Karolis Kaupinis • Director of Nova Lituania
“You recognise yourself better in the past than in the present”
by Laurence Boyce
- We caught up with Lithuanian director Karolis Kaupinis to delve deeper into his feature debut, Nova Lituania
After coming to prominence with a number of well-regarded shorts, including The Noisemaker, which premiered at Locarno in 2014, and Watchkeeping (2017), Lithuanian director Karolis Kaupinis makes his feature debut with Nova Lituania [+see also:
interview: Karolis Kaupinis
film profile], which has just had its world premiere in Karlovy Vary’s East of the West competition. The film is a study of the complex political situation in 1930s Lithuania, where a Lithuanian geography professor comes up with a plan to save his beleaguered country. But can he save his own family? Cineuropa caught up with Kaupinis to delve deeper into the film.
Cineuropa: Can you tell us a bit more about Kazys Pakstas – on whose work the film is based – and how his travails inspired you to make Nova Lituania?
Karolis Kaupinis: Pakstas is one of the founders of modern Lithuanian geographical science, a person who’s mostly known in the country for his idea of a “reserve Lithuania” – a piece of land that could become a way to ensure the continuity of Lithuanian statehood in case the real country were colonised. That was the fate he started seeing in the early 1930s, and no one truly believed it (or didn’t dare to believe it) until, in 1940, it was too late. The fact that his predictions and solution were so drastic turned him into a kind of an eccentric in the minds of Lithuanians. I perceive him as an idealist with the curse of Cassandra. I guess he knew he was one. It must have been very hard, and almost tragic. Tragically absurd.
There’s a sense of underlying satire in the film, as it reflects the state of modern politics.
That’s one of the reasons I decided to make a period film, after all. You recognise yourself better in the past than in the present. The past is a curved mirror of ourselves today. So often, we look at people in the past, and we laugh at how stupid, naïve and narrow-minded they were. But it’s us that we’re seeing there – maybe another jacket, another haircut or different vocabulary, but we’re the same people.
There’s also a sense of despair in terms of how people will default to dealing with their own personal problems, rather than facing a crisis that affects everyone.
I would say it’s the opposite. People have the intention of solving something to do with a huge entity such as “society”, but they’re unable to resolve something that’s personal. And usually, if they don’t find their personal solutions, their societal solutions don’t work either. The characters’ relation between the private and the communal interested me a lot in this film.
Tell us about your decision to film in black and white. There are times when it even brought to mind propaganda reels.
I knew from early on that I wanted to shoot the film in Kaunas, as the city has a particular vibe. It was the provisional Lithuanian capital between the two world wars. A particular sort of Lithuanian modernist architecture developed in Kaunas, and I wanted that aesthetic to have its own role in the cinematography. However, that modernist heritage is scarce and looks tired. We just didn’t have enough budget to prepare those exterior and interior sets so that we could shoot in colour. Black and white, late night, interiors, the stark contrast between what’s light and what’s dark… All of this was a helping hand in order for that heritage to look fresh. When this decision was made, we started developing it into a style.
Those moments that remind you of propaganda reels were usually scenes inspired by Vytautas Augustinas’ photos. He was a press photographer who worked on official occasions, like national holidays or important governmental events. He would photograph what was supposed to be photographed. But then the framing or the timing of the photo would betray the fact that he understood just how much farce there was behind the ceremony or how miserably human important officials are.
How did you cast Aleksas Kazanavicius as Feliksas, the character based on Pakstas?
I had worked with Kazanavičius on a scene that we shot during an “Ekran” workshop at the Wajda School in Warsaw. It was just an experiment, but he would prepare for the role really thoroughly, as if it were a real film. I appreciated that very much. Kazanavičius is an actor who dives deep into the analysis of the character he plays. He internalises everything over time. And then, when the real shooting comes, it seems effortless. But those are the fruits of the tree he’s been growing and watering with great care and resolution.
What would you like your next project to be?
It’s another period film. This time, the period is my childhood, in 1991. In January of that year, Moscow carried out an unsuccessful coup in the newly independent Lithuania. The most ridiculous outcome of that coup was a propaganda TV channel that no one watched and no one wanted to work at. Among the few who did work there, the most important person was a Lithuanian officer from the Soviet military intelligence agency. He was one of the few who would dare to appear in public, preaching about the collapsing Soviet regime using the most outdated slogans. The press would call him “Judah”. I want him to be the main character of the film.
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