Upper body strength means little in fencing. It is all about the legs. Lunging and retreating are key to the sport, or as Endel Nelis puts it: “controlling the distance between you and your opponent.” Those instincts have also served him well as a fugitive from Stalin’s secret police.
He has come to Haapsalu, Estonia, because the provincial town is the perfect place to lay low. However, his fencing classes attract dangerous attention in Klaus Härö’s biographical drama, “The Fencer,” Finland’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which screened as part of the AFI’s 2015 EU Film Showcase, and opens in New York on July 21.
The school principal is the sort of petty apparatchik who resents any form of talent or accomplishment. Naturally, he takes an instinctive dislike to Nelis, the new physical education teacher from sophisticated St. Petersburg (or Leningrad as a Party hack might call it).
Nelis has no intention of rocking the boat or standing out in any way. He is working under an assumed name, hoping to avoid capture and exile to Siberia. Against his will, Nelis was pressed into service by the German Army. He managed to avoid combat by deserting into the forest, but the Soviets have still declared him an enemy of the people.
Naturally, Nelis is required to voluntarily manage an athletic club, but the principal refuses to allot him any resources. However, when he starts giving fencing lessons with mere switches cut from trees, many students are intrigued. Of course, the principal thinks little of this “feudal” sport, but parental support temporarily ties his hands. While Principal Skinneruu plots against him, Nelis prepares to take a small team to compete in an all-Soviet open invitational.
Based on a real historical figure, “The Fencer” ought to be catnip for Oscar voters. Like “Mr. Holland’s Opus” with fencing foils, crossed with “The Lives of Others,” Härö and screenwriter Anna Heinämaa tell the true story of an initially cold and standoffish teacher, who comes to care about his students as they deal with some pretty extreme challenges, like the arrest and exile of family members.
It is not a dramatic conversion, but a subtle evolution of character that Märt Avandi plays with great strength and nuance. He also develops terrific chemistry with Joonas Koff and Liisa Koppel as his two star pupils, both of whom have “missing” fathers.
There are a number of scenes that could have been embarrassingly cheesy and saccharine, but at each potential pitfall, Härö reins in the film, going for a quietly stoic Baltic moment instead. As a result, he truly earns the comparatively sentimental closing. It is also impressive how much attention was given to proper fencing technique. They really are doing it right.
Throughout the film, Härö vividly captures a sense of the late Stalinist-era paranoia, as well as the drabness of Soviet life in general. It is also engaging on a human level. These are reserved people, but when they make a connection, it is meaningful.
Very highly recommended, especially for Academy members, “The Fencer” opens Friday, July 21, 2017 at the Angelika Film Center New York.
Joe Bendel writes about independent film and lives in New York. To read his most recent articles, please visit jbspins.blogspot.com