The Poll Diaries -- Film Review

An engrossing young actress brings an intimate epic to life, set on the Baltic sea in 1914.

Half-way between sweeping historical epic and a poetic coming-of-age love story, "The Poll Diaries" (a.k.a. "Poll") by German director Chris Kraus ("Four Minutes") sumptuously captures a very particular moment in time just before the outbreak of World War I, a particular place in rural Estonian, and the very special people who lived through that doomed moment. Film is as full of stubborn ambition as its characters and has the fine production values to match. Some fearless trimming would help the final scenes, which slog on and on when the ending is already in sight. But with all the earmarks of an Oscar contender, this is that rare film that appeals to both critics and general audiences.

The film won a special jury award at the Rome festival following its Toronto debut.

Energizing the film is talented 14-year-old Paula Beer in the role of young Oda von Siering, her first major screen role. The character is based on one of the most famous German poets of the time, Oda Schaefer, though the story seems too far-fetched to be true.

Returning from German schooling in 1914 to her family home on the Baltic coast, Oda brings with her a coffin bearing her mother's body and a two-headed fetus for her mad scientist-father, Ebbo von Siering (Edgar Selge). His inhumanity in dissecting the skull of an Estonian anarchist who was not quite dead when he bought his body from the Russians nicely establishes his character.

The family manor (the outstanding work of production designer Silke Buhr) is a precarious colonnaded mansion on stilts in the middle of the sea, connected to land by a wooden pier. Russian officers frequent the aristocratic soirees in which Ebbo's strange second wife (Jeanette Hain) plays music. Though the family is anti-Estonian and pro-Tsar, the fact that they're German-speaking puts them in difficult waters with the Russians.

The whole political backstory is effortlessly woven into Kraus's screenplay, which concentrates on the relationship between the bright, budding poet Oda and the wounded Estonian anarchist Schnaps (Tambet Tuisk), who she secretly sews up and nurses to health in her father's Harry Potter laboratory. When he finally gets a decent shave, Schnaps turns out to be ravishingly handsome. A writer himself, he inspires Oda to find her own independent voice and ideas, at the other extreme from her family.

History bears down on all of them, underscored by Annette Focks' big-screen orchestral music. Meanwhile, the tender feelings between Oda and Schnapps are handled with great delicacy. Their potential physical relationship lends tension to the story but is never exploited, even though Oda, in Beer's strikingly mature performance, is definitely old beyond her years. Tuisk, too, creates a heroic figure who is complex and lovable, motivated by an idealism that seems to belong to the past. Ideas as abstract as Ebbo's scientific nihilism and Schnapps' anarchism are skillfully presented, without getting heavy-handed.

Given the quality of the script, it's a pity the ending feels so clunky and protracted. The emotional peak is there, but it could have come a lot earlier, reducing the two-hour-plus running time in the process.

Cinematography by Daniela Knapp (all the main tech work is by women) is tremendously atmospheric, from the big scenes of the cavalry charging into the sea, to the intimacy of Schnapp's sunlit hideaway. The three supporting roles -- Oda's father, stepmother and her lover (Richy Muller) -- are well-served by an excellent cast not afraid to give them an air of unreality.

An interesting footnote to the film is that Oda Schaefer, nee Kraus, is the director's great-aunt.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (competing), Nov. 2

Cast: Paula Beer, Edgar Selge, Tambet Tuisk, Jeanette Hain, Richy Muller, Enno Trebs
Director: Chris Kraus
Screenwriter: Chris Kraus
Producers: Alexandra Kordes, Meike Kordes
Co-producers: Danny Krausz, Kurt Stocker, Riina Sildos, Chris Kraus
Director of photography: Daniela Knapp
Production designer: Silke Buhr
Music: Annette Focks
Costumes: Gioia Raspe
Editor: Uta Schmidt
Sales Agent: Bavaria Film International
129 minutes