There are few movies made now set in the Cold War, and fewer still that seem to deal with a divided Berlin before the infamous Wall was erected in 1961. Jointly produced by Lithuanian, German, and Polish filmmakers, and filmed in Lithuania by director Kristijonas Vildžiūnas, 2010’s Back To Your Arms (also known as Back in Your Arms and originally titled Kai apkabinsiu tave in Lithuanian) is a look back at the period by a people who were often less-than-willing participants in the Soviet Bloc. The film is in Lithuanian, German, Russian, and English with English subtitles.
The film is about Ruta (Elžbieta Latenaite), a young Lithuanian girl living in America and visiting Berlin and trying to reunite with her father, Vladas (Andrius Bialobžeskis). She hasn’t seen him since 1944, when she and her mother fled Kaunas from the return of the Soviets and her father, quite literally, missed the bus because he was saying goodbye to an old friend. Ruta, now an American citizen, finds Berlin in 1961 a very unhappy and divided city. The Eastern and Western districts are heavily policed and even doing something as simple as trying to call her father in the Eastern district is impossible without physically going into the other zone. The naïve Ruta also learns that crossing between zones alone is incredibly dangerous in a city teeming with spies.
For a drama like this, atmosphere is extremely important, and the cinematography by Vladas Naudzius is filled with fantastic shots of moody urban landscapes and buildings in disrepair. It is not a happy place, and the people that populate it are unsure of who’s watching them and what the future holds. This same sense of foreboding is translated to the characters: The very first scene is of Ruta seeing two men drag another into a black sedan and drive off. Vladas is a “comrade” and constantly accompanied by one Soviet agent or another, but he is clearly broken down by the same system he is forced to inhabit.
The atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia is well played out too, with some incredibly well-done subtle acting by the various spies who populate the background in East Berlin. The body language, silent communication, and subtle hostility of the city are all reflected well by the shady characters along the fringes.
Unfortunately it's not all praise and adulation. The film’s pacing bogs down in a few places and several shots linger much longer than they really need to before cutting to the next scene. The film also uses stock footage of 1961 Berlin in several places. The footage itself is actually rather interesting, but when the film cuts to grainy black and white and then back to full color, there is a disconnect. There is also something of a disconnect with the characters. The situation they are in is sympathetic, largely because things like this did actually happen quite a lot at the time, but so much of the unpleasantness in the lives of the characters is implied rather than shown. For all of the tension it builds, little actually happens. It feels that they are more archetypes for victims of Soviet oppression than actual characters at times.
There is also one scene that is flat-out weird near the climax of the movie. Highly symbolic, it calls back to a story Ruta tells to another character. Clearly meant to be a symbolic moment, what it actually symbolizes is unclear.
There’s a lot to like and admire about Vildžiūnas’ film. Good performances and an intense, grim mood give the subject matter the gravitas it deserves, but it lacks the tightness and polish of a truly great drama.
Back To Your Arms/Kai apkabinsiu tave is currently featured at the Cleveland International Film Festival and will be showing again on Sunday, April 1st at 7:25 PM. A very interesting film; it and the time period it examines are both worth scrutiny.