The ‘inspiring teacher’ film has many variations but its core narrative is always the same: a teacher helping children realise their dreams. The Fencer (2015) is an uplifting story told with sensitivity towards the harsh landscapes of Estonia and a nation that has experienced more terror than Hitchcock could imagine. At its heart is a morality play of historical proportions and a lone teacher’s commitment to do what is best for children.
Elite fencer and coach Endel Nelis (Mårt Avandi) escapes Leningrad in the early 1950s to avoid Stalin’s secret police. At 18 he was drafted by the Nazis and after the Soviet invasion all men who ever wore the Nazi uniform were sent to Siberia. He hopes for obscurity as a sports teacher in a small Estonian village but the secret police have eyes everywhere. Endel lives in fear and so does the village where most of the menfolk have been taken away in darkness never to be seen again. Amidst this paranoia, he starts a class in the traditional discipline of fencing but his initiative is resented by authorities who investigate his past. Meanwhile he finds romance and the children progress so quickly they are soon pleading to compete in Leningrad. Endel knows if he takes them he may never return.
The filming of this story is its major strength. The camera is in the middle of the fencing classes watching the children develop in an artform based on balletic grace, speed, and knowing precisely when and where to strike. The children’s growing sense of control contrasts with the lack of control they have over their lives under Stalinist rule. As Endel becomes a father figure he also becomes another person to lose. Although urged by his former coach to flee again he becomes emotionally invested in the children and his blossoming romance. Several close-up scenes of Endel relating to the children and his girlfriend are poetic portraits of hope struggling against the tyranny of the times.
The story has a dual climax and both are heart-warming and inspirational. The village children bravely compete against big city schools, and the fencing matches themselves are exciting spectacles of cut and thrust. Endel’s own survival plays out with all the hallmarks of an espionage thriller and he must live with the consequences of his moral choice. Understated acting performances, minimalist dialogue translations and a balance of political tension and youthful hope help steer the film away from the most obvious clichés of the inspiring teacher genre. This is a well-crafted and touching tale about heroism without fanfare while the story lives on through Endel’s fencing school that still teaches today.
Director: Claus Hårø
Stars: Lembit Ulfask, Kirill Kårø, Mårt Avandi