In war one often does anything to survive even if it means being conscripted into the German army. But with the Russians taking over and devouring Estonia those men who’d succumbed to the German demands, even if they had “done nothing” were now considered war criminals to be hunted.
The Fencer is a true story. Filmed in Finland, it brings us into the life of Estonia’s legendary fencing master Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) now on the run and hiding from the Soviet authorities. He arrives in a small town not far from Leningrad and accepts a job teaching sports to the students but he’s frustrated, angry and afraid.
Having isolated himself from the other staff he is surprised to discover feelings for Kadri, another instructor. Little does he realize the head master suspects his stated motives for leaving the big city and begins to investigate.
One young girl Marta (Liisa Koppel ) watches him playing with his foil and begs Endel to teach her to fence. He agrees but only if more join her. Endel is shocked when the majority of the students attend the opening lecture. He’s even more surprised at the ability of the children and their devotion to the sport. Most of them are orphans after the Russian take over and they look to him as a father figure.
Worried about the Soviet reaction the head master attempts to squash the instruction but the parents want it, too. Life becomes less boring as his romance heats up and his former fencing coach supplies the school with used foils, masks and uniforms.
Discovering a fencing tournament in Leningrad they urge Endel to sign them up but he worries about returning to the city where he might be captured or killed. Even his coach warns him of the folly.
Tearful, the children beg him to let them attend. He watches one boy’s grandfather being taken off by the Soviets. Finally against his better judgment he rests everything to take the children to the tournament. Kissing Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp ) goodbye he boards the train. He does not yet know that he head master had discovered his true identity.
Watching the duels, Endel spots several Soviet police watching along with the head master of his school. Should he run or stay with the kids?
Seeing young Marta falter, he hesitates. She begs him never to leave them. What can he do? His love for the students overcomes his fears. After several close calls and tricks from the more established fencing teams, Endel class wins by a slim margin. The students are ecstatic until they witness Endel being led away by the police.
While the end was satisfactory, though predictable, the film started slow partially because despite the flash of a sentence about the Estonian men being hunted by the Russians, it wasn’t really clear until Endel explained his real history to Kadri.
The photography and production was excellent but the subtitles done in white often were difficult to read on the light background. Nevertheless, the film has been nominated for numerous awards including best foreign language film from the Academy Awards and Golden Globe awards as well as the best picture wind and best cinematography in the Jussi Awards.
Finish director Klaus Haro from Finland produced the movie with both Estonian & Russian and English subtitles. Kai Nordberg and Kaarle Aho were the producers with Ivo Felt and Jörg Bundschuh as co-producers. The writer Anna Heinämaa was aided by Tuomo Hutri with his excellent cinematography. Music was done by Gert Wilden Jr.
A film worth considering if only for the satisfactory ending.