En Garde: Klaus Haro's 'The Fencer' depicts a tense period in Soviet-occupied Estonia

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In the 1950s, the citizens of Haapsalu never knew when to expect the knock on the door signaling that one of their family members was about to be taken away by the Soviets. Nevertheless, it is Haapsalu that fencing master Endel Nelis, on the run from the authorities in Leningrad, chooses as safe harbor. There, under an assumed name, he establishes a fencing school for the children, many of whom have been orphaned by the Soviet occupiers. Just when he begins to think he can have a normal life in this tiny Estonian town, the children beg him to take them to the national fencing competition in Leningrad, unknowingly forcing Endel to choose between his own fate and the trust they’ve found in his care. The Fencer is based on the true story of Nelis, whose fencing club still exists to this day. Director Talk recently spoke with its director, Klaus Härö.

Director Talk: In a very quiet, personal way, you captured the fear of people living in Soviet-occupied countries. What details did you focus on?

Klaus Härö: We thought a lot about that. There had recently been novels concerning the occupation in this part of the world, really graphic in their description of everything that could go on—everything perverse and really harsh. We were telling the story of a man who’s a loner and finds a community, and this is what we wanted to focus on, so we decided we’re not going to show all the graphic things we could show.

This was a story about a teacher and his pupils. This man is a loner, and he’s a loner for a reason. He doesn’t enjoy it particularly—he’s a loner because he needs to protect himself. We wanted to give the film his perspective, his point of view and ways of thinking. When I read the script, one of the first visions to show the world through his eyes was to follow him behind his neck, like there’s someone behind him at all times.

We wanted the feeling of oppression to be really subtle, so the people who know what it’s about will recognize this feeling. [Our film] would not be something that turns people away, something they wouldn’t see because it’s so disgusting. The main thing of the film was not to tell what oppression does to you physically but what it does to you mentally. When it comes to the point where there’s no one to trust, no one to rely on, but you need…  It’s just each one looking after themselves and asking the question: Is there a way out of this crap, this loneliness?

DT: You mentioned “people who know what it’s about.” I was struck by how much you could see this in the actors’ faces, especially the children. You could see the understanding in their eyes; they knew each other’s fear. When the children saw Endel being taken away, they didn’t say, as an American kid would, “What’s happening?” These children understood exactly what was happening.

KH: What we see, even today, is that people know what it’s about. The folks in Estonia have a tendency not to talk too much about these things, but once you start getting to know them, you find that every family is connected to an event when a family member was taken away. The knock at your door late at night was always bad news, and you see it in their eyes.

It’s a beautiful country, and the people are so beautiful. In northern Europe it’s still light around nine in the evening. It’s beautiful, it’s green, it’s like paradise, but I remember driving around one beautiful summer evening scouting for locations and seeing that flags all over the country were at half-mast. I asked the young man who was driving me around, “How come?” He said, “This is in memory of the first night when thousands of Estonians were taken from their homes one beautiful summer evening.” Tens of thousands of people were taken from their homes to some faraway place in Siberia; again and again people were taken from their homes. In the middle of all this beauty you have this sorrow, this memory of these events, and you can see it in people’s faces, their expressions turning from relaxed to a tense awareness of what’s going on.

DT: As you mentioned before, you also captured Endel’s longing for a normal life. You didn’t see it at the beginning of the film—it just grew so subtly and so gently as he began to see the possibility of a normal life in Haapsalu. I loved the way you handled that. Can you talk about carving that path for his emotional development?

KH: For this film I was the pupil and these Estonian actors were the teachers. I really relied on them. I was a newcomer. A foreign director in Estonia. They told me, “Look, we know what this is about,” and I trusted them. They were really taking this from their own experience and their own memory. I was humble in this circumstance.

When we were looking for financing, quite a lot of financiers were concerned that the film wasn’t threatening enough, wasn’t dangerous enough. They were reading the script, they were reading words on paper, saying, “Maybe this should be more graphic. Maybe you need to begin with something really violent to sell this thing.” The writer and I were the minority on this.

We were looking at a place where every grownup person has some kind of recollection or understanding of what this is about; even if you haven’t lived this situation, you still have some experience of fear of some sort, whether it’s firsthand or secondhand. When you just read the words, it may be hard to imagine, but when you see it on film, it’s so clear from the acting what’s going on, even without words. When I make a movie, I really, really try to look for ways to tell the story without words, and to come across with whatever the film is about without overexplaining it. I’m always afraid of that. Whenever an actor says, “Can we leave this line out?” I’m so happy. Whenever we don’t have to explain what’s going on and we just see it, that’s when cinema is at its best—Charlie Chaplin, or the great silent directors in America. The best directing is just telling it in visuals, so that wherever people see the film—in the States or Europe or China or Africa—they will say,  “I know what this is about.” That’s what’s great about cinema.

DT: For me, one of the main messages of the film is that there is no division between a person’s personal life and the life of the nation—that individuals are not isolated from the actions their governments make.

KH: It’s always easy to see afterwards what we’re doing in the present. When something is going on, you just have a notion that something is not right, and afterward you think about it. When you do historical films that are focused on the past, you need to also draw from the present. Of course the people were different, the situations were different, but what are our fears? What are our fears today, and how can we draw on them?

As we were shooting this film, something very spooky happened. One night, we were shooting the scene where the grandfather is being taken away. That particular night, that dark night, was one of the first scenes with the young boy who plays his grandson, a very sensitive scene. There was a tension on the set, and I was personally very tense to see how this young boy was going to perform. You never know with children—they might perform, and they might not. I was trying to give him secure surroundings, I was trying to create a very focused atmosphere on the set, and suddenly I noticed the Estonian part of the crew were all on their iPhones. I was really irritated, saying, “Come on guys, this isn’t Facebook time, we’re shooting something really crucial here.”  They turned to me and said, “We’re not on Facebook, we’re reading the news that Russia has just entered Ukraine.” It was exactly the same: These events in Russia and the Ukraine were starting to unfold exactly as they had the night we were shooting in this scene. It was really frightening to see how this Estonian crew two generations, three generations later, were on their toes. We Finns didn’t always see it; we would look at the events in Russia and say, “Well, if this happens it will be like this, but on the other hand maybe it will go like that.” We looked at it as something to discuss, but for the Estonians it was really close. Whatever I’d say today, I’d probably be wrong, but whenever you live where suspicion and prejudice grow, we’re easily back in this sort of situation where you look around and can’t trust anyone and realize you can’t live in society.

DT: You chose not to reveal that the story was based on a real-life person, Endel Nelis, until the end of the film. Why?

KH: That was the intention of the writer, which I thought was an intelligent one because we have taken some liberties with the story. The film is based on this fencing club, but at the same time it’s a dramatization and it’s also a David-and-Goliath story about little Estonia and the big Soviet Union, so there are three levels to it. If you say at the beginning that this is a true story, then people will read everything and expect it to be just like it happened. A lot of things about the club happened exactly as we show in the film, and we know that Endel Nelis, the main character of the film, had some trouble with the authorities, but we don’t know exactly what happened. It probably happened over the course of a decade, while in the film we had to speed it up.

Also, we thought that this way you could watch the film without second-guessing, without people sitting in the cinema and Googling Wikipedia. We wanted them first to enjoy the drama, and then the idea that the Soviet Union, this big giant, was at war with little Estonia. This little fencing club that Endel started from such humble beginnings is still there today. That’s such a beautiful picture. I think that putting the reveal about Endel comes across much stronger at the end of the film.

DT: How did you choose and train the actors?

KH: That was a hard one because Estonia is such a small country. They see so few movies. They don’t have agents. They don’t have managers. To scope out an actor you want to see, you have to go to the theatre. And that is what I did—I went to Estonia to see plays. In Estonia, sometimes the plays are four hours long. I didn’t understand much of what they were saying, but I remember being really impressed with some of the actors. That really struck me—for three or four hours I didn’t understand what they were saying, but they left an impression. I figured they would on the silver screen as well.

When it came to the children, we had a casting director. For a year she was looking for these children, going to schools, going to dancing clubs. The main children in the film, the big part of the fencing club, knew fencing from before, but the main children, who eventually go to the competition in Leningrad, really didn’t fence from before. They had to go into intensive training for the film, and that was true for the main character as well. Mart Avandi, the actor who played Endel Nelis, didn’t know fencing from before. He trained in fencing just for those scenes, so basically he didn’t train as a sport, he trained fencing as a dance. He needed to know the choreography for those scenes so he could be a believable teacher. Of course, we had fencing coaches along with us on the shoot, and especially at the ending scenes—at the Leningrad fencing competition we had a lot of coaches and mentors with us on the set.

Mart Avandi, the main actor, is that kind of actor. When this film was over, he was in a play in the theatre and learned to play the accordion. He’s that kind of guy. Whatever he does, he does 110 percent. He’ll do whatever it takes to do his part. I could recommend him to any American or European director because he’s a fantastic co-worker.

Then, of course, the grownup actors were my teachers, my mentors when it came to sharing experiences. When it came to the little children, I didn’t have a common language with them, and that was the challenge there. We tried to have someone be there to translate for us, but that didn’t really work. You need a firsthand sort of relationship…you need eye contact in order to direct a child, so we just went with really basic things, like “Look here, do this, take that, go.” It was really basic code language—“Go.” “Talk.” “Look.”—this sort of really primitive English. I think that was better than having a translator giving really detailed instruction. It’s not too intellectual working with children, it’s more physical, emotional, sort of direct, getting the feeling of what I want and repeating that many times to get that particular emotion.

DT: Did you consult with anybody from Endel’s fencing club?

KH: Not really. Endel’s daughter still trains people at the little fencing club in Haapsalu, Estonia, and we had some of her pupils, and Endel’s son is a coach in Helsinki, Finland. Both Endel’s daughter and son are fencing coaches and their children are fencers, so a little fencing dynasty came out of that family. I did not consult with them, but the writer of the script heard about the story of the fencing club from Endel’s daughter. I chose not to talk with them before shooting the film in order to keep the focus on the drama of the story.

I’ve done historical films before. There are always a number of details that you want to get into the film, but they will weaken the film. They will not strengthen the film. They weaken it because you’ll end up with a docudrama rather than a drama. In order to keep the drama, you must focus, get to where we originally felt the script needed to go. I chose not to talk with them so I wouldn’t be emotionally involved with what went on in real life and wouldn’t be able to tell the story in the best way.

Afterwards I sat down to talk with them, and it was really rewarding. It was great to hear their perspective about the film. Of course they were really happy the film was made. They didn’t agree with everything in the film, but they’re happy it was made.

One really nice thing…you can imagine it’s 2016, the film is an official selection for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, the Cold War has ended and the Soviets have left Estonia. It’s taken a lot of work and a lot of effort for the Estonians to build up their country. They’ve built it up in a wonderful way, but they still have really limited resources to work with. For instance, this fencing club didn’t have a fancy place to train, but due to this film they were able to gather resources to build a brand-new fencing area for those children in Haapsalu. Of course, we didn’t do the film for this, but they were able to raise awareness of their little fencing club. I haven’t visited yet, but I’m told Endel’s daughter is really beaming, she’s saying, “This is what I wanted to have twenty years ago, thirty years ago, and now finally I can give the children a state-of-the-art place to train.” It’s so beautiful when you can give something back. We owe them a lot for being able to tell this story, and we were able to give something back. I think that’s great.

Distributed by CFI Releasing, The Fencer opened today in New York and opens August 11 in Los Angeles, with national rollout to follow. The author thanks Sasha Berman of Shotwell Media for arranging this interview. This article is published here courtesy of Director Talk. Copyright © Director Talk 2017