This is a beautiful movie with an unfortunate flaw in its presentation. Spoilers aren’t called spoilers for no reason, so it is baffling that the producers chose to inform the viewer through an introductory preamble what the state of play was for many Estonian men during the years of the murderous ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin’s ascendency in Moscow.
Endel (Klaus Härö) is a teacher in a frosty small town in Estonia (then part of the USSR). His passion as a younger man had been fencing and the kids in his care, at the instigation of gorgeous little Marta (Liisa Koppel), persuade him to give them lessons in the art. It doesn’t go down well with the principal who, toeing the party line, believes that it is an unacceptably bourgeois pursuit. His suspicion of Endel is confirmed by news received from Leningrad – the secret police are looking for him. This might have been the mystery that drove the story, but (no) thanks to the opening credits, we know exactly why Endel is being sought. Not to worry – the film glows with the warmth generated by the relationship that grows between Endel and his pupils and later the love he finds with fellow teacher Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp).
Stories such as these – of devotion to a cause, of bucking the system – necessarily involve a daunting challenge. The children, though ill-equipped novices, have their hearts set on competing in an all-schools fencing tournament that is to be held in Leningrad. For Endel, the journey would be loaded with peril, but he understands that, despite Kadri’s plea to stay, it is a moral imperative that he go (and it’s a joyous scene when Marta and her friends get their first glimpse of the city from the train).
There are at first a lot of camera shots taken from behind Endel, following him through his poor, icy environment, and Tuomo Hutri’s cinematography is finely textured and subtly coloured throughout, as is Tina Kaukanen’s costume design (the kids’ clothing is so ‘real’, but not studied). Based on actual events, Endel was a hero without a gun – it’s a pity we don’t see more of them on screen.