‘In the Crosswind’: Film Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Black and white tableaux vivants in an impressive first film

The Soviet Holocaust is chillingly recounted in an Estonian woman’s letters from Siberia

A landmark film and a bitter reminder of Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of 40,000 Baltic citizens at the outbreak of WWII, In the Crosswind is a not only a patriotic memorial financed by major Estonian institutions, but a timely topic in the year of Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. Here the horrors that followed the USSR’s annexation of the Baltic States in 1940 are memorably recounted in a story inspired by a real woman’s deportation to Siberia with her small daughter, while her husband was sentenced to a gulag.

What makes the film special and worthy of study in film classes is its visual language. In his impressive feature debut, Martti Helde makes the bold if controversial choice to tell the story in an unbroken series of tableaux vivants, a technique in which the actors stand stock still in dramatic poses while (in this case) the camera weaves through them.

Tableaux are not such an unusual technique to underline a highly charged moment in time, and action films in particular love to follow a bullet in slow-mo as it flies past a frozen crowd. Chris Marker and Raul Ruiz have told idiosyncratic stories this way. But it’s hard to imagine a narrative film composed entirely of stop-action, where the only discernable movement is the wind flapping a coat or an involuntary eye blink. Though the constantly roving camera and off-screen voices and sounds move the story ahead, such a massive visual experiment, in black and white to boot, demands much adjustment on the audience’s part and will limit the film’s appeal outside of festivals. Above all, it undercuts the natural emotion of the scenes, turning the horror into still pictures and distancing the characters and action. The viewer ends up marveling at the ability of more than 400 actors to freeze in position, instead of emotionally participating in Erna’s (Laura Peterson) inhuman fate in a Siberian labor camp, living on one slice of bread a day.

In the opening scenes, Erna and her beloved young husband Heldur (hyper-dignified stage thesp Tarmo Song) live an idyll in their pretty house in the country, which they share with little Eliide (Mirt Preegel) and a maid. But it’s June 14, 1941, the Soviet Union is occupying Estonia and Stalin has ordered the massive deportation of ordinary citizens. And thus, just one week before the German army invaded the Baltic countries, some 10,000 Estonians (including over 400 Jews) were rounded up without warning and sent to Soviet labor camps and prisons, while others were shot. The same thing was happening in Latvia and Lithuania with the aim to purge the Baltics of their native inhabitants.

Suddenly the family idyll turns into hell.

Based on the letters the real-life Erna wrote to her husband, without knowing where he was, the story is told through Peterson’s brave, off-screen reading voice and staged scenes which are by turns dramatic, poetic and mysteriously sinister. Along with 50 other women and children, Erna and Eliide are crammed into a cattle car, which they will ride for 26 days without changing clothes or washing. Nine people don’t make it through the journey, and Eliide weakens from dysentery even before they reach Novosibirsk. There the women, called "enemies of the people," are forced to perform the work of lumberjacks and meet tough work quotas. Surrounded by infinite space, they are “prisoners of nature” with nowhere to run, and punishment awaits those who try to slip away. Like others, Erna has to come to terms with the local collective farm boss to avoid starvation.

Even if they're outwardly frozen, Peterson’s expressions seem animated and courageous, showing the inner strength of a survivor.  It is her face the viewer anxiously searches for in each shot. Erna's letters ask simple but profound questions as they promise to search for Heldur as soon as she’s released.

The director has said it took two to six months to set up each tableau, climaxing in a single day of shooting. The vast cast of extras project themselves through their expressive body language, yet it's hard to respond directly to these terrible scenes. An eerie, stylized effect is created by Erik Pollumaa’s lyrical, painterly cinematography and the free-wheeling camera that weaves through immobile groups of actors from a dreamer’s point of view. It’s a shock to find actors moving around again in the final scenes in Estonia, as though this was the present and all that went before mere memories. At this point, heart-breaking emotion floods the screen, proving how important moving faces and bodies are in the cinema.

Production companies: Allfilm in association with the Estonian Film Institute, Estonian Cultural Endowment, Estonian Ministry of Defense, Estonian Ministry of Culture, Estonian World Council, Estonian American Council
Cast: Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song, Mirt Preegel, Ingrid Isotamm, Einar Hillep
Director-screenwriter: Martti Helde
Producers: Pille Runk, Piret Tibbo-Hudgins
Director of photography: Erik Pollumaa
Production designer: Reel Brandt
Costume designerd: Anna-Liisa Liiver
Editor: Liis Nimik
Music: Part Uusberg
Casting directors: Margus Karu, Kart Vainola
Sales: Deckert Distribution

No rating, 87 minutes