Runtime: 104 Minutes
Director: Dzintars Deibergs
Writers: Boris Frumin, Aleksandrs Grins (novel)
Stars: Oto Brantevics, Raimonds Celms, Martins Vilsons
By Tom MooreWhere most films depict war as this blood spewing sprint across the battlefield, Dzintars Dreibergs takes a break from documentaries for his feature debut, “The Rifleman”, to showcase a much more frigid and crawling look at warfare. Based on the novel “Blizzard of Souls” by Aleksandrs Grins, the film follows Arturs (Oto Brantevics) – a young Latvian boy that joins the Imperial Russian Army after his mother is killed by German soldiers during WWI. Alongside his father (Martins Vilsons), a high ranking officer, his brother (Raimonds Celms), and hundreds of soldiers, Arturs witnesses the horrors and griminess of warfare as they continuous fight the Germans – both day and night as well as through a harsh winter. Drudging through every slow-burning battle in the trenches and trying to make his father and brother proud, Arturs attempts to leave the battlefield as intact as possible and not be disillusioned as the ranks in the Russian Army start to crumble. “The Rifleman” is a “life as a soldier” epic that’s unique in how it follows Arturs experience as a young farm boy surviving a horrific world conflict. Even before he makes it to the battlefield, Dreibergs creates an intriguing look at how the invasion of the Germans greatly affected many Latvian families like Arturs. A lot of their furniture and supplies had to be burned so that the Germans couldn’t use them for supplies, their valuables had to be buried so that they might be able to find them again, and even they were even forced to kill their cattle because they couldn’t bring them along. It’s a harsh reality of war that’s rarely touched on and makes us immediately empathetic of Arturs as his life become enveloped by war. It’s crazy how so much is lost for Arturs even before his feet touch the battlefield and with the added bonus of his mother being unceremoniously slain by German soldiers, it’s no wonder why he’s so gung-ho about fighting them. However, Arturs doesn’t just come off like a ruthless, blood-thirsty soldier as he’s portrayed by Brantevics, who makes his acting debut here, as someone desperate to earn the respect of those around him, but not necessarily at the price of a human life. Most of the time, Arturs looks lost on the battlefield and when he’s presented with killing enemy soldiers, or even traitorous ones, there’s noticeable hesitation he has that many of comrades want him to shed.
“It’s hard to remember if I’ve ever seen a war film take place in the winter, but now I’ll never forget it.”There’s a very tough scene later on in the film where Artur and his comrades must deal with deserting soldiers that leaves you on the edge of your seat and has him make a choice that symbolizes an awakening for him. It’s a great set up for the film’s triumphant finale for him where he’s able to step up in a role that’s inspiring for younger soldiers and it’s an excellent end to his arc. It’s genuinely strong performance that shows Brantevics’ star potential and viewers a deeply human character that they can relate to as he treks through the incredibly daunting atmosphere that Dreibergs creates. One of the most compelling elements of “The Rifleman” is how it chooses to establish the horrors of war through the conditions and small, but important qualities of a soldier in the trench, rather than bloodshed and brutality. The way the film established a good pair of boots as a top commodity is very effective as soldiers will even take ones off the dead just so their feet remain in top condition and there was even a moment where someone used a rifle round as a pen that deeply fascinated me. They’re truly doing a lot with very little and it’s what makes Dreibergs’ depiction of war so intriguing. It’s what also makes the crawling warfare so captivating as it never feels like any action is choreographed so bullets can come at any time creating a sense of surprise when we see who falls. Not even Arturs is all that safe and the film does an excellent job creating this deep emotion around death and loss.
“With his first venture into feature filmmaking, Dreibergs brings Grins story to life with a unique showing of warfare that’s bone-chilling.”Dreibergs also does an excellent job creating a sense of fear within the environment as he makes fog-filled land and a frigid winter battlefield absolute hell. After watching this, if I ever have to go into battle, I pray it’s somewhere warm as seeing what a winter war looks like is a total nightmare. These scenes are deathly freezing, mostly thanks to the great cinematography from Valdis Celmins, and add another layer of horror to the atrocities we’re seeing on-screen. Frankly, it’s hard to remember if I’ve ever seen a war film take place in the winter, but now I’ll never forget it; as watching soldiers crawl through the snow, be frozen corpses on the battlefield, and shiver with every step is truly terrifying. It’s also worth mentioning that Dreibergs informs us, at the end, that the film holds some real-life value to it and that Grins’ novel was originally banned for quite some time. It’s something that gives “The Rifleman” more importance, especially since you’re watching a story that’s been hidden for so long unfold, and historical context that’s very touching and made watching it even more worthwhile. With his first venture into feature filmmaking, Dreibergs brings Grins story to life with a unique showing of warfare that’s bone-chilling, features great world-building, and tells an incredibly gut-wrenching story of a young boy’s life being upended by war.
“The Rifleman” is now available on Digital and on DVD from 24th August. Photos copyright Parkland Entertainment.