Estonian Cinema Thrives In the Post-Soviet Era

Marcus Clark

Like most other Soviet film industries, the direction of Estonian cinema was determined by Moscow’s final word. Despite this, Estonia’s principal production house, Tallinnfilm, was a hotbed of creative energy for much of the late 20th century. This creativity has now been passed onto a new generation of talented filmmakers.
Isolated enough to avoid the strictest scrutiny, the Estonian film studio Tallinfilm created culturally distinct films for its domestic audience. The fall of the Berlin Wall put an end to state funding but also to controls on artistic licence. Following the lean years of the 1990s, the Estonian film industry has begun to revive, spawning a new generation of exciting and progressive filmmakers.

Spring (1969)

Spring is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by cherished author and play write Oskar Luts. The material is of an undeniably warm tone, presenting life, love, and coming of age in an Estonian country boarding school in the late 1800s. The film itself is a perfect example of the abundance of creativity which came out of Estonia’s only major film studio during the Soviet era – Tallinnfilm. During the sixties the production house became Estonia’s unrivalled zone of creativity and was largely free from Soviet intervention. Filmmakers were able to present culturally relevant vignettes to enchanted domestic crowds. The popularity of these films is evident in the fact that Spring sold over 550,000 tickets at a time when Estonia’s population numbered just over 1.3 million.

The Last Relic (1969)

Grigori Krimanov’s The Last Relic is based on the novel The Last Days of Pirita Monastery by pioneering historical fiction writer Eduard Bornhöhe. The book’s transition to film has seen it become part of the Estonian cultural canon. The film is set during the Livonian War in the mid-16th Century and sees an audacious and cruel nobleman (Raivo Trass) barter a deal to trade the venerated bones of St. Bridget in exchange for a virgin bride from a convent’s cloisters. The nobleman’s plans are spurned however when the wedding is interrupted and overrun by a peasants’ revolt which sees his bride-to-be (Ingrīda Andriņa) captured by a handsome vagabond (Aleksandr Goloborodko). An epic swashbuckling romp, the film’s appeal meant that in 2002 it was the first to be remastered by Tallinfilm after being declared part of the country’s cultural heritage.

Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)

Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel is 1970s sci-fi at its best and was penned by Soviet writers the Strugatsky brothers from their popular book of the same name. The story follows grizzled police inspector Glebsky (Uldis Pucitis) and his search for an enigmatic killer in the futuristic neo noir mountain lodge the ‘Alpiniste Mort’. Eccentric guests and surreal events add to the mystery and Glebsky soon begins to wonder if the murderer is entirely of this world. The second film on the list by Krimanov is definitely more visceral in style. The film’s cinematography pulses with neon colours and suffocating shadow creating a superb interplay between light and dark, apparition and reality. Sven Grünberg’s sonorous synth score adds to the hypnotic tension.

The Ideal Landscape (1981)

In post-World War Two Estonia a young commissary of the ruling Communist party named Mait Kukemeri (Arvo Kukumägi) is sent to make sure that the spring seeds are sown on the Metsa collective farm, which is supposedly being run inefficiently by its once dependable head, Harald Tuvikene (Tõnu Kark). On arrival however, Mait’s preconceptions are slowly altered and he realises that the commune’s failings are due to unreasonable and uninformed state demands. Director Peeter Simm is undoubtedly more concerned with exploring the relationship between the film’s two protagonists than its potential political leanings. This political subtext is checked to quell the exuberance of Soviet censors. A blessing in disguise perhaps as Kukumägi and Kark give exceptional understated performances. As men at the cusp of a moral crossroad they act out a tempestuous period of Estonian history.

The Adventurer (1983)

The Adventurer, also known as Happy Go Lucky or Nipernaadi, is an adaptation of the popular 1928 Estonian novel Toomas Niperaandi by August Gailit. Directed by Kaljo Kiisk, the film stays firmly true to its source material and similar to Spring or The Last Relic has become part of Estonia’s cultural heritage. Tõnu Kark stars as the titular Niperaandi, a roguish writer who travels the Estonian countryside in a haggard white suit looking for life and love with frivolous whimsy. A quintessential piece of Estonian culture and folklore deserved of attention.

Well, Come On, Smile (1985)

Well, Come on, Smile tells the story of teenager Mari (Monika Järv) and her struggles with life in a Soviet era orphanage after escaping her alcoholic father. The place itself is no home of refuge and on arrival it is clear that one form of abuse has merely been substituted for another. Naturalism is key to creating the drama and Arvo Iho brilliantly directs proceedings with a lugubrious aura. The film’s characters are flawed beasts and the actors handle them as such with similar gloomy gusto. Sympathy lies firmly with Mari and a commitment to seeing her succeed is intimately engaging.

Georgica (1998)

Georgica takes place on a small deserted island in post-World War Two Estonia which the Soviet air force uses to calibrate their bombs. Its only resident is a tortured elderly hermit named Jakub (Evald Aavik) who is haunted by the memories of his missionary work in Africa. When a young mute boy (Mait Merekülski) is banished to the island with similar nightmares the two begin to depend on each other. However, the chance of their own redemption appears scuppered by tragedy. Directed by Sulev Keedus, Georgica effectively marked the revitalisation of Estonia’s film industry after the fall of the Soviet Union. It thus reveals the possibilities of artistic endeavour when done so without ideological requirements.

The Class (2007)

The Class, written and directed by Ilmar Raag, focuses on the issue of communal bullying at its most extreme. The lens is placed on 16 year old Joosep (Part Uusberg) who is continually harassed and dejected by his classmates with Machiavellian cruelty. When fellow classmate Kaspar (Vallo Kris) attempts to put an end to the torturous mistreatment a chain of unforeseen events ultimately lead to a bloody and shocking climax. Ilmar Raag explores the psychological damage and culture of violence that bullying fosters with journalistic precision. An excellent piece of cinema from Estonia’s contemporary canon.

The Temptation of St. Tony (2009)

Estonian writer director Veiko Õunpuu’s take on the this tale from ancient Christian lore is so surreal it would make Salvador Dalí proud. Õunpuu’s modern day interpretation focuses on the meagre and middle aged Tõnu (Taavi Eelmaa), the affluent manager of an indiscriminate Tallinn factory. Whilst Tony is concerned with all the problems of post-Soviet economy his father’s sudden death leads him on a surreal and morally ambiguous path. The influence of David Lynch and Federico Fellini is clearly apparent in Õunpuu’s symbolic style and his creation of an apocalyptic world which is both bleak and meaningless. That’s not to say there is not something wholly rewarding at the heart of Õunpuu’s oddball yarn.

Disco and Atomic War (2009)

Jaak Kilmi’s enchanting and witty documentary is set during the height of the USSR’s suppressive censorship of Estonia. Their main task is to put an immediate halt to the transmission and viewing of Finnish TV channels which beam the faces of Dallas, Knight Rider, and McGyver into Tallinn living rooms on a daily basis. As the film unfolds it is clear that this is a battle the KGB are evidently losing and marks the beginning of the end of Soviet control. One of the things which make Kilmi’s documentary stand out from the crowd is its grounding in his own memories of the time. A moving piece of cinema which reveals a great deal about Estonian national character.

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