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Mart Avandi, Liisa Koppel

“THE FENCER”  My rating: B-

99 minutes | No MPAA rating

Given the recent flap over NFL players taking the knee during the playing of the national anthem, we probably shouldn’t be surprised at how often filmmakers turn to the nexus of sports and politics/social issues (“Chariots of Fire,” “42,” “Race,” etc.)

The latest film to examine that tension is Klaus Haro’s “The Fencer,” an Estonian production set during the bad old days of Stalinist purges.

Endel (Mart Avandi) comes to a tiny Estonian burg in the early 1950s to teach physical ed at the local elementary school. He’s quiet and keeps to himself,  and admits he has no affinity for children. Moreover, he’s a big-city guy, having spent the last few years in Leningrad, and is bored to death with provincial life.

This all seems highly suspicion to the principal (Hendrick Toompere), a doctrinaire Marxist who resents what he sees as Endel’s elitist background.  He does everything he can to sink the new coach’s athletic programs, including giving all the school’s ski equipment to a local military base.

Endel responds by pulling his epee out of storage, fashioning swords out of marsh reeds, and launching a Saturday morning fencing class.

In doing so he’s taking a great risk. Not just because it makes the principal even madder, but because Endel is living a dangerous lie.

During the war, while Estonia was occupied by the Nazis,  he and his classmates were drafted into the German army.  They were unwilling soldiers; Endel eventually escaped and hid out in the woods until the end of hostilities.

But by Stalin’s crazed reasoning he and  his fellow draftees are traitors.  Under an assumed name Endel has been able to pursue his passion for fencing, winning several titles, but now the secret police are on his trail.  A stay in a forced labor camp seems inevitable. That’s why he’s trying to find anonymity out in the sticks.

 

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