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The Fencer

Original title: Miekkailija

D: Klaus Härö / 98m

Cast: Märt Avandi, Ursula Ratasepp, Hendrik Toompere Sr, Liisa Koppel, Joonas Koff, Ann-Lisett Rebane, Elbe Reiter, Egert Kadastu, Lembit Ulfsak, Kirill Käro

The Fencer begins with a brief – but necessary – history lesson: during World War II, Estonia was occupied by Nazi Germany; most of the men were conscripted into the German army. When Estonia was absorbed into the Soviet Union, it regarded all members of the German army as war criminals, regardless of any extenuating circumstances. In the years following the war, Estonians who were known to have been a part of the German forces were tracked down by the Soviets and imprisoned.

Against this backdrop, the movie tells the story of Endel Nelis (Avandi), an Estonian and former championship fencer who was himself drafted into the German army, and who is now trying to avoid capture by the Soviets. He arrives in the small Estonian town of Haapsalu to take up a position as a teacher. His arrival is greeted with disdain by the school principal (Toompere Sr), and Endel soon finds that one of his extra duties, running the sports club, is paid lip service to by the principal, and his initial attempt to get the club up and running is undermined accordingly. But when he decides to teach fencing as part of the sports club, he finds nearly all the students turning up for the first session.

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The principal is disconcerted by this show of enthusiasm, and mistrusts it, choosing instead to try and undermine its popularity at a parents meeting. While he alludes to dire consequences if the parents vote for the fencing to continue, the grandfather (Ulfsak) of one of the boys in the club, Jaan (Koff), encourages the rest of the parents to vote to keep it going. While all this is going on, Endel is visited by his best friend, Aleksei (Käro) who warns him that people are looking for him in Leningrad (where he’s come from). And Endel begins a tentative relationship with another teacher, Kadri (Ratasepp).

As time goes on, the children make enough progress that when one of them, Marta (Koppel), learns of a national fencing tournament to be held in Leningrad, and she wants Endel to enter them, it provides him with a diffcult decision: should he risk taking some of the students to Leningrad and being caught, or should he risk losing the faith the children have in him, and with it, witness the end of the club? (As if there’s any doubt as to what decision he’ll make.) Once at the tournament, the four pupils he’s chosen to compete – Marta, Jaan, Lea (Rebane), and Toomas (Kadastu) – show that the skills they’ve developed have a good chance of seeing them win the tournament outright. But the increased presence of armed guards throughout the building points to Endel’s chances of returning to Haapsalu as being even slimmer than he’d expected.

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Directed by Härö from a script by Anna Heinämaa, The Fencer is a melancholy rumination on individualism and patriotic duty, with Endel as the protagonist seeking the kind of quiet life that everyone on the run wishes for, yet rarely attains. It’s a stately, deliberately paced movie that still manages to be impactful and modestly gripping. It has a keen sense of the story it’s telling, and makes its points about the Soviet Union’s totalitarian approach to socialism with understated precision, preferring to acknowledge small instances of the system’s control rather than focus on the larger examples that most other movies fall back on. It paints a broad picture of the times, the early Fifties, but adds sufficient detail to be both impressive and insightful. (This is best evidenced in the scene with the parents’ meeting, where the principal’s officious and condescending nature is contrasted by what is effectively the “will of the people”. His attempt at intimidation almost works, but Heinämaa and Härö ramp up the tension through the slow awareness of the parents that they have more power than the principal wants them to realise.)

Endel’s relationship with the pupils is developed naturally and without resorting to the kind of sentimental clichés that a Hollywood version might fall back on without thinking. Jaan looks up to Endel because his father is missing, while even the majority of the other children look upon him as a father figure, someone they can trust. But it’s Endel’s trust in them, his belief that they can be good, if not great, fencers that buoys their affection for him, and provides the movie with a great deal of its heart and soul. Even though he confides in Kadri that he’s not good with kids, that he doesn’t know how to deal with them, Endel still has an instinctive feel for dealing with them that allows him to forge such great relationships with them (though he’s not exactly the kind of teacher who maintains boundaries; instead he appears to make it up as he goes along).

At its heart, The Fencer is about doing the right thing, and doing it for all the right reasons, even if it comes with a personal price attached. Endel turns down the chance of moving on and hiding out in Novosibirsk, and it’s here that you begin to get the sense that Endel is finished with running, that with the sports club he’s found a place where he belongs (not to mention the love of a good woman). Endel can be seen putting his life and its value in perspective, and when he makes his choice near the movie’s end, he can be applauded for being true to himself and no one else.

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As the beleaguered teacher, Avandi has a weary yet subtly engaged manner about him that is heartwarming and sympathetic. Endel is trying to do the best he can, and it’s easy for the viewer to root for him. Avandi’s sad, doleful features tell you more about how the character is feeling than any amount of exposition, and Härö takes every opportunity to focus on those features and weave a bit of acting magic. As the “villain” of the piece, Toompere Sr is a mean-spirited pedagogue stranded in a small town and seeking affirmation through adhering to the demands of the state. He’s a low man made even lower by his actions, but thanks to Toompere Sr he’s not a man to be hated (or even despised) but pitied instead; he’s as much a prisoner of fate as Endel is.

Once the movie arrives in Leningrad, and the tournament begins, Härö wisely drops the political and social elements for a solid, ever-so-slightly-gripping batch of fencing bouts that add a bit of zest to the pacing. The final bout is played out with élan, even if the outcome goes from being unpredictable to downright obvious halfway through, and the final coda provides a bittersweet ending that smacks of wish fulfillment on the makers’ part but at least gives the viewer the happy ending they’ve been hoping for.

Rating: 8/10 – a beautifully lensed movie that features a succinct, unpretentious yet absorbing screenplay, The Fencer can best be described as the kind of movie that sneaks up on you and takes you by surprise; it’s a quietly impressive movie that only falters when it tries to up the pace and be visually more dramatic, but this is a minor concern when weighed against the many, many, many things the movie gets right.