What do you do when you run away from your previous life to live in a small town? Do you blend in and continue to hide, or do you stand out because of your passions? How long can you hide before you are found again? How fast can you outrun your past? The Fencer addresses these questions through the character of Endel Nelis, a fencer fleeing from the Soviet Union after World War II. This historical drama disappoints slightly in suome of its supporting characters. but overall it stands out in its depiction of character interactions and personal struggles.
The Fencer focuses on the true story of Endel Nelis (Märt Avandi), an accomplished fencer who deserts the Soviet army and has to conceal his identity. He hides in the small town of Haapsalu, Estonia and accepts the position as a sports club leader for the town school. Endel decides to teach the students about fencing due to the lack of supplies for other sports in the school. With permission from the community, despite opposition from the principal of the school, he teaches fencing to the students. However, the principal has disliked Endel from the beginning and sends his assistant to find information about the new teacher. The assistant discovers that he is a deserter. Endel’s students show progress, but soon he must face a new challenge. He has to choose whether to allow the students to participate in a tournament in Leningrad that could expose him to the Soviets or to stay safe and go against the dreams of these children.
Märt Avandi and the child cast members stand out the most in The Fencer. Avandi portrays Endel as a somewhat serious and determined individual. While some scenes show him as a stern individual, Märt’s seriousness fits with the movie because of the ever-present threat of the Soviet Union finding him. The child cast members remind the character Endel of his determination. Marta (Liisa Koppel) and Jaan (Joonas Koff) both push Endel to teach fencing and convince him to compete in the tournament in Leningrad. Even though Marta does not understand the problem with Endel returning to Leningrad, she indirectly teaches him to stand up for what he is passionate about. Jaan teaches Endel perseverance from his own personal life. Jaan loses his grandfather after the Soviet Union find the old man and escort him out of the town. Jaan is one of many children that have missing family members taken away by the Soviets. However, Jaan is more determined to succeed in fencing because his grandfather practiced the sport in university. Both characters indirectly teach patience and understanding to Endel, and both Liisa and Joonas play their parts well. While these characters stand out and develop the film’s themes, other characters have considerable screen time but could have had more definition.
The love interest Kadri (Ursula Ratasepp) helps reveal more information about Endel’s character, but she stands out less compared to the children. Endel reveals to her everything that he experiences and she tries to help him. At first, she teaches him patience with children and tries to keep him in Haapsalu instead of going to Leningrad and risking capture. Her character helps Endel reveal more of his past to the audience, but she does not stand out as much as a character in her own right. The character compliments Endel, but she does not ‘grow’ nearly as much as the others. Two additional characters also could have used more development: The Principal’s Assistant and the Principal.
The Principal’s Assistant, even though he furthers the plot of the movie, has little development or interaction with other characters. Jaak Prints plays the Principal’s Assistant; no other name is given to the character in the movie or in the credits. He appears and disappears and remains forgotten after halfway through the movie. The character could have had more involvement such as a moral dilemma while investigating Endel. Or, the character could have sided more with the principal and confronted Endel during classes.
The Principal, Hendrik Toompere (Hendrik Toompere Sr.), has significant screen time and impact in the movie, but he shows little personal motivations other than not liking Endel. While his conflict with the community that supports the fencing club provides a contrast, he represents little more than a foil for Endel’s passion. He appears during the tournament only to explain to Endel that the Soviets will take him away. The audience knows they must hate the character, but the Principal needs more depth to understand his motivations.
While The Fencer has a few missteps in developing its minor characters, the movie expertly illustrates the struggle of hiding who you truly are and showing your passions to others. Endel could not forget his past and chose to confront it so that his students could achieve their goals. This movie also accurately shows the pain of families who have had family members taken away and how external goals such as the fencing competition help them not only to cope, perseverance, and, ultimately, suceed.