As a point of full disclosure, after watching this film, I had drinks with its director, Klaus Härö, and its co-producer, Ivo Felt, so my objectivity might be a bit compromised.
World War II was a tragedy for millions of people of different nationalities, but Estonians were subjected to a particularly painful twist. In June 1940, Soviet troops occupied Estonia and eventually forced about 50,000 young Estonian men to join the Red Army. The following year, German troops drove out the Soviets, occupied Estonia themselves, and forced another 70,000 young Estonian men to fight for the Nazis. So, depending on what year you were born, if you were a young Estonian man during this period, you could have found yourself fighting for either side in the war. Indeed, brothers and friends ended up on opposite sides despite not really supporting either one.
This year, two countries, Estonia and Finland, entered films dealing with this period. The Estonian entry, 1944, which set domestic box-office records, is a war epic complete with realistic battle scenes and protagonists who are struggling with their roles as soldiers and Estonians.
The Fencer is inspired by (rather than based on) the life of Endel Nelis, a champion fencer who ended up on the German side of World War II. Once the Soviets regained control of Estonia, such “pro-Nazi” Estonians were considered suspect, if not full-blown “enemies of the state.”
In the film, seven years after the end of the war, Nelis flees the big-city, where he is wanted by the authorities, and lands a job as the physical education instructor in a small, backwater town in Estonia. When one of the students spots him thrusting with a sword, she asks him to teach the children fencing. Of course they have no equipment, so he leads them into the forest to create mock weapons out of tree branches. The low-level Communist hack in charge of the school considers fencing too elitist a sport for the proletariat, feels threatened by Nelis’ popularity and sets out to ruin him. The rest of the film follows the standard inspiring sports teacher conventions with a love interest thrown in. But it is particularly well-made and earned a Golden Globe nomination. And I did enjoy the drinks.