The Chronicles of Melanie
written by Sam Kolesnik
The Chronicles of Melanie (Melanijas hronika), directed by Viesturs Kairiss, depicts the deportation and imprisonment of the writer and journalist, Melānija Vanaga, as well as that of her son and husband in WWII-era Latvia. The film is adapted from the late Vanaga’s memoir, Veļupes krastā.
There is a confounding immediacy to the Soviet guards’ intrusion into the warm and peaceful Vanaga household in the film’s opening moments. Aleksandrs (Ivars Krasts) and his wife, Melanie (Sabine Timoteo) are quickly told they are under arrest. The lack of explanation with which the couple, along with their young son, Andrejs (Edvins Mekss), are forced out of their home to be imprisoned is instrumental in enabling us to join Melanie in her long and painful journey to Siberia.
Melanie and Andrejs are separated from Aleksandrs and forced into a cattle car together with many other prisoners, all of whom are women and children. Provisions are scarce and the conditions are inhumane. The despair is acute and, from this moment on, relentless, as director Viesturs Kairiss not once shies away from scenes of unutterable suffering.
The Chronicles of Melanie is an outstanding film in all regards, but one aspect that stands out is the masterful black-and-white cinematography by award-winning cinematographer, Gints Berzins. The shots are searing, often bleak and piercing when depicting human trauma, and at the same time beautiful and breathtaking when focused on nature or quiet moments with Melanie.
The film’s first half deals strongly with the theme of maternal love and sacrifice. Melanie is sharply focused on Andrejs’ survival. One heartbreaking moment shows Melanija on the brink of death offering her only piece of bread to her son in a quaking, outstretched hand. Sabine Timoteo, who executes an indescribably heart-wrenching performance throughout the entire film, particularly nails moments like these where so much emotion is conveyed via silent expression and gesture.
In the second half, the film offers a nuanced look at how Melanie, in the face of severely inhumane conditions, manages to hold onto the most elevated aspects of humankind, namely compassion and empathy. Whether it’s a stray cat or a fellow prisoner, Melanie offers selfless nurturing. In an act of sacrifice that’s especially notable in an environment where proper shoes are a matter of life and death, Melanie even gives up her boots in an effort to help a loved one. The threat of physical death is always imminent, and yet Melanie, with a sense of inspiring dignity, proves unbreakable.
The Chronicles of Melanie is a devastating film which so aptly portrays human suffering and cruelty that I had to take breaks while watching it. It was a smart, if challenging, decision on the part of director Viesturs Kairiss to unflinchingly maintain the film’s intensely bleak tone. That said, Melanie’s selfless love for her son and husband is a bright ray of humanity against the degrading backdrop of the prisoners’ conditions. The Chronicles of Melanie is a must-watch for countless reasons, not least among them the story’s important historical significance, as well as Sabine Timoteo’s unforgettable and evocative performance as Melanie.