor frozen bodies and the families, broken and desperate trying to find their lost family members, great work from Valdis Celmins.

Sadly I was quite uneducated to the Latvian side of WWI and in truth WWII. So it was a surprise to find that the film went beyond WWI. It is imagined that many others in a similar position will be surprised to see what happened to these Latvian riflemen during this time and will hurriedly begin researching and learning more about these horrid years. This new view for some audiences shows the utter confusion of the war and preceding Civil War that was felt for Latvians.

The Rifleman is a brutal look at a people who were pushed in every direction to fight for their country and people. The perfect anti-coming of age story and without a doubt one of the best war films to come out this century.

★★★

Drama | Latvia, 2019 | 15 | Digital release now and DVD release 24th August| Parkland Entertainment | Dir. Dzintars Dreibergs | Oto Brantevics, Raimonds Celms, Martins Vilsons