Finally we get another good sports film.
This one just happens to be set in 1950s Estonia and feature fencing. Setting the locale and time period aside for a second, much about Klaus Härö’s The Fencer should feel warmly familiar. It’s set up is simple enough. Endel (Märt Avandi) is on the run from the Soviet Secret police and ends up in the Estonian town of Haapsalu, where he becomes essentially a gym coach.
From there The Fencer becomes the latest in a long line of sports films that follow hard scrabble youngsters from a disadvantaged background and the coach who swoops in to spiritually save them. It is, in effect, not so different from a dozen American films of its ilk (Coach Carter, Step-Up, uh, Radio).
The following was written in the first 30 minutes of the film:
There’s a mean principle who doesn’t believe in fencing, thinks it’s a distraction, thinks the town won’t accept it. They’re going to prove him wrong somehow and that by the end Endel and his fencing team will represent the unconquerable human spirit that, against all odds, triumphs against their wealthier neighbors in the city. It’s the Mighty Ducks. It’s Bad News Bears. It’s Money Ball.
All of it plays out exactly how you’d expect it to. There’s even a James Cromwell looking figure, the grandfather of one of the fencers, who tells Jaan (played by Joonas Koff) “Listen to me, you’re a man now. Become a good fencer. Then everything will be alright.”
Oh, did I mention the love story? That’s here too. Endel romances a fellow teacher, their relationship growing closer as he guides her body in how to hold a sword. Of course he can’t resist the call to action, and so he enrolls his pupils in an all-Soviet tournament . He doesn’t want to take them. They’re not ready. They’re just country rubes. But we see a montage of how their fencing lessons have impacted their day to day lives, how Endel has made them all better people, not just athletes.
So they set off for Moscow, where we get the typical last minute crisis: will they find the right equipment? Will the kids crumble the pressure? Will a last minute injury derail their chance at the gold (à la Friday Night Lights)?
Yet despite its aching familiarity, the drama and themes remain consistently poignant. Sure it’s easy to point at The Fencer and draw a million comparison to other sports films, to do so would be missing the point. At their heart these movies are about the same things. How do these activities bring people together? How do they create community? How do they teach us to be better people?
Beyond its narrative simplicity, The Fencer never looses touch with its sense of time and place. Everything is portrayed in dull grays and blues. Empty space in the frame threatens to swallow Endel whole, especially in the school gymnasium which is enormous, with cavernous ceilings that can’t help but dwarf Endel and his small charges.
Over its hour and a half run time, we see the same locations again and again and feel the tedium of this small world, this forgotten corner of the Soviet empire. Endel in particular stands out; an invitation for hot chocolate becomes tea. “Sorry, they were out,” he apologizes, seemingly unaware what a luxury chocolate would be for this Estonian town. Härö does everything we can to understand why anything that hits at escape would give new meaning to these children’s world.
Even then, the real world constantly threatens to intrude. When the principle says ‘Comrade’ it sounds like nothing less than a threat. Throughout the whole film there persists a low level dread, that their cozy existence could be interrupted at any moment, a relative disappeared, or for Endel’s past to catch up.
When the principle attempts to quash the fencing club, the members of the town hold a vote. Each quietly looks at one another, aware of the inherent risks involved in defying authority here. When two men show up looking for Endel, the fear on his face is palpable. It’s with a sigh of relief we see their simply delivering a package, fencing uniforms for his students.
As Endel walks home he’s stalked by a shadowy figure, and again the tension mounts. Luckily it’s just a friend from Endel’s previous life, but the question lingers: when will it for real.
As the students practice in their gleaming white outfits, and as the music takes a classic turn, all piano whose notes slowly dance through their clinging epees, we cannot help but wonder how much longer can Endel’s little paradise exist. This fatalism imbues his scenes with his little army of sword fighters all the more. One day, late at night, Endel finds Jaan practicing alone in the gym. Without ever needing to say it, we understand he sees himself in this young pupil. Their only escape from their world is through fencing, and yet we see the pain in Endel’s eyes when he realizes the risk of leading Jaan down this path.
So yes, everything in The Fencer feels familiar, but it also still never fails to resonate. The production design is beautiful, the acting superb. But it’s the dramatic stakes, the weight of history, that ultimately define The Fencer as more than just another entry in the genre.
Opens in New York July 21
Opens in Los Angeles August 11