During WWII, Estonian citizens find themselves in a deadly quandary. Their small country has first been annexed by Russia, then invaded and seized by the German Nazi forces. Consequently, the young Estonian men were conscripted into the German army, the Waffen-SS to be specific, and they find themselves fighting for the country that has invaded, crushed, and destroyed their homeland. But then, as the war rages on, the Russian Red Army returns, seeking to drive the Nazis out of the country they still consider to be theirs, and along the way, they'll be pressing Estonian men into service of the Red Army. What this means is that men on both the Russian and German sides could literally be fighting their friends, neighbors, and even brothers, all in a war they want no part of and for countries to which they feel no loyalty.
Director Elmo Nüganen chooses to follow two different people throughout the timeline, one from the German army and one from the Red Army, although both are citizens of Estonia. Karl Tammik (Kasper Velberg) is in the Estonian Division of the Waffen-SS and is a young man with a good heart who finds himself moving up to the ranks of Commander, after seeing a fellow member of his team badly injured in the trenches and pausing to send the medic to help, while on his way to resupply his own Commander with ammo. Tough decisions must be made on the fly during battle and Karl has to learn that the hard way, as do many of his cohorts. The viewer will get to see the more seasoned veterans of the war in the unit, and some really green arrivals as well, and watch as they become more war-hardened, while others are quickly killed.
Following a brutal skirmish with the Estonian Rifle Corp of the Red Army, the viewpoint switches to one Juri Jogi (Kristjan Üksküla), who finds a letter tucked away in the pocket of one of those killed in the battle and since he was already headed to the town marked on the letter, he decides to deliver it personally, on behalf of his countryman, even though they fought on opposite sides. Clearly, Juri is a compassionate man, as he also insists that his unit bury the fallen German Estonian fighters, alongside their own dead. But his kindness could cause him problems, especially since a high ranking Red Army officer insists that he keep an eye on his own Commander and will give him orders that will ultimately test his mettle as a human being.
There are many battle scenes in 1944 and they are well done, but there are also many scenes of introspection and ones of the soldiers simply being people caught up in a horrible situation. Whether they are telling stories of lost family members or feeling guilt over past perceived misdeeds, what 1944 does best is to show that, underneath the uniforms, whether they be Nazi or Red Army, these were just people; Estonian people who wanted no part in all of this horror and who simply longed to go home, hoping against hope that their homes still stand after the unforgiving crush of war.
While there is an English dubbed version and I started watching with that, after several minutes I switched to Estonian with English subtitles, as I wanted to experience the film with the actual voices and inflections of the actors as they portrayed the characters. I highly recommend doing this, since it loses a lot of the emotion and punch in the dubbing.
There is only one special feature and it lasts no more than a few minutes, but it is powerful. It is called Le Deux Vies De Nate Hill (The Two Lives of Nate Hill) and it is an animated film that shows how slight changes can completely affect how a person grows and changes, from the fertilization of the egg until death. This is not a cartoon for children at all and is gruesome at times, but I found it a fascinating peek into what could become of someone, as different things affect them in life. It felt very much like something one would see at a film festival, but it was chilling and interesting.
If you have no interest in WWII, 1944 probably won't do much to change that, but if you do find the subject matter fascinating, then I recommend the film, because it certainly gave me more insight into what Estonia went through and it was a heartfelt portrayal of soldiers as people, just trying to make it through.