Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

Märt Avandi as “Endel” in THE FENCER. Photo courtesy of CFI Releasing

En garde! Estonian fencing club thrusts against Stalin.

Directed by Klaus Härö
Produced by Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho
Written by Anna Heinämaa
Released by CFI Releasing
In Estonian and Russian with English subtitles
Finland/Germany/Estonia. 99 min. Not Rated
With: Märt Avandi, Ursula Ratasepp, Liisa Koppel, Joonas Koff, Lembit Ulfsak, Hendrik Toompere and Jaak Prints

By Nora Lee Mandel

A handsome persecuted athlete fleeing Stalin’s clutches, a gaggle of war-weary waifs learning an elite sport up against Soviet winners, based on a true story, plus has a sweet romance, filmed in beautiful seasons, all make The Fencer irresistibly gratifying.

As a fencer herself, novelist Anna Heinämaa researched the life of Estonian champion fencer Endel Nelis to inspire her first screenplay, interviewing family and people who knew him in the small town of Haapsalu, on the west seacoast of Estonia. When Finnish director Klaus Härö films Endel (Märt Avandi) from his first arrival by train from Leningrad, the camera is almost always following behind him – a Hitchcockian visual clue that he is a wanted man always having to look over his shoulder. It’s the early 1950’s, and Estonia never got to recover from Nazi occupation before the Soviet Union took over, and men like Endel who were conscripted into the German army are now enemies of the state. His fencing coach warns him to hide out away from big cities where names on wanted lists are being pursued.

Using his mother’s name, he takes a job as a phys ed teacher in the town’s run-down, poorly equipped high school. Endel just puts the kids through required gym classes, and barely cares if an older boy ignores him. The bureaucratic principal (Hendrik Toompere) is determined to bring this big city sophisticate down a peg, and insists he is also expected to run a weekend sports club. Searching dusty storage areas, he finds old skis, fixes them up and announces a ski club – then learns the local Soviet military base appropriated them. But he’s gotten the students’ expectations up. Pretty fellow teacher Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp) lets him know there is nothing for kids to do in town, while their mothers have to work long hours.

For his own solace when he’s alone in the gym, he takes out his fencing gear and gracefully practices his moves. But he’s espied by the adorable student Marta (Liisa Koppel) who is fascinated by his moves. She had longed to take ballet but there’s no dance class nearby, and his footwork looks close enough to her. He goes the next step and announces a Fencing Club. The kids are all abuzz, but the principal not only thinks it’s an inappropriately elitist sport for the children of the proletariat, but sends off his political apparatchik assistant (Jaak Prints) to find out more about this mysterious fencer’s past.

Dozens of students show up for the club, and he is at first such a martinet with them that he reduces even tough guy Jaan (Joonas Koff) to tears. Kadri points out that since war and occupation few of them have fathers at home and they really need support. He takes them all out a field trip (literally) to try and find something they can turn into practice swords, and the undertaking breaks the ice. There’s also a touching breakthrough when Jaan’s grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak) confides that he was on the fencing team back at university, and presents his grandson with his old set of equipment. Endel finds that he, too, enjoys passing on the skills of the sport he loves, and the boys and girls respond to the physical discipline, and to him.

But the dubious principal says the club isn’t official until it’s approved by the Parents’ Committee. When Endel’s presentation is cut short as “feudal” by the principal, Jaan’s grandfather dares to challenge him, insisting that Karl Marx himself enjoyed fencing, and the other families slowly concur, to the principal’s fury. Even as the politically revengeful assistant scours archives and files to successfully track down his secret, Endel’s coach is so impressed by the project that he scrounges up used outfits and equipment for the thrilled students. Amidst montages of the enthusiastic students ever improving moves (to Gert Wilden Jr.’s sprightly score), Endel and Kadri are athletically exploring the picturesque region together, and (fairly chastely) falling in love. He smiles!

The students spot a notice for a national fencing tournament in Leningrad, for a high school’s the three top fencers and an alternate. Will Endel dare getting caught? Can these neophyte fencers in their out-of-date apparatus compete against large, experienced schools from Moscow and Kiev? While Americans will have memories of the “Miracle on Ice” hockey game at the Olympics against the U.S.S.R., the Estonian cast (all prominent actors there) were especially spurred during the filming by sympathy for Ukraine facing Russian moves. (Cue Estonia’s “The Singing Revolution” of 1991 to get out from Soviet authority.)

Cinematographer Tuomo Hutri again teams up with Härö, after their lovely Letters to Father Jacob (2009). He makes nature look magical, from snowflakes to greening spring, and interiors lit in period antique, threatened by Stalin portraits. This enjoyably accessible and rewarding film earned Finland’s highest Jussi Award for Best Picture and Cinematography, as well as Golden Globe nomination and Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film.

Though not exactly a bio-pic of Endel Nelis, his family approved, and the final scroll gives the audience the satisfaction of knowing his lasting impact on Haapsalu and the fencing school he founded.

Not rated by the MPAA; I consider PG appropriate, just because there are subtitles to read and a couple of tragic political arrests.

July 21, 2017

Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

To the Mandel Maven's Nest Reel Life: Flick Pix

Copyright © 2018