Estonia (2017) Dir. Rainer Sarnet
There must be something in the water in Eastern Europe as many of THE weirdest films come from this region. Throwing their hat into the ring is Estonia – making their first appearance on this site – with a film framed within its own unique folklore, so if you are au fait with this subject you’re in for a treat. If not….
Set in the 19th century, a small village is tormented by the evil, manifesting itself in the form of a plague, spirits possessing animals and work tools, even the Devil himself (Jaan Tooming), who walks among the people freely like anyone else. But love looks to break the sour mood of the village as peasant girl Liina (Rea Lest) is pining for local boy Hans (Jörgen Liik).
Unfortunately for Liina, not only is Hans unaware of her feelings for him but he has also fallen in love with another girl (Jette Loona Hermanis), the virginal daughter of the baron (Dieter Laser). Since both have tried and failed to win their crushes over, they decide to try alternate methods, in this case black magic – Hans making a deal with the Devil whilst Liina consults a witch (Klara Eighorn).
November is based on the bestselling 2004 novel Rehepapp ehk November by Estonian author Andrus Kivirähk, which I hope makes more sense than this film does, though I wouldn’t put any money on it. A mixture of fantasy, horror, and occasional black comedy aimed at a niche audience, director Rainer Sarnet takes his cues from the late Aleksei German in presenting an arcane tale in glorious black and white with lashings of surreal distractions.
A lazy as it sounds, one could look at November as a cousin of German’s medieval mind-scrambler Hard To Be A God, aesthetically, tonally and in spirit. Unlike like German’s film though, the plot – well the love drama – is far more easily discernible if sometimes a little oblique in execution. In all fairness, it is the only plot this film has and it is a flimsy one at best, making the near two hour run time a slight challenge.
Visually we are dropped head first into this bizarre world from the overexposed opening shot of a white wolf running through a snowy forest towards a stream of crystal clear water, before it falls to the ground and start convulsing for some reason. It is an engaging tableau but not one to set the tone with any real accuracy as the next shot takes us into the muddy, impoverished cesspit that is the village central to the story.
Typical of the period, most of the peasants are dirty, scruffy, toothless crones either completely without hope or simply so ill educated they are too stupid to realise they are alive. Of the few who do have some wherewithal about them is Liina’s father Rein (Arvo Kukumägi) whom the villagers trust when it comes to dealing with the plague, no matter how daft his suggestions may be – like putting their trousers on their heads so the plague will think they have two arses!
In this instance, the plague terrorises people in the form of animals, like a goat or a boar, whilst the Devil is in human form but it is the Kratt which are the most interesting and frankly creepier presences here. The first one we see is three long thin tree branches with scythes attaches to the end of each limb; another has two press irons for feet and metal hooks for hands, and one has a bicycle seat for a head.
And they can speak since the Devil gave their mouths, usually asking for work from the peasants. The Kratt are the result of the Faustian deals people make with the Devil for his help in exchange for their soul, and if or when they renege on the deal, he puts their souls in these objects. It’s a cute idea and the Kratt are eerie as hell to watch but there is so much about them that deserves deeper exploration, which maybe is in the book.
Regarding the love triangle, this has little to do with it until Hans makes his deal with the Devil and makes a Kratt from a snowman, possessed by a primordial water spirit with a history of love stories to share. Oh, there is more – the baron’s daughter has a problem with somnambulism and Liina might be a werewolf. Choose wisely, Hans.
With some irony, this makes more sense seeing it than reading about it though this is probably damning it with faint praise since a lot about this film is baffling when not dealing with the main story. But because it is a supernatural fantasy, this aspect will be talked about more, partially validated by its inventiveness and effective creepiness, yet the casualty of this is the film’s message, if there is one.
From what I could faintly surmise, it warns us we shouldn’t try to force love, instead let it happen naturally if it is meant to be; or it could be a cautionary tale about men punching above their weight. Then there is the recurring religious aspect, a factor of the peasant’s lives they accept without question which may or may not be mocked here even though there is no obvious contrary opinion held against the church’s influence.
What undoubtedly prevents many of us reaching for the stop button is the lush visuals, every frame delivered via richly shot monochrome to give this an otherworldly veneer on the cheap (CGI? Nah!). The cast get it more than I do and it shows in their committed performances, while the animals use deserved credit for being so well trained too.
November won’t be for everyone, even within the self-contained diegesis of hardcore cineastes. But it can’t be denied it possesses a unique, beguiling quality that demands it should be seen at least once, whether it makes sense for you or not.