A Fencer’s Story
Klaus Härö’s “The Fencer” was the 2016 Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as Finland’s official selection and shortlist finalist at the 2016 Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. It is the story of a young man, Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) who escapes the secret police in Leningrad and arrives in Haapsalu, Estonia in the early 1950s. He gets a job as a teacher and organizes a sports club for his students. Endel learns to love the children of whom most are orphans as a result of the Russian occupation. He begins teaching them to fence and this is his personal passion. For the children, fencing becomes a form of self-expression and Endel is quickly becomes their role model and a father figure. However, his popularity with his students causes a conflict with the school’s principal (Hendrik Toompere), who is envious and suspicious. As the principal investigates Endel’s background, he discovers a secret from his past. When the children get a chance to take part in a national fencing tournament in Leningrad, Endel faces a difficult decision— should he risk everything and take the children to Leningrad or see to his own safety and disappoint the children that he loves so much.
“The Fencer” was inspired by the true story of Endel Nelis who was Estonia’s legendary fencing hero. This is a fictionalized version of his life. Haapsalu, Estonia, is a backwater town that has been under harsh Russian Communist rule since the end of World War II. When Endel takes a job as sports teacher at the local high school he does not much care for his students but when he starts a fencing club, things begin to change. for his young students, he starts a fencing club which proves wildly popular. His stern exterior begins to break when he is charmed by moppet Marta (Liisa Koppel) and by teenage rebel Jaan (Joonas Koff). As might be expected he begins to warm to the children and to himself and begins something of a romance with his co-worker Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp).
The principal, however, believes that playing with swords is reminiscent of pre-revolutionary feudalism and goads Endel to teach proletarian sports. When the local citizenry overrides him, the headmaster begins looking for something in Endel’s past. Because Estonians live in a paranoid Stalinist climate with the secret police watching everybody, a simple rumor or denunciation can lead to arrest, exile and even execution.
We learn that Endel has good reason to lie low in Estonia but when his students begin to put pressure on him to enter them in a prestigious all-Soviet fencing tournament in Leningrad, he is torn about risking his life for sporting glory. The film then becomes a race against time as Endel and his team fight a battle against better trained, better funded Russian rivals. How this will end has been clear all along (and even so I am not going to tell you what happens).
The film is shot in lovely muted tones and the entire production is a visual feast. Märt Avandi as Endel gives a beautiful performance as Endel and he is the heart and soul of the film. We watch him change from chilly to warm as he finds he has a talent for teaching after all, and an empathy with the kids that he had not expected. The film looks at Endel’s relationship with one troubled boy Jaan, whose grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak) leads the parental support for the fencing classes against the school’s principal who is jealous of the new teacher and who eventually becomes dangerous.
The story comes to life under a cloud of suspicion and paranoia that is fostered by the postwar Soviet occupation. This is a story of cross-generational bonding in the face of historical oppression and it is touching even though there are no real surprises.
There is suspense that we see on two fronts— one smartly juxtaposes Endel’s fugitive status with the climactic competition, the other is the outcome which is handled in plausibly. The team’s performance is understood to be an individual as well as collective achievement. It would have never happened had it not been for Endel’s ingenuity and determination. That determination is hard to forget.
The film opens in New York July 21 and in Los Angeles on August 11, 2017.