Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Karolis Kaupini's Nova Lituania is exclusively showing November 9 - December 8, 2020 on MUBI in the Debuts series.
It starts as an idea, grows into a theory, and dies as a dream. It’s the late 1930s, and Lithuania is cornered by warring neighbors. Vilnius, the country’s capital, has long been gobbled up by Poland, and the growing tension between Hitler’s Reich and Stalin’s Russia will soon leave the tiny Baltic state in the middle of a crossfire. Pacing nervously in a semi-deserted lecture hall, geography professor Feliksas Gruodis points at a map of Lithuania, and one of Africa: “just like vast underpopulated areas of Africa once drew white colonists, so we are in the same position.” The solution? To build another state - better yet, to ship the existing one overseas, and found a colony where people will be able to begin anew, away from geopolitical tensions and threats of invasions. A back-up Lithuania.
Deranged as it all may sound, the plan was actually envisioned by real-life Lithuanian geographer and diplomat Kazys Pakstas (1893-1960), whose “Project Dausuva” vowed to shuttle the whole nation into a promised land purchased or leased off of other larger, warmer countries (scouted locations included Belize, Madagascar, Brazil and the Bahamas). Eighty years later, it serves as the cornerstone of Karolis Kaupinis’s assured feature debut, a dry, astute look at the clash between idealism and ideology, at once steeped in Lithuanian interwar history and eerily attuned to our moment.
It is a tale of people doing all they can to avoid admitting there is nothing more that can be done—a curious blend of fatalism and denial that also radiates through Kaupinis’s first two shorts. In The Noisemaker (2014), a provincial school must mask its shrinking student body ahead of a governmental inspection that may result in its closure. In Watchkeeping (2017), a father and son go to great lengths to make sure mother feels comfortable as she waits to die in a hospital bed. Packing all manners of jibes at a ruling class feeding off populism and paranoias, Nova Lituania unfurls as a satire, a wry portrait of a country stuck in a chronic impasse. But mocking the elite is only one side of Kaupinis’s project. The overarching question around which the film orbits is one of belonging and loss, and carries a far more tragic aftertaste: what happens when the place upon which your whole identity is rooted suddenly shatters?
Etched on the screen by cinematographer Simonas Glinskis with a fastidious black-and-white palette, a world of dim-lit, sepulchral government offices and waiting rooms, everything about Nova Lituania suggests a calcified void. Even the shot composition, engineered to leave characters marooned in hauntingly vast spaces, is of-a-piece with the film’s obsession with horror vacui, with the boxy 4:3 aspect ratio only amplifying the feeling of entrapment country and citizens grapple with. “Emptiness is our worst enemy,” professor Gruodis (Aleksas Kazanavicius) warns his students, and the mantra caroms from the lecture hall into his own apartment, a wunderkammer stuffed with tropical plants, souvenirs, and globetrotting relics.
Perhaps the hoarding is itself a defense mechanism against outside invaders but Gruodis’s strategies prove as fruitless at home as they do on the country’s map. Aside from his wife Veronika (Rasa Samuolyte), the forty-something shares a roof with his cousin’s teenage daughter (Roberta Sirgedaite), and eventually, his mother-in-law (Eglė Gabrėnaitė), who barges into the flat with no return ticket, hell-bent on splitting the couple and dragging Veronika away with her.
And so Nova Lituania seesaws between the domestic and the national, leaving Gruodis to grapple with two disintegrations—marriage and country—woven together in different battles for space. “Emptiness attracts fullness,” the professor muses halfway through, but if the axiom may hold true for Lithuania’s foreign policy, things at home suggest a different kind of dynamic, and Veronika’s encroaching farewell a void that won’t be just as easily filled.
None of this is to bill Nova Lituania as some kitchen-sink drama. Kaupinis, here in writer-director double duty, is far less interested in chronicling the marital collapse than he is in pursuing the full scope of Gruodis’s delusions. Relegated to the film’s margins, the couple’s decay is too vaguely and hastily sketched to stir much empathy. Paradoxically, in a film orphaned by inescapable loneliness, the few flickering glimpses of affection sparkle from the unlikely alliance tying Gruodis with the only man willing to listen to his theories: Prime Minister Jonas Servus (Vaidotas Martinaitis).
Ostensibly Gruodis’s tale, Nova Lituania grants Servus nearly as much screen time. And like the professor, Kaupinis crafts the PM as another subaltern. Riddled with heart problems, he’s forced to live in the shadow of a President for which he serves as speech-writer and confidante - only to be turned into a scapegoat for the country’s territorial losses. No wonder that a bond between the two men should form: calling it a friendship might be a stretch, but there is undeniable warmth in this entente of outcasts. Initially stunned by the sheer lunacy of Gruodis’s theses, Servus ends up embracing them, especially as the ploy feeds into a coup d’état that would put him at the country’s helm. And while specter of Lithuania’s collapse looms closer, the bond grows more intimate, and the chats more candid. In what’s possibly the film’s most heart-rending segment, Gruodis seizes a road trip as a means to make Servus’s belated dreams come true (an impromptu first-time trip to the seaside, a driving lesson along the shore). It’s a second chance at life, which is ultimately what the whole escape project doubles as.
Perhaps to describe the “back-up Lithuania” as a relocation plan is to miss out on the exact nature of Gruodis’s vision. In a late exchange with PM Servus, the professor tips his hand. This isn’t so much a transfer of people, but a far more radical idea: a chance to start again, from scratch. “Everything in this continent is determined by the sense of finitude,” Gruodis goes, eyes feverish with possibilities: “I am proposing an option that’s unpredictable, unpreventable.” The inferiority complex and identity crisis Kaupinis weaves in his film may be a distinctly Lithuanian story (and it bears remembering that the geographer’s fears did prove right: occupied by Nazi and Soviet forces during WWII, the country remained under USSR rule until 1990) but the desire to begin afresh is, as Gruodis himself admits, an essential part of our human condition, and the reason behind the universal scope and timely allure of Nova Lituania. Eighty years or so since Kazys Pakstas began searching for a new home, the space for utopias so vast has never been smaller.