Elmo Nüganen: Names in Marble (Nimed marmortahvlil, 2002)
reviewed by Ellu Maar © 2010
Names in Marble is about the Estonian War of Independence (1918-20), and an adaptation of the popular novel of the same title by the Estonian writer Albert Kivikas, first published in 1936. The War of Independence is generally regarded one of the most outstanding episodes of Estonian history and it constitutes an important cornerstone of national pride. One might argue that Estonia, located at the border of eastern and western civilizations, has to a great extent developed and preserved its identity, particularly in relation to Russian and German culture, but also against all odds. Estonia declared its independence as a sovereign state in 1918, in the turmoil of World War I, shortly before the front line moved across Estonian territory. Estonian statehood was properly established in 1920, after the unexpected victory in the War of Independence over Russia, which had intended to restore its former borders. Naturally, it was an unexpected and lucky coincidence of historical events that a small and underprivileged nation, lingering between the East and the West, was able to institute sovereign governance and even defeat Russia in the war.
Estonians generally tend to have a rather negative and submissive perspective on history, often assuming the role of helpless victims of foreign rulers and wars throughout the centuries. The War of Independence, however, marks a prominent exception in this somewhat masochistic self-image. The fact that Estonia, a minuscule country, overcame the great Russia, is considered a veritable miracle in the popular historical narrative. Therefore Names in Marble, produced ten years after Estonia had re-established its independence, immediately acquired an important role in the teaching of national history. Indeed, every nation needs its success story, and in the contemporary world films are probably the best medium for telling a story. As a cinematic vehicle of national pride, Names in Marble was the first of its kind in the period following the restoration of Estonian statehood in 1991 and remained a solitary landmark for many years, until other nationalist myth-tellers followed at the end of the first decade of the 2000s.
In the opinion of the majority of film critics, Names in Marble was a mediocre film. Yet it proved incredibly popular among wider audiences and extremely successful at the box office. Today it still occupies the first position in the list of the most-watched Estonian films: according to spectatorship statistics, almost 170,000 viewers have seen it in Estonian cinemas. In the Estonian context this figure is remarkable when compared to the second-best Estonian film, which managed to attract only less than half of that audience. Some film critics, however, have been rather doubtful of these statistics, claiming that this mass of admissions accumulated only because schoolchildren were taken en masse to see it for educational purposes. The budget of the film was also remarkable at the time of production and although it was an Estonian-Finnish coproduction, a considerable share of its financial support came from the Estonian state. One could even regard it a national commission. If the attitude towards propaganda art has always been ambivalent, this is also the case for the reception of Names in Marble.
Among other things, the film has been reproached for the fact that it was targeted to as wide an audience as possible, which arguably resulted in a certain loss of quality. Indeed, Names in Marble comes across as a rather viewer-friendly production: the plot is easy to follow; it includes numerous visually spectacular nature scenes, and, most importantly, a tragic love story. It undoubtedly functions as a successful history lesson of sorts, appealing through a simplified story and emotional relationships, but it is too meager for meeting the tastes of a more demanding spectator, perhaps even irksome. It seems that today the fate of the film is restricted to constituting a convenient 90 minutes of entertainment for filling the television time on Independence Day, a national holiday when everybody has something better to do than sit in front of television set anyway. Yet, as an obligatory tool of teaching and national identity formation, Names in Marble actually functions quite well by virtue of its simple and coherent message. It does not make much of an effort to raise any questions. Instead, the message is communicated from the point of view of an abstract “us,” which results in an apparent lack of psychological insight of the enemy’s side: the foe either forms impersonal masses or is caricatured stereotypically as unjust and cruel. As a consequence, Names in Marble manages to address only Estonian audiences, and does not aim at explaining historical events or details and contexts of the War of Independence to potential spectators abroad. In short, it is narrated to the viewer who already knows the story.
What strikes as peculiar, however, is that for a war film Names in Marble has more lyrical than epic qualities. In fact, there is actually not a lot of war going on at all. It presents only one big battle scene and even that measures up quite a small battle. The reasons behind this could include both financial constraints and the lack of expertise in making war films, but also the fact that Elmo Nüganen was first and foremost a theater director and Names in Marble was his debut in cinema. (Then again, Sergei Astakhov, the Russian cinematographer of the film, had some previous experiences with war films.) Names in Marble has indeed been deemed remarkably “theatre-like”, which presumably refers to the fact that the story is driven by actors and dialogues, and the director has not emphasized specifically filmic means of storytelling. Moreover, instead of recounting the general course of historical events, the film is narrated from the characters’ point of view, concentrating on their subjective experiences of the war.
Another noteworthy quality of the film is related to the cast: namely, the majority of the actors are very young. According to the Estonian popular national narrative, many schoolboys volunteered in the War of Independence and “if it weren’t for those brave boys, Estonia would have surrendered to Russia very soon.” Names in Marble takes this story as its focal point, turning the schoolboys into national heroes, who sacrificed their lives for the sake of the fatherland, and concentrates on the portrayal of their psychological motivation and traumatic experiences. The main plot is framed by scenes in a classroom where, at the beginning of the film, the boys stir each other to volunteer for the war, and whence they (symbolically) return at the end of the film. The film’s generally cheerful ambiance is largely based on the mentality of this group of boys, and throughout the film they display an impulsive temperament and endeavor to bravely surpass fear, as well as their unrealistic expectations and unwillingness to face reality—we see them boldly singing war songs and playing war with snow balls at the beginning of the story. Later, however, they witness bitter reality, crippling fear and shame of that fear; and at the very end they find themselves standing face to face with death and its horrific tragedy. The scenes portraying the schoolboys are perhaps among the strongest and most radiant of the whole film. By contrast, the romance of the protagonist Henn (Priit Võigemast) and his sweetheart Marta (Hele Kõre), one of the main storylines, is dull and full of clichés.
One of the most intriguing and polemic topics of Names in Marble is the question on which side to fight. On the side of the newly established state? Or on the side of Bolshevik Russia? This question introduces a certain level of complexity into the generally simplified black-and-white picture. For instance, at the beginning of the film, a schoolboy with obviously communist views openly refuses to fight on the Estonian side, creating a moment of ideological conflict. Even more importantly, in a tense and tragic scene towards the end of the film Henn meets his older brother and learns that he has been fighting on the side of the Russians. This topic—“brother fighting against brother”—is a widespread and gloomy myth of Estonia’s past that usually comes to the fore in relation to the World Wars when Estonian territory was divided by the front lines of hostile military forces. However, as indicated above, the film is an adaptation of a 1936 novel by Albert Kivikas, who had first-hand experiences of the Great War, and the subject of choosing the side to fight for is discussed in a more thorough manner in the novel than in the film.
The War of Independence, an event incorporated into the very core of the national myth that strives to maintain and strengthen a sense of national unity and pride, undoubtedly belongs to a kind of mythological discourse. Although the question of the ethics of war is not part of that discourse, it simply cannot be denied or overlooked in a contemporary film without creating a considerable amount of controversy. The generally approved messages include somewhat contradictory ideas, such as “we won this holy war against evil” and “war in general is a horrible thing”—and Names in Marble has tried very carefully not to ignore either of those ideas. There is no doubt that the war is portrayed as utterly gruesome: almost all the schoolboys, except the protagonist, die in its course, some of them tragically on their triumphant way home, thinking that the war is over. The last scene shows Henn sitting beside the hospital bed of his friend, a pacifist who lost his mind in the war, devastated and staring into the void. He has lost his friends and his brother in an unexpected and seemingly pointless attack. There is no doubt about the emotional meaning of this last episode: the war is unbearably cruel and inhuman. The film does not glorify the war in any way, suggesting quite clearly that, from the point of view of the individual, war is simply ghastly.
And yet, for a war film there is surprisingly little blood or close-ups of deaths and suffering. The war, in the way it is represented, fails to stir the viewer. (Naturally, the film had to be suitable for minors.) The war is represented as a horrible thing, but not as something subversive, incomprehensible, something you cannot shake off when you walk out of the cinema. The last scene shows a young schoolboy, peeking into the old classroom and seeing the names of his older schoolmates, the victims of the war, written on the blackboard. Hence, the final message of the film is still positive (and this is precisely the reason behind the film’s functioning as a national propaganda): the lost lives of the schoolboys are redeemed by the freedom for the generations to come.
Ellu Maar, Art Museum of Estonia
Nimed marmortahvlil, Estonia, 2002
Color, 90 min.
Director: Elmo Nüganen
Script: Albert Kivikas, Elmo Nüganen and Kristian Taska
Music: Margo Kõlar
Director of Photography: Sergei Astakhov
Production Designer: Kalju Kivi
Editing: Jukka Nykänen
Cast: Priit Võigemast, Alo Kõrve, Hele Kõre, Peter Franzén, Anti Reinthal, Indrek Sammul, Karol Kuntsel, Ott Aardam
Producers: Kristian Taska and Ilkka Matila
Production: Taska Productions (Estonia) and Matila Röhr Productions (Finland)
Elmo Nüganen: Names in Marble (Nimed marmortahvlil, 2002)
reviewed by Ellu Maar © 2010