Feature film

Although films were produced in Estonia as early as the beginning of the 20th century, the systematic production of feature films really started after the Second World War when Estonia became a part of the Soviet Union. However, the state studios, later known as Tallinnfilm, at least had something to build on. During the first period of independence (1918–1940), the Estonian Culture Film organisation was also subsidised by the state. The first film studio Estonia-Film went bankrupt in the late 1920s. Various smaller studios were fairly active during the 1920s, producing nationalistic melodramas and comedies with financial support from enthusiastic businessmen. Somewhat paradoxically, the high point in film production was the first decade of independent statehood (after 1932, not a single feature film was made). The 17 films, of which most have survived, give a good overview of the emerging national romantic ideology and mentality. The rather fanciful historical films and melodramas fulfilled their entertaining purpose, but even so it was fairly obvious that the scripts were weak, especially seen against the background of the German and American films screened in cinemas. The use of home-made cameras, memories of the rolls of film being developed in a bathtub and dried on a clothesline, speak first of all of a great interest and enthusiasm. Practical skills developed in the process.

In 1930, there was an Estonian-German joint production, Waves of Passion. It was a very topical subject — smuggling spirits between Estonia and Finland. The first sound film made together with Finland, Theodor Luts's Children of the Sun (1932), remained within the borders of the melodrama genre, but taking the action outdoors created quite a stir in Estonian film. Due to the lack of stability in the local film industry, Theodor Luts took up a job with the leading Finnish studio Suomi Filmi where he, after 4 years and 10 films, became the chief cameraman. Estonian Culture Film, established in the 1930s, was closely connected with the state propaganda office, producing newsreels, documentaries of nature and its resources, and life in general. Despite various plans, not a single feature film was made.

Regardless of political upheavals, these films did have their impact later. Quite a few details and topics re-surfaced in the films of the 1990s. Just like 70 years before, stress was laid on historical films of a slightly nostalgic vein where the main characters are the people who were active during the critical period of the 1930s and 1940s. These Old Love Letters (Need vanad armastuskirjad, 1992) depicts the life and moral collapse of the hugely successful post-war composer of popular songs, Raimond Valgre. Films like Someone Who Didn't Exist (Inimene, keda polnud, 1989) contrast the merry times of independence with the gloomy Soviet power that robs a sensitive artist of her faith in himself. The characters try to show today's cinema-goers the choices confronting almost everybody during the marching in of the Soviet troops, the ensuing German occupation, and the period when the former society was completely demolished after the war.

The films of the 1990s have not only re-created the tragic side of national history. The only feature film entirely supported by private capital, was Jüri Rumm (1994). It tells the story of the legendary 19th century horse-thief whose Robin Hood-style adventures entertained audiences already in the 1920s. Another historical adventure film, Firewater (Tulivesi, 1994), takes up the subject of vodka smuggling, like Waves of Passion 60 years earlier.

This obsession with Estonian history has probably diminished international interest. Primarily directed at the small domestic audience, the conflicts of the characters develop in a specific historical context. Although these stories do not lack a universally understandable starting point, the events only become fully clear to a viewer who is aware of the historical background. Like art in general, Estonian film, too, was focussed on the issue of national identity. Maintaining national characteristic features acted as an indirect opposition to Soviet ideology which, at least in rhetoric, identified people through class and worldwide mission. The fact that such differentiation had survived in the films of the early 1990s, confirms the prevailing confusion as regards self-determination. Attempts to resuscitate the ideals of the earlier 20-year independence period, characterised the whole of society. But returning to the 'roots' proved impossible.

Film gained a more prominent position in the 1960s when the studio Tallinnfilm had achieved the necessary technical and professional level. As in other Soviet republics, a paradoxical situation developed also in Estonia: the central power created favourable conditions in order to influence people ideologically. Despite that, authentically national films appeared that had quite the opposite effect. Estonian film moved in several directions at the same time. One-dimensional ideological cinema was successfully avoided, and a few films showed modern features typical of Western films produced at the same time. The authorities did not censor films to a noticeable degree, partly because of the rather well functioning 'self-censorship' by the film-makers themselves.

In Kaljo Kiisa's Madness (Hullumeelsus, 1968) a German officer tries to find a spy who hides himself in a lunatic asylum. For the first time, the film described the atmosphere of suspicion of the postwar period, and reached beyond the conventions of film at that time. Several films which are still popular today were produced then. For example Grigori Kromanov's historical adventure The Last Relic (Viimane reliikvia, 1969) that has almost become a catechism of everyday catch-phrases. Films based on literary classics varied between psychological observations and warm childhood stories. Arvo Kruusement's Spring (Kevad, 1969) and Summer (Suvi, 1976) gave visual expression to hugely popular literary characters. The actors are still today identified with the roles they played in those films. Leida Laius, one of the most significant film directors, produced a number of original interpretations of novels where female characters aspired towards independence in the village environment. All popular comedies also date back to the 1960s.

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