Director: Martti Helde
Writer: Martti Helde, Liis Nimik
Cast: Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song, Mirt Preegel, Ingrid Isotamm
Part of: Scope100 (last year, I participated in the Scope50 project) – Risttuules is this year’s winning film that is going to be shown in Austrian cinemas
Seen on: 31.12.2015
At the beginning of the 40s, the Russians occupied Estonia and deported many people to Siberia without warning. Among those people were Erna (Laura Peterson), her husband Heldur (Tarmo Song) and their daughter Eliide (Mirt Preegel). Taken from their home and stuffed into cattle waggons, Erna and Eliide get separated from Heldur. Despite all the hardships they have to go through, Erna never stops writing letters to Heldur.
I don’t know if you remember this short film from a few years ago, but Risttuules was basically shot in the same style, only less action-y. Taking the real letters from Erna Tamm as a basis and a voice-over, the film is made up of more or less stationary shots the camera slowly moves through. That is a gimmicky way to shoot a film, but for me the gimmick never took over the film. Instead it’s an emotional film about a difficult, harrowing topic that manages to also be aesthetically pleasing.
Growing up Austrian, sometimes it feels like all your history lessons revolve around World War II (that we still have a frigtheningly high amount of people who still don’t seem to learn from those lessons is another story). But these lessons all center around Austria and Austria’s relationship with Germany. What happened on the “fringes”, if you can call them that, of the war is rarely discussed. So it was last year when I visited Riga that I heard about the fate of Baltic countries in the war for the first time. With Risttuules I got another important bit of insight into what happened in Estonia: the Russian occupation and the mass deportations in the 40s into – in Erna’s case – labor camps in Siberia.
Not only is the topic unusual for a film about World War II, it’s also set in scene in an extraordinary way. The stationary shots in black and white burn themselves into your head and especially the sparse use of movement every once in a while is creatively used to move the narration along. The music underscores the images and their emotional content very nicely.
It’s the emotional content that is at the center of the film after all. I don’t know how much Helde and Nimik changed the original letters or how much material they had to cut, but I thought that they curated it very well. Laura Peterson’s emotional voice-over (and her expressive face) capture the raw emotion of those words. So much so that I didn’t even mind the voice over at all. For me the most hauntingly beautiful part was when she talks about the makeshift cemetery in the labor camp where the dead are buried beneath birch trees, their white bark scratched off to mark the grave by revealing the black beneath. All the while those birch trees grow strong and high with all that fertilized ground. Now here’s an image that is sad and infuriating and scary and beautiful all at the same time. Or the idea that people are simply imprisoned in Siberia by the space and the uninhabited wideness of the country. There’s no need for fences when you have nowhere to go.
Risttuules is almost hypnotic and had me crying in no time. For me, it’s an amazing film that brought something genuinely new to the well waited-on table that is World War II films. I’m happy it won the Scope100 thingy in Austria (it was also my first choice) – and I’m looking forward to watching it again in the cinema on the big screen.