“THE FENCER” — 3 stars — Mart Avandi, Ursula Ratasepp, Hendrik Toompere Sr., Liisa Koppel; not rated; Broadway
Klaus Härö’s “The Fencer” tells the moving true story of a fencing teacher who is forced to choose between his students and his freedom.
As the film opens, we meet Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), a mild-mannered physical education teacher who has just arrived at a secondary school in the small Estonian village of Haapsalu. In the aftermath of World War II, Estonia has shifted from German to Soviet occupation, and Stalin’s secret police has been busy hunting down Estonian men who had been drafted into the German war effort.
Endel is one of those men. He arrives in Haapsalu with a changed name after completing his studies in the far more dangerous city of Leningrad. Since he has a background in fencing — and since the local military unit keeps taking all of the school’s traditional sports equipment — Endel decides to teach fencing to the children in the local sports club.
The children — desperate for something to distract them from their bleak postwar lives — instantly take to the new pursuit. Marta (Liisa Koppel) is a spunky young girl with a brave spirit that belies her small frame, and Jaan (Joonas Koff) has fencing in his blood, thanks to the experience of his grandfather (Lembit Ulfsak). But the school principal (Hendrik Toompere Sr.) thinks fencing is a relic of an elitist past, unsuitable for the proletariat and tries to shut down the program.
The local townspeople vote down his effort, so the principal redirects his attention to Endel, who he suspects might be hiding from Stalin’s secret police. In the meantime, Endel continues to work with the children and starts to spend more time with Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp), a fellow teacher who has caught his eye. But when the kids discover a fencing tournament in Leningrad, Endel has to decide whether to support his students or continue to keep his low profile.
Härö’s effort is very low-key, matching its quiet, contemplative atmosphere to desaturated, cold-toned visuals. The film offers plenty of fencing action, especially in “The Fencer’s” climactic third act, but it’s still more of a drama than a sports movie.
Avandi gives Endel a subtle arc as his cold, wary exterior is gradually worn down by his affectionate students. Koppel only has to flash a glaring look at Endel or anyone else who crosses her to merit a smile from the audience, and Koff is especially sympathetic as a young man who has to sit by while every male figure in his life is taken away from him.
While the film may be a little too low-key to reach its peak resonance, “The Fencer” is a charming and effective portrait of a people trying to become accustomed to the early days of Soviet rule. For all the films out there that dissect the drama of World War II, “The Fencer” gives us a rare glimpse of its aftermath, felt behind the still-young Iron Curtain.
“The Fencer” is not rated, but might earn a PG for some language, sports violence and dramatic themes; running time: 99 minutes.