Hannelore Elsner speaks some Latvian. The famous German actress picked up a couple phrases in the language for her role in Promising the Moon. In this 2010 family drama she portrays Marga Baumanis – a Baltic German living in Germany and confronting early-stage dementia and the mistakes of her past. She goes to Rīga together with her daughter Sophia, played by Juliane Köhler (Nowhere in Africa), to uncover dark secrets of her family in her mother’s homeland.
The events are taking place in 1991, a time of change. The political reality is shifting rapidly when Marga and Sophia arrive in Latvia. The national independence movement in the Baltics has put the Soviet Union at risk of a collapse. The whole world is on the edge of their seats watching the three Baltic countries’ weaponless fight against the Soviet regime. Director Hans Steinbichler – born 1969 in Switzerland and known for The Diary of Anne Frank – had a personal interest in reviving the turbulent times on the silver screen. As such, he was glad to make a movie after Robert and Josephin Thayenthal’s suspenseful story which received a nomination for the German Screenplay Award. The historical events were recreated at their actual locations in Old Rīga. However, unlike in winter 1991, the Latvian capital was blanketed by a meter-deep snow cover in 2010. The film crew had to shovel the snow without pause and melt the rest with fan heaters.
The German filmmakers were very lucky with their Latvian colleagues and extras. Many crew members had lived through the era and taken part in the events of January 1991. At the time, civilians set up barricades by the parliament, the radio house and other important buildings in Rīga to defend the independent government set up the previous year. People from across the country flowed to the capital and used vehicles, sandbags, logs and everything else they could procure to build barricades to bar the Soviet military from entering the old town. For more than two weeks (January 13 to January 27, 1991) people would stand guard at the barricades day and night, organizing food and medical care and huddling around bonfires singing songs.
It was very important for the Latvians that the events be depicted realistically. Many of the c. 400 extras brought original props and clothing to the film set. “Memories were stirred again during the filming, and some viewers had tears in their eyes,” says Ivo Ceplevičs of the Film Angels production company. There is a small pyramid-shaped monument by the parliament since 2007, honoring the locals’ courage and the five people who were killed during the barricades; the Barricades Museum was set up in the old town in 2001.
The film also relates events from Marga’s past, portrayed by Karoline Herfurth (Suck Me Shakespeer). She is a vivacious young woman living with her beloved husband Juris at the Jūrmala resort town in the 1930s. But her happiness is illusory, as Juris’ heart belongs to Ieva, a Latvian woman for whom he ultimately leaves his wife. Piece by piece, the viewer solves the puzzle of Marga’s terrible secret. In the disorder of the Second World War, she denounces her rival to the occupying Russians. Falsely accused Ieva is deported to Siberia, while a desperate Juris goes back to his wife together with his daughter Sophia who unexpectedly turns out to be Ieva’s child. Even though Marta is unable to develop maternal feelings towards the child which is not her own, she does all she can to erase any trace of Sophia’s biological mother.
Most of the acting cast are German, and there are a number of well-known faces among them. Nevertheless, two famous Latvian actresses play Marga’s fateful rival. Juta Vanaga portrays Ieva in her youth while Ieva’s older self is played by Dace Eversa. The film likewise features Latvian music. Aizkryta sauleite, a song by the Daugavpils folk band Svārta, cuts across the film like a crimson thread.
The political events of 30s, 40s and 90s’ Latvia create an excellent background for Marga and Sophia’s fates as well as the development of their difficult mother-daughter relationship. The film wants to tell a story about the “inability to forget and the power of forgiveness”. This is not alien to Latvian history. It was first screened in German cinemas in June 2011, twenty years after the Barricades events. Promising the Moon, which received the Bavarian Film Award, has been broadcast in Latvia by Latvian Television.
The German Traces series was first published as part of the Goethe Institut in Rīga project “German Footprints in Latvia” ("Vācu pēdas Latvijā" www.goethe.de/vacu-pedas). The linked mobile application "German Footprints in Latvia" can be downloaded at www.ej.uz/vp-iOS and www.ej.uz/vp-Android.