It’s fair to say the Baltics didn’t have an easy 20th century. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania found themselves unwittingly involved in a global power struggle; considered a buffer between the Soviet Union and Western Europe in the wake of World War I, the three countries were occupied by the USSR in 1940, by the Third Reich in 1941, and again by the USSR in 1944.
This led to some decidedly divided loyalties — frequently of the utilitarian variety — among Balts. Some men enlisted in the Waffen SS to fight communism, while others were conscripted against their will to the Nazi cause. After World War II, the Soviets were, unsurprisingly, eager to identify those who had fought against them – for whatever reason.
That’s the background for Miekkailija (The Fencer), a Finnish-German-Estonian co-production that was the Finnish entry for the 2016 Academy Awards. It didn’t get nominated, and begins a belated U.S. theatrical release at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Aug. 25
Based on the real-life experiences of famed fencing coach Endel Nelis, The Fencer is played by popular Estonian television actor Märt Avandi. Avandi has only two gears – stoicism and sensitivity – but they serve him reasonably well here.
A (presumably unwilling) Nazi conscript trying to start life afresh in the remote Estonian seaside town of Haapsalu, Nelis wants to leave his inglorious past behind by beginning a quiet new career as a secondary school teacher. Alas, he is unable to ignore his sport’s siren song.
Assigned to teach physical education, Nelis keeps his old foil in his gym locker. In quiet moments, he lovingly caresses its handle, suggesting he’ll soon be coming out of the closet as a competitive fencer and exposing himself to new danger.
That danger is personified by the school principal (Hendrik Toompere), a humorless apparatchik who considers fencing “not really an activity for the working man.” His student’s parents disagree and the fencing continues; the principal promptly dispatches a flunky to Leningrad to get the dirt on the upstart teacher’s past.
With the rudiments of fencing impressed upon an army of little Trilbys, skills are eventually honed to the point where four of them are good enough to compete in a major tournament. Meanwhile, our lonely Svengali falls in love with fellow teacher Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp), a fresh-faced lass whose primary role is to serve as a handy narrative device.
Falling firmly into the ‘inspirational teacher’ dramatic sub-genre, The Fencer spends more time than necessary on these secondary sub-plots and barely any on its most interesting story arc – its protagonist’s mysterious past. What Nelis actually did during the war, how he reintegrated into Soviet society without revealing his Wehrmacht service time, and how he qualified as a teacher are subjects left entirely to our imagination. All we learn is that he changed his last name at some point.
Nicely shot in suitably chilly metallic blues by cinematographer Tuomo Hutri, this is a decent little film, but writer Anna Heinämaa’s unambitious screenplay would have benefitted from an extra ten minutes of back story. Inspiration and love, alas, can only carry The Fencer so far.