THE FENCER/ MIKKAILIJA, Finland, Estonia, Germany, 2015. Starring Mart Avandi, Ursula Ratasepp, Lembert Ufsak. Directed by Klaus Haro. 99 minutes. Rated PG (Mild Themes).
Actually, the title is quite literal. The central character has been a fencing champion earlier in his life.
And, actually, there is a fair amount of fencing in the film, with the hero himself, his teaching youngsters at school, and, finally along the lines of many sports film, a competition where the underdogs have to prove themselves.
But, that said, there is so much more to the film. It is a coproduction between Estonia, Finland and Germany, principally set in Estonia.
The prologue informs us that the the Nazi occupation of the Baltic states meant the conscription of a lot of young men to work and fight for the Germans. In the aftermath of the war, and Estonia being part of the Soviet Union, Stalin set his secret police to search out and arrest these young men.
The setting for this film is the school year, 1952-1953. We arrive in a remote Estonian town with the hero, the camera following him down the drab streets, his immediately going to the school principal’s office where he is to teach and to coach the sports club. The principal is one of those bureaucratic types, power in a small pond, later explaining that he always did what was expected of him by the authorities. And he has a younger assistant, one of those incessantly toadying types.
The hero, Endal (Mart Avandi) is in his late 20s, obviously hiding himself from authorities. He has been in Leningrad where he has a close friend who gives him advice, especially to stay hidden.
The core of the film is Endel’s work in the school, with a group of children who are poor, some of their families having disappeared. He mends skis but is then told by the principal that they have to share the skis with the local military base. He decides then to unpack his fencing gear and to suggest that some of the children might like to train in fencing – and over 20 turn up for the initial session.
While the children are very loyal, Endal confesses that he himself is very bad in dealing with children, commanding them sometimes severely. The screenplay focuses on a couple of the children, a little girl who showed initial curiosity, Marta, and the young boy, Jaan, who is hurt by Endal and wants to drop out. His grandfather, who studied in Germany, was a fencer and gives his weapons and gear to Endal. The principal of the school decides that fencing is feudal and therefore not appropriate.
A feature of the film is the principal’s meeting with a group of rather subdued parents, an image of the Soviet Union and government, but with the parents surprising daring, raising hands very tentatively, to support the fencing training in the face of the principal’s opposition. Democracy can achieve some things.
While Endal is very private person, one of the teachers at the school, herself rather reticent, is attracted and the film shows their relationship in a very gentle manner.
The film does end with a fencing tournament, Endal choosing four students to represent the school in Leningrad. He obviously runs the risk of arrest, with the principal present, with military presence, which means that there is a dramatic tension between what is achieved with the young students and what is going to happen to Endal.
In many ways quite low key in its look, in its performances, in its treatment of situations – but very telling nonetheless.
Palace Released November 24th.
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.