Conflicting Visions: Estonia and Estonians as Presented in the Cinema of 1990s and 2000s

By Mari Laaniste (Estonian Literary Museum)

© Mari Laaniste, 2010


The following is a brief analysis of the various attempts of Estonian filmmakers in the past two decades to build and shape a presentable “national image” through films. These efforts are compared to some not quite so flattering reflections of Estonia and Estonians seen in the works of international filmmakers during the same period. I approach this topic as someone who has worked as a freelance film critic in Estonia for nearly a decade. My claims are largely based on the contemporary press coverage of the films in question.

Estonians, like many nations, are highly concerned about the way they are perceived in other countries. After the traumas of the past century, there is a near-painful awareness in Estonia that a small Eastern European country can be easily overlooked in international affairs; hence almost all areas of the country’s creative output are regarded as potential propaganda tools for proving our relevance. Although attempts to market Estonian films internationally are a rather recent phenomenon, it could be argued that most Estonian films (including documentaries and even animation) made since the country regained its independence in 1991 address to some degree the issue of building a national public image. As Alan Williams has pointed out, cinema (or domestic filmmaking), seems to play an essential part in the process of defining nations (Williams 2002: 4).
It should also be noted that nearly all the film-making in Estonia relies on state funding, and as the country is small and relatively poor, the few films that get made with precious tax-payer kroons are automatically charged with the mission of representing the nation—even though the closest that most of these proud national productions will ever come to reaching an international audience are occasional screenings at film festivals. And yet, it seems to be widely believed that a good feature film could be a powerful tool for promoting “the Estonian cause” in the international arena, as well as advertising Estonia as a travel destination, attracting investment, and so on. This does not necessarily need to be an Estonian film either: a foreign production shot in Estonia, if it is reasonably well-informed and presents the location and its inhabitants in a favorable light, would serve just as well, if not better.

The subtext of this belief seems to be a search for some sort of national validation through positive representations in popular culture at large, as if this was proof of the nation’s and the country’s relevance and good qualities. Indeed, the fact that several Soviet-era classics were filmed in Estonia is still a source of a certain pride: the films making use of the European appearance of Tallinn’s Old Town included the ultra-popular D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers (D’Artanian i tri mushketera, directed by Georgii Iungval’d-Khil’kevich, 1978) and the TV films of the series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson (Prikliucheniia Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona, 1980-3). Arguably the most famous film shot in and around Tallinn is Andrei Tarkovskii’s Stalker (1979), although its post-apocalyptic look hardly counts towards promoting Estonia—neither do the reports that the toxic pollution to which Tarkovskii’s crew was exposed while shooting by the Pirita River might have contributed to several untimely deaths, including Tarkovskii’s own (Tyrkin 2001). It is probably worth pointing out that attempts to sell Estonia as a shooting location for international productions after the fall of the Iron Curtain have not been very successful, as places like Czech Republic or Hungary offer more varied terrains and a milder climate. (There are still occasional Russian films shot here, mainly because of the cheaper production costs compared to filming in Moscow.)

Making Ourselves Presentable: Estonia’s Cinematic Self-image

To begin with, I will discuss a number of Estonian feature films, most of which fall into the category of commercial cinema rather than art-house or auteur films, because it is in this category where the strive to promote Estonia and establish an Estonian national identity on screen has been most evident. The works I have selected are genre films, seeking to anticipate the audience’s preferences and appeal to them. Their main target is the domestic audience, but there is also a certain expectation that if the plots are kept simple enough, foreign audiences will understand the films’ content largely in the same way as the locals do and will be able to connect with the stories on a “universal human level”. The usual aim of such films from the viewpoint of building a national image is simply to offer proof that Estonia is a beautiful country with staunchly European values (making diplomats and tourism officials happy).

Arguably, this claim is grounded in reality; however, as we shall see, proving this point abroad is still an uphill struggle. First of all, it is rather difficult to export Estonian films, possibly because the international film market lacks preconceived notions about “Estonian cinema” as such. Compared to the more established national cinemas (Spanish, Finnish, etc.), little is known about the overall quality and characteristics of Estonia’s cinematic output, and obscurity for a defining feature does not attract distributors. Even if some Estonian feature films do manage, against the odds, to find international distribution, there is another problem: the buyers tend to prefer dark, artistic pieces; and with good reason, too, as those Estonian filmmakers actively seeking to promote their homeland have not proven particularly inventive or skillful in packaging that positive message into worthwhile films.

setpointThere are generally two kinds of approaches to the task of creating a positive self-image in more commercial Estonian feature films. The first and less entertaining one seeks to present Estonia as a kind of “everyplace”—an average, nice-looking, reasonably wealthy European setting without a trace of anything post-Soviet. This, of course, is not something invented by the Estonians. As Stephen Crofts notes, the wide-spread fantasy of a foreign market can exercise an inordinate influence over “national” product. Across the world, there are plenty of examples of “national” productions where everything that might appear too culturally specific and thus possibly alienate a wider, international audience, has been consciously smoothed out (Crofts 2002: 36, 40).

I cannot think of any successful examples of this approach in Estonian cinema, as the plots and overall execution of such films have been just as bland and generic as the settings. Although in theory it might seem plausible that such films could connect with an international audience better, as they are not weighed down by a particularly Estonian setting or specific cultural context, in reality the attempts to market them internationally have all failed. The easiest example would be Set Point (Täna öösel me ei maga, 2004), directed by Ilmar Taska, a film that did not manage to gain any interest abroad despite starring roles from the Estonian supermodel Carmen Kass and Finnish A-list actor Peter Franzén.

The second option consists of taking what is culturally specific and giving it “the Hollywood treatment” in the hope of making it palatable to the world. Again, the idea of borrowing Hollywood’s weapons in order to beat it at its own game is hardly new, even though European cinematographies often tend to define themselves through their attitude “against Hollywood” (Crofts 2002: 26-7). In short, this approach usually entails a crew with some international experience; and screenplays built on clichés (good versus evil, happy endings, traditional values and stereotypical gender roles) with added emphasis on action, visual and sound effects, and so on. The results are unlikely to live up to Hollywood standards in terms of overall execution, but nevertheless often manage to compete with American productions on the domestic market (though rarely abroad).

names marbleProbably the first Estonian film to fall into that category would be our first-ever official candidate for the Academy Award for Best Foreign-language Film, Those Old Love Letters (Need vanad armastuskirjad, directed by Mati Põldre, 1992). It is an ambitious, if somewhat superficial, biopic of the famous Estonian songwriter Raimond Valgre, whose short life conveniently had all the necessary components for a Hollywood-style melodrama. The film was shot over a period of three years with great financial difficulty (with the Soviet Union crumbling and collapsing in the background), which translates into a slightly inconsistent appearance of the film, as it repeats the legends associated with Valgre’s tragic life instead of attempting a deeper character analysis (Karro 1993: 15-7). Unsurprisingly, it did not get an Oscar nomination. However, within the local context, the film turned out to be a trend-setter in a number of ways.

Those Old Love Letters was a box office hit in Estonia and a forerunner to a new era of domestic crowd-pleasing genre films. Also, it was in tune with the newly re-established nation state’s preferred view of its past. The film’s rosy depiction of the 1930s suited the popular vision of the previous independence years between 1918 and 1940 as a lost golden era. In fact, in the early 1990s a large part of the national mindset sought to start over from the point where Estonia’s own history was interrupted by the Soviet occupation. Despite the liberal economic reforms, the freshly post-Soviet Estonia became a highly conservative environment in another sense, with many of its values and attitudes modeled on the revered golden age, i.e. the interwar period. Some changes have occurred since, but even now, an undercurrent still true to the conservative, rigidly and narrow-mindedly nationalistic spirit that dominated the early 1990s is still evident in Estonian culture. Among other things, its influence is obvious in the most ambitious attempts of building “worthy” representations of the Estonian national spirit on screen, once again trying to make use of Hollywood’s toolkit.

decemberheatThe conservative master-plan of creating a positive image of Estonia on film stems from the opinion that both domestic and foreign audiences could be impressed with epic historical dramas that combine a history lesson with hefty doses of action, thrills and romance. In theory, this seems to make sense, and Estonian history certainly has its share of exciting and dramatic episodes. However, despite efforts, Estonian filmmakers have not managed to make a historic film with international appeal. Patriotic action-adventure dramas such as Names in Marble (Nimed marmortahvlil, directed by Elmo Nüganen, 2002) or December Heat (Detsembrikuumus, directed by Asko Kase, 2008) have turned out to be clumsy, cliché-ridden, sentimental, and overloaded with straightforward, if not blatant propagandistic pathos.

The most worrying trend about such patriotic fare, including the recent TV series Windswept Land (Tuulepealne maa, directed by Ain Prosa, 2008), is that they have received direct backing from the right-wing conservative party, Isamaa ja Res Publica Liit. Several of the key figures in this party are historians by profession; hence politicians like Mart Laar and Lauri Vahtre, who in the early 1990s played a part in conceptualizing the re-established Estonian nation state as a direct continuation of interwar Estonia, have served as writers or consultants during the production process of such films and TV shows. As mounting domestic criticism points out (to the fierce protestations of Lauri Vahtre), this has led to an unpleasant aura of reconstructing “historic truth” according to one political party. These productions come across as attempts to establish a “right way” of remembering historic events and eras, or representing the past “(more) correctly,” especially when it comes to those eras or viewpoints that were controversial or taboo during the period of Soviet occupation.

To an extent, such approaches have responded to a certain public demand, and the less critically-minded Estonian cinema-goers have received these patriotic action-adventures rather well. On the other hand, the ambitions to market them abroad have been met with a blunt indifference, even in neighboring Latvia and Finland. A foreign audience would probably not grasp the slightly dubious political undercurrents, but, regrettably, these films also tend to display a profound naïveté in both content and form. Making use of the Open Air Museum of Estonian vernacular architecture for the film set is not nearly enough for reproducing “historical truth.” Even though such productions have had fairly big budgets in the local context, the filmmakers are still short of both the resources and the experience needed to transform this into images on screen. While lavish, detailed production designs are often the redeeming feature of otherwise mediocre historical films, the looks of Estonian patriotic epics tend to qualify as yet another of their weak spots, further emphasizing more substantial shortcomings, like over-simplified, weak scripts or embarrassingly dated attitudes. For example, there is hardly any discernible effort to turn the main female characters in both Names in Marble and December Heat into anything more substantial than “token romantic interest cum damsel in distress.” The female leads are objects rather than subjects, their function is to look pretty on the posters and deflect any suspicions of homoeroticism from the copious male bonding activities on screen.

marbleConsidering that the national cinematic output is more than a by-product of an existing national entity but something that plays an active part in shaping and sustaining the nation’s own perception of that entity, it all begins to look rather depressing. As Andrew Higson notes, the search for a stable and coherent national identity can only be successful at the expense of repressing internal differences, tensions and contradictions (Higson 2002: 62). It appears that, in the shape of these productions, the Estonian taxpayers have ended up publicly funding the validation of the most conservative end of the national spectrum as its “true” identity. Furthermore, the releases of such patriotic identity-building films have been backed by massive promotional campaigns, very nearly suggesting that disliking these films would essentially qualify as unpatriotic behavior. The domestic criticism of the first one, Names in Marble, was notably subdued despite its obvious weaknesses, and the film broke local box office records with the help from large numbers of schoolchildren taken to see it by their history teachers.

The irony of the matter is that, according to research, such nationalistic propaganda films are, in a way, destined to fail in their purpose, because they are not really capable of converting anyone who is not already a believer in their brand of conservative patriotism. There is virtually no evidence that a fiction film is an effective medium for changing audience attitudes (Williams 2002: 6-7). Therefore the simplistic, conservative national narrative of such films would serve as revelational reassurance of shared values and attitudes only for a small portion of the audience, leaving a good deal of others feeling indifferent, puzzled or alienated.

marbleThus, rather predictably, the few foreigners who saw Names in Marble were decidedly unimpressed by our patriotic epic. To quote Jay Weissberg’s review in Variety: “Estonian helmer Elmo Nuganen’s feature bow ‘Names in Marble’ is a nationalistic rallying cry. A tale of sacrifice centered on a group of students, pic may boast a setting unfamiliar to most auds and some unique history, but overall it’s nothing new. Despite breaking B.O. records in Estonia, where it opened last November, this one won’t be bursting beyond the Baltics. […] It all has a very chaste, ‘40s feel, with fresh-faced boys and girls finding camaraderie and a sense of purpose” (Weissberg 2003). The same critic said about the Latvian film Defenders of Riga (Rīgas sargi, directed by Aigars Grauba, 2007): “Similar in spirit to Estonia’s ‘Names in Marble’, pic is the kind of bland historical rallying cry that every nation needs to make before moving on: stirring for auds raised on tales of liberation, but unimpressive for those outside the country’s borders” (Weissberg 2008).

Furthermore, even if these films had been executed better, it would probably still be futile to expect them to do well abroad. Nationalistic pathos aside, in most European countries it simply is not very common for domestic box office hits to have crossover appeal (with the possible exception of comedies).

malevThe current economic situation in Estonia has delayed future projects in the same historic/patriotic vein for the time being, but it is likely there will be more: after all, there is still a strong domestic market for the historic genre ever since Soviet-era hits like The Last Relic (Viimne reliikvia, directed by Grigori Kromanov, 1969). The latter’s success, in fact, is a precedent, showing that an Estonian historic film with a little less didactic baggage and a more adventurous spirit than the stiff Names in Marble can have a broader appeal. Indeed, there are a few more recent examples of Estonian adventure films that generate a kind of tongue-in-cheek national mythology with a less obvious didactic stance, like All My Lenins (Minu Leninid, directed by Hardi Volmer, 1997), or Men at Arms (Malev, directed by Kaaren Kaer, 2005), and these have managed to connect with international audiences a little better.

leninAll My Lenins, a historical parody, would have you believe that the Bolshevik Revolution was masterminded by an ambitious Estonian called Aleksander Kesküla who also propped up and puppeteered a number of decoy Lenins in the process, all with the aim of creating an independent Estonia. Men at Arms is a spoof about Estonians fighting off crusaders in the 13th century and ridiculing every cliché of heroic history films in the process. It is an unapologetically low-budget production made by a crew of amateurs, and most of its dialogue consists of absurd inside jokes that would only make sense to Estonian viewers. Therefore it is hardly a surprise that the film has not had much luck with finding wider distribution, but the few international screenings have brought favorable reviews and comparisons with Monty Python (see, for example, Ferdinand 2007). For the domestic viewer, there is another level of irony in the film’s deliberately poor set design, the bad wigs and clunky props: here, it is finally alright to laugh at all the shabbiness that we are supposed to politely ignore in the serious, patriotic history pieces.

In the Eyes of Strangers: Reflections of Estonia in International Cinema

In the eyes of foreign filmmakers, Estonia seems to look strikingly and consistently different. The numerous casual references in international popular culture to Estonian organized crime or prostitutes have, by now, become a cliché in its own right (see, for example, Stieg Larsson’s or Lee Child’s bestsellers). Similarly, the few foreign films that have used Estonia as a location tend to present the country, much to the locals’ dismay, as yet another drab, miserable, dangerous Eastern European hellhole inhabited by people who are shady at best. I will here discuss a few films that Estonian tourism officials would not necessarily want anyone to see.

darknessOne such example is a Finnish thriller City Unplugged a.k.a. Darkness in Tallinn (Tallinn pimeduses, directed by Ilkka Järvilaturi, 1993). It is a low-budget but inventive and quite good-looking little film noir that has slowly built up an international cult following. It presents the newly independent Estonia as a post-Soviet Wild East, dominated by organized crime, with a number of cartoonish villains and quirky or just rather silly local types. Although it is an entertaining film with considerable artistic merit and provided many of the very best local actors with a paycheck in tough economic times, the end result was nationally regarded as embarrassing and hardly ever discussed in Estonia. In fact, the film only received a proper release in Estonian cinemas fifteen years after its completion: apparently enough time has lapsed to provide some sense of distance from the unflattering portrayal, and reviewers are more open to appreciating the film for its comic value (see, for example, Tuumalu 2008).

The next example is a Swedish film called Screwed in Tallinn (Torsk på Tallinn, directed by Tomas Alfredson, 1999), a mockumentary about hopelessly single, lonely Swedish men on an arranged group trip to meet women in Estonia. A successful mix of tragedy and dark comedy, with several respectable Estonian actors in supporting parts, the film was very well received in Sweden. However, it is virtually unknown in Estonia (it has never been shown in cinemas, nor on TV to my knowledge), most likely because it too shows the country and the people in an embarrassing light. With its theme of sex tourism—in fairness, a relevant Eastern European topic that somehow still remains largely taboo in Estonia—, the film was shot in Paldiski, a former Soviet military base and still considered one of the ugliest, most un-Estonian towns in the country. As an added insult, some of the people responsible for this humiliation are, in fact, “our own:” two of the six-member comedy team Killingegänget behind the film are second-generation exiled Estonians from the sizeable diaspora in Sweden. Estonians apparently decided to pretend this film never happened.

In 2001, when the news first surfaced that the young and famous Swedish director Lukas Moodysson was shooting his next film in Estonia, the locals were thrilled. Then, the excitement of early press reports gradually turned to horror as the details of the exact shooting location—once again, Paldiski—and of the plot started to leak. The film was called Lilja 4-Ever and, once completed, went on to become an international hit, winning a number of awards around the world. From an Estonian point of view, its success could be regarded as a minor national PR catastrophe.

liljaLilja 4-Ever is an extremely bleak, depressing story about a poor teenage girl first neglected by her family and then trafficked into sex slavery in Sweden, where she eventually commits suicide. Although the film does not explicitly say that the story takes place in Estonia—the location we see could be described as “generic former Soviet Union,” and it is supposedly based on an incident with a Lithuanian girl, there are plenty of visible clues: Lilja’s stepfather is played by the well-known Estonian actor Tõnu Kark, the characters can be seen using Estonian currency, etc.

According to these three films, Estonia clearly is not a place in the good old Europe—instead, it is a hostile, alien territory stuck in some dreary post-Soviet limbo, arousing pity and ridicule, if not fear and disgust. Nor has Estonia ended up looking very good in the few foreign films that have more or less earnestly attempted to introduce the world to some fragment of Estonia’s history or national narrative.

One of the very first among the few international productions that have been shot in Estonia since 1991, Candles in the Dark (Candles in the Dark, directed by Maximilian Schell, 1993), is an example of this. It is a little-known Christmas film made for American TV that rode on a brief wave of interest in Eastern European countries during and directly after they managed to break free of communist rule. It tells a cheesy story of a spoiled American girl whose father, an Estonian living in exile, sends her to late-Soviet Estonia to her aunt in the hope of teaching her some lessons in life. Against the romantically dilapidated backdrop of Tallinn’s Old Town, she puts up with the discomforts of the Soviet daily life, mingles with the patriotic underground, falls in love with a handsome dissident and is chased by the KGB and Soviet soldiers. In the end, the young lovers manage to organize the country’s first public Christmas celebration, leading the crowds to defy brutal oppression. While the film was well-meant, it is mostly remembered in Estonia as simplistic to the point of ignorance, as well as cringingly naïve. It was, at best, loosely inspired by actual events and presented Estonians as “idealistic idiots”—which would sadly still qualify as one of the kinder representations of Estonia and Estonians in the international entertainment culture (Raag 2001).

Another noteworthy film in this category is the German political thriller, Baltic Storm (Baltic Storm, directed by Reuben Leder, 2003), focusing on the next event in Estonia’s recent history dramatic enough to warrant international attention: the sinking of the ferry MS Estonia en route from Tallinn to Stockholm in September 1994. The film is based on a book by Jutta Rabe, a German journalist who was also the film’s producer and the protagonist’s prototype. It presents her conspiracy theory about the details of the disaster as well as the ensuing cover-up, trying to press it into the mold of a Hollywood thriller. Despite the fact that there is still some controversy surrounding the shipwreck, this attempt of “finally exposing the truth” did not meet much enthusiasm from the audience neither in Germany nor anywhere else—perhaps because the film could also easily be interpreted as an attempt to make a profit by sensationalism, perhaps just because it was rather poorly made.

Both Candles in the Dark and Baltic Storm represent an approach that might, for the lack of a better word, be called “colonial:” making use of that well-known model of placing an adventurer from a more developed culture into an exotic setting and then describing the environment’s peculiarities from the adventurer’s point of view. The depiction of the location usually ends up leaning towards the imaginary rather than realistic, and overall there is something inherently superficial as well as patronizing about this approach. Hence, it hardly ever produces results that are fair or inoffensive to the exotic location in question: in Candles, the Estonians are either idealistic fools or traitors/KGB informants, in Baltic Storm the country and its people are just hapless pawns caught in a game far too big for them to grasp. With regard to Estonia’s public image, it is probably a good thing that these films are not better known and that so far the place has not been used as a setting for any international blockbusters: Hannibal Rising certainly did not do any favors to Lithuania’s image.

One exception should be mentioned here: an American film that has been extremely positive for Estonia’s public image, in fact possibly better than any the Estonians have made themselves: the documentary The Singing Revolution directed by James Tusty in 2006.

Conclusion: No Solution in Sight

It should also be pointed out that the few Estonian films that have been positively received in the West in recent years are those that are perhaps the least concerned with making Estonia look good: most notably the bleak, moody relationship drama Autumn Ball (Sügisball, directed by Veiko Õunpuu, 2007) and the provocative, naturalistic youth drama The Class (Klass, directed by Ilmar Raag, 2007). Both of these films make the surroundings and the natives appear depressing to the point of being grotesque. However, Estonians have not been complaining over this precisely because the films have received awards and attention abroad. It is all too common for international approval to raise the status of a film at home.

autumnballAutumn Ball takes place in Lasnamäe, the largest Soviet-era suburb of Tallinn. The film presents Lasnamäe as a hostile, inhuman, chaotic place, where characters seem to wander aimlessly in near-perpetual misery. In truth, the director Veiko Õunpuu has consciously selected the worst angles of a relatively well-functioning, normal part of town. Also, Ilmar Raag’s The Class is a naturalistic, but not necessarily realistic film. For some reason, international reviewers are under the impression that this film is based on true events, although there has never been a school shooting in Estonia. And yet, somehow foreign audiences tend to take these films for gritty, realistic representations of true life in Estonia—which would again mean a bleak, frightening place far away from the safe good old Europe. The overall look of these two films is undoubtedly more realistic than the cheesy recreations in Estonian historic films, but the thought of foreigners wholeheartedly embracing this vision of Estonia as truthful is somewhat worrying.

classWhile neither extreme—Names in Marble nor Autumn Ball—is necessarily a fair and good representation of Estonia or Estonians, because the truth probably lies somewhere between the “heroic, brave, beautiful, adorably quirky little country” and the “nondescript Eastern European wasteland,” no apparent strategies exist at present to overcome this conflict of “inside” and “outside” visions. It is clear that international audiences are more welcoming towards depictions of the latter version of Estonia: even now there is continued international interest in Autumn Ball and The Class, while December Heat has failed to make any impact outside of Estonia. On the other hand, it is quite possible that the reason for such preferences lies in the overall quality of the films in question, rather than the way they present Estonia.

This article was written with the support of Estonian Science Foundation grant no. ETF7679 Participatory Culture in Cyberspace: Literature and its Borders and targeted financed research project no. SF0030054s08 Rhetorical Patterns of Mimesis and Estonian Textual Culture.

Works Cited

Crofts, S. (2002) “Reconceptualizing national cinema/s,” in Williams, A. (ed.) Film and nationalism, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp. 25-51.

Ferdinand, M. (2007) “Men at Arms (Malev, 2005),” Ferdy on films, etc.

Higson, A. (2002) “The concept of national cinema” in Williams, A. (ed.) Film and nationalism, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp. 52-67.

Karro, T. (1993) “‘Tundmatu’ kangelane filmilinal,” Teater. Muusika. Kino 1, pp. 15-8.

Raag, I. (2001) “Ohutu ja lollakas Eesti,” Eesti Päevaleht, 21 November.

Tuumalu, T. (2008) “Tallinn mattub 15 aasta järel pimedusse,” Postimees, 6 February.

Tyrkin, S. (2001) “In Stalker Tarkovsky foretold Chernobyl,”; originally published in Russian in Komsomol'skaia pravda, 23 March 2001.

Weissberg, J. (2003) “Names in Marble,” Variety, 18 June.

Weissberg, J. (2008) “Defenders of RigaVariety, 20 February.

Williams, A. (2002) “Introduction,” in Williams, A. (ed.) Film and nationalism, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, pp. 1-22.