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Lithuania – a country, a film set, or both?

Lithuania – a country, a film set, or both?

In Lithuania, no one bats an eye if they see a 19th-century French officer with a latte in their hand. The country has recently turned into the region’s filmmaking hotspot, with award-winning directors and international production companies discovering Lithuania’s picturesque filming locations and experienced film industry professionals.

Film-friendly Lithuanian cities have become backdrops for stories set in Imperial Austria, post-war Tokyo, modern-day Sweden, and other time periods and locations. The versatility of Lithuania’s historical and natural sites as well as the strong local production teams continue to attract filmmakers, even during the pandemic.

Filming the world’s most popular shows

The Emmy award-winning HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019) told the story of the 1980s nuclear catastrophe to worldwide acclaim. And while the series was shot across some 40 different locations, Chernobyl’s creators found the sets for the series’ most gripping scenes in Lithuania.

Fabijoniškės, a residential neighbourhood of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, stood in for the industrial town of Pripyat that housed Chernobyl plant workers and their families. The district, with its concrete Soviet-era apartment buildings, was the backdrop for many of the outdoor scenes, including the intense evacuation sequence.

Meanwhile, the Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant, only an hour and a half’s drive away from Vilnius, filled in for the infamous Ukrainian counterpart. Decommissioned almost a decade ago, the Ignalina plant has a Chernobyl-type reactor and control rooms, which were used to shoot the enrapturing power plant scenes.

Chernobyl was one of the most successful shows of the year, winning 10 Emmy and 2 Golden Globe awards. Yet TV lovers can expect to see Lithuania in another hit series. Stranger Things (2016), one of the most popular Netflix originals with more than 40 million households tuning in to watch the latest instalment, has also found the perfect shooting location in Vilnius.

The city’s Tsarist-era Lukiškės Prison stood in for a Russian penitentiary, crucial for the upcoming season’s plot. Vilnius was one of the last pre-pandemic filming locations of this nostalgic nod to ’80s sci-fi and horror classics, which has earned 38 Emmy nominations, including three for Outstanding Drama.

Becoming Malmö, becoming Tokyo

An increasingly popular shooting destination among filmmakers globally, Lithuania’s diverse historical and natural backgrounds make the country a perfect location to depict any desired period on film. But while tourists mostly know Lithuania for its historical old towns, its suburbs might be as important when it comes to portraying specific eras.

For instance, Young Wallander (2020), a Netflix original series based on Henning Mankell’s best-selling detective novels, found its home in Šeškinė – a residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of Vilnius. The show’s creators picked Šeškinė for its diverse architectural structures – 1970s apartment blocks, red-brick buildings, and the unique aesthetic they brought to screen.

Yet contemporary Sweden is only one of the multiple settings that multifaceted Lithuanian cities can provide. Vilnius and Kaunas – Lithuania’s two biggest urban areas – have stood in for mid-century Japan for a multinational production Tokyo Trial (2016). The four-part historical drama depicts the International Military Tribunal of the Far East – a Japanese version of the Nuremberg Tribunal. In the Emmy-nominated miniseries, the M. K. Čiurlionis National Art Museum in Kaunas played the part of a Japanese War Tribunal, while several outdoor scenes were filmed in the picturesque Botanical Garden of Vilnius University.

Telling the stories of history’s most prominent women

Interestingly, Lithuania has often become the backdrop for cinematic retellings of the lives of Europe’s most prominent women. The reign of the formidable Russian empress, Catherine the Great, came to life in the eponymous HBO miniseries, shot in large part in Lithuania. With the titular character played by Dame Helen Mirren, Catherine the Great (2019) earned the Pažaislis Monastery in Kaunas Europe’s best filming location award in 2020. A true pearl of Baroque architecture, Pažaislis and other impressive historical sites in Lithuania stood in for 18th-century Saint Petersburg.

Vilnius Old Town has also recently been transformed into Imperial Austria for another royal story – the German TV series Sisi (2021). The costume drama, which follows the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, had the Lithuanian National Philharmonic Society building standing in for the exterior of Hofburg, the Habsburg royal residence in Vienna. Meanwhile, the Renaissance buildings of Vilnius University served as interior sets.

Lithuania has also been chosen to host the production of Lasse Hallström’s new project Hilma. The Swedish filmmaker, who has created such well-known films as The Cider House Rules (1999), and Chocolat (2000), is set to direct a film exploring the enigmatic life of Hilma af Klint.  The feminist pioneer, whose unconventional art and spirituality meant her 1,300 works remained largely unknown for decades, is now recognised as one of the Western world’s first abstract artists.

Expansion in the face of pandemic

With severe pandemic-related disruptions impacting screen productions globally, 2020 will enter the pages of history books as one of the most difficult years for the film industry. But it has been quite a successful year for Lithuania, who has already seen a bounce back to pre-pandemic levels of production.

According to the Lithuanian Film Centre, international film producers spent almost EUR 27 million in Lithuania in 2020, an impressive increase from EUR 15 million in 2019. The number of films funded almost doubled – in 2020, 58 new films received funding, including 37 local, 9 co-productions, and 12 foreign productions. In comparison, Croatia – famously the set for the world’s most-watched show Game Of Thrones – attracted 9 foreign productions in 2020, with international producers spending just below EUR 12 million.

“Year on year, Lithuania is consolidating its reputation as a country with a great appeal for international film production. Competition in the film industry in Europe is very high, and tax incentives are the first thing international companies inquire about before entering the market. Lithuania did its homework in 2014 by introducing a tax incentive scheme, which today allows foreign producers to save up to 30 percent of production costs when shooting here. But no less important is the quality of local production teams – Lithuania has a rich filmmaking history and the skills of our film professionals meet all global standards,” says Jūratė Pazikaitė, Head of Vilnius Film Office.

Lithuania has been the perfect partner for foreign filmmakers in creating world-class films and TV shows. As the film industry is getting back on track, Lithuania is ready to welcome many more successful productions that showcase the beauty of the country’s cities and the talent of local production teams.