Estonian Film: From Bear Hunt to Autumn Ball. Notes on Estonian Film History

By Lauri Kärk (University of Tartu, Estonia)

© Lauri Kärk, 2010

Until fairly recently the world of cinema knew Estonia mainly thanks to our animated films. The success of Veiko Õunpuu’s Autumn Ball (Sügisball, 2007) in the Orizzonti competition section of the Venice International Film Festival in 2007, as well as the inclusion of some other Estonian films in competition programs of major festivals, served to launch Estonian filmmaking, hitherto almost unknown to broader audiences, into the orbit of world cinema. In the autumn of 2007, the Warsaw Film Festival featured a special program, “Estonian Explosion.”

In the following, I attempt to sketch an outline of the history of Estonian cinema. In addition to narrative cinema and animated films, some attention will also be paid to documentary filmmaking.

The Beginnings and the Beginners

The novel invention of the “cinematograph” was first demonstrated in the larger Estonian towns of Tallinn and Tartu in 1896. As far as we know, the first shots in Estonia were filmed in 1908, recording the Swedish king during his passage through the Tallinn Bay. The same year witnessed the establishment of first permanent cinemas in Estonia.

paasukeJohannes Pääsuke (1892-1918), a photographer with the Estonian National Museum, became known as the first Estonian filmmaker, chronicling the Russian aviator Sergei Utoshkin’s flight over Tartu in April 1912. A whole array of newsreels followed, presenting celebrations of fire-fighters, capturing a blizzard, and portraying various places in Estonia. The latter included Journey through Setoland (Retk läbi Setumaa, 1913), a pioneering anthropological film about the cultural peculiarities and traditions of the Setos, a small ethnic group populating south-eastern Estonia. In addition, Pääsuke created the first experiment in Estonian narrative cinema, Bear Hunt in Pärnumaa (Karujaht Pärnumaal, 1914), a national-political satire concentrating on the mayor of the town of Pärnu, which was ultimately banned from the screens of the same town.

In the course of several years Pääsuke, then only just over 20 years of age, managed to make about 50 newsreels. Most of them depicted “the life of the Estonian nation and its recent daily events,” to use his own words. The work of this first film pioneer was interrupted by World War I. Pääsuke was drafted and died a few years later in a train accident.

The Pain and Misery of a Small National Cinema: 1920-40

After World War I several new nation states emerged in Europe following the demise of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires, including Estonian Republic, which was established on 24 February 1918. In the 1920s a little more than twenty narrative films were made in Estonia, some of them shorts. The year 1924 saw the premiere of the first Estonian feature film, Shadows of the Past (Mineviku varjud), a national romantic picture about the age-old Estonian fight for independence in the 13th and 14th centuries. Among others films, such as Crippled Brides (Vigased pruudid, 1929), a popular national farce, and Jüri Rumm (1929), a story about a legendary horse thief and local Robin Hood, were produced. The prohibition of alcohol not only provided dramatic subject-matter to filmmakers in Hollywood, but also in Estonia, where a film on spirit smugglers, Waves of Passion (Kire lained, 1930), was made by Vladimir Gaidarov, who was then working in Germany. However, undoubtedly the most important artistic achievement was Theodor Luts’s Young Eagles (Noored kotkad, 1927), a story about our compatriots fighting on the fronts of the Estonian War of Independence (1918-20).

bearTheodor Luts (1896-1980) was one of the most professional and versatile filmmakers of the time, practicing both as director and cinematographer. Luts excelled in setting up compelling battle episodes and monumental scenes (as testified, in addition to the Young Eagles, by Gas! Gas! Gas! from 1931, an educational film showing how to act in case of a gas attack and containing several fictional elements and numerous aerial shots). Among Luts’s successes are also Ruhnu (1931), an ethnographical documentary about the inhabitants of this small island, and Children of the Sun (Päikese lapsed, 1932), one of our first sound films, an Estonian-Finnish co-production, which was destined to remain the last narrative film of this small country for a long time. Luts’s indefatigable energy was further harnessed first by the Finnish and then by the Brazilian film industries.

Like a number of other East and Central European countries, in the 1930s legislation supporting the domestic film industries was also introduced in Estonia. Coming into force in April 1935, the law obliged cinemas to show “in every program homemade newsreels, depicting the most important daily events in Estonia or occurrences of general interest from its political, economical and cultural life, or pictures of the Estonian nation, labor and nature.”

In order to ensure regular production of newsreels, the studio Eesti Kultuurfilm (Estonian Culture Film), initially established in 1931, was re-organized in 1936 into a government-controlled foundation, and this had a positive effect on the development of documentary filmmaking. In addition to newsreels, several themed documentaries and surveys were made (for example, a documentary about the Song Festival in 1938), which testified to the striving for educational enlightenment in the manner of the kulturfilm.

Among documentary filmmakers, Konstantin Märska (1896-1951) attained noteworthy mastery. His cinematography is sensitive to detail; he is skilful in perceiving and portraying different human types—a talent which comes especially to the fore in his reports from markets. Märska’s Holiday in Petseri (Pühad Petseris, 1936) and Fishermen (Kalurid, 1936, aka Views from Osmussaare [Vaateid Osmussaarelt, 1937]) constitute unmistakably the most outstanding and artistically mature works of the 1930s, which have shaped the tradition of our documentary filmmaking to a considerable degree .

The first attempt at making an animated film came in 1931, but the result, Adventures of Puppy Juku (Kutsu Juku seiklusi, directed by Voldemar Päts and Elmar Jaanimägi) remained a solitary experiment. At the time, the most far-reaching Estonian on the international cinematic scene was Miliza Korjus, a singer with Estonian roots, who ultimately arrived in Hollywood and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Julien Duvivier’s The Great Waltz (1938).

The Beginnings of the Semi-centenary of Annexes: The 1940s and 1950s

In 1939, the shady deal of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (the non-aggression pact between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Russia) first brought Soviet military bases to Estonia, and then, in 1940, with the help of the latter, also Soviet governance. Although during the course of World War II the Soviet authorities were temporarily overrun by the Nazi regime, the Soviet Union reinstated its control once again, and Tallinn was “liberated” in the autumn of 1944. This time the Soviet power governed Estonia for several decades, until the independent Estonian Republic was reinstated in 1991.

Estonian Culture Film was nationalized in September 1940. The industry was subordinated to Soviet state control and forced to serve Soviet propaganda aims. The Will of the People (Rahva tahe), a documentary film from 1940, was supposed to demonstrate, as its title suggests, that Estonia’s joining of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a voluntary act, although in the film the Soviet naval troops are clearly distinguishable among the civilian marchers.

koordiThe first Soviet-Estonian narrative films were produced with substantial help from Lenfilm studio. Herbert Rappaport (1908-83), an Austrian-born director, had launched his filmmaking career in Germany as G. W. Pabst’s assistant, and had emigrated from Hollywood to Soviet Union in 1936. Rappaport’s Life in the Citadel (Elu tsitadellis, 1947) and Light in Koordi (Valgus Koordis, 1951) captured the work of the best Estonian actors and actresses, and these pictures were more professional than the films of the other Soviet “visiting filmmakers” who came to Estonia, following Rappaport’s footsteps, yet at the same time they also observed diligently the ideological requirements of the Stalinist system.

Upon Stalin’s death the ideological pressure diminished to some extent, preparing the ground for a more artistically valuable film production. However, as longstanding filmmaking traditions were absent and as the industry was still steered directly from Moscow according to Soviet regulations, the local audiences regarded Estonian cinema for years to come as “a great loner” and an artificially implanted “transplant,” as Lennart Meri, a writer and filmmaker, and later President of Estonian Republic, described its position among the arts in 1968.

The 1960s: The Tidal Wave of Estonian Cinema

In the beginning of the 1960s a number of young professionals, trained largely at the All-Union State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK) and at the State Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS) in Moscow, joined the Estonian film industry. The revival of Estonian narrative cinema is signaled by Fellow-Villagers (Ühe küla mehed, 1962), Jüri Müür’s (1929-84) debut on a contemporary subject matter. The story is about Estonian fishermen whose boat is caught in a storm and drifts to the Finnish shore. Instead of stereotypical ideological patterns—the confrontations stemming from the circumstances of the Cold War, a critique of the capitalist world and the “crime” of crossing the Soviet border—Müür chose to avoid such clichés and attempted to present a more natural solution.

Of Müür’s later work, the adaptation of The Misadventures of the New Satan (Põrgupõhja uus Vanapagan, 1964), co-directed with Grigori Kromanov (1926-84), deserves special attention. Adaptations of literary works had not been unknown before, but as a rule their sources had belonged to an entirely different category with questionable artistic quality. The adaptation of The Misadventures of the New Satan, a mythical parable with a complicated structure by the highly regarded Estonian classic Anton Hansen Tammsaare posed, on the contrary, a serious challenge. In fact, producing cinematic adaptations of national literary classics fulfilled multiple functions: on the one hand, it provided high-quality subject matter to the burgeoning national-cinema-in-the-making, on the other hand it supplied some space for deviating from the rules set in Moscow.

One of the most significant cinematic signposts of the Thaw was Grigori Kromanov’s What Happened to Andres Lapeteus? (Mis juhtus Andres Lapeteusega?, 1966), which analyzed the problems that had emerged through Stalin’s cult of personality. The film follows the lives of a group of former brothers and sisters in arms, who faced death shoulder to shoulder in the war, but whose ways parted in the post-war years; the film asks why. During the brief period of the Thaw, when tackling the questions of the cult of personality, Soviet filmmakers usually concentrated on the fate of the victims of political repressions, while Kromanov examined and sought to reveal the behavioral rationale of a conformist and party collaborator.

madnessThe tidal wave of Estonian cinema of the 1960s found its culmination in Kaljo Kiisk’s (1925-2007) Madness (Hullumeelsus, 1968). This abstract drama of concepts and paradoxes, reminiscent of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s dramaturgy, is set in a mental institution during the last days of World War II. The central question is what or who is truly mad in this story. The inmates who have not been strong enough to resist the inhumanities of the totalitarian regime and who are veritably unwell? Or the henchman, a blind follower of the cult of the Führer, the “sane” one who faithfully and maniacally hunts down an English spy supposedly hidden between the hospital walls? At the time of its making, Kiisk’s Madness was one of the most artistically original (script by Victors Lorencs) and successful (for instance, Jüri Järvet’s role as the spy, or Anatolii Zabolotskii’s cinematography) achievements of Estonian filmmaking, as well as one of the most philosophically profound productions. Unfortunately, its socio-political message proved to be too weighty. Madness met severe ideological disapproval in Moscow and was immediately banned (although it received a restricted release in the Estonian SSR, it was not shown anywhere else in the Soviet Union until perestroika). This meant a serious drawback for Kiisk personally and for Estonian cinema on the whole. Kiisk regained his footing only in the late 1970s, first with Ask the Dead about the Price of Death (Surma hinda küsi surnutelt, 1977), a film about the underground struggle of the communists in the Estonian Republic of the 1920s, and then with Happy-Go-Lucky (Nipernaadi, 1983), an adaptation of August Gailit’s romantic-poetic story about a dreamer.

During the following decades, topics of a more serious nature could find their way to the screen only “between the lines,” disguised in allegorical form. For example Kromanov, known for his sharp sense of the social situation, had to work within the constraints of genre films (Diamonds for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat [Briljandid proletariaadi diktatuurile, 1975], and The Dead Mountaineer Hotel [“Hukkunud alpinisti” hotell, 1979]). The soundtrack (lyrics by Paul-Eerik Rummo, music by Uno Naissoo) of The Last Relic (Viimne reliikvia), a historical adventure which Kromanov directed in 1969, was imbued with unveiled thirst for freedom and the message of the songs, delivered according to the principles of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, allowed for clear parallels with Soviet reality despite the masking of the film’s historical setting. Moreover, this swashbuckler is probably the biggest and most widely known Estonian blockbuster of all times. Arvo Kruusement’s (b. 1928) Spring (Kevade, 1969), an adaptation of a popular youth novel by Oskar Luts (Theodor Luts’s older brother) won the hearts of many Estonian spectators with its simple spontaneity and immediate sincerity.

Special attention should be paid to Endless Day (Lõppematu päev, 1972, rel. 1990), a short experimental film directed by Jaan Tooming (b. 1946), one of the most dynamic and radical Estonian theatrical innovators, and Virve Aruoja (b. 1922). The greatest values of this film, which was unfinished and shelved for decades, lie in its avant-garde style, in an insight into its time and people, and in its contemporary perception of life.

Narrative Cinema in the 1970s and 1980s

Loves Me, Loves Me Not (Karikakramäng), an omnibus film consisting of three shorts, signaled the arrival of a new generation of Estonian filmmakers in 1977. Shortly afterwards, Nest in the Winds (Tuulte pesa, 1980), directed by Olav Neuland (1947-2005), which portrayed the reality of the Baltic countryside immediately after World War II, concentrating on the struggles of the so-called Forest Brothers—local forest guerrillas fighting against the Soviet occupation—managed to catch wider attention, too, and was awarded the Debut Film Prize at the Karlovy Vary IFF in 1980.

ideal landscapeThe most important landmarks of the period are Christmas in Vigala (Jõulud Vigalas) by Mark Soosaar (b. 1946) and The Ideal Landscape (Ideaalmaastik) by Peeter Simm (b. 1953), both made in 1980. The Ideal Landscape became one of the most significant Estonian narrative films ever made. It depicts the forced collectivization of the early years of Stalin’s rule. In the grotesque manner so characteristic of Simm’s style, the director scrutinizes the central character, a sowing commissioner, analyzing the ethical aspects of decisions made by this adolescent communist in either following the instructions given by the party or overseeing the actual sowing process. Central to Simm’s attention is the conflict between the ambitions and aspirations of a single individual on the one hand and the social norms enforced upon him on the other. This topic continued to attract Simm in several of his later films, especially in The Dance around the Steam Boiler (Tants aurukatla ümber, 1987) and in A Man Who Did Not Exist (Inimene, keda polnud, 1989).

Christmas in Vigala also created quite a controversy, for Soosaar represented the events of the 1905 Russian Revolution as a spontaneous carnival and thus stubbornly contrasted his standpoint with the official history and its heroic canon. Naturally he did not escape punishment—the career of this talented and versatile filmmaker was brought to an abrupt end, even though temporarily.

The new generation of filmmakers also introduced a new generation of film actors. During the earlier decades, Estonian screens had been dominated by Rein Aren (1927-90) and Heino Mandri (1922-90); additionally, Ants Eskola (1908-89), one of the greatest figures of Estonian theatre, appeared in several important roles. The films of the 1970s and 80s, however, would have been unimaginable without Tõnu Kark (b. 1947) and Arvo Kukumägi (b. 1958).

Somewhat surprisingly, the first Estonian “perestroika director” turned out to be Leida Laius (1923-96). This grand lady of Estonian film had built her reputation with adaptations of Estonian literary works, analyzing the role of women in different periods in the form of classical psychological dramas and paying great attention to work with actors (e.g. Spring in the Forest [Ukuaru], adapted from Veera Saar’s novel in 1973, and The Master of Kõrboja [Kõrboja peremees, 1979], based on Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s book). In 1985, Laius co-directed with Arvo Iho (b. 1949) Please, Smile (aka Games for Teenagers [Naerata ometi]), a painful film full of sharp social criticism about children in an orphanage, abandoned by their parents. It was one of the first glasnost films in the Soviet Union, and as such attracted some worldwide attention as well. Laius’s work was recognized at several festivals of women filmmakers.

The second half of the 1980s witnessed another wave of directorial debuts. Liberated from ideological pressure, filmmakers were free to address hitherto taboo topics and events of our history. For instance, Jüri Sillart (b. 1943), who had thus far been known as a cinematographer, directed The Awakening (Äratus, 1989), a film about the massive and brutal deportations organized by the Soviet authorities in the 1940s. Arvo Iho earned international acclaim with The Observer (Vaatleja, 1987) and Only for Crazy (Ainult hulludele ehk Halastajaõde, 1990). Roman Baskin’s (b. 1954) Peace Street (Rahu tänav, 1991) also concentrated on the experience of occupation, examining the passive surrender of people and quiet acceptance of circumstances.

In addition, the years of Soviet rule produced several memorable comedies, still popular with local audiences, such as Sulev Nõmmik’s (1931-92) Men Don’t Cry (Mehed ei nuta, 1968) or Juli Kun’s and Kaljo Kiisk’s Mischievous Curves (Vallatud kurvid, 1959). Furthermore, the Soviet period also gave several Estonian actors the opportunity to appear in significant roles in productions of other Soviet studios. First and foremost, Jüri Järvet (1919-95) played Lear in Grigorii Kozintsev’s King Lear (Korol Lir, 1970) and Dr. Snaut in Andrei Tarkovskii’s Solaris (1972). Besides him, Lembit Ulfsak (b. 1947) and Leonhard Merzin (1934-90) were seen frequently on Soviet screens.

Documentary Film—the Conscience of Estonian Cinema

The traditions of the documentary, which first took shape in the 1930s, could continue only in the mid- and late 1960s. Here, similarly to narrative cinema, the arrival of professionally trained filmmakers, along with a certain expansion of creative freedom, was a crucial factor for this revival. In addition, however, Estonian Television, established in 1955, must also be given some significant credit. In the 1960s, Estonian Television developed into one of the most interesting and illuminative stations in the Soviet Union. In its early stages it was far less ideologically defined than later (as technology advanced, live broadcasts were replaced with video recordings, creating better conditions for censorship). In the documentary Estonia (Eestimaa, 1968) by Virve Aruoja, the famous Estonian television journalist Valdo Pant (1928-76) managed to bring a sense of human scale to the screen.

511In addition to narrative cinema, the year of 1968 became a true apex for Estonian documentary filmmaking as well. The 511 Best Photographs of Mars (511 paremat fotot Marsist) by Andres Sööt (b. 1934) and Our Artur (Meie Artur) by Grigori Kromanov, both boldly innovative in their approach, are important milestones of Estonian documentary. Using a hidden camera to observe people in a café, Sööt succeeded in recording some genuinely existential, timeless moments. Kromanov, examining the phenomenon of Artur Rinne, a popular singer and favorite of the masses, draws special attention to several parallels between his career and the complicated fate of Estonia and its people, which, of course, resulted in landing Our Artur firmly on the shelf.

Andres Sööt and Mark Soosaar are two filmmakers who, for years to come, had a huge influence on the development of Estonian documentary; even more so as their respective styles were based on different, even polar approaches. While Soosaar favored vivid imagination and spontaneous subjectivity, Sööt’s authorial attitude was more reserved and characterized by a subtle sense of discreet irony.

Sööt never forgets the mission of a documentary filmmaker as a (historical) chronicler; he values memory, and Memory (Mälu, 1984) is the title of his film about Villem Raam, an Estonian art historian. In 1988 everybody filmed the singing revolution, yet only a few recorded for future generations the removal of the last statue of Lenin in Narva in 1993, or the departure of the last Soviet army units from Paldiski in 1994 (the latter was also filmed by Soosaar).

Even if depicting monumental events, Sööt’s films are not monumental in their expression; his keen and sometimes also ironic eye catches the prosaic side behind the façade of the events. For example, Conductors (Dirigendid, 1975), Sööt’s film about the local tradition of song festivals, is not, as suggested in the title, about some important choir conductor; instead, it focuses on a member of the technical crew organizing the procession of the festival participants through the city. Perhaps even more boldly, his St. John’s Day (Jaanipäev, 1978), portraying the celebration of the summer solstice, a once folksy and nature-bound holiday, in an estranged and migrant-filled urban environment, offers a daring social critique of life in Soviet Estonia.

kihnuKihnu Woman (Kihnu naine, 1974), directed by Mark Soosaar, earned rather widespread recognition for its vivid color schemes and playful camera techniques, rendering the island’s reality as a rainbow of artistic vision. Soosaar’s approach is characterized by convincing figurative expression and poeticism, but also by provocative staging/inducing of events. His subjects might not always fit the generally acceptable norms; they can be eccentric mavericks, as in Mr. Vene’s World (Härra Vene maailm, 1981). On the other hand, Soosaar’s own angle can be openly controversial, as suggested by his portrayal of Eduard Viiralt, one of the most well-known Estonian printmakers, in Earthly Desires (Maised ihad, 1977). Although he can investigate contemporary urban environments (Lasnamäe, 1985) as well, first and foremost he strives to sustain cultures in peril, and he keeps returning to the Estonian island of Kihnu.

Rein Maran (b. 1931) has been one of the most productive Estonian filmmakers in nature documentary, concentrating frequently on the life of the “ostracized,” such as adders or toads, in The Common Adder (Tavaline rästik, 1978) and Toad—The Witches’ Beast (Nõialoom, 1981). Peep Puks (b. 1940), on the other hand, is known for his films about Estonian cultural history, and his Juhan Liiv’s Story (Juhan Liivi lugu, 1975) stands out as an attempt to interpret the symbols of Liiv’s poetry through cinematic means by narrating his tragic life. Lennart Meri (1929-2006), who later became the first president of the independent Estonian Republic, was devoted to filming the Finno-Ugric peoples and their ethnographic traditions in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1990s, Valentin Kuik (b. 1943) has maintained this interest in portraying small ethnic groups, our tribal neighbors, in Siberia.

Several of Ülo Tambek’s (1922-79) documentaries attracted attention for their insightful social criticism (e.g. Peasants [Talupojad, 1969/89]; Wheel of Joy [Rõõmuratas, 1979]), just like some of Jüri Müür’s works (for instance, The Ploughman’s Fatigue [Künnimehe väsimus, 1982], with Enn Säde). In addition to pictures of Estonian photographic culture, Peeter Tooming (1939-97) has authored a number of films about polluted environments (e.g. City Animal [Linnaloom, 1981]). At the very end of the Soviet period, Renita (b. 1955) and Hannes (b. 1958) Lintrop’s work caught the eye of international audiences, especially their For Shura (Šurale, 1990), portraying a guard of the ash hills in northeastern Estonia and associating the social with the existential.

Animation—the Calling Card of Estonian Cinema

nailThe first experiments in animation of 1931 followed only in 1957, when Elbert Tuganov (1920-2007) established the local tradition of puppet animation with Little Peter’s Dream, later making films for both children and adult audiences (such as the satirical Park, 1966). Heino Pars (b. 1925) mixed in a very interesting manner puppet characters with live nature in a series of four films about Cameraman Kõps (1964-8), which offered children educational facts about the world around us. In Nail (Nael, 1972) Pars managed to vividly represent and generalize several traits of human nature by means of an original and minimalist gallery of characters in the form of nails.

Fresh blood was brought into puppet animation by the tandem of Riho Unt (b. 1956) and Hardi Volmer (b. 1957), who surprised audiences with their innovative, uniquely characterized and humorously nuanced approaches (Enchanted Island [Nõiutud saar, 1985]), which opened further artistic avenues both for more serious allegories (War [Sõda, 1987]) and later also for witty parodies (e.g. Cabbage Head [Kapsapea], directed by Riho Unt in 1993). Rao Heidmets’s (b. 1956) puppet animations were sophisticated in their artistic vision. In Papa Carlo’s Theatre (Papa Carlo teater, 1988) he examines the relationship between a human and a marionette. The surrealist Noblesse Oblige (1989) discusses the mannerisms of social etiquette.

tollIn 1972 Rein Raamat’s (b. 1931) The Water Bearer established the school of Estonian cel animation. His greatest works are Big Tõll (Suur tõll, 1980), an epic film depicting an ancient hero from Estonian folklore, and Hell (Põrgu, 1983), a vision from Eduard Viiralt’s prints of the 1930s imagining the dangers threatening European civilization. In making his films, Raamat has involved a whole array of the best Estonian fine artists; he has also engaged in a productive co-operation with the composer Lepo Sumera.

On an international level, Priit Pärn (b. 1946) is undoubtedly the most famous and recognized Estonian filmmaker. Initially a caricaturist, his films are full of the most unexpected, strange and paradoxical metamorphoses (...And Plays Tricks [... ja teeb trikke, 1978]; Time Out [Aeg maha, 1984]). Pärn’s works are amusing and ingenious, yet at the same time they do not exclude other, darker notes and entirely serious themes. The most awarded of his films, Luncheon on the Grass (Eine murul, 1987), investigating the life of an individual in a desolate totalitarian society, is one of the most insightful portrayals of the Soviet period in the whole of Estonian cinema.

lunchMati Kütt (b. 1947) sands out for formal experiments: his Labyrinth (Labürint, 1989), for example, has been scratched directly onto a celluloid strip. Avo Paistik (b. 1936) is the author of the first full-length cel animation for children, Naksitrallid (1990). Although in addition to the Soiuzmultfilm in Moscow, cel and puppet animation was produced in a number of other republican studios, Estonia was among the few who managed to build a national school of animation, which was and still is recognized far beyond national borders.

Filmmaking in the Independent Estonia

In discussing post-Soviet Estonian filmmaking, both content-related changes on the screen and structural rearrangement of the industry need to be considered. The changes themselves have been more radical and painful than in other artistic fields, as the costly business of film production was previously both financed and ideologically shaped predominantly by the authorities in Moscow.

Upon the re-establishment of independence, filmmakers demonstrated a newly discovered interest in genre cinema and audiences flocked to see Mati Põldre’s (b. 1936) Those Old Love Letters (Need vanad armastuskirjad, 1992), a romantic film about the life of a legendary Estonian composer Raimond Valgre. In addition, several foreign filmmakers found inspiration in the events of recent history and used Estonian actors to narrate these stories. Of these, Darkness in Tallinn (Tallinn pimeduses, 1993), directed by the Finnish filmmaker Ilkka Järvilaturi, is the most widely known production.

The monopoly of the state-funded Tallinnfilm and Eesti Telefilm (Estonian Television Film) studios as sole agents of the film industry was first shaken up by a film made in 1989 at the newly established Estofilm studio—Olav Neuland’s Hitler & Stalin 1939, made on the occasion of the semi-centennial of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Hereafter, small private studios began to crop up one after another.

In 1993 a decision of principal importance was made—to switch from a studio-centered financing model (that is, from subsidizing Tallinnfilm only) to a project-based funding scheme. Initially, the Ministry of Culture was responsible for allocating resources; from 1997, however, the Estonian Film Foundation (Eesti Filmi Sihtasutus, EFS) has acted as the major funding body. Also, Estonian Cultural Endowment provides additional funds for the film industry. Nevertheless, state support is given only in part and it is the task of the producers to seek additional sources. Over the years, opportunities have widened: in 2008, the annual state support for the film industry was €6,590,465, that is, more than twice as much as five years earlier.

In addition to funding projects proposed by private studios, EFS has also begun to co-finance films produced by the public television station, Eesti Televisioon. This constructive cooperation resulted first in documentaries (the series Estonian Stories [Eesti lood]), and since 2005 also in several low-budget narrative films. As the film industry of a small country can never be too large, any means designed to increase the number of productions are much appreciated.

In 1992 an undergraduate program in filmmaking was launched at the Tallinn Pedagogical University (now Tallinn University), and in 2005 the Baltic Film and Media School was established in Tallinn. Our film students also seize every opportunity to develop their skills at other film schools all over the world.

Animated filmmaking has met the smallest difficulties in making the transition into the new system. The studios Eesti Joonisfilm and Nukufilm have succeeded in sustaining the good reputation of Estonian animation. Audiences have continued to welcome new works by Priit Pärn, our modern classic, from Hotel E (Hotell E, 1992) to Life without Gabriella Ferri (Elu ilma Gabriella Ferrita, 2008, with Olga Pärn). Mati Kütt’s films also demonstrate steadily enjoyable artistic standards. Janno Põldma (b. 1950) and Heiki Ernits’s (b. 1953) feature-length cel animation Lotte from Gadgetville (Leiutajateküla Lotte, 2006) was invited to take part in the Berlinale’s children’s and youth section. Riho Unt’s elegantly flexible treatment of puppets deserves full appreciation. Finally, a new generation of young animators has also taken the stage, among them Mari-Liis Bassovskaja (b. 1977) and Jelena Girlin (b. 1979), Kaspar Jancis (b. 1975) and Priit Tender (b. 1971), Mait Laas (b. 1970) and Pärtel Tall (b. 1977).

Estonian documentary film, on the contrary, has hit some rough weather (in addition to everything else, it had to deal with a change from celluloid film to video and digital techniques, which proved an obstacle at first). Yet some considerable success can be noted: the films by Sulev Keedus (b. 1957), such as In Paradisum (1993), which offers a glimpse into the psychology of inmates, and Jonathan from Australia, (Jonathan Austraaliast, 2007), a touching film about human destinies lagging behind the progress of life. Enn Säde’s (b. 1938) Nelli and Elmar (Nelli ja Elmar, 1998), documenting life on the periphery, and Kersti Uibo’s (b. 1956) Still Life with a Woman (Vaikelu naisega, 2006), a psychologically sensitive portrayal of a marriage, are among the best recent documentaries.

Several films chronicle the history of Estonian film culture by portraying local filmmakers. Frequently, these works have also demonstrated a more sophisticated approach to representing the human nature, as exemplified by Jüri Sillart’s Antoša (1995), depicting the cinematographer Anton Mutt, or by Enn Säde’s Mister Wall and the Wind (Jüri—see mulk, 2004), about Jüri Müür’s life, or by Mait Laas’s Kings of the Time (Aja meistrid, 2008), a double portrait of Heino Pars and Elbert Tuganov.

Katrin Lauri’s (b. 1955) The Poet and Her Time (Debora Vaarandi aeg, 2006), portraying the Estonian poet Debora Vaarandi, did not avoid the sensitive issues related to the Soviet past, yet the outcome is all the more interesting. Dorian Supin’s (b. 1948) Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes for a Fugue (24 prelüüdi ühele fuugale, 2002) concentrates on the world-famous Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, who, incidentally, in his youth wrote a considerable amount of film music for several Tallinnfilm productions.

Among the work of younger authors, Urmas E. Liiv’s (b. 1966) Congratulations (Palju õnne, 2004) deserves to be highlighted. The director juxtaposes the lives of three adolescents from very different social backgrounds in contemporary Estonia, giving them cameras and encouraging them to capture their own worlds. Even more importantly, however, the tandem of Jaak Kilmi (b. 1973) and Andres Maimik (b. 1970) has attracted considerable attention and created a fair amount of controversy. A Living Force (Elav jõud, 2003), co-directed by them, observes the struggles of three different social types—a loser, an intellectual, and a yuppie—in modern Estonia where everything revolves around the myth of success. Maimik’s Choose Order! (Vali kord!, 2004), on the other hand, makes an effort to instigate those who desire rigorous order and authority. Kilmi and Kiur Aarma’s (b. 1975) most recent co-production, Disco & Atomic War (Disko ja tuumasõda, 2009) is intriguing and unconstrained in its attempt to address the ideological conflicts that raged on the Soviet Estonian mediascape.

Soul-searching of the New Narrative Cinema

And finally, narrative cinema. Its destiny has always been somewhat chaotic in Estonia. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberated from Moscow and its finances, the number of Estonian narrative films shot up at first (eight feature films were made in 1992, instead of the usual three or four). Yet, some of the following years saw an almost total absence of narrative film production (not a single feature film was made in 1996 and 2000).

And then came 2007, the most successful after the legendary film year of 1968. Ten(!) feature films were made in Estonia (although one of them, Kadri Kõusaar’s debut Magnus was banned and has still not been theatrically released in Estonia; on the other hand, we could also add three films made by Estonian directors in Russia). Estonian films reached the programs of major festivals, one after another. In spring Kõusaar’s (b. 1980) Magnus was selected for the “Un Certain Regard” program in Cannes. In summer Ilmar Raag’s (b. 1968) The Class (Klass), a controversial film about school violence, took part of the “East of the West” section of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, and was awarded a special jury prize. Finally, in autumn Veiko Õunpuu’s (b. 1972) Autumn Ball (Sügisball) was shown at the 64th Venice International Film Festival and won the “Orizzonti” prize.

At this point it is worth recalling that Estonian films had taken part in major festivals and earned recognition even before 2007. For example, as already mentioned above, Neuland’s Nest in the Winds won a debut award in Karlovy Vary. In 1990 Peeter Simm’s A Man Who Did Not Exist took part in the “Directors’ Fortnight” program in Cannes. In 2002, his Good Hands (Head käed, 2001) returned from the Berlinale’s “Panorama” with the Manfred Salzgeber Prize. In 2004, Jaak Kilmi and René Reinumäe’s (b. 1974) Revolution of Pigs (Sigade revolutsioon, 2003) took the Special Jury Prize, the Silver St. George, at the Moscow International Film Festival. Nevertheless, the “Orizzonti” prize for Õunpuu’s Autumn Ball is still the most important achievement in this rather short line of significant acknowledgements.

georgicaIn addition, and equally importantly, the market share of domestic films reached 14.3% in Estonia, leaving other Baltic countries far behind and approaching slowly the figures of our Scandinavian neighbours. Elmo Nüganen’s (b. 1962) Names in Marble (Nimed marmortahvlil, 2002) is the biggest box-office hit of the post-Soviet period, with 167,958 domestic admissions, outrunning even some Hollywood blockbusters. On average, Estonians went to the movies 1.21 times per year in 2007.

Naturally, all of this did not happen overnight and in a vacuum. For example, Sulev Keedus made every effort to sustain the role of auteur cinema over the years; his Georgica (1998) and Somnambulance (Somnambuul 2003) depict the eschatological world after the cataclysms of the 20th century, seeking a way to overcome the tragic divisions scarring it.

The arrival of a new generation of narrative filmmakers was first signaled by Rainer Sarnet’s (b. 1969) Seasickness (Merehaigus, 1993), which earned recognition at a student film festival in Moscow, and by Jaak Kilmi’s Came to Visit (Külla tuli, 1997), which was awarded the main prize in Oberhausen in 1999. Both Sarnet and Kilmi are graduates of Tallinn University.

Marko Raat’s (b. 1973) Agent Wild Duck (Agent Sinikael, 2002) is original in its concept, attempting to represent the modern world of swindlers and manipulators. Despite serious budget constraints (instead of a low-budget it can be regarded as no-budget), the anthology film Elusive Miracle (Tabamata ime, 2006), made under the aegis of the avant-garde Von Krahl Theatre, turned out to be quite profound. Amongst the six young authors, Maimik’s and Kilmi’s short film novellas stood out most, as sarcastic-grotesque pseudo-documentary portrayals of “Estonian reality.”

autumnballVeiko Õunpuu is also always sensitive towards catching the vibrations of his time. His Autumn Ball, based on the motives of a novel by Mati Unt (1944-2005), a modern Estonian literary classic, is a narration about loneliness and estrangement. Its characters, introverted and tense Nordic people, inhabit a desolate post-Soviet cityscape. Õunpuu has shown particular talent in fine-tuning the settings, which is perhaps related to his previous training as a painter.

Is everything now as it should be in Estonian cinema? Unfortunately, the years that followed the phenomenal 2007 have not quite confirmed this. Yet there seems to be a lot of potential. Hopefully, we do not have to wait for the next tidal wave of Estonian film for as long as we did after 1968.

Translated by Eva Näripea

Updated: 06 Mar 10