Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 19, 2017

The Fencer

Filed under: Film,sports,Stalinism — louisproyect @ 8:49 pm

Opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on Friday, “The Fencer” is an Estonian-language film made in 2015 by Finns that tells the story of a fencing instructor named Endel Nelis who led an underdog team of children to victory in a competition held in Leningrad in the early 50s. In doing so, he took considerable risks since he had been drafted into the Estonian contingent of the Nazi army after Hitler invaded Estonia. Torn between self-preservation and dedication to his students, he chooses them. There was a real person named Endel Nelis who died in 1993 but the film’s plot takes liberties with his story. There is no evidence that he was wanted by the KGB even though Estonians paid dearly for being dragooned into Hitler’s killing machine. While the film has a fictional narrative, there is a larger truth about the USSR and Estonia that I will address after saying a few words about this altogether stirring film.

As a genre, “The Fencer” has a lot in common with both documentary and narrative films I have seen about kids from poverty-stricken circumstances winning chess tournaments, especially “Dark Horse” that came out the same year as “The Fencer”. “Dark Horse”, a New Zealand film, was about a troubled Maori man named Genesis Potini who trained Maori children to compete and win in chess tournaments against children from elite schools. “The Fencer” will also remind you of “The Karate Kid” since fencing and karate are both one-on-one combat sports.

However, the focus is mostly on Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi) who has arrived in the poor and rural village of Haapsalu, Estonia from Leningrad in order to avoid detection by the Soviet police. He interviews with the principal of the local school for a sports instructor position that he hardly looks forward to. The gym lacks equipment and the children are not very athletic. In an early scene, 1 out of 5 boys run around vaulting equipment rather than leap over it. When Nelis decides to take them out skiing, the principal informs him that the skis are currently being used at a military base for training.

Missing the fencing competition he excelled at in Leningrad, he begins working out with a fencing foil on his own in the school’s gym in his spare time only to be discovered by a pre-teen girl named Marta who becomes totally fixated on his balletic moves.

Can you teach me to do that, she asks. Finally discovering something that might motivate his students, Nelis begins a fencing class that starts out on the most elementary basis. The children are lined up like they were recruits in basic training and put through the abc’s of fencing—except without a weapon. Once he realizes that they are determined to become fencers, he takes them into a nearby forest where they cut down branches that are the length of a fencing foil and equips them with an ersatz handle.

The film includes a romance between Nelis and the school librarian who stands behind his work, even though that puts her at odds with the principal who regards fencing as “feudal”. In a PTA type meeting, he urges the parents to support his decision to drop the program using Stalinist rhetoric about the “needs of the proletariat”. The grandfather of Nelis’s star student stands up to remind him that Karl Marx was a fencer when young.

“The Fencer” is an old-fashioned film with a script that borders on the melodramatic. What makes it compelling is the performances by the leading characters and enough of the actual art of fencing to carry you along. In plucky underdog films such as this, you can surely expect a happy ending.

As someone who had just finished a survey on the films of Andrzej Wajda, I found myself wondering about the historical backdrop for the film. As I had mentioned in my review of “Katyn”, how was it possible for the USSR to organize the execution of 22,000 Polish officers for the crime of being officers? By the same token, what kind of justice is it to put men in concentration camps who had been forced to fight on the side of the Nazis? In a key scene between Nelis and his librarian lover, he tells her that he managed to flee from the army not long after being drafted without being caught. The other men in the unit, who were friends and neighbors from Estonia, were not so lucky. They were apprehended and killed.

According to Wikipedia, the majority of Estonian men volunteered to join the Nazi military and comprised a 70,000 strong force. An Estonian Legion was led by Franz Augsberger, a high-ranking German SS commander. In a key battle between Soviet and Nazi forces in the Battle of Narwa in January, 1944, Estonian soldiers were key to holding off the Red Army. Soviet scorched earth tactics helped to keep Estonia in the Nazi camp. Two months later, Soviet bombers attacked the capital city of Tallinn and left 40 percent of the homes burned to the ground.

If your knowledge of Estonia is based on these bare facts, you would tend to regard its citizens as a reactionary mob despite what is depicted in “The Fencer”. Indeed, whenever I heard about Estonia in the 1960s, it was always written off as hotbed of fascism in the same way as Ukraine, another Nazi ally supposedly. But like Ukraine, Estonia was not reflexively predisposed to anti-Communism. In some ways, writing Estonians off as “bad seeds” reminds me of Daniel Goldhagen’s argument that Germans were innately anti-Semitic.

Like Poland, Estonia was ceded to the Soviet Union as part of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. After forcing the Estonian government to accept Soviet military bases and 25,000 soldiers on its soil, the country quickly came under total Soviet control when an additional 90,000 Soviet soldiers were sent in as reinforcements. A puppet government was installed and a Red flag replaced the Estonian flag over the nation’s capital. Shortly afterwards, tribunals were set up to try “enemies of the people” against a backdrop of demonstration elections that recorded a 92.8% preference for the Communist Party, the only one on the ballot of course. Economically, the country was transformed overnight. Everything, including small shops, was nationalized and trade with the West came to an end.

During the first year of Soviet occupation over 8,000 people, including most of the country’s leading politicians and military officers, were arrested and 2,200 of those arrested were executed on the spot in Estonia. The rest were sent to prison camps in the USSR, from which very few returned. 8,000 doesn’t sound like very much but in 1939 Estonia had a population of 1,122,000, just a bit larger than San Jose, California. Can you imagine the trauma suffered by such a city if 8,000 of its residents were killed for no other reasons than being “enemies of the people”? Or think of it this way, if Estonia had a population as large as that of the USA’s today, the proportionate number of victims would have been 2,400,000.

Considering the fact that the Nazis had never killed a single Estonian until it invaded the country on its way to the USSR, it is understandable why many young men who were politically naïve might have seen them as the lesser evil.

Last Thursday, RT.com published an article titled “‘Perversion of history’: Russian officials blast NATO film glorifying Nazi collaborators” that attacked an 8-minute film produced by NATO about the Forest Brothers, a Baltic-wide guerrilla movement that fought alongside the Nazis against the Red Army. Russian Foreign Minister Maria Zakharova wrote: “Don’t remain indifferent, this is a perversion of history that NATO knowingly spreads in order to undermine the outcome of the Nuremberg Tribunal and it must be cut short!” She also correctly stated that many of the Forest Brothers were former Nazi collaborators and members of the Baltic Waffen SS.

The problem with much of RT.com reporting is that it operates in a time-tunnel that begins with, for example, Nazi alliances with Estonian nationalists but not with the secret protocols that gave the USSR free rein to seize control of Estonia and murder tens of thousands of its citizens only because it saw that as necessary for securing a buffer against the West, which at that time did not include Adolf Hitler.

As difficult as it is for some people on the left to understand, the best defense of the USSR was working-class solidarity across borders, not the Metternichian foreign policy of Stalin in the past and of Putin’s Russia today. After WWII, Stalin retained control of the Baltic States with the full approval of the USA but as the Cold War began, they began to be courted by the CIA as possible allies. Instead of maintaining its domination of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, the Kremlin should have granted them the right to self-determination and offered them total political and economic support as independent states. That, in fact, was the original policy of the Soviet Union even though it is virtually unknown to people who rely on RT.com.

It is quite natural that in such circumstances the “freedom to secede from the union” by which we justify ourselves will be a mere scrap of paper, unable to defend the non-Russians from the onslaught of that really Russian man, the Great-Russian chauvinist, in substance a rascal and a tyrant, such as the typical Russian bureaucrat is. There is no doubt that the infinitesimal percentage of Soviet and sovietised workers will drown in that tide of chauvinistic Great-Russian riffraff like a fly in milk.

–V.I. Lenin, The Question of Nationalities or “Autonomisation”

 

 

3 Comments »

  1. Boring film

    Comment by Milton — July 20, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

  2. You might look into “Wonder Woman” instead.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 20, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

  3. […] I pointed out in my review of “The Fencer”, a Finnish film that reviews some of this history, Estonia was a piece of real estate ceded to […]

    Pingback by The Forest Brothers and the holocaust | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 26, 2017 @ 5:54 pm


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