With Nazis in the news in the US, it’s a good time to remind people that not all Nazis were voluntary members of the party. The Finnish-German-Estonian co-production, “The Fencer,” is about one such man who leaves the war a criminal, but begins a fencing school that brings hope to a small town in Estonia.
During World War II, Estonia was occupied by Germany and Estonian men were drafted into the German army. At the end of the war, Estonia was then occupied by the Soviet Union under the rigid rule of Joseph Stalin. Former Nazi soldiers were considered war criminals. Olympic-level fencer, Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) flees Lenigrad to escape the Soviet police and ends up in the seaside resort town of Haapsalu, about six hours (by car) to the west.
Finding work as a teacher, Endel attempts to form a sports club but is at odds with the school principal (Hendrik Toompere). He continues to practice fencing and is eventually convinced to teach the children, many of whom are orphans. Starting out with reeds, the children learn the discipline of fencing, but also gain confidence and a sense of team spirit.
When Endel has the opportunity of becoming a fencing partner for an elite athlete, he decides to remain in Haapsalu. His former coach later sends them old equipment and despite the continued disapproval of the principal, the townspeople and the children begin to thrive and Endel begins a romance with another teacher Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp).
Yet the principal sets into motion an investigation that will lead to Endel’s arrest and although he’s been warned not to return to Lenigrad, the children want to enter a tournament there.
Endel Nelis was a real person this gentle story follows a formula with few surprises, but the performances are touching and Finnish director Klaus Härö has a light, sensitive touch. None of the children are too precious or cutesy. The principal isn’t too evil, just a bit jealous of losing his sway over the pupils. Despite the obvious poverty, the cinematography sets us in a pleasant pastel austerity instead of a gritty, hungry poverty.
Estonia’s independence was only restored in 1991. And yet all through the Soviet rule and even now, the fencing school that Endel Nelis founded persists. Not of those who fought under the Nazis were German and not all of them had a choice. After the war, even though seen as a criminal under Stalin, Endel Nelis (1925-1993) returned to a country that had traded masters, but he lived to see it independent again and the school that he began continue on. This is a good movie for family and sports fans.
“The Fencer” won Best Film and Best Cinematography at the Jussi Awards and Best International Feature (Audience Choice Award) at the St. Louis International Film Festival. It was nominated for a Golden Globe and submitted for the Academy Awards Foreign Films. In Estonian, Russian and Armenian with English subtitles.