Beautiful and extremely weird, November mixes Estonian folklore with an unflinching depiction of 19th century peasant life, to create a potent brew.
I’d never seen a film from Estonia until recently, and now, judging from the one I just saw, a movie called November, directed by Rainer Sarnet, I would love to see more. Beautiful and extremely weird, November is adapted by Sarnet and Andrus Kiviråhk from Kiviråhk’s own novel, and it mixes elements of Estonian myth and folklore with stark depictions of 19th century peasant life to tell what is in the final analysis a timeworn classic story of doomed love.
Liina, the young woman who is the soul of this tale, lives in squalor with her abusive father who wants to marry her off to an ugly old farmer. She loves another young peasant named Hans, but he is captivated by the daughter of the local baron, a delicate girl who sleepwalks every night. Hans goes so far as to insinuate himself into the employment of the baron as an overseer in order to be near the daughter, and Liina feels she must take action to win him back.
These are the comparatively ordinary plot elements, and it may help to know that the baron and his family are German, because for centuries, German nobility had ruled Estonia, turning native Estonians into serfs.
But in this movie, shot in stunning black and white by Mart Taniel, the mundane realities of wealth and poverty are drenched in an atmosphere of pagan magic, witches, and spirits. Dead former residents of the village visit periodically, and are fed by their living relatives. Spells and incantations invoke the assistance of wolves, who apparently share a mysterious bond with the people. Strangest of all are the kratts, beings constructed from various objects such as farm implements and cow skulls, who are given souls through blood pacts with the devil, and act as slaves for the peasants. These strange creatures have to be seen to be believed, and they act as visual symbols of the peasants’ casual bond with the forces of a spirit world.
Filled with astonishing set pieces and grotesque imagery, November is held together by the lead actress, Rea Lest—her character Liina is weather-beaten and covered with grime like everyone else, but has a beauty that we can see emerging nevertheless. Her agony over Hans loving the German girl, and the stratagems she attempts in order to win him, transcend the bizarre design of the film and lend it an awesome gravity.
In the end, though, it’s the look of the picture that sets it apart. A wolf wandering across an icy expanse; a hog possessed by a demon-induced plague putting his hoof on a Bible; a trickle of blood coming from a carved figure of Christ on the church’s crucifix; a girl sleepwalking on the fog-shrouded roof of a castle. I don’t know why this movie is called November. Perhaps it exemplifies the chilly and dream-like atmosphere of coming winter. It is like a wonderful, scary, unforgettable dream.