Estonia: a thriving film industry

As part of our Focus on Estonia, which has the presidency of the Council of the European Union until the end of the year, we will be celebrating the country's cinema on 6 and 7 December.

Sigade Revolutsioon, Revolution of Pigs (2004)
Sigade Revolutsioon, Revolution of Pigs (2004)

At the intersection between four cultural epicentres - Russian, Scandinavian, German and Polish - the Estonian school, influenced by the German and Soviet occupations, has nevertheless succeeded in carving out its own path. This originality is rooted in the country's history and the desire for emancipation that characterises it.

Estonia is surrounded by major filmmaking nations. We are more or less familiar with the Soviet Russian cinema of Eisenstein, Vertov, Tarkovski and Pavel Lounguine, along with that of Sweden, which, with the likes of Victor Sjöström, Lasse Hallström and Ingmar Bergman, has had a continued influence on world cinema. We have also heard of Danish cinema, which includes personalities such as Gabriel Axel, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg and has brought about major changes in European film production. Then there is the Łódź Film School in Poland, which has produced a number of great director such as Jerzy Skolimowski, Roman Polanski, Andrzej Wajda and Krzysztof Kieślowski. And then there is Germany, which has produced geniuses of the world of cinema, from Ernst Lubitsch, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and Fritz Lang at the start of the 20th century, to conteporary visionaries such as Volker Schlöndorff, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and, of course, Wim Wenders. It is difficult in such a context to not become engulfed by all this talent. Yet Estonia has managed to make its mark and has made a special place for itself in the world of film, the roots and unique nature of which can only be truly understood by making the connection between its artistic production and its historical fiction.


Language, a symbol of national conscience?

Estonia's declaration of independence in 1918
Estonia's declaration of independence in 1918

Estonia was a late convert to Christianity. Crusades by the Knights of the Teutonic Order from the end of the 11th century, at the request of the Duchy of Masovia, gradually led to the replacement of pagan Baltic Prussians by Germanic Prussians, until the region was completely swallowed up by the monastic state of the Teutonic Knights in the 14th century. This situation led to the development of an extremely dual "class society", if one can use such an anachronism: minority populations of Germanic origin, an army command, scientific, philosophical and religious knowledge, land tenure and trade, Finnish-Hungarian populations, work in the fields, and as serfs. This divide would endure for centuries and is critical to understanding modern Estonia. Because even when the Estonian territories came under Swedish rule at the end of the 16th century, then under Russian sovereignty at the start of the 18th century, the privileges and precedence of the German-speaking Prussians was never repudiated.

However, the abolition of serfdom and the gradual emancipation of the emerging middle classes fostered a sense of legitimacy of its popular heritage, including its language and stories. So much so that when national sentiment began to take shape, in Estonia as in the rest of the world, it would spread through this language and this cultural heritage until the country's self-declared independence in 1918, recognised a year later by the international community. This linguistic particularly is significant because Estonian is neither a Slavic nor a Scandinavian language but a Finnic language, like Finnish and Karelian. This is a defining feature not just of nationalist awareness, but also cultural production in general and film production in particular, above all with the emergence of talking pictures.  


The first films

Theodor Luts
Theodor Luts

The birth of cinema is truly something special. Aside from the fun dimension, the first filmmakers quickly realised the power of this new medium. In 1908, Estonia served as a backdrop to a film shoot for the first time: for the King of Sweden's visit to the capital of Estonia, Tallinn, on his way to Saint Petersburg. However, it would only be in 1912, some twenty years after the first films produced by Edison, that Estonia would produce its own first film, Utotshkini lendamised Tartu kohal, just one of many documentaries to be filmed since the first pseudo-documentary by the Lumière brothers, La Sortie de l'usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers leaving the factory in Lyon). [BO1] Produced by Johannes Pääsuke, considered to be the father of Estonian cinema, this work tells the story of Russian pilot Sergei Utotschkin's flight over Tartu, Estonia's second city and a hub of intellectual life. It was not long afterwards that cinema would become a tool in the ideological struggle for the national cause. So, in 1914, Johannes Pääsuke filmed what is traditionally considered to be the first Estonian fiction film, Karujaht Pärnumaal (Bear Hunt in Pärnu), a political satire that was censored by the Russian authorities.[BO2]  During the Second World War, the Estonians saw the fight against the German Empire as a means of taking their revenge on German-speakers. Then, when the Tsarist regime fell, the nationalists took advantage of the civil war and the chaos that reigned to declare their country's independence in 1918. After having pushed back the German army and contained the Red Army, Estonia obtained recognition of its sovereignty from the Soviets in 1920.

The first Estonian-language talking pictures were produced at the start of the 1930s, diversifying genres (fiction, documentary, animated film, etc.) with directors like Theodor Luts, Voldemar Päts and Konstantin Märska


Under the Soviet yoke

Estonia's declaration of independence in 1918
Estonia's declaration of independence in 1918

At the start of the Second World War, the Soviets invaded Estonia, which was then occupied by Nazi Germany following the termination of the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact. The Red Army regained control over Estonia in 1944 which was incorporated into the Soviet Union until the dissolution of the USSR, recognised by the country’s renewed national independence in 1991. During the communist era, a number of filmmakers came from Russia and initially made propaganda films on the victory of socialism, such as Valgus Koordis by Gerbert Rappaport, the first colour film shot in Estonia (1951). After Stalin's death in 1953, the grip on artistic creativity was somewhat loosened. Grigori Kromanov, a Moscow-trained Estonian film director, produced several hugely successful films such as Viimne Reliikvia (The Last Relic), which celebrated the heroism of an Estonian peasant uprising. The film was watched by nearly 45 million people and screened in some sixty countries. Arvo Kruusement also adapted classics from Estonian literature such as Kevade (Spring) by Oskar Luts, a major success in Estonia and the rest of the Soviet Union, and which was followed by the productions Summer and Fall. In the 1980s, Kaljo Kiisk, who had won acclaim as an actor in Spring, directed notable films such as Nipernaadi, adapted from the eponymous novel by August Gailit, telling the story of a smooth-talking writer spending the summer on the road incognito, and who is the allegorical epitome of the Estonian adventurer. This was also the period in which director Leida Laius released the highly striking Naerata ometi, telling the story of an adolescent in a Soviet orphanage. One can also sense the artistic vision becoming increasingly autonomous, particularly with Ideaalmaastik by Peeter Simm, who denounced the era of forced collectivisation. He would become one of the filmmaking greats of Post-Soviet Estonia.


A new independence

60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero screeningPhotography by Tallinn 2011 and Jelena Rudi
60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero screeningPhotography by Tallinn 2011 and Jelena Rudi

In 1991, Estonia attained sovereignty for the second time. With the demise of its Soviet neighbour and Estonia's rapid membership of the European Union, the artistic community regained total freedom of speech and expression, even though it took a while to build a new economic framework for film production, formerly subsidised by the Soviets. It was to remedy this situation that the Estonian Ministry of Culture created, in 1997, a national agency tasked with "sharing and distributing the national film budget". This was subsequently replaced by the Estonian Film Institute, which is responsible not just for financing film production but also supporting research and heritage.

The national conscience of young Estonia is clearly a favourite theme, as in Nimed marmortahvlil (Names in Marble) by Elmo Nüganen. The film tells the true story of a class of students who risked their lives for their country's independence in 1918. Estonian cinema also takes a critical look at the Soviet period, as in Sigade revolutsioon (The Revolution of Pigs) by Jaak Kilmi and Rene Reinumagi, a film in which young students deride the homage due to the Soviet Union.

The tradition of documentaries and animation, dating back, as mentioned, to the early days of Estonian filmmaking, also continued. Following Estonia's European integration, international partnerships and co-production agreements were developed and new names emerged, such as Veiko Õunpuu who produced 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero, a film that involved 60 directors from around the world, each submitting a one-minute short film on the theme of the death of cinema, and which was screened in 2011 in the Port of Tallinn, the then European Capital of Culture. [BO1] It is from this welter of ideas and this burst of energy that we have picked out a few gems of contemporary cinema.


Au programme

Showing four films by contemporary directors, BOZAR will immerse you in the rich and varied film landscape of current-day Estonia – very different ambiances and genres that reflect the creative imagination of a burgeoning art form. On the programme:

  • November. Rainer Sarnet invites you to rediscover the Christian and pagan myths of Estonia, complete with spirits and werewolves.
  • Soviet Hippies. Terje Toomistu recreates the atmosphere of 1970s hippy communities in the Soviet Union, portraying a group of Estonian hippies who take a road trip to Moscow years later.
  • The Days that Confused. Triin Ruumet tells the story of a young man approaching thirty in the 1990s who is looking for meaning to his life through an apparently disjointed existence.
  • Pretenders. Vallo Toomla produces a disturbing film with a particularly charged atmosphere which portrays what, other than words, can destroy a struggling disillusioned couple.


See also