In ‘Ashes in the Snow,’ a Young Girl Uses Art to Retain Her Humanity

Determination to survive in the most unforgiving of environments can make for great compelling adventures. They survey the physical resources of the survivor as well as their spiritual and mental strengths. “Ashes in the Snow” is such a story. It tells the struggles of a young artist named Lina (Bel Powley) who awakens through death, starvation and physical suffering to find her inner strength and recapture her artistic self.

Until Hitler decided to attack the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa, Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany and used its protocols to occupy the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia) and attempt to conquer Finland. Thousands of resistance members and their families were either executed or sent to Siberia to work at hard labor. Lina, a Lithuanian teenage art student, dreams of acceptance into the exclusive Kaunas Art Institute. When the letter from the school arrives, she opts not to open it until her father is home and they can share the moment together.  But unknown to her, she is never to see him again.

Soviet troops break into the family’s small apartment in the dead of the night and force Lina, her mother Elena (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and brother Jonas (Tom Sweet) to join their neighbors on crowded trucks. They are taken to the train station and in scenes reminiscent of the Jewish Holocaust, are crammed freezing and hungry into cold exposed cattle cars. Their first destination is a wooded beet farm in Russia where they are put to work harvesting the hard frozen ground.

The brutal Soviet commander Komarov (Peter Franzén of History Channel’s “Vikings”) takes pleasure in playing both prisoners and soldiers off of each other. He specifically targets the young Ukrainian recruit, Nikolai Kretzsky (Martin Wallström). With little respect by his Russian compatriots, Kretzsky is goaded by Komarov towards increasingly dehumanizing choices. He executes an older woman on command. “The first time is always the hardest,’ Komarov tells him. He attempts to rape Lina’s mother after revealing the facts of her husband’s execution. Determined that Kretzsky needs more hardening, Komarov assigns him to command a party of imprisoned Lithuanians further deported to the frozen wasteland surrounding the Laptev Sea, high up in the Arctic Circle of Northern Russia. Knowing of Kretzsky’s attraction to Elena, Komarov gives her and her family tonKretzsky as his gift.

Powley’s performance of the young artist Lina gives her a wide-eyed observance of the world around her. Her mouth is always open in wonderment. Prior to their ordeal, her mother complained that she lived too much in her own fantasy world. Her father argued that art was perception, not what she saw but how she saw it. Elena then responded that life was not art. That life moves and changes and has its own reality.

A balance between the reality that Lina is now forced to live and her artistic perception of it is what she struggles to hold onto. When she is pulled into Komarov’s office and ordered to draw a portrait of him, she finds herself confronted with the choice of drawing a flattering portrait or something more expressive of how she really sees this brutal man. Her choice to be true to her perception increases the hardships that already plague her minimal existence.

Adapted from Ruta Sepetys’s novel “Between Shades of Gray,” the direction of Ben York Jones’ screenplay by Marius A. Markevicius is concise and focused, without fat or unnecessary flare. “Ashes in the Snow” is both a testament to the brutality of governments and their armies, and to the strength of truthful artistic expression as a threat to those governments. The movie itself goes from one degrading challenge to another with a devastating pace. But the effectiveness of the film lies primarily in Powley’s performance and the power in her eyes to encapsulate the world around her. Always open, they never close in despair. Her strength, hope, power and perception are all evident in the soul of Powley’s eyes.

Ashes in the Snow” opens Jan. 11 in select theaters.