Ashes in the Snow (Amazon Prime) is a little movie, but “little” doesn’t mean small. Ashes focuses on the personal trials of an adolescent girl, Lina Vilkas (Bel Powley), amid the shattering events of World War II. The film opens in Kaunas, Lithuania, 1941, with Lina, a self-taught artist who dreams of art school but worries that she lacks the talent. Her father, Kostas (Sam Hazeldine), gently encourages Lina, even as her mother, Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli), objects that he may be building up Lina’s hopes for something she can never have. The situation is familiar in every sense of the word and, therefore, “little”.
Yet from a brief husband-and-wife conversation one gathers that certain dangers threaten the family’s happiness. Kostas has been forging documents for Lithuanians trying to escape the country. On the day Lina receives the awaited letter from the art academy, she postpones opening it until her father returns. But as evening wears on, he never does. Instead, Soviet soldiers arrive to herd her family and others first into trucks, and then into boxcars, to begin a six-week journey to Siberia as enemies of the state.
The cars are dark and suffocating, yet Lina busies herself looking out of the small window at each station to draw, as best she can, a map of the journey as an aid to possible escape.
The camp is as one might expect: rustic huts, hard labour (for life, barring confession of treason), scrounging for food, and NKVD (secret police) guards. Two of these emerge as key figures. Commander Komarov (Peter Franzén) proves a seasoned, heartless camp overseer, willing to blow the brains out of any refractory “enemy”. When he asks Lina to draw him, she quickly sketches a portrait of the real Komarov, a cruel monster depicted in every pencil stroke.
Nikolai Kretzsky (Martin Wallström) is an officer who must endure the gibes of his fellows for being Ukrainian. He is fundamentally decent, but slowly becomes indurated to the cruel ways of the NKVD. His sympathy for Lina’s family, however, leads Komarov to “promote” him to the thankless task of taking half the prisoners, Lina included, to a camp in the Arctic Circle, where he hardens even more and begins to drown himself in vodka. When Lina is deputised to convey grievances to him, he resists until she cries, “I see you,” and throws down one of her earlier sketches of him.
What happens next (or in between) is for viewers to discover. Although critical opinion has not been uniformly kind to Ashes in the Snow, it deserves better. It may not be a great movie, but it’s a very good one, and, watched from the comfort of a Western den, sobering.
Dr Carl C Curtis III is a professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia