Directed by Klaus Haro
Written by Anna Heinemaa
98 minutes, rated PG
The Fencer is a Finnish-Estonian-German coproduction about what bastards the Soviets were when they occupied Estonia. That’s not the story, of course, just the inescapable sentiment behind the story.
In terms of history, it is hard to disagree. The Soviets arrived in 1940, drove out the Nazis, then annexed the country. Estonian men who had been forced to join the German army were now persecuted, executed or sent to Siberia. The memory is in every frame of The Fencer. Estonia only regained its independence in 1991. Many Estonians fear the expanding Russia of Putin.
But the enmity leads the film into overstatement verging on incongruity – which I will get to. Even so, that tendency tells us something about the freshness of the wounds. The pain makes the film powerful and urgent – even if, in this case, the pain is learned.
The director and screenwriter are both Finnish, rather than Estonian. Klaus Haro had never set foot in Estonia before this project. Anna Heinemaa, a novelist turned screenwriter, appears to have come to the story through an interest in fencing. The sport is big in Estonia – partly through people like Endel Nelis, who inspired the film.
Just after the war, Nelis (Mart Avandi) arrives at Haapsalu, a small but ancient town on the Estonian coast. He is the new sports teacher. The suspicious principal (Hendrik Toompere) looks over his qualifications: fencing, he remarks, is not a very proletarian sport. Nelis keeps quiet about his champion status. We’re not sure why, but he has had trouble with the authorities in Leningrad. The secret police are looking for him.
The children are timid, battered by history. Many are orphans, after the war and deportations. With no equipment, Nelis announces that he will be teaching fencing on Saturdays. On the first day, about 40 kids turn up – a turning point in the film’s emotions. A man who doesn’t really like children must now meet their expectations – especially those of young Marta (Liisa Koppel), the film’s conscience.
Haro’s directing style is restrained, somewhat classical. He concentrates on giving us a few well-drawn characters, rather than spoon-feeding. Most of what these people feel is carried by the imagery. When a friend sends two huge crates of used fencing equipment from Leningrad, the story leaps forward in excitement. We can see champions in the making; discipline makes them ambitious. Why can’t we go to the grand tournament in Leningrad, Marta demands? Aren’t we good enough?
So which is it? If fencing is as out of favour as the jealous principal says, how come there is a big tournament every year in Leningrad, with teams from all over the USSR? Did he not get the memo? A little delving reveals doubts that Nelis was ever really hiding.
‘Fleeing the KGB? Probably not,’ Haro told kinocaviar.com. ‘Keller was his name when he was drafted by the Nazis. He changed it when he fled to Leningrad after the war, because it was a big place and he could hide. You see that the Estonian fathers in the film have been deported, jailed or killed. … He had some trouble with the authorities but we don’t know what. It’s Anna’s work, and she dramatised a bit of Estonian history. In the Soviet period, all you had to do was disagree with someone and you were in trouble.’
Nelis’s daughter helped with the film. Can we assume then that much of the story is true? I doubt that. It’s an effective vehicle for exploring the troubled relationship between two countries, and that may be the point, at the expense of accuracy. Nelis did become a celebrated fencing teacher in Estonia, producing a number of champions. He died in 1993. The film is a fine tribute and the kids turn it into a crowd-pleaser – whatever the truth.
a fine tribute