Estonian Film Classics

Page 1



Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979)

Madness (1969)

The Ideal Landscape (1980) Well, Come on, Smile (1985)

Ukuaru (1973)

The Last Relic (1970)

The Spring (1969)

Estonian Film Classics is a special edition of the Estonian Film magazine published by the Estonian Film Institute ISSN-2585-674X Estonian Film Institute Uus 3, 10111, Tallinn, Estonia Phone: +372 627 6060 E-mail:


4 Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel THE DETECTIVE & THE ALIEN


The Estonian Film Institute’s Film Heritage Department manages all the films made in the legendary Tallinnfilm studio during the years 1941–2001. In this catalogue, we proudly present some of that great legacy – a carefully curated selection of seven distinctive feature films that represent and illustrate our rich film culture. Four films come from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, and three hail from the next decade.

Madness (1968), directed by Kaljo Kiisk, is considered to be the first outstanding modernist film in Estonia’s film history.

Still ranked as the most watched domestic features, The Spring (1969) directed by Arvo Kruusement has repeatedly been selected as the best feature film in Estonia.

The Last Relic (1970) directed by Grigori Kromanov is one of the most well-known and beloved Estonian films. The film had 772,000 domestic admissions– which meant that half of our population went to watch it in cinemas. The Russian version screened in the Soviet Union’s cinema network the following year and more than 40 million people saw it. No other Estonian film can boast of such high viewer numbers worldwide.

The 1973 feature film Ukuaru by the Estonian film director Leida Laius embodies that special something that has become an integral part of Estonianness. When someone mentions Ukuaru’s female main character Minna in conversation, it implies an Estonian woman who

will keep on living and working, no matter what.

One of the most treasured Estonian films, Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (1979) directed by Grigori Kromanov is a relatively rare phenomenon in Estonia’s cinema culture as it belongs to the sci-fi genre.

Peeter Simm's Ideal Landscape (1980) is considered as an essential part of the second coming of Estonian film. He picked complex themes and wove the pre-war and post-war memories into the narrative form, creating a unique storytelling.

Leida Laius is the most important Estonian female director of the Soviet period and her classic coming of age story Well, Come on, Smile (1985) was her final, and one of her best works, which came to signify several turning points in Estonian filmmaking and Laius’ approach to it. Well, Come on, Smile is one of the first films in Estonia that is openly critical of the Soviet society, mentality, and ways of life - especially from the point of view of children and young adults.

These seven masterpieces introduced in this booklet are all very different both in content and style, but there is one thing that unites them all – Estonian culture and film history would not be the same without them. Feel free to enjoy the following in-depth texts, the films, and if you have any questions regarding Estonian film heritage, feel free to contact us at the Estonian Film Institute. EF







Editors: Eda Koppel, Maria Ulfsak (Eesti Ekspress)

Contributors: Johannes Lõhmus, Jaak Lõhmus, Karlo Funk, Kristiina

Davidjants, Maria Ulfsak

Translation: Tristan Priimägi, Lili Pilt

Linguistic Editing: Paul Emmet

Design & Layout: Profimeedia

Printed by Reflekt




Science fiction is something fairly rare in Estonian cinema, but that fact alone is not sufficient to explain why Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel is continuously listed among the most valuable Estonian films, casting a ghostly shadow over today’s pop culture. For example, in 2020, a graphic novel was released, based on both the original novel by the brothers Strugatsky, and the full-length feature film.


Strangely enough, most of the common threads that tie a nationally important film to local culture seem to be missing here. The film is not based on a local literary classic, but the book (and also the original screenplay) has been written by the sci-fi authors Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky. The story is not about relevant moments in local history, many key roles are performed by Latvian and Lithuanian actors (although Estonian actors are prominently present too, like Jüri Järvet, Sulev Luik, Lembit Peterson and Mikk Mikiver).


The sci-fi film in question was released in 1979, a decade after the director Grigori Kromanov had made an immensely popular swashbuckler movie set in 16th Century Estonia, during the whirlwind of the complicated power struggles of the time. The Last Relic, screened in 1969, was the nearest a small film country could get to the dream of global recognition. The film, inspired by the French historical adventure movies, was screened in 60 countries, with 40 million spectators.1

Controversially, success brought along less freedom for the director, not more. Several stories developed by Kromanov himself got slowed down or stopped entirely. The Soviet studio system expected the fulfilment of centrally set plans and that’s what Kromanov did, entwining into the film themes close to his own

Dresses and costumes designed by top Soviet fashion designer Zaitsev underlined the Western luxury.

heart. Diamonds for the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, screened in 1975, was one of Tallinnfilm’s most expensive projects. A thrilling adventure about the inner conflicts of 1920s Russia, a diamond heist and the spying games of the big states in Estonia, reached dozens of millions of viewers as well. In several cases, it was Kromanov’s sense of duty and his integrity as an artist going against the tide, which prompted the studio to engage his help even when his own ideas were rejected.

WEIRD GUESTS OF THE HOTEL Integrity, restricted by simple rules, became a central idea of his final film. Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel begins with a flashback to an old case that had remained to

Director Grigori Kromonov (on the left) and Latvian actor Uldis Pucitis as inspector Glebsky, the main protagonist of the film. Photo by Viktor Mentunen

haunt inspector Glebsky. Years ago, he received a call from a mountain hotel that proved to be fake. Glebsky still decided to stay for the night. In the evening, strange events start to unfold, and on top of that an avalanche blocks the roads and cuts all communications. One of the guests, Olaf, seems to have died. But that is only a small part of that other avalanche of mystery that hits Glebsky’s public service orientated mind.

He is surrounded by a colourful gallery of characters: traveling businessman Moses with his high society wife; a cybernetic engineer Simonet enjoying his vacation; a young couple in love who seem to have met each other not too long ago; Hinckus improving his health in the mountains.

The murder mystery in a building cut off from the world soon becomes more complex. Some guests seem to have been cloned, others behave er ratically. Unlike in a standard whodunit, Glebsky has to solve a more thorough problem, what is happening in the first place, who are these people and, as we learn, non-people around him.

The complexity of the situation unfolds quite quickly. The apparently dead Olaf turns out to be a robot for the aliens, but he had managed to strike up a close relationship with Brun, nevertheless. The girl is equally shocked because of Olaf’s conditional death, and the fact that he is an android from another civili-

DEAD MOUNTAINEER'S HOTEL (Estonian: ""Hukkunud Alpinisti" hotell", Russian: Отель ""У погибшего альпиниста"") is a 1979 Soviet era Estonian film directed by Grigori Kromanov (1926–1984). The film is based on the 1970 novel Dead Mountaineer's Hotel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who also wrote the screenplay.

Starring: Uldis Pucitis, Jüri Järvet, Lembit Peterson, Mikk Mikiver

Music by: Sven Grünberg Cinematography: Jüri Sillart

Running time: 93 minutes Country: Soviet Union Language: Estonian

zation. Two characters in this weird bunch are extra-terrestrial observers who have deemed it necessary to interfere with events on Earth and protect the principles of justice. Alas, they have been exploited by terrorists. One of the terrorists is also in the hotel, following the orders of his boss, who wants to get rid of the aliens because of their reluctance to help him any further.

The events of Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel develop rapidly, sometimes leaving the viewer as little time to react as to inspector Glebsky. The inspector has gained control of a mysterious suitcase that would allow the recharging of Olaf and Luarvik, found in the snow after the avalanche. Through these choices and unexpected

for renowned Estonian actors Mikk Mikiver (on the left) and Sulev Luik.

turns, Glebsky’s character has a chance to reveal itself with all its symbolic limitations.

In the true spirit of detective stories, he denies the supernatural explanations and is only able to see aliens as someone liable for the acts committed together with the terrorists.

The terrorists are already approaching and Glebsky’s principles finally lead to the demise of the guests, although the hotel manager Snewahr with Simonet help them to escape, so that the guests could leave the Earth.

The terrorist and an alien robot, two iconic roles 1 Lavastaja Grigori Kromanov. Compiled by Irena Veisaite-Kromanova. Tallinn, 1995, p. 525.


The films luxurious charm is best relayed in the evening party scenes, where the inspector plays billiards with Olaf. The latter cannot comprehend Simonet’s figures of speech, but pockets all the balls flawlessly. Olaf’s accuracy is the reflection of Glebsky’s one-dimensionally rational worldview. The direction and strength of Olaf’s strikes determine the trajectory of the balls, a Newton-like mechanics of ideas establishes the linear relation between cause and consequence.

But Olaf’s accuracy is not admirable, and strips the game of all wonder and anticipation.

The inspector’s loss transforms into a hypnotic dance scene – the film’s only pause for reflection, and a visual tour de force. The camera sometimes moves dynamically along with the protagonist, but stays mostly static on Glebsky’s face, reflecting his adopted rigid stance. The story improvises elegantly on various ideas like the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, guilt and identity, without fear of contradiction. Script-wise, Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel is organized and rational, vectoral and consequential, following the protocol of the detective genre.

A sci-fi film is never just a story, it is also an independent visual universe. The location, hotel, amazes with its hypermodernity. Streamlined interior design, reflective surfaces, hotel corridors and intersecting levels are in sharp contrast with the organized story. These environments created a fantastic impression upon release, comparable to the one achieved by the narrative. The costume designer was one of the most influential Soviet fashion designers Vyacheslav Zaitsev. For the shooting, a three-storey hotel room complex was built inside Tallinn Tennis Hall, and a replica of the hotel in the Kazakhstan mountains, 2300 metres above sea level. The latter can be seen near Alma-Ata even today. These visual details carry some additional implications that could not ever fit into the confines of a script.


3 Lavastaja Grigori Kromanov. Compiled by Irena VeisaiteKromanova. Tallinn, 1995, p. 191.


5 Lavastaja Grigori Kromanov. Compiled by Irena VeisaiteKromanova. Tallinn, 1995, p. 186.

The same goes for Sven Grünberg’s music. Compared to electronic passages from the likes of Kraftwerk, or Jean-Michel Jarre, Grünberg’s soundscapes liberated from rhythm come off as notably more poetic and experimental. The head official of Goskino (USSR State Committee for Cinematography in the Soviet Union), an officer of secret service was convinced that the authors were using the Soviet film to secretly conceal Pink Floyd’s music.2 But more important than testing the limits of censors, was the soundscape that Kromanov wished to bring to the film. The music was supposed to carry those threads of thought that were impossible to depict in pictures and words – the transcendent atmosphere of the music hinted at the possibilities of the future.3

The cinematographer of the film Jüri Sillart (in the middle) working on the set.


For the audience, this was a journey to the beyond, in more than one way. Depictions of the West found their way to Soviet cinema primarily through science-fiction. Although the conquest of space was an important mo-

The exterior of the hotel is still standing in the mountains of Kazakhstan. Photo by Viktor Mentunen
Photo by Viktor Mentunen

tive in Soviet ideology, it was usually done by immaculate heroes, whose image couldn’t harbour any doubt or human dilemmas. More complex, multidimensional characters were not welcome on the screen, and could operate believably only in a foreign environment. The depiction of the West was tolerable as long as the characters conveyed Western vices, doubts and mistakes. The luxurious hotel and the terrorists fit that canon. Glebsky’s limited public servant though, was exactly the kind of figure with double meaning to earn the Strugatsky Brothers the notorious image of dissidents later. A guardian of the law who interprets the rules in the most limited manner possible was a very Soviet figure, but in this film here, his restraint was justified with the fact that he operated in the ambiguous West and therefore represented the blind following of the rules of others, not “ours”.

Besides the science fiction genre and visual zeitgeist, an extra dimension was added to the film by the mountains and nature. It is a transition zone between our civilization and the supernatural, as indicated by the word “dead” in the title of the film.

Upon Glebsky’s arrival at the hotel, owner Snewahr introduces him to the legend of the dead mountaineer first thing, telling the story of how the hotel got its name. Later, the mountaineer makes a sinister appearance in Glebsky’s dream. The films universe stands dangerously close to nature and death. Mountains, their irrationality stressed even further by the music, frame this luxurious island of civilization, belonging to the realm of the unexplainable.


The text of Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel was an experiment for the Strugatsky brothers. They had written science fiction that had also been adapted for screen, like Stalker - but Arkadi had a high regard for crime stories, Rex Stout, Hammet, le Carré.4 In Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel, they tried to refresh the detective story, using extra-terrestrial forces instead of the usual solution.

As screenwriters, they developed the story together with the director Kromanov. The film main-

tains the scripts experimentality, outlining the themes important to the director more clearly. This is all placed in an aesthetically innovative environment, reflecting our idea of Western luxury and lifestyle. Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel still astounds with its chaotic but also functional way of uniting storylines, ideas and connotations, giving off a vibe of liberated and unstoppable energy.

In the final scenes of the film, science fiction transforms into a documentary perspective when the protagonist addresses the viewer directly. Justifying his choices, Glebsky appeals to irrevocable logic, but his need to justify himself as a protagonist becomes apparent in the process. Glebsky understands that the clarity of his choices actually leads to emptiness, closure and a waste of a unique opportunity, much like Olaf’s perfect strikes extinguished the playfulness of the game of billiards in the first part of the film. “And what business do I have with those non-humans disguised as humans,” the inspector finishes his monologue. When Newton-like physics of cause and consequence are set against the supernatural, it only works when it reduces the multi-layered processes to simple signals. This was a strong statement in a country that constructed itself on a model of progress based on scientific and technological innovation.

Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel has remained a mystery between the domains of national film classics and genre entertainment. Like guests in the film, it’s something alien that has assumed a familiar shape, and we do not know exactly what it wants from us.

Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel was Kromanov’s final film. Although the film won recognition abroad, in Trieste, he couldn’t accomplish his ideas in Tallinnfilm, and he alternated his time between theatre and cinema, his life between Tallinn and Vilnius. Coming from a Russian cultural background of pre-war Estonia, he embodied something other and elusive himself. “He lived in a somewhat different time-space from the others, he didn’t completely fit into the cultural picture of our republic, and had an alienating, not quite comprehensible effect,”5 said the film’s producer (then director) Raimund Felt when Kromanov passed away. EF

Scene of ecstatic dancing stands out in films rational train of thought. The escape of aliens leads to final standoff with the terrorists.


The Grandfather

Madness is considered the first truly outstanding and modernist film in Estonian film history. There are numerous legends around its production and film critics have consistently agreed on the film’s high level of artistic achievement for the last fifty years.

It happened in a small town. The German occupiers had already managed to exterminate all the Jews, Marxists, Gypsies and Partisans. Now, it was time to go after the mentally ill…”

These ominous words open director Kaljo Kiisk’s fifth feature film, Madness. A film that emerges both in Estonian film history and in the director’s filmography as the first work made in a truly modernist spirit. In addition to the symbolic language of the film, and the great work by the actors, the number of legends floating around about the film’s production and

distribution processes is subject enough for a film of its own – one full of bureaucratic spite, romantically artistic ambition, grandiose and international ideas, and the iron fist of censorship. This is an exceptional work in every sense, made during an exceptional era –the film shoot was coming to an end in the summer of 1968 right when troops entered Czechoslovakia to silence the Prague Spring.

The action takes place in a mental hospital where a fascist army walks in through the gates with only one goal in mind – to destroy everyone who gets in the way of the regime. Gestapo officer Win-

disch (Jüri Järvet) arrives at the hospital at the same time as the troops and puts a stop to this monstrous task with his own assignment to expose British secret agents hiding within the hospital walls. The plot prepares the viewer for an exciting game of cat and mouse, turning into a psychological challenge that questions everything taking place and forcing the audience to become intensely involved in everything happening in the film. And, thus, the Soviet cultural authorities’ main criticism of Kiisk’s film was its ambiguity. It was a spiritual provocation that could in no way find offi-

Madness of Estonian Arthouse Cinema EF CLASSICS 11


cial approval and which had remained an almost unattainable achievement for Soviet Estonian film art up until then.


The film is a modern European co-production that brought together Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Russians, but which had a difficult history from its very inception. The screenplay was written by Latvian Viktors Lorencs and it reached Kaljo Kiisk due to the resolute rejection of the screenplay by Riga Film Studio, who found it better not to get involved in making this “moonstruck” story of a madhouse in some unnamed, occupied European country. Kiisk quickly agreed to make the film but the abstract script needed to be rewritten to be more precise, and the detective had to become a fascist, which delineated the time frame for the sto -

ry and helped “get by” local authorities.1 Thus, they hoped to minimize the ambiguity but retain the artistic generalization and mystery written into the script.

The film stars graduates of the legendary Lithuanian Panevežys Theater, Vaclovas Bledis and Bronis Babkauskas, and there is a small part for Lithuanian theatre legend Juozas Miltinis as well as Valeri Nossik from Moscow and Viktor Pljut and Harijs Liepinš from Riga. And, of course, Jüri Järvet from Tallinn, who went straight from playing Windisch in Madness to starring in Grigori Kozintsev’s film version of King Lear (1970). That was the beginning of Jüri Järvet’s international fame, which soon found him embodying Doctor Snaut in Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). It’s possible that if Madness hadn’t been banned outside of Soviet Estonia, his name might rank among the aforementioned legends. Kiisk has


“I had two films banned – Traces and Madness –and we weren’t allowed to show either of them anywhere in the Soviet Union. This situation created its own rules where your imagination was constantly tethered to some kind of limitations. As soon as you started to move in one direction with your thoughts, you were told to turn somewhere else. Your soul and your mind have to be in sync when you are making art – they have to move dynamically and down the same path. But that kind of thinking was impossible at the time and there was nothing you could do about it. I’ve travelled to Argentina and around Europe with Madness and it was well received, even though it’s a relatively old film. But it would have had a completely different effect in its own time because the film is connected to the time and era when it was made.”

Koppel, A. (2005). The Unusual Life of Kaljo Kiisk. [Interview]. Teater. Muusika. Kino, no. 12, pg. 121­128.

1 Viktor

Gnezdnikovi põiktänavas” / “The Estonians are Coming! Madness Across from Gnezdnikov Street”, Teater. Muusika. Kino, no. 3, 1993.

2 Reet Neimar, “Saatusest määratud? Juhusest juhitud? Üks kild Jüri Järveti elutööst.” / “Determined by Fate? Randomly Driven? A Fragment of the Work of Jüri Järvet”, Teater. Muusika. Kino, no. 1, 1996

3 Boris Tuch, “”Hullumeelsuse” võttegrupp tegi talle kingituse, millele oli graveeritud “Hullule hullumeelsetelt”” / The Crew of “Madness” Gave Him a Present Engraved with “To A Mad Man, Madly”, Teater. Muusika. Kino, no. 3, 2019.

Mathiesen, “Eestlased tulevad! Ehk hullumeelsus

said that he wanted to work with international actors not only for their talent but also to test how the temperaments of their different nationalities would relate to their personal experiences as members of societies under totalitarian rule.2

Minsk attempted to prevent Russian cinematographer Anatoli Zabolotsky, who was working in a film studio there, from joining the film crew. He was a man who said yes to Kiisk only three days after receiving the screenplay. But since he was a valued professional, the Minsk authorities weren’t keen on letting their guy go make a film with Estonians.3 The Estonians were very lucky to have Zabolotsky involved in the film because his collaboration with the director was flawless, and those who talk

about the film always emphasize the outstanding symbiosis of the work of the cinematographer, director and production designer Halja Klaar. The visual world they created on various physical surfaces (mirrored tables, mirrored cabinets, mirrors) hints at the internal contradictions of the characters and helps create an atmosphere where the protagonist starts to see himself more and more in his suspects, finally falling prey to the mad processes he himself started and ending up mentally ill himself.

To prepare for the shoot, Kiisk did several months of prep work in psychiatric hospitals in Estonia and Latvia. He later visited the same hospitals with the film’s actors and claimed that “you could still hear the silence that reigned

Gestapo officer Windisch (Jüri Järvet) trying to delve into the psyche of the Editor (Valeri Nossik), one of the madmen of the psychiatric ward.

in the buses as they drove back – I remember the state we were in as we rode back… After the prep period, the actors brought a lot to the set with them, it was like fireworks on set”.4

They made a request to Moscow for the opportunity to watch some films, not available in Soviet cinemas, with the film crew to prepare for the shoot. The list included films like Franju’s Head Against the Wall (La tête contre les murs, 1959), Welles’s The Trial (1962), Bergman’s The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963), Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964), and Kramer’s Ship of Fools (1965).5

Some members of the artistic council of Tallinnfilm worked against the film from the beginning, with the later President of Estonia, Lennart Meri, at the forefront of the opposition. Meri wrote to Moscow about the film and made strong recommendations in Estonia that the film would not be greenlighted. So we might only speculate if his activities were responsible for the elevated attention given to Madness, and for the later censorship and restricted

To prepare for the shoot, Kiisk did several months of prep work in psychiatric hospitals in Estonia and Latvia.
4 Viktor Mathiesen, “Eestlased tulevad! Ehk hullumeelsus Gnezdnikovi põiktänavas” / “The Estonians are Coming! Madness Across from Gnezdnikov Street”, Teater. Muusika. Kino, no. 3, 1993.
5 Andres Laasik, “Filmilavastaja ja näitleja Kaljo Kiisk. Ikka hea pärast” / “Director and Actor Kaljo Kiisk. Only the Good”, Tallinn: OÜ Hea Lugu, 2011, pp. 234.

distribution of the film by the authorities in Moscow.6

But at first Moscow approved production of the film without reading the screenplay, and merely based on the opinion of the editorial board who claimed the film to be a whole lot less antifascist than the screenplay and future film really were. After the Prague Spring, Moscow suddenly realized that it was a very complicated time for such a film to be made in Estonia, especially as its screenplay was so ambiguous, so they started a correspondence with Tallinn. Amendments began arriving from Moscow for things like changing the title of the film, reshooting some scenes, and adding a partisan squad and armed insurgent uprising to the end of the film.7

Kiisk was forced to make changes before handing over the film, even though he didn’t make them to the extent ordered by Moscow and he didn’t change the title. He did have to leave out the crazed main character Windisch’s horrific vision, for which they


Estonian title: "Hullumeelsus"

Premiered on February 17, 1969 in Tallinn. Officially allowed to screen in Moscow on January 9, 1987 after which it could screen all over the Soviet Union and internationally. Length: 79 minutes.

Produced by Tallinnfilm studios. Shot in Estonia and Latvia.

Director: Kaljo Kiisk, cinematographer: Anatoli Zobolotsky, production designer: Halja Klaar, screenwriter: Viktors Lorencs, producer: Arkadi Pessegov. Cast: Jüri Järvet, Voldemar Panso, Mare Garšnek, Vaclovas Bledis, Bronius Babkauskas. There are two versions of the film – one in Estonian and the other dubbed into Russian. The Russian version is about 10 minutes shorter.


Windisch becoming part of the patients under investigation: (from the left) Willy (Bronius Babkauskas), the Editor (Valeri Nossik) and the Person No.1 (Vaclovas Bledis).

filmed material that the director claimed wasn’t even allowed near the editing table.8 There were two versions made of the film – one dubbed into Estonian and the other into Russian. The Russian version is about 10 minutes shorter, and some claim it to be more expressive visually thanks to the laconic editing that eliminates the film’s shortcomings and makes the film more engaging.9

The film got permission to screen only in the Baltic Republics and Belarus, and only nine copies of the Russian version were even printed at first10, which essentially meant that no one could see the film outside of Estonia purely because there were no prints to screen.

The film was well received by both the local arts council and by critics. Completion of the film was considered a special event not only for Tallinnfilm but also for all Soviet film art.11 Reviews praised the modernity of the concept as well as the balanced consideration of the issues at hand, which vividly characterized the desire of Estonian filmmakers to talk on the central issues of the modern world. The sleekest component of the film is considered to be Anatoly Zobolotsky’s work as cinematographer, greatly responsible for helping to achieve the characteristic two dimensionality of the film’s structure. His cinematography doesn’t play merely for effect or for creating independent meaning torn out of the context of the film, but rather always serve the central idea of the film.12

Polish critic Janusz Gazda also says something about how it marks the birth of great ambitions for Es-

6 Ibid. pp. 227-234.

7 Viktor Mathiesen, “Eestlased tulevad! Ehk hullumeelsus Gnezdnikovi põiktänavas” / “The Estonians are Coming! Madness Across from Gnezdnikov Street”,, Teater. Muusika. Kino, no. 3, 1993.

8 Jaak Lõhmus, “Aktsentide muutumine” / “Changing Accents”, Postimees, 16.06.1997.

9 Andres Laasik, “Filmilavastaja ja näitleja Kaljo Kiisk. Ikka hea pärast” / “Director and Actor Kaljo Kiisk. Only the Good”, Tallinn: OÜ Hea Lugu, 2011, pp. 261.

10 “Kaadris: Hullumeelsus” / “Madness in Focus”, ETV, 16.03.2012.

11 Tallinnfilmi kunstinõukogu protokollist / Tallinnfilm Art Council Report, ERA.R-1707.1.1028, pp. 54.


tonian cinema, highlighting how the film received sharp criticism in the Moscow film journal “Cinema News” for its existentialism and influence of absurd theatre.13

The conditions of Perestroika in 1987 finally made it possible to rehabilitate films like this and thus the official premiere of Madness in Moscow finally took place. The film was also given permission to screen outside of the Soviet Union. There were screenings in Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Munich and London.14 There had been earlier interest in the film by the Venice Film Festival after Italian film historian Giacomo Gambetti managed to see it at a closed screening in Moscow, but unfortunately the film did not get permission to screen at the festival from Soviet authorities, at the time the rule was that no film could be shown outside of the Union without having distribution within the Soviet Union first.15

Film director and critic Andres Maimik has called Madness the first courageous act in Estonian film, which openly contributed to showing conditionality and location as allegorical micromodels of a larger organizational grouping (state, regime, apparatus of repression). The film does everything it can to focus on the metaphorical meaning of its characters – the symbolic Fascist, Madman and Doctor, and to commemorate that contributing to an internal collapse of power is the eternal mission of the mind.16

Film historian Lauri Kärk has written that Madness was the only film in Soviet filmmaking next to Mikhail Romm’s Triumph Over Violence (Обыкновенныйфашизм, 1965) that contained self-criticism for a totalitarian regime, i.e. the Soviet system.17

Critic Jaak Lõhmus has branded this film banned from the Soviet Union and international markets as the grandfather of Estonian arthouse cinema.18


Madness is still relevant in the current century. In 2003, the film was

screened at the Karlovy Vary IFF retrospective focus on cinema of the Baltic countries. In 2012, Estonian film journalists selected Madness as the second best film of the century (after Arvo Kruusement’s The Spring).

The artistic maturity and courageous content of Kiisk’s film still stands out in Estonian cinema today. The mental insecurity of power manifested in the imposition of violence on the poor is no stranger to the populist politicians who divide societies, nor to the people who suffer from their discriminatory poli-

cies. With its timeless approach and aesthetically thorough implementation, Madness is a film that doesn’t age, but rather manages to evade every decade that passes from its premiere by adding layers to its meaning that require a longer analysis than allowed by this introductory article.

This is a film that is an ideal choice for any festival, TV channel or VOD platform retrospective program interested in (Soviet) modernist cinema of the 1960s or issues of resistance to regime, closed society or mental disorders. EF

12 Valdeko Tobro, “Süüta ja süüga süüdlased” / “Guilty and Guitless Culprits”, Noorte Hääl, 21.02.1969.

13 Janusz Gazda, “Põgus kohtumine Eestiga” / “A Brief Encounter with Estonia”, Ekran, 1970, no. 12.

14 Endel Link, “”Hullumeelsusega” Münchenis ja Buenos Aireses” / “In Munich and Buenos Aires with “Madness”, Sirp ja Vasar, 14.08.1987.

15 Andres Laasik, “Filmilavastaja ja näitleja Kaljo Kiisk. Ikka hea pärast” / “Director and Actor Kaljo Kiisk. Only the Good”, Tallinn: OÜ Hea Lugu, 2011, pp. 286.

16 Andres Maimik, “”Hullumeelsus” - modernistlik üksiklane 1960. aastate eesti mängufilmis” / “”Madness” – A Solitary Modernist Wave in 1960s Estonian Film”, Teater. Muusika. Kino, no. 11, 1999.

17 Lauri Kärk, “”Viimne reliikvia” ja “Valgus koordis”: žanrifilmist žanrifilmini II” / “The Last Relic” and “Light in Koord”: From Genre Film to Genre Film II”, Teater. Muusika. Kino, nr 2, 2010.

18 Jaak Lõhmus, “Aktsentide muutumine” / “Changing Accents”, Postimees, 16.06.1997.

A scene from Windisch's dream sequence shot in the graveyard of the psychiatric hospital that wasn't allowed to be edited into the film.


REAP SOW What You is what You

There’s probably no film country in the world where the audience and the critics wouldn’t get that nagging feeling, every now and then that the old legends have somewhat dozed off, and yet the new guard has not arrived. Seemingly everything is present, but intuition tells you to wait for some new energy, a new wave. The same goes for Estonian cinema.

Estonian film began side by side with the rest of the world, but was subjected to the will of the cinema officials and ideologists of Moscow later on, so that Estonian film encompasses more diversity than it seems at first glance. Here we find pre-war glamour and adventure, as well as post-war hollow Stalinist propaganda. Khrushchev's thaw enabled films with a more liberated, poetic language, and also straightforward thrills and action, which took Estonia to the universe of pan-Soviet megahits, garnering millions in viewers and currency.

It is only fair to say that Estonian film wasn’t so badly off by the latter half of the 1970s, but still something was missing. It is also quite safe to claim that the pulse of cinema beats in sync with the rhythm of the state and the society. By the end of the 1970s, this form of art, or some might say entertainment, appeared as stagnant as the country where it should have prospered. On the other hand, it is known that the biggest calm comes before the storm, and the purveyors of the storm in the Estonian conditions were the young grad-

uates of the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow, who stormed the homeland with their recently acquired cinematic knowledge and started making films. Each of them had their own style, but it’s pretty clear that from very early on, the most distinguished of them all proved to be the young director Peeter Simm (born 1953).


Simm attracts attention with his graduation work Tattoo (1977). Here it is already evident what kind of a director Simm will turn out to be. Simm’s direction is driven by warm humour and empathy. The tragicomic story about a young man who has fallen in love with a Roma girl, has all the elements that came to characterize his own distinctive style later on in his feature films. Colourful characters move around as if they were in a retro-kaleidoscope, trebly vinyl playing in the background. The protagonist is played by rookie actor Arvo Kukumägi. Simm reminisces that the film’s supervisor Andrey Tarkovsky lambasted his main casting choice as soon as he saw Kukumägi’s photo.

Photo by MIkk Raude


A few years later, 27-year-old Simm emerges as the brightest star of the decade, with his feature film debut, based on Karl Helemäe’s story The Deputy of Spring Sowing The 30-Day Chronicle of a Young Man’s Life. The 1980 feature film is christened The Ideal Landscape

The film is set in Estonia after World War II. Mait Kukemeri (Arvo Kukumägi), fresh-faced activist of the Young Communist League (Comsomol) arrives to Metsa collective farm in the back of a truck. As a Deputy of Spring Sowing, he has to tell the local country folk to go and work in the field, even when spring water comes in over the boot top and machines get stuck in the mud. Harald Tuvikene, the chairman of the collective farm, promises everything by tomorrow, pitching his peasant wisdom against the senseless demands of centralised power. For the first time in his life, Kukemeri faces real problems. Despite the task put upon him by the party, the youngster’s attention is drawn more and more to a local pioneer guide. Nobody is willing to sow before the right time, and Kukemeri gets stuck in an ever-expanding web of lies to the regional authorities.

Tallinnfilm archives offer the director’s vision of his film’s protagonist. “Football fan deputy of spring sowing, young communist Mait Kukemeri is an object of attention in every scene. The audience should not be drawn to his uttermost nobility and positivity, but lifelike believability and contradictions,” says Simm. Arvo Kukumägi’s idealistic deputy Mait Kukemeri is contradictory indeed, especially in a rapidly escalating situation where it becomes clear that the young deputy’s slogans and theoretical knowledge is one thing, the practical skills of the local people another, and the unrealistic demands of the bosses yet another matter.


The 1980s are not the dangerous times any longer, when dealing with uncomfortable themes could bring harsh punishment. Yes, a certain caution was necessary, but temporal distance already allowed a more liberal depiction of topics that had been deemed too

complicated before. So, Simm’s return to the war years comes as no surprise. These are the times that have seemingly been covered by older colleagues, but more closely scrutinized by the younger generation only since the beginning of the eighties.

The events on The Ideal Landscape take place during the difficult times in the beginning of 1950s. Pioneer guide Liina (Reet Paavel), the chairman of the collective farm Tuvike (Tõnu Kark) and the young pioneers.

One aspect of it was an instinctive drive to rediscover one’s own childhood, but not only that. A theme that had so far been largely pushed underground in Estonian cinema, starts to rear its head – a dark legacy of the post-war Baltics, the 'forest brothers' (Estonian partisans). Now there is enough courage to make films about a conflict between those who tried to continue living their lives in a perpetually altered reality, and those who couldn’t acknowledge the present and hid themselves in the woods, becoming the half-mythical forest brothers in the process. Young filmmakers wanted to explore this in depth, remaining as truthful as possible under the circumstances of the period. They picked complex themes and wove the pre-war and post-war memories into the narrative form acquired in film school, creating a unique storytelling niche on the cinematic landscape of the day.

Simm’s film tackles all the taboos of the Stalinist period, trying to remain true to the heroes of the time, but using their generation’s knowledge to give them new meaning.

“In order to get a lot of spring-like lightness and brightness, I exposed the film to light blue, yellow and pink tones before the shoot, and filmed through a light-diffusing filter. The 17th-18th century masters made a monochrome underpainting first, and applied colours on that in thin layers. That’s where I got the idea from”, says cinematographer Arvo Iho, remembering the filming of The Ideal Landscape.1

Tattoo was shot in a remarkably sensitive way, by another Estonian graduate of Moscow, cinematographer Arvo Iho.

Arvo Kukumägi (1958 ­ 2017) portrayed the main protagonist Mait Kukemeri in The Ideal Landscape

The texture of the film is unconventionally sensitive for its time, emphasized by the lyrical atmosphere. There is a tangible nostalgia for a time and space that the filmmakers themselves had not experienced, but pieced together from the memories of parents and grandparents, becoming a longing for something that only exists in the imagination of the interpreters.

We see a picturesque, crumbling retro-world, hear the songs of Zarah Leander, mixed with the work of Dmitry Shostakovich, a man significant in his time. In The Ideal Landscape, youthful exuberance meets rural experience. The people here are simultaneously optimistic and realistic, living in fear’s shadow. The war is over, Stalin’s cult of personality is omnipresent, and yesterday’s friends have become today’s enemies in the woods.


Estonian title: "Ideaalmaastik" is a 1980 drama directed by Peeter Simm (born 1953). With a lyrical and innocent hero, this film gives an ironic glimpse of collective farm life in the Stalin era. The film is based on writer Karl Helemäe’s story The Deputy of Spring Sowing. The 30Day Chronicle of a Young Man’s Life.

Starring: Arvo Kukumägi, Tõnu Kark, Kalju Komissarov

Music by: Erkki-Sven Tüür

Cinematography: Arvo Iho

Running time: 85 minutes

Country: Soviet Union

Language: Estonian, German


The main character of the film, Mait Kukemeri, is also afraid. He has been given orders to sow the grain but despite his noble-ish intentions, he has to abandon

1 Iho, A. (2012). Mina ja film. Akadeemia, no 9, p. 1635-1648.


Aarne Üksküla as Mihkel Aas, Liina's father in the film. “Miks te seda hullumeelsust ei peatanud?” Tiit Tuumalu’s interview with Peeter Simm. Postimees 22. X 2008.
Photo by MIkk Raude

his ideals soon after, and use the precious few primitive manipulation skills he has been able to accumulate during his short life. By the end of the film, he too learns to differentiate between different shades and hues, but unfortunately at the cost of human relationships.

“Quite a few crucial turns in The Ideal Landscape were improvised. Our method back in the day was to establish the movement plan and most certainly film the first take. Some of the improvised text bits had been previously agreed upon, without the partner’s knowledge, others came during the takes,” says Peeter Simm in an interview given in 2008.2 The ensemble of The Ideal Landscape plays really well together indeed, but special mention goes to the man opposite Arvo Kukumägi, today’s legend of Estonian cine ma, Tõnu Kark, taking his first steps on the big screen. He is the chairman of the collective farm, who has to wrestle with the young maximalist, having to tap into all of his resources of simple rural wisdom to do that. Reet Paavel turns in a charming role as a pioneer guide, Mait Kukemeri’s object of desire.


Colleagues’ response to the film was unanimous, characterized vividly by Kaljo Kiisk, Estonian vet eran director, at a Tallinnfilm Artistic Committee meeting: “I haven’t seen such a poetic recounting of a definite era in our cinema yet. Having survived this period at roughly the same age as the characters of the film, I can say that the film really goes to the heart. Watching it made me realize, how important it is to

have a look back at those times. Peeter Simm and his fully-fledged co-author Arvo Iho have said their word. /-/ Locations are good, noises, sounds, music –everything fits. Very interesting and completely original camerawork. The light penetrating the grimy world is sombre, but good. Peeter Simm has a heightened sense of the figurative.”

A thousand kilometres to the East, the reactions were unfortunately quite different. “Why did you not stop this madness. A young man’s fate is ruined now!” yelled the Moscow officials at the first viewing of the film. It is one thing to finish a film in Estonia, supported by friends and allies, but trying to get it approved for a Soviet-wide distribution permit in Moscow was something completely different. Peeter Simm has reminisced about these most tense moments of his creative career in his biography: “Initially, the film had another finale. We saw the same spots, previously filled with human passion and warmth, in a completely different season – everything was frozen and lifeless, with the country children playing. We received such a berating in Moscow that I thought we’d be sent to Siberia. The screening went by in dead silence. The head editor of Goskino asked:

“Do you think we are blind? The kids were wearing nylon jackets in the end. Do you think we don’t

Reet Paavel (as Liina) and Arvo Kukumägi (as Kukemeri) on the set of The Ideal Landscape. 3 Tallinnfilm Artistic Board meeting, 29. XII 1980. The screening and discussion of “The Ideal Landscape”. 4,5 Peeter Simm. Eesti filmi partisan. Evelin Kivimaa 2011, Menu. 6 Plahhov, Andrei. Wistful Youth. Translated from the magazine “Iskusstvo kino”, no. 1, 1983]/ translated by Ene Paaver. 1983, 12, 26-29, ill.
botohP yIis T r a ip do
Why did you not stop this madness. A young man’s fate is ruined now!
Peeter Simm has proved himself to be one of the most diverse Estonian film directors throughout five decades.
Photo by MIkk Raude

understand that you are talking about the modern day?" Peeter Simm remembers how it was implied to the Estonians to get the hell out of there. “It was 1980, not Stalin’s era any longer, so we weren’t crammed into cattle wagons right away, but I have never been so afraid in my life. I was certain that’s it – I have to find a new occupation. No joke, our discussion was dead serious, but youth’s boldness is matched with their elders’ experience – Enn Rekkor, Tallinnfilm’s editor-in-chief initiated a new attempt about a month and a half later.”

Simm continues: “We killed the initial ending, maybe that was too much indeed. The new attempt was a complete miracle. We had a much higher judge this time, the assistant to the chairman of Goskino, Pavljonok, who was a friend of Karl Helemäe, the author of the original novella. We started watching the

film. Silence. Now and then, the old Belorussian partisan Pavljonok, uttered words of praise: “See, that’s how you make a mise-en-scene!” Finally, when the lights were turned on in the screening hall, he kissed me on the mouth with his big Slavic spirit.”

Maybe The Ideal Landscape is perceived better abroad, where the gaze is sharper. A renowned Russian film critic Andrei Plakhov describes the film’s central idea: “We stand face to face with the need to give philosophical meaning to our recent past; to connect the social existence and national character with the myth of the Universe – and that leads us back to the source of nationality eventually”. He adds, as if looking to the future: “Wisdom and spiritual youth combined in every single person is a guarantee for him to walk in step with the times, without losing the connection between different eras”. EF

The epic scene from The Ideal Landscape with the legends of the Estonian cinema: Arvo Kukumägi (on the left) and Tõnu Kark .

Scenes from The Ideal Landscape



Karlo Funk writes about the most important Estonian female director of the Soviet period, Leida Laius, and her classic youth movie Well, Come on, Smile (1985).

On a winter’s day in the 1940s, a 20-yearold girl decided to go to the front as a volunteer. The girl had been forcefully deported from border village inhabited by Estonians to deeper heartland of Russia, together with her mother, and the only way out was through the war. Just before departure, she bought herself a pair of cheap earrings her little savings could afford, plastic, and climbed on a wagon headed west. She had to spend the night on the floor. Her hair had frozen to the floor by morning. It took some effort to break free, but she also broke her new earrings.1


Future film director Leida Laius never made it to the front. Some war-time committee, generally indifferent towards the deportees, spared the women, and Laius ended up reading books in hospitals to the wounded. Leida Laius, who had grown up in an Estonian village in Russia, was a unique entity in Estonian cinema, but her films are not that well known internationally. Women’s position was seemingly good in a Soviet ideological system, where everyone was supposed to be equal: they could often find work in professions that were dominated by men. In reality - and especially in the film industry - the situation was not that rosy. In the field, where you had to fight for your creative ambition and choices every step of the way, former military experience came in handy.

Laius, a bright kid and an eager learner from a very young age, reached cinema with the first wave after the World War II, in the middle of 1950s - she was among the young ones who got sent to Moscow from Estonia, to study in the fields of theatre and cinema, so that they could help the new governing power to establish and legitimize itself through culture that it didn’t really understand. For a year, Laius could study under the guidance of Aleksandr Dovzhenko. She graduated from the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK) in 1962 as a film director. Many authors who shaped the Estonian cinematic landscape later on, came from the same university.


Laius directed seven feature films in her lifetime. Well, Come on, Smile (1985) was the last but one of her films and came to signify several turning points in Estonian filmmaking, and Laius’ approach to it.

The film opened a door to the orphanage, where the unstoppable progress of ripe socialism was substituted with typical family issues and the alcoholism that had become characteristic of the closed society. A decade earlier, Laius had made two documenta-

1 Silvia Kiik. Lõpetamata film. Leida Laius ja tema filmid 1923 –1996, lk 19.


ries, one in a nursery and the other in a special boarding school type of kindergarten, where 4-5year old kids were sometimes forced to spend a whole week without their parents. Well, Come on, Smile was a story about youngsters, who grow up without a family, according to their own laws and principles. The type of youngsters that were used to scare unruly kids in normal schools, and who couldn’t fit into the Soviet worldview. Even less reason to turn attention to them in such a controlled and presentable field like cinema.

Mari (Monika Järv), the main protagonist, seems to return from a trip home, but it soon becomes apparent to the viewer that she had run away from the orphanage after one week there. Despite some female empathy from another temporary girlfriend, Mari’s dad throws the girl out of the house, sending her off with a barrage of self-justification. Three young boys start to harass Mari in a park at night, but suddenly a gang of girls comes to her rescue and they all end up in a police station. Mari is sent back to the orphanage. The first backstories start to unravel there, and the first relationships to form, but the film’s narrative is mainly concentrated around Mari’s unsteady and contradictory relations to two young guys, and inevitable conflicts with other girls.


Well, Come on, Smile is one of the first films in Estonia that is openly critical about the contemporary society. In the middle of the Soviet progressive social order, there was paradoxically a rather Protestant notion of work and societal ideals. Grand schemes were hatched from one five-year plan to the next, and people were mobilized to achieve their goals with military methods. The price of this endless struggle, morally sup-

Mari (Monika Järv) after attempted suicide, another taboo topic in Soviet cinema.

ported by the constant narrative of the great victory in World War II, was often at the neglect of personal and family life. Exemplary worker could hope that the state would solve all of their problems, and even raise their kids if necessary. Even in this film, one boys’ father is actually an important director of a company, who simply has no time to take care of his kid.

Stories of the supporting characters bring forth the half-truths of social self-justification, but the film goes further than that. Well, Come on, Smile legitimizes the young opposition and thirst for freedom that would cause various repressions at work for their parents. These twisted truths take clearer shape when presented through the eyes of the kids. When Kerttu (Kerttu Aving), a girl barely old enough for school, steals an older girl’s passport, it leads to one of the most shocking scenes in the film that many viewers remember vividly until this day. Katrin (Katrin Tamleht), leader of the older girls, is convinced that Kerttu is the thief. Kerttu flees naked from Katrin, hiding in the washing machine. Katrin switches it on in a bout of anger. A naked child in a spinning tub was a sharp reminder of the machinery that the

WELL, COME ON, SMILE (Estonian: "Naerata ometi") is a 1985 Soviet Estonian drama film directed by Leida Laius and Arvo Iho. After the death of her mother, high school student Mari ends up in an orphanage. Three days later, the girl returns home, but her drunken father makes it clear that she doesn't belong there. The orphanage has its own internal hierarchy. The dashing guy Robi is considered the informal leader. Among the girls, the harsh, nervous Katrin, who ended up in an orphanage after her mother was imprisoned, dominates.

Written by: Marina Sheptunova (based on Silvia Rannamaa’s youth novel Stepmother) Starring: Monika Järv, Hendrik Toompere, Tauri Tallermaa Composer: Lepo Sumera Cinematography: Arvo Iho Running time: 85 minutes Country: Soviet Union Language: Estonian


One of the most shocking scenes in Estonian film historya naked child locked into a washing machine.

Well, Come on, Smile is one of the first films in Estonia that is openly critical about the contemporary society.

state had created in the name of ideological purity. Kerttu’s excuse for theft is just as startling. She has heard that everyone leaving the orphanage has to have a passport and a toothbrush. She had obtained the passport – now she was only short of a personal toothbrush.


The cast of the film consists mostly of a young amateur actors, who can really carry the ever-defiant stance, and hidden ferocity that characterized the counterculture of the day. The film’s visual rhythm is hectic and

Robi in Well, Come on, Smile was the first film role in Hendrik Toompere's (on the right) film career.
Monika Järv and Leida Laius.

fast, the flexible and impulsive camera of cinematographer and co-director Arvo Iho follows the parties and the fights in several scenes. The style of the film was obviously contrary to her previous films that were based on Estonian literary classics and history.

These had been clear tales of men and women, whose relationships are tested by the environment. Woman is the stronger half in Laius’ films, challenging the pressure to conform and comply, endangering consistency. Initially Laius – maybe influenced by her theatre studies – creates classical characters, whose choices gradually stem from their nature. In Well, Come on, Smile, the characters get in trouble rather randomly, due to the conflicting and contradictory urges, inexperience and reluctance to compromise. It is somewhat surprising that a 60-year-old director verges towards more provocative cinema, and gives a distinctive voice to the characters and co-authors who are from a younger generation.

Arvo Iho undoubtedly had a big part to play in this, having also been a working partner of Laius a decade earlier, shooting her two documentaries. Well composed scenes and beautiful nature shots give way to an anonymous and impersonal dormitory. The characters’ only escape is an abandoned house that gives an impression of an unfinished art project, with a chair hanging from the ceiling and drawings on the walls. Much to the surprise of the director, the set designer and the cinematographer decided to paint the room pink, but you can’t see it in the film, because the notorious green hue of the Soviet film stock balanced out the colours.2

The film was loosely based on

Silvia Rannamaa’s youth novel Stepmother, published in 1963.

There are traces of the story in Tallinnfilm archives, dating back to 1965, but Laius lost interest in the project back then.3 The new script, based on the narrative themes of the novel, was written by a young screenwriter from Moscow, Maria Sheptunova, who could introduce topics descriptive of the 1980s, as well as maintain the local flavour of the characters. Disillusioned reality, an ideologically unredacted message, and an almost documentary approach, were new qualities in the whole of Soviet cinema. After completion, the readers of a pan-Soviet film magazine voted Well, Come on, Smile one of the best films of the year, bettered only by Elem Klimov’s Come and See.4 The film won the UNICEF award at Berlinale and attracted attention in France.

Laius had worked with several youth-themed scripts as early as the 1970s. This interest possibly stemmed from the post-war period, when the orphanages had to accommodate the children of the repressed, as well as the orphans. Leida Laius had

The cast of the film consists mostly of a young amateur actors. But Robi's alcoholic mother is played by the legendary actress Mari Lill (far right). Leida Laius co­directed the film with the cinematographer Arvo Iho.
After completion, the readers of a pan ­ Soviet film magazine voted Well, Come on, Smile one of the best films of the year, bettered only by Elem Klimov’s Come and See .

remained fatherless too, in the course of Soviet cleansing. Interest towards the bothersome generation on the western fringes of the Soviet empire was confirmed a year later in Juris Podnieks’ Latvian documentary Is it Easy to be Young? Podnieks captured the protest, and the youth’s opposition to their parents and society much in the same way as Laius.


In Well, Come on, Smile, you can hear a classic quote from a legendary 1960s movie The Spring (directed by Arvo Kruusement) that belongs to the absolute top of Estonian cinema, the latter being a bright example of the Estonian traditional way of life, with its nationally characteristic childhood and generational consistency before the great wars of the 20th Century. The success of The Spring was much helped by the young budding cast of actors too, and the film exposes the gallery of various characters. The kids had to come to school for the whole week because of long distances, and live apart from their parents. But the contrast between the turn of the 19th Century’s joie de vivre and the dead-end life of the 1980s couldn’t be starker. Juxtaposing these two films, the director’s attitude toward the changes that had taken place in culture silently prevails.

Later, several films looked back upon the era, and its characteristic choices and mentality, but mostly from a distance, as a bystander, aware of historical developments that have already taken place. Jaak Kilmi’s Revolution of Pigs (2004) captured the life of a youth summer camp in the 1980s, where first salaries were earned working on a field. Triin Ruumet’s The Days that Confused (2016) painted a picture of the chaos that struck the peripheral rural territories in the 1990s, when familiar ground was lost, and the whole notion of being young had to be re-created again, influenced by shady business practices and violence.

Laius’ inherent empathy makes Well, Come on, Smile an insightful film, prohibiting it from becoming

Loneliness is one of the main motifs in Well, Come on, Smile

a straightforward socio-critical manifesto. In a key scene of the film, Katrin reads everyone excerpts from Mari’s diary. Alight party mood is eclipsed by Mari’s public humiliation, and takes another dramatic turn when Robi (Hendrik Toompere, Jr.), the boy who had previously harassed her in the park, sticks up for her, and changes the dynamics back towards the lighter mood again, seemingly careless flirting between the kids. The exposure of secret thoughts causes the girl to attempt suicide.

In her films, Laius reflects the female ability to stand up for themselves, but also their vulnerability, from different angles. At the end of the film, in order to console a younger orphan girl, Mari plays a harmless prank on her and pretends to turn herself into an ordinary boot. We see her hiding on the outside windowsill, as the camera zooms out.

In this Cinderella’s story, the pumpkin doesn’t turn into a carriage, and the orphan prince never finds the crystal shoe. In the film’s magical universe, Mari remains a boot for the young girls, and even that is a miracle. Maybe here, in the last scene of Well, Come on, Smile, we can most easily imagine the girl whose hair froze to the floor and who broke her first earrings. EF

2 Arvo Iho. Teekaaslane. “Naerata ometi”, lk 5. html (15.04.2021).

3 Silvia Kiik. Lõpetamata film. Leida Laius ja tema filmid 1923 – 1996, lk 33. (15.04.2021).

4 Silvia Kiik. Lõpetamata film. Leida Laius ja tema filmid 1923 – 1996, lk 45. (15.04.2021)

Elle Kull (Minna) and Lembit Ulfsak (Aksel) were elected as Male and Female Stars of the Century at the 100th Anniversary of Estonian Cinema in 2012.


There are significant works in every country’s film history that seem to have the task of defining the essence of the cultural space they stem from. Sometimes it happens due to the talent of the authors, other times the miracle happens by accident, and in yet another case we see only decades later how an old film encapsulated the mentality of its era.

Ukuaru, a 1973 film by the Estonian director Leida Laius, is a blend of all the elements mentioned above, that have come to signify something we consider intrinsically “Estonian”. The female protagonist of the film, Minna, symbolizes an Estonian woman in general.

Leida Laius said in one of her interviews: “I have not set myself the goal to observe only a woman. In my opinion, a woman has only one part to play in the films, although it’s the part closest to me. I have been intrigued by universal human problems and values, exploring the formation of a personality.”1 Nevertheless, Laius’ work is mostly analysed through the perspective of her female characters. It wouldn’t be wrong to claim that Laius has consciously depicted the archetypal Estonian Woman in her films, but it is not as straightforward as we might think today. So, let’s take a glance at the historical context before getting on with the film, because as we know, the past is “a foreign country; they do things differently there.”2


Welcome to the 1970s. Laura Mulvey makes ripples in the West with her era-defining essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Using Hollywood

films, she comes to an understanding about men as bearers of the look, and women as image. Things should be different in the Soviet Union, because women have seemingly been liberated by the communist times. A Soviet woman can become a tractor driver or a cosmonaut, even a film director. But in essence, the Hollywood paradigm is not that different from the Soviet one. Despite illusionary freedom, most film directors are still men. Females in their movies are usually catalysts of events. Even in main roles they serve as visions of ideals, coming off as almost cartoonish in the worst cases.

Leida Laius, a film director in Tallinnfilm, the only professional film studio in Estonia, really stands out, given the context. She is practically the only active female feature film director, who makes films about women; films that the audience can relate to.

1 Vastab Leida Laius, Teater Muusika Kino 1984, 6, 5-13
2 L. P. Hartley


By the beginning of the Ukuaru shooting period, Leida Laius has come through the war and left behind a failed career as an actor. She has also gone to study at the Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK) in Moscow at a relatively late age, been widely praised for her graduation film, and lambasted for Werewolf (1969), a film adaptation of an Estonian literary classic, generally deemed a failure.

A film that was, in Laius’ words, torn apart by the critics, and she had a very hard time getting back from that. But “Work heals”, as Laius said in an old TV appearance. She takes on Veera Saar’s novel Ukuaru that she finds relatable.


Ukuaru’s main character is a young woman Minna, daughter of a poor forester, who dreams of her own place, her own farmhouse, a place called Ukuaru, that no-one wants but her. Minna wants to organize her own life and declines the marriage proposal of the wealthy master of Keldriaugu farm, picking Aksel instead, who only has his accordion to offer, but no money. After a brief stop at the parents-in-law’s, Minna moves her family to Ukuaru, to a free farmhouse.

Minna’s children are born and raised here, and Minna’s and Aksel’s love blossoms, but Minna also experiences unimaginable heartache that makes her lose the will to live. But Minna cannot die, because someone has to take care of the kids, someone has to carry life forward.

The filmmakers swiftly weave a local mentality with a universally comprehensible psychology, into a seemingly sparse story. The novel that the film is based on simultaneously explored the times before and after World War II. Laius and screenwriter Mats Traat have only adapted the pre-war period, leaving behind the later events at a collective farm. They have concentrated on a young woman’s confidence in remaining true to herself and handling her fate. Let it be said that politically active officials demanded changes in the script so that it would be in better accord with Soviet ideology. Laius and Traat were forced to make several big compromises that didn’t improve the script, but didn’t ruin it either, paying an acceptable price for getting the film out and onto screens.


Ukuaru becomes a film that connects with the Estonian viewer. Audiences of the day recognize the choices of their own elders in the film’s characters. In the words of film critic Maris Balbat: “I once told Leida Laius that it’s my mother’s film.”3 Those who don’t have a direct connection to the narrative of the film, can relate to Minna’s character, her choices and struggles to ensure her and her family’s survival.

What makes Leida Laius’ Ukuaru such a landmark film for the self-consciousness of the Estonian

Lembit Ulfsak (on the left) masterfully depicts a man who is essentially Minna’s oldest kid.
Ukuaru becomes a film that connects with the Estonian viewer.
3 Kuidas sündis unustamatu "Ukuaru" Lembit Ulfsaki ja Elle Kulliga, Maris Balbat, 9. aprill 2015, Maaleht

Director Leida Laius (in the center) with the main protagonists of the film ­ Aksel (Lembit Ulfsak) and Minna (Elle Kull).

UKUARU is a 1973 drama, directed by Leida Laius. Working-class girl Minna chooses musician Aksel over a rich suitor. Aksel has next to nothing to his name, except for an accordion and his love for Minna. Bad conditions and hard work can’t dampen a young woman’s mood – she only cares about building her own home, with kids running around and accordion music. Love can perform miracles in a distant farmhouse in the woods, but there is something Minna cannot do – keep the madness of the outside world at bay.

Screenwriter: Mats Traat (based on Veera Saar’s eponymous novel)

Cinematographer: Jüri Garšnek

Composer: Arvo Pärt

Cast: Elle Kull. Lembit Ulfsak, Velda Otsus, Jüri Järvet, Antanas Barcas

Duration: 85 minutes

Language: Estonian

Minna (Elle Kull) is a composite of Estonian women throughout the centuries, in bad times and good, showing the heavy burden that most of them had to bear. Ukuaru is the only film to feature theatre legend Velda Otsus.

viewer? Firstly, the main theme of the film – finding a place that you can really call your own, be it poor or small. “We have to take the Estonian spirit into consideration”, says someone at the Tallinnfilm Artistic Committee upon the film’s completion. “She wants something to herself, even a small piece of land”.4 Leida Laius seconds: “Your own Ukuaru – it means a place in life, a place created with your will and work”.

The destinies of the protagonists are just as relevant. Minna is a composite of Estonian women throughout the centuries, in bad times and good, showing the inhumanely heavy burden that most of our foremothers had to bear. On the other hand, maybe things are not so different if you come from an old farmhouse, or from the 21st century – there’s no room for failure.

“Die, if you’re too weak to live”, Minna’s tough mother barks at her weary daughter, who has reached a dead end, surrounded by kids. But Minna’s life doesn’t solely consist of woes, there’s love for Aksel in her life, that has been described by the writer Mati Unt: “In general, it is a tale of a real Estonian woman, who goes through life victorious, carrying not only her kids along, but also her sympathetic but impractical deadbeat husband”.

Aksel is one of the first big roles for the actor Lembit Ulfsak (on the left with who later became famous everywhere in the Soviet Union and also starred in the Oscarnominated Tangerines (2013).


The casting of Ukuaru proved to be a landmark on the Estonian cinema landscape. Elle Kull, who was still studying in acting school during pre-production, got the part at the last minute. Despite the director’s full support of her candidature, Tallinnfilm Studio opposes Kull for a long time, on the grounds of the actress’ inexperience. The people working on Ukuaru remember, however, that it was an extremely heartfelt story for Laius – she knew exactly what she wanted.

After completion, Kull gets an entirely different kind of feedback. “It is most likely Elle Kull, who lends the film an air of ambivalence, a mix of nobility and regret”, commented Mati Unt.5

Laius’ colleague from animation, director Elbert Tuganov, said at the Tallinnfilm Artistic Committee meeting: “There’s never been an actress like this in Estonian cinema like the one playing Minna from a young girl’s age to a mother of four.”6 A couple of decades later, film critic Jaak Lõhmus pointed out a certain visual resemblance between the director and the lead actress.7

Aksel is one of the first big roles for the actor Lembit Ulfsak. He masterfully depicts a man who is essentially Minna’s oldest kid, and his nuanced play forecasts his later position as one of the most loved actors in the whole of the Soviet Union. Soviet-wide fame is no stranger to Jüri Järvet (Minna’s father) by the time Ukuaru gets made, and the words “Tarkovsky’s actor”

4 ERA.R-1707.1.1293, lk 169-177

5 Tallinnfilm I. Mängufilmid 1947–1976 Õie Orav, Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus, Tallinn, 2003

6 ERA.R-1707.1.1293, lk 234–245

7 Leida lugu (2002), dokumentaalfilm, režissöör Jüri Sillart, tootjafirma Kairiin

8 Kuidas sündis unustamatu "Ukuaru" Lembit Ulfsaki ja Elle Kulliga, Maris Balbat, 9. aprill 2015, Maaleht

9 Tallinnfilm I. Mängufilmid 1947–1976 Õie Orav, Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus, Tallinn, 2003

The story is clear and linear, nothing too excessive in the visual department, everything is exactly in its place.

can be used to describe him. Ukuaru is the only film to feature theatre legend Velda Otsus. Her delicately nuanced role as Minna’s mother gives the protagonist some context that is easy to understand. The film’s anti-hero, the master of Keldriaugu, is expressively played by the Lithuanian actor Antanas Barčas.


After the film was finished, it became clear that Leida Laius had asserted herself as a director. The film was well liked by colleagues, although Maris Balbat remembers the reaction of the studio’s editor-in-chief: “Lembit Remmelgas criticized the film’s feminist attitude that was strongly supportive of women”.8 Critical reception was generally positive. With Ukuaru, Laius knew exactly what she wanted. The story is clear and linear, nothing too excessive in the visual department, everything is exactly in its place. While Laius’ previous film Werewolf had been criticized for its extensive

visual trickery, then Ukuaru drew complaints for being too ordinary, with a slight addition: “It is only fit to ask in the context of current Estonian cinema: What is more important to us at the moment – badly done new, or well done old?”.9 Cinematographer Jüri Garšnek won acclaim for his camerawork, and there was no way to ignore Arvo Pärt’s musical design. According to varying data, Pärt managed to score 37 films in Soviet Estonia. His “Ukuaru Waltz” made for this film is probably most widely known of them all – a melody that is still being played at weddings, birthdays and national anniversaries. Many people who were connected to the film have been recognised over the years – Elle Kull and Lembit Ulfsak were elected as Male and Female Stars of the Century at the 100th Anniversary of Estonian Cinema.

The biggest praise, however, is the fact that the film still has great power to make generalizations that reach over times. EF

On the set of Ukuaru (1973).



The Last Relic is one of the most well-known and beloved Estonian films. At least to Estonians. For the centenary of Estonian film in 2012, The Last Relic was voted the best quips and songs in a film. In March 2020 we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the legendary film.

Why do Estonians love The Last Relic so much if – let’s be honest – it’s artistically not exactly an immortal masterpiece of cinematic art? To understand that, we need to take a look at how the film came to be and its historical context. There are many reasons behind the undying love people feel for this film – first of all, this is a historical adventure film by genre.

And that genre is generally popular, engaging, and easy to understand. Secondly, the songs in The Last Relic had a very enchanting effect, as did the witty dialogue –and both found their way into the lexicon of the masses, and we still use them in conversation to this day. And thirdly, the most important aspect of the film in hindsight is its covert nature – it was a national-romantic film about one nation’s desire for freedom, released in a country under Soviet occupation at the time. Plus, the film also had a dimension of Christian allegory that few were clever enough to find – the main characters are the lovely Agnes, whose name refers to a saint in Christian culture who was often depicted as the lamb of God, and daggered warrior

Gabriel, who we can compare to the Archangel Gabriel.


But let’s start at the beginning. In 1893, writer Eduard Bornhöhe wrote a rather Russo-centric novel called Prince Gabriel or The Last DaysofthePiritaMonastery, which tells the story of the peasant uprising during the Livonian War (15581583). The main characters of this source material are Prince Gabriel, who fights on the Estonian side against the Germans and Swedes, and German noblewoman Agnes von Mönnikhusen. Love sparks between the two. In 1965, the Tallinnfilm editorial board met. The State Committee for Cinematography had commissioned a historical romance adventure film that could be


The Last Relic

l Estonian title: "Viimne reliikvia"

l An Estonian film that premiered in 1970

l Length: 86 minutes

l Made by the studio Tallinnfilm

l Filmed on location in Estonia and Latvia

l Directed by Grigori Kromanov, produced by Raimund Felt, screenplay written by Arvo Valton-Vallikivi, starring Aleksandr Goloborodko and Ingrida Andrina

l In its first year in cinemas, The Last Relic had at least 772,000 admissions in Estonia. In the whole Soviet Union the film had 44.9 million viewers in 1970

l The Last Relic was the first digitally restored film in Estonia, which premiered in its restored version in 2002




“The keen viewer understands right away that Agnes and Gabriel have to fall in love and that there have to be various obstacles to overcome on their path to love. The world is always full of evil and insidious forces that separate lovers. One such force is the monastic power represented by the Mother Superior. Another evil force is the chief bandit Ivo. The events develop rapidly. Let’s hope they continue to bait the viewer’s interest. The film’s tonality is largely also determined by the behindthe-scenes songs that comment on the events taking place.” 2

watched all over the Soviet Union. They decided to commission the screenplay from Arvo Valton-Vallikivi, who was studying dramaturgy in Moscow and for whom this was his first screenplay. It was decided that Valton should avoid the “currently unacceptable primitive concepts and outdated emotions found in the novel”. The backdrop was that Tallinnfilm had not fulfilled its budget, their previous films were not successful and they needed something to draw the people into the cinemas. In other words: a studio thus far dedicated to serious, social-realistic art had now decided to make a popular, light-hearted adventure film.1 Polishing the screenplay took many years.

In March of 1969, shooting of this colour film started in the film pavilion in Riga. Only a few motifs and the central love story were left of Bornhöhe’s novel. The era was the same – Livonia in the 16th

century – but the film certainly was not aiming for historical accuracy. A heritage of genre films was practically non-existent in Estonia, so the film was made based on trial and error and examples from abroad (the main reference mentioned is the 1952 French adventure comedy Fanfan la Tulipe from director Christian-Jacque).

At the heart of The Last Relic is a mysterious chest – the relic holding consecrated ashes. Young, ridiculously arrogant but sincere nitwit Hans von Risbieter inherits it. But the monastery desires the relic for itself. Risbieter is willing to give it to the monastery only if he gets the lovely Agnes, a close relative of the Mother Superior, as his bride in return. But Agnes’s path crosses that of free man Gabriel, who bravely stands up for freedom and justice, and it is clear that only a love story can ensue.

1 Tuuli Jõesaar. Kolm aastat kannatusi. Kuidas Lennart Meri taktikepi all valmis “Viimne reliikvia” (“Three Years of Suffering. How Lennart Meri’s Conducted the Making of The Last Relic”). Eesti Päevaleht, March 20, 2020.
2 Õie Orav, Tallinnfilm I. Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus, 2003, p. 470.


The actors confirmed for both main roles were guest actors – heartbreaker Gabriel is played by Aleksandr Goloborodko, a Ukrainian actor working in Russia whose career took off thanks to The Last Relic; and a long casting search led to the sexy blond Agnes being played by Latvian actress Ingrīda Andriņa. Estonian actors found their way into the smaller roles – Raivo Trass, whom you might know from the Oscar nominated film Tangerines (2013), Eve Kivi, who was a wellknown film star in the Soviet Union, and Peeter Jakobi who many might recognize from the hugely popular Finnish adventure horror film Rare Exports (2010).

By the way, a key role in the making and formation of The Last Relic was played by editor Lennart Meri, who later became the President of Estonia from 1992-2001. Film historian Lauri Kärk also

confirms the relevance of his role in the film on many levels: The pipe post and carrier pigeons of the monk-eavesdroppers in The Last Relic were the work of editor Lennart Meri. Of course, he wasn’t yet the President of the Republic of Estonia, but his political wit needed to be expressed somehow!3


The songs we hear in The Last Relic also play a very important role in the film – the melodies were written in just under a week by composer Uno Naissoo, helped in the musical creation by his young son Tõnu Naissoo. The lyrics to the songs are very popular in Estonia to this day. The Estonian versions were recorded by Peeter Tooma, but the international, or Russian, versions were sung by Georg Ots – the renowned Estonian opera soloist who was adored

A heritage of genre films was practically non­existent in Estonia in the end of 1960s, so the film was made based on trial and error and examples from abroad.

throughout the Soviet Union, Finland and elsewhere.

“The idea of freedom was written into the songs by the young and promising poet Paul-Eerik Rummo, who based his lyrics on the Estonian translation of Teitaro Suzuki’s book Introduction to Zen Buddhism,” journalist Paavo Kangur has discovered. He quotes the author of the lyrics, Paul-Eerik Rummo: “Everyone understood that they were making a pseudo-historical adventure film with an anti-regime message in the subtext. Grisha (the director’s nickname – ed.) may have liked the deep moral conflict that prevailed in the film: can you kill and burn in the name of freedom?”4

Rummo 3 Lauri Kärk, “Viimne reliikvia” ja “Valgus Koordis”: žanrifilmist žanrifilmini II (“The Last Relic and Light in Koord: From Genre Film to Genre Film II”). Teater. Muusika. Kino, February 2010, p. 107.
4 Paavo Kangur, Otsige Agnest maa alt ja maa pealt… (“Searching for Agnes Far and Wide”). Eesti naine, April 2020, p. 48



has also alluded to his lyrics being influenced by the Prague Spring events of 1968.

At the same time, it should be mentioned that the filmmakers definitely did not want to make an outright political or problematic film. Film historian Lauri Kärk confirms this: As a rule, no one was voluntarily a dissident back then as this could potentially have made them political prisoners. At some point, as they were living their lives, they all found themselves face-toface with the KGB. The makers of The Last Relic wanted to make a genre film that had nothing to do with a hidden dissident message. If they had, the repercussions would not have been limited to taking away the bonuses of a dozen filmmakers in the crew, but essentially could have paralyzed all further activities of Tallinnfilm. 5


The Last Relic was received very positively by audiences. The film premiered 50 years ago in March and had 772,000 admissions in Estonia – which meant that half of our population went to watch The Last Relic in cinemas. The film reminded us of something foreign; it was

new, fresh, exciting, and despite the lack of Estonian actors, it was in Estonian! For the first distribution period, a total of 2,400 prints were made of the film.

Russian dubbed version screened in the Soviet Union cinema network the following year where more than 40 million people saw it. No other Estonian film can boast of such high admission numbers. The film was supposedly sold to 63 foreign countries – at least that’s what Sovexport, the Soviet film exporter, claimed.

Criticism of the film at the time was neither overly mild nor highly critical. Nowadays, we see it as juicy kitsch and smirk at its camp value or enjoy its retro-adventure spirit – or look for its so-called other layer that talks about the Estonian indelible desire for freedom. But the critics in Soviet Estonia were not happy with its deviations from historical accuracy and the story it

5 Lauri Kärk, “Viimne

2010, p. 110.

was based on. The film was unusually light in genre and thus treated with caution. Critic Valdeko Tobro, for example, criticized the film because Gabriel had no worthy opponent to fight and thus rise to new heights, and he’s also unhappy that the film doesn’t sufficiently follow the technical rules of adventure films. But the critic does admit that it has a certain charm that “captures the viewer and forces you to forget the small mistakes. This is the film’s other layer, the attitude of the authors towards what they depict, which you can enjoy greatly from beginning to end,” Tobro wrote in 1970. 6

But film critic Anne-Malle Hallik admitted that “in general, we must say that it is just as hard to make a good, stylish adventure film as it is a film in a more ‘serious’ genre. Tallinnfilm’s first attempt gives us hope that the studio has capacity for growth.” 7 EF

6 Valdeko Tobro, Seiklusfilm ja tema püünised (“Adventure Films and its Traps”). Noorte Hääl, March 29, 1970.

7 Anne-Malle Hallik, Mõtteid “Viimset reliikviat” vaadates (“Thoughts on Watching The Last Relic”). Rahva Hääl, April 5, 1970.

reliikvia” ja “Valgus Koordis”: žanrifilmist žanrifilmini II (“The Last Relic and Light in Koord: From Genre Film to Genre Film II”). Teater. Muusika. Kino, February
director Grigori Kromanov (on the left), Agnes (Latvian actress Ingrida Andrina) and Gabriel (Ukrainan actor Aleksandr Goloborodko).


The Everybody

Feature film The Spring (1969), directed by Arvo Kruusement, reached the cinema screens in 1970 and has been the number one domestic feature film in Estonia for viewer numbers throughout the times. The film has repeatedly been selected as the best feature film in Estonia of all time.

During the first year of screening in 1970–1971, 546 000 cinema tickets were sold to the feature The Spring. According to a simple calculation, that makes about 40% of the Estonian population that was 1.357 million people in 1970. This, however, doesn't mean that the audiences of the film were proportional – many people probably never went to see the film, and then again there were children who went to the cinema to see the film several times during the first week of screening (as was the case with the writer of this text). Let me also remind the reader of the fact that in 1970 there were 514 cinema screens (compared to 111 screens in 2019) and 2.3 million cinema attendances in Estonia – two domestic feature films (The Spring and a historical action feature The Last Relic with 620 471 sold tickets) together formed 1.166 million cinema attendances, thus half of all sold cinema tickets were related to these two Estonian feature films. The Spring and The Last Relic rightfully bear the title of being genuinely national films.

Russian dubbing was produced for The Spring in Moscow in order to screen the film in other member countries of the USSR (Vesna in Russian), and during the first year of screening in 1971, more than 8 million

cinemagoers went to see the film. In 1971–1974, about 1700 copies were made of the feature. In addition to the abovementioned, the film has been brought to domestic TV screens at least once every year for the last 50 years. The total sum-up of all screening years are unfortunately not available, but it is known that Estonian national television presented the film 18 times from 2003–2020. And every time The Spring has been on TV, it has gathered approximately 69 000 viewers – even decades after the premiere of the film! There is something special in The Spring that attracts the viewer to watch it again and again, for many years.


The national film The Spring is based on the novel of the same title, a debut work – The Spring. Scenes from School Days – by writer Oskar Luts (1877–1953). The book was first published in 1912 and its sequence was published a year later. The book has been reprinted 22 times and translated into 13 languages.

The narrative of the book depicts a school year in a small rural school in Paunküla, Estonia, starting in the autumn of 1895 and ending in the spring of 1896. Among the protagonists are schoolboys, schoolgirls and their teachers; also a bulky sexton who teaches

Spring Loved by EF CLASSICS 41


his pupils religious education under a strict dictatorship, and a local church bell-ringer who has the mind of a philosopher and is prone to drinking. The writer has been inspired by his personal childhood memories of his school years.

The main protagonists in the book, also on theatre stages as well as in the feature film, include Arno, a lyrical-minded boy who loves to contemplate nature; choleric joker Joosep Toots; phlegmatic Tõnisson; wimpy, pantywaist Georg Adniel Kiir; and the eager, pretty, and witty Teele. She is actually the only female character in the book portrayed in detail.

The Spring is a well-known literary work for the majority of Estonians, it is also still included in the compulsory reading list in schools today.

Literary historian and critic Rein Veidemann has called the book one of the most prominent stem texts in Estonia. According to Veidemann, The Spring by Oskar Luts is a text magnifying ecumenics, or collective consciousness. "Children read the book as the encyclopaedia of their ancestors' adventures during their school days; and adults as the memory of memories. The magnitude and the national-mythological message of The Spring lie in valuing Estonian society as a national home. In The Spring, one arrives at home twice. The first time it happens when children come to school and experience living together with the rules that must be followed in this form of co-existence. The second time of going home takes place when the school

1 Rein Veidemann, 101 Eesti kirjandusteost. Tallinn, 2011, pp. 62–63.

2 Olaf Klaassen, “Kevade” tee ekraanile. Tallinn, 1977, p. 17.

3 Theodor Lutsu mälestusi I. Teater. Muusika.Kino No. 7, 1989, p. 27.

Sexton (Endel Ani) with one of his students, Teele (Riina Hein).

Leonhard Merzin plays Laur ­ the inspiring and patient teacher.

ends in spring (that is, the spring itself symbolizes home at this point). This is the home with one's farm, parents and family. This is the unity of two homes, where society also rises to the position of home. In addition, The Spring enhances the transcendental state of being at one with nature, the paradise-like primeval home. When, at the end of the story, Teele asks Arno why the latter has such a strong fascination about home, Arno gives her an answer: "The flowers ... The meadow ... The sunshine ..."1


It was already during the era of silent cinema in 1926 when the idea occurred to make a film adaptation of the famous novel by Oskar Luts. In correspondence with the board of the Estonia-Film production company, Oskar Luts wrote on October 28, 1926 in Tallinn: “I have finished the screenplay based on my novels “Kevade I“ and “Kevade II”. It is a humorous piece in six parts, about 200 pages long, designed for a large format, with 800 pictures.” 2 However, the correspondence does not specify who might be the director of the film to be made,


SPRING (Estonian: Kevade)

is a 1969 Estonian film directed by Arvo Kruusement and an adaptation of Oskar Luts' popular novel of the same name. The movie was first place in the Estonian feature films top ten poll held in 2002 by Estonian film critics and journalists. In 1970 the movie sold 558,000 tickets in Estonia, then nearly half of the country's total population. The film was followed by three sequels: 1976's The Summer ("Suvi"), 1990's The Autumn ("Sügis") and 2020's Where the Heart Is ("Talve"), all of which included original actors from this film.

Directed by Arvo Kruusement Screenplay by Kaljo Kiisk and Voldemar Panso (based on The Spring by Oskar Luts) Composer: Veljo Tormis Cinematographer: Harry Rehe Release date: January 5, 1970 Running time: 84 minutes Language: Estonian


nor does it tell anything about paying the royalties. The film won't be made.

On November 2, 1926 the writer notifies that in the process of screenwriting he was inspired by the screenplay "She and He" ("Ona i On") by Russian emigrant film star and director Ivan Mozzhukhin. The screenplay itself has not been found in Oskar Luts's archives but it may be assumed that Mozzhukhin’s piece was brought to Tartu by Oskar's younger brother Theodor who was studying filmmaking in the Russian emigrants' film studio Albatros, close to Paris in 1926. In his memoirs, Theodor writes about working on the location of Viktor Turzhansky’s Casanova, practising as an assistant cameraman for Ivan Toporkov and dining with Ivan Mozzhukhin3. Theodor Luts also writes about his ideas about directing his brother’s screenplay, but then he gets a new idea to make

The magnitude and the national­ mythological message of "The Spring" lie in valuing Estonian society as a national home.
One of the most iconic scenes of Estonian film history ­ the fight between the students of two local schools. A rare moment in the cinema of Soviet times ­ a Christmas scene.

his debut film about Estonia’s War of Independence and to name it Young Eagles – and starts to work with the idea.4

Thus, the screenplay by Oskar Luts was never put into practice by a filmmaker. 33 years passed until in 1959 Tallinn Cinema Studio (Tallinna Kinostuudio) received a film proposal by theatre director Voldemar Panso, and young film director Kaljo Kiisk, who had recently debuted with his first film. They reached the agreement and a screenplay contract was made - however, under various circumstances the project won't be completed.

In 1956, Arvo Kruusement who has experience as an actor and director in two theatres, starts to work in Tallinnfilm film studio. By the way, Kruusement studied in the Estonian study group in Moscow, in the Russian Institute of Theatre Arts (GITIS) with Kaljo Kiisk, graduating together in 1953. So, if not old friends, then old acquaintances for sure.

It is presumed that Kiisk initially planned to direct The Spring himself, but other projects in progress took all the time. In 1968 when Tallinnfilm decides to continue with The Spring, Kiisk has already become a renowned film director, and the company decides to give this project to Arvo Kruusement. Kaljo Kiisk has already directed eight features (being a co-director on three of them), including his masterpiece Madness (1968). The board of Tallinnfilm is convinced that The Spring is something that Estonian

people need, but it probably won't be under Kaljo Kiisk’s directing, despite the fact that he was the one who originally came up with the idea.

The Arts Council of Tallinnfilm proposes to make lyrical character Arno the protagonist instead of the rascal and trickster Toots, as was formerly the case in all the screenplays so far, and also in the original screenplay for the silent film by Oskar Luts. The member of the Arts Council, writer and film editor Lennart Meri, points out in screenplay discussions that “bringing Arno Tali to the fore seems to be essential and nec-

Arvo Kruusement has admitted that The Spring is his best film .

essary”. It is also decided that the schoolchildren of the film are going to be played by real schoolchildren, instead of grown-ups as it had been in theatrical productions. The decision is quite serious and risky, because unlike Toots, Arno is neither an action hero nor an initiator, but a lyrical spectator.


The success of The Spring among both cinema and TV audiences was already mentioned in the begin -

Shooting of the famous sauna scene of The Spring. Legendary actor and director Kaljo Kiisk plays the local church bell­ringer.
Sexton (Endel Ani) enyoing his meal.

ning of this article. The film has been released several times both in VHS and DVD formats. In 2006, the first digitally restored version of the film was completed. The restored film was also screened in Cinématheque Francais in Paris as part of retrospective dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Estonian cinematography in 2011, and in the Orion cinema of the National Audiovisual Institute in Finland in 2012. Foreign screenings have taken place also after that.

Estonian film journalists have compiled the Estonian film top 10 of all times twice. In 2002, The Spring was selected as the number one film during the programme of Estonian Film 90. In 2011, on the threshold of the 100th anniversary of Estonian film, The Spring reached third position, following Autumn Ball (2007, directed by Veiko Õunpuu) and Madness (1968, directed by Kaljo Kiisk). At the celebration dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Estonian film art, The Spring received the National Film of the Century award.

Arvo Kruusement has admitted that The Spring is his best film: “There is a certain authenticity in the film, as well as the atmosphere that moves the view-

Arno (Arno Liiver) and Teele (Riina Hein) symbolize young, innocent love and friendship.

ers. I believe that there is the factor of timelessness in it. Just like in the book by Oskar Luts.”5

In his book “101 Estonian Films”, film critic Tristan Priimägi evaluates the debut film by Arvo Kruusement as follows: “The Spring is one of the most triumphant film adaptations of a literary work in Estonian film history. The feature remains true to the superb text and characters in Oskar Luts' novel; however, whereas the earlier theatrical productions based on the novel had made Toots the central character, then Kaljo Kiisk, who himself had performed the role of Toots in the 1950s, had enough courage, together with his co-screenwriter Voldemar Panso, to shift the focus to the lyrical and existential love story in the film's screenplay, thus giving the film a timeless depth.”6

Arvo Kruusement has also directed feature films The Summer (1976) and The Autumn (1990) based on literary works by Oskar Luts – this forms an extraordinary film trilogy in Estonian film history. The Summer and The Autumn are also set in the same rural area in Estonia, and the same protagonists already known from The Spring continue playing in the two other films of the trilogy. EF

5 Arvo Kruusement. A Film director. TV interview to Anu Välba, Estonian Public Broadcasting, 2020.
6 Tristan Priimägi, “101 Eesti filmi”, Tallinn, 2020, p. 59. Filming in the classroom. Toots (Aare Laanemets) is in the centre of the frame.



is a national foundation, financed mainly by the Ministry of Culture. EFI’s professional sphere reaches the whole field of film. The institute is broadly divided into three departments: development and marketing, production, and heritage. EFI supports development, production, and distribution of films, promotes Estonian films both domestically and abroad, provides information about Estonian film industry and film heritage, establishes, and develops international contacts. EFI’s Film Heritage Department manages all the films made in the legendary Tallinnfilm studio in the years 1941–2001. As it was the only film studio in Soviet Estonia, it forms a considerable majority of the country’s film production during this period, including the biggest national hits like The Spring and The Last Relic. There are approximately 850 films on the list, not to mention countless newsreels.

The main responsibility is to ensure that these films are well preserved and to the highest standard. Today, the department works in close cooperation with the Estonian Film Archive in terms of film heritage digitization and organization of the public procurements to the restoration process. Working on the development and comprehensibility of film competence as a medium, it is based on a wide progressive domestic and foreign network and various cooperation projects, through which film competence methodologies are developed.

The Ministry of Culture has completed an action plan for the digitization of Estonia’s cultural heritage. The objective of the action plan is to make a third of the cultural heritage stored in our memory institutions available digitally by 2023. In cooperation with Film Archive and the National Archives of Estonia, our goal is to make at least 50% of Tallinnfilm’s film heritage digitally available by 2023.


The collections of the Film Archive include film and video material on Estonia from the early 20th century to the present. Organised acquisition of films started in 1935 on the basis of the Archives Act and focused on newsreels. The earliest film footage dates back to 1908. The oldest domestic films were produced by Johannes Pääsuke between 1912 and 1914.

The Film Archive holds newsreels, newsreel segments, documentaries, music films, feature films, animated films, advertisements and amateur films. The archives are the repository for more than 8,000 titles of film and close to 7,000 original video titles. The collections also include outtakes from television programmes and films, fragments of films that have not survived in their entirety, and other additional materials such as film postproduction transcripts, screenplays and posters.

As of April 2021, the Film Archive is a member of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF).


Estonian Film Database

Film Archive, The National Archives of Estonia film-photo-audio/film/


Estonian Film Institute

Rain Põdra

Head of Film Heritage Department

Phone: +372 627 6004


Mikk Rand

Project Manager of Film Literacy

Phone: +372 510 0048


Triinu Keedus

Project Manager of Film Heritage Department

Phone: +372 627 6004


Eda Koppel

Head of Marketing Department

Phone: +372 627 6063


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