Another dreary Holocaust drama with no regard for narrative trajectory and an overwhelming lack of verbal coherence, Ashes in the Snow challenges its audience to stay awake between atrocities to no avail. Instead of the usual persecution of the Jews at the hands of the Germans, this one concentrates on the horrors perpetrated against innocent Lithuanians by the Soviets. Filmmakers never seem to run out of footnotes to history during World War II. This one is better served in the pages of a novel. It doesn’t work on film.
In the year 1941, while Hitler’s Nazis were already busy annihilating six million Jews, Stalin’s secret police were just beginning to round up innocent Lithuanian social and political elites and deport them to work camps in Siberia. Lina, a 16-year-old girl played by 26-year-old British actress Bel Powley, is arrested along with her mother and little brother because her father had been accused of treason for his anti-Soviet political convictions. Leaving their homes and worldly possessions behind, they are stripped naked, herded at gunpoint into boxcars and shipped away on a cruel journey that takes six weeks—first to Altai, a farming region where they at least could plant potatoes and beets, but later, to the frozen wastes of Siberia’s Arctic Circle where, as Cole Porter later wrote, jokingly, “you could bet all right, that your Christmas would be white.”
ASHES IN THE SNOW ★
The women and children are forced to build shelters with their bare hands and survive on bread and water. The movie centers on Lina’s bravery as she forms a friendship with another prisoner and survives through her love of drawing and books, her mother’s nobility as she risks her life refusing to sleep with a lonely, troubled guard from the Ukraine, and everyone’s struggle with disease, starvation and the constant threat of being shot through the head at a moment’s notice. You get some of the expected shocks—a dead baby is torn from its mother’s arms and thrown from a moving train, an old woman is murdered for stealing vegetables, a guilt-ridden Soviet officer hangs himself after an attempted rape—but we’ve seen it all before, in better films than this.
Ashes in the Snow is badly directed by Marius Markevicius, from a weak, perfunctory script by Ben York Jones that doesn’t even begin to explain the divisiveness among political factions that made the lives of affluent citizens in Lithuania so toxic to Stalin. The politics are too complex to sort out and further complicated by an international cast trying vainly to speak English in cobbled accents thicker than mud. The Russians speak Russian. Everyone else speaks polyglot. For everyone involved, subtitles are a must. Voices are inaudible, drowned by a soundtrack of too much music. They mutter. They mumble. They whisper with inarticulate incoherence. Whole scenes go by without a single understandable word. As another rearview mirror to the most evil chapter in the history of mankind, Ashes in the Snow is supposed to be inspirational, but it’s just boring.