The Real Life Of Johannes Pääsuke (Johannes Pääsukese tõeline elu)
Estonia (2019) Dir. Hardi Volmer
If you don’t know the subject of this film, you’ll find “Real Life” is slightly dishonest as little is actually known about the life of Johannes Pääsuke, other than he is recognised as Estonia’s first filmmaker, and died at the young age of 25. This paucity of information would explain the distinctly light tone of this mostly fictional biopic.
Set in 1913, frivolous and penniless photographer Johannes Pääsuke (Ott Sepp) wants to move into moving pictures but without the money to match his ambitions, he is stuck with still photography. But he has an idea to get a camera and through some smooth talking, was able to get a commission from the Estonian National Museum (ERM) to film and take photos of life across the Estonian countryside.
With assistant and best friend, Baltic German medical student Harri Volter (Märt Avandi), Pääsuke sets off by train from the city of Tartu to remote rural Setomaa, but an incorrect ticket sees them thrown off the train. Ending up in the small town of Petseri, Pääsuke drunkenly hires shifty cart driver Sergo (Tõnu Kark) to transport them to Setomaa, where they promised to film a traditional Seto wedding.
Hardi Volmer has set himself quite the task in honouring a legendary figure in Estonian cinema with only the barest facts to tell Pääsuke’s story, not that this has stopped other filmmakers from being economic with the actualité in their biopics. So, Volmer and his co-writers Olavi Ruitlane and Peeter Brambat have used their imagination to interpret the backstories behind the extant photos and footage from this mission.
The facts, as they stand are thus: Pääsuke was a photographer of comfortable stock and did indeed accept a commission to make a film about rural life for the ERM. He and Volter made most of the journey on foot, carrying all the equipment, and they took 1300 photos but only seven minutes of film. In this film, Volmer hypotheses what happened to the missing film.
Pääsuke is presented as something of a charming rogue in the opening scene, trying to film a lady friend on a boat whilst her angry father threatens them both. Then, as he makes his way home, others pester him for overdue debts, which is odd given his middle classed existence. Volter on the other hand is stoically Teutonic, weary of Pääsuke’s big ideas and endless caprice but is also loyal to his friend as well as a keen photographer himself.
Once this odd couple double act has been established, they hit the road – or train tracks in this case – immediately bickering over Volter’s holding of the money which Pääsuke seems to want to spend on a whim. Unfortunately, with their tickets not covering their luggage, the pair are thrown off the train and are left to walk which takes them to Petseri and their meeting with Sergo, an alleged Crimean War veteran, at a brothel.
As photography was still relatively new at this time, and film even newer in Estonia, they could eke out an existence by taking photos in exchange of food and board. Sergo sees money in this and persists in claiming to be part of the team – Sergo and Co – and drums up business despite doing nothing. Like Pääsuke, Sergo is another loveable scamp who can talk his way out of trouble – to a point at least – but is also a cheeky freeloader.
In given the story a dramatic thread to hold these antics together, Pääsuke spies young Seto girl in Petseri, Nasta (Ester Kuntu) and wants to take her photo, but she fears her soul will be taken. Nasta is the daughter of Sergo’s friend Ruudi (Üllar Saaremäe) who will be attending the wedding, giving Pääsuke plenty of chances to bump into Nasta and keep trying to win her over and be his photo subject.
Something that becomes apparent rather quickly is the humour in the film may initially seem broad but isn’t tailored to include international audiences who may not have much knowledge of Estonia. Through the imagery of the rural folk in their humble, traditional environment and lack of awe towards the city folk, we can surmise the reference points are found in the cultural distances, even if the details remain arcane.
Fortunately, the performances are well observed and the entire retro aesthetic of early 20th century Estonia is so complete, it is enough to feel like Volmer has got as close as he possibly can to proposing a credible account of what might have happened. However, the greatest touch is in the use of the actual remaining footage Pääsuke shot, cleaned up for this film and seamlessly inserted betwixt the newly filmed wraparound to set up the capturing of these moments.
Credit is due to editor Emeri Abel for the smoothness of the transitions between the clips when an actor is portraying somebody lurking in the background or walking in front of the camera, creating a natural flow as if it both representations occur in real time. Also, a nod to the casting director in finding actors who resemble the people in the 106 year-old clips and photographs, without any CGI cheats.
Even if much of the discussion and cultural references pass over our heads, there is a quaint, rustic lazy Sunday charm that is universal in its appeal and ability to ease us into this unfamiliar world. The traditional wardrobe of the country folk could have come from any Central European country of the period making it less alien, as is the notion even country hicks are vain enough to dress up whenever someone gets a camera out.
The Real Life Of Johannes Pääsuke works as a gentle trip back through time but because of the mystery surrounding its subject, it sadly offers little insight into the man himself. Nonetheless, in sharing Pääsuke’s original footage in theorising how it came to be shot, this is a fascinating document for any film fan.