RĪGA IS YOUR OYSTER. How to become a different city in movies.

In a week Rīga International Film Festival will begin its annual 2-week marathon. Seems only fair to celebrate such event by telling a story of Rīga being the best 60-year-old real-time Hollywood there is since Riga Film studio was launched. Some say it's because of deeply rooted professionalism, when there were 10 – 15 motion pictures (half of them feature length) imagined, visualized, produced, filmed and published per year during the 70’s and 80’s. Some say it’s the perfect combination of affordable costs and perfect logistics today.
But some believe it’s because Rīga is like cities within a city. Here is our proof it has been able to become like 5 other places on Earth in movies to celebrate the coming of Rīga International Film Festival 2018.

riga, soviet, overlapping photo, classicism, architecture, monochrome, capital r, 2018


There are 2 significant scores filmed in Rīga that replicate the capital of Germany:

1⃣ One of the most famous events in Soviet film history was the shooting of “17 moments of spring”  - a legendary hit television series that aired from 1973. Set in the final weeks of WWII the episodes were about a Soviet spy Otto von Stirlitz disguised as a Nazi official, who infiltrated the highest ranks of the Gestapo to prevent a peace deal between Germans and Americans. Some say the show was an intelligent, slow-paced Soviet answer to the then popular wild, shameless James Bond from the West.

During the reign of Adolf Hitler, Germany surprised the world with a tremendous vision of architecture, big part of it being envisioned by the country's first architect Albert Speer, who mixed functionalism with Neo-eclecticism and even Neo-renaissance, creating large calibre perfected facades sympathetic to power. It seemed only logical, that during the filming of “17 moments of spring”, the main face of today’s Latvian Ministry of Finance (from Meistaru street) was turned into being the Museum of Nature in Berlin, where Stierlitz had his secret meeting.

The enormous complex located in the heart of Old Riga in-between Zirgu, Meistaru, Mazo Smilšu and Smilšu street was erected 1939. Ordered by the Latvian authoritarian leader Kārlis Ulmanis and designed by the genius of functionalism Aleksandrs Klinklāvs, this Neo-eclectic building with Corinthian ordered pilasters went hand in hand along the ideas of political agenda.

One must not take this the wrong way, though, – the tendencies of the thirties in Latvia were to create clean, pure, impressive architecture with minimal political pathos; sadly, later it often become associated closely to Nazi Germany. Ironically, the political reign in Latvia at the time even wanted to get rid of everything German due to condemning their long-lasting invasion of Latvia 800 years ago, and this massive structure was built where there were some old German dwelling houses torn down.

In filming context it's not important whether the real museum in Berlin was actually build in 1899 as an example of traditional Neo-clasicism or that there is a park in front of it (apart from the tiny side-street like in Riga). The most important for the building of A. Klinklāvs was to reflect clear nuances of the regime's architecture needed for the "17 moments of Spring" series, becoming an unmistakable symbol of Berlin; consequently also a symbol of the architectonic manner sympathetic to Hitler.

2⃣ Latvia was one of the locations where the famous German film director Werner Herzog shot this film “Invincible” (2001) in. The movie is about a strongman named Zishe, who is a simple Jewish blacksmith in a small village in Germany. Over time, he becomes known in Berlin as “Siegfried – the strongest man in the world”. However, Zishe does is not ready to hide his Jewish lineage forever in the particular political conditions of Germany in the 1930s.

Werner Herzog, Invincible, Riga, film, 2018, 2001,

Most of the tiny episodes shot in Old town will slip by to a regular viewer – one could even say they are unnecessary. But it is still pleasant to realize that a director of this scale tells a story of Berlin in the thirties using, for example, the Doma square in Riga. The area, as seen in particular episode of a certain car ride, is established in 1937 (ironically, around five years after the story taking place in the movie), when several more buildings of the central Old town were torn down after an anti-German architecture order from the national leader Kārlis Ulmanis mentioned before. However, the very stylish Neo-Classical building of 1913 by Paul Mandelstamm as seen in the significant episode can visually disperse all doubt and replace any house in Berlin back then – it can easy pretend to be Functionalism, Neo-Eclectism, or Neo-Clasicism. Today it is home to Latvian Radio.

Very important to mention that, even if the Doma square appears in the movie for a nick of time, the location itself is probably the most filmed location on the city. As far as we know there have been more than a dozen large-scale international motion pictures shot from all over the world - Germany, Russia (as well as Soviet Union), India, of course, Latvia.


During the same  “17 moments of Spring” Riga turned out to be Bern, Switzerland, too. In the series a former member of German resistance, an aide of Stierlitz, professor Pleischner experiences some sentimental moments at Blumenstrasse and a fatal fall out the window after being exposed by the enemy. Interestingly that the real Blumenstrasse is a tiny, quiet, rather ugly residential street in Bern, yet the story in the TV show takes place in front of a spectacular building at Jauniela 25/29, built in 1903 after the design of the legendary architect Wilhelm Bockslaff.

It is a mixture of the traditional decorative Art Nouveau, eclecticism and national romanticism – a building ironically one can't find with fire in Bern. Therefore it's not really clear why it was decided to picture this facade as one of the emblems of this Swiss town. Maybe because it possessed and still possesses some strange visual supremacy over a big part of Riga's architecture and it was meant to symbolize the town as free, peaceful, cultural, and cherishing architectural heritage.


The capital of the UK seems to be the most popular city reincarnated within Rīga. Here is the top 3 most significant works:

1⃣ Many know, who Sherlock Holmes and his aide Dr. Watson are, but in Soviet union everybody new and loved them. From 1979 - 1986 the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson dominated the Soviet state television, was regarded in Russia as the best TV series ever made, an globally still is one of the finest adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. Although Riga was used as a location for primarily the first episode of the series, the 221B house was filmed in Old town, and Jauniela became the symbol of Baker Street for millions of people, resulting into an international “Sherlock Holmes’ Birthday” event held every January in Rīga for the last couple of years now.

There even was sign politely put on one of the mid-18th century houses at Jauniela 18 during the filming. It was extremely uneasy to travel abroad during the Soviet times, there were no Google Maps, so almost no one could say, how the real Baker street should look like. Nonetheless the exclusive white, checked windows and the clean, gentleman-like late-XVIII century facade on Jauniela 18 the creators chose for the TV show, did remind a little of something you could imagine when reading other books by Arthur Conan Doyle or Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and other English classics (one must admit the real Baker street in London is much steeper, more modern and completely with no charm of the Old Riga's narrowness).

Also there was another scene with The Art Academy of Latvia, a building built in 1905 and designed by the already mentioned Wilhelm Bockslaff. The viewer of the show could see this Neo-Gothic masterpiece from the centre of Esplanāde park, where doctor Watson and inspector Lestrade quite often enjoyed each other's presence, and the building could also resemble the “Brick Gothic” style, typical to London, or even the more specific revival of English Gothic architecture. The difference between the styles is basically small, still the effect in the TV show was successful, graceful and completely synchronized to its time.

2⃣ The grand name of Latvian cinema, a director Jānis Streičs, adapted ‘’Theatre’’, the novel by Somerset Maugham and switched the luxurious interior of Latvian National Theatre in Rīga into London, however, only for a few episodes. The building was finished in 1902 as the Second City (Russian) Theatre, emphasizing its Classical and Renaissance forms that are interwoven into the Baroque facade composition. At the time it followed the fashion of all the most stylish and up-to-date drama houses in Europe, hence the excellent appearance in the movie. But the true legend of the building was born in 1918, when this theatre is chosen to be the venue of the Proclamation of Independence of Latvia taking place on a cloudy day on 18 November.

3⃣ For a short moment Rīgas was turned into London when filming a Korean WWII epic drama “My Way”. This motion picture is based on the story of a Korean named Yang Kyoungjong who was captured by the Americans on D-Day. Yang Kyoungjong was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army, the Red Army, and the Wehrmacht and is to date the only soldier to fight on three sides of a war. Although there were several other locations filmed, the scene on Smilšu iela was the only one put on the movie, recreating a marathon in London taking place in mid-1930s where both main protagonists of the film participated.


There were not that many cases when a Soviet city portrayed a place far behind the Iron Curtain, yet Rīga pulled to be one. When Aloizs Brenčs, the god of Soviet thriller, was filming “Mirage”, a Soviet 1983 three-part series about a gang of five stealing an armoured vehicle, several places in Rīga became a city somewhere in Nevada, USA. There wasn’t much resembling this American state apart from ads and billboards stuck in almost every scene, yet the worn-down capital of Soviet Latvia (as it began to look like in the beginning of 1980’s) was perfectly playing along with the newly finished, freshly out-of-Soviet-style looking Riga Congress Centre, then the House of Political Education. There was even a protester staged in front of it demonstrating against, presumably, El Mozote massacre (?). Meanwhile another newly finished structure, the super Western-like Vanšu bridge appeared in the movie, holding billboards of “Winston” smokes hanged by its parapets.

Rīga has become the capital of Poland only once when filming another WWII drama “The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler” (2009), when trying to recreate an atmosphere of the city where Irena Sendler, a Polish Catholic social worker, smuggling approximately 2,500 Jewish children to safety, was living. It is hard to select any particular place of shooting, because the filming was scattered across multiple locations, each one of them representing Warsaw like it used to be before suffering air strikes and bombing during the last period of war, while Rīga was generally spared twice in 1941 and in 1944, when shelling happened only in Old town and around the area where Latvian National Library is now located.

Yet there are 2 street blocks that appeared in the movie the most – 1) a block of Dzirnavu iela between Antonijas and Strēlnieku, where Irena held several meetings and where the Jewish orphanage, Irena’s workplace, was placed to be at Dzirnavu 18, and 2) a block on Blaumaņa street between Barona and Čaka, where several military actions and an episode of saving some children was shot at Blaumaņa 29. The filming crew was astonished by how Rīgas has managed to keep the architecture, planning and atmosphere many cities, including, Warsaw, had lost through years; yet it did sound as a sad revelation to locals realizing that many parts of our Rīga still look like nothing has been improving for more than 80 years.

Where: All the locations mentioned above are located in Old town or in the near-centre.
How: all of them can be reached by cycling the easiest, or you can visit all by walking.
What else: For more stories about the history of cinema and filming in Rīga please visit Riga Film Museum; this research was also initiated by them and it resulted into Rīga Film maps (they still probably have some), and multiple movie tours provided by the CAPITAL R team.
When: the museum is open any other day except Sunday and Monday from 11:00 – 18:00
How much: the price per adult ticket is 3,50 euros. Children and student tickets also available.