Probably one of the most heart-warming moments in any movie is the image of Sylvester Stallone racing in triumph up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art in “Rocky.” In 2015 it took three countries, Estonia, Finland, and Germany to co-produce a sports film that has moments that are comparable to that.
This particular film, “The Fencer,” is the true story of an Estonian fencer, Endel Nevis, who was forced to serve in the German army when, during the Second World War, Germany took over his country. After the war, when Estonia was returned to the Soviet Union, Nevis had to flee to avoid being captured by the KGB in retaliation for his service in the army of the enemy.
Having been a prominent fencer before, he was able to secure a job as a teacher in a dreary little town called Haapsalu, where he arrived on a dismally cold, wet, foggy day which appeared to be its perennial condition. The secondary school to which he had been assigned was presided over by a rude, arrogant martinet who took an instant dislike to the new sports teacher and thwarted him at every opportunity. For example, when Nevis tried to form a Saturday sports club and take the children skiing he discovered that there were no skis available, as the Principal had “loaned” all the equipment to another group.
Lonely and sad, Nevis returned to his fencing expertise and began to practice by himself in an empty room, where he was soon discovered by a little girl named Marta. Intrigued by what she saw, she begged him to teach her to fence. So, against his better judgment, he prepared a flyer inviting anyone who was interested to join him on Saturday for lessons.
On Saturday, to his amazement, several dozen boys and girls of varying ages and sizes turned up.
Most of the children had lost their fathers in the war, and so, as his involvement with them grew, along with his zeal for teaching his sport, he became a virtual surrogate father to them. And as he abandoned his stern, restrained persona he was rewarded with the attention and affection of a lovely compassionate teacher who stood by him as he dealt with the outrageous behavior of the Principal and the conspiracies of the pursuing KGB.
Which all led to a fencing tournament in Leningrad and the inevitable consequences that followed.
In the end, the screen reveals that Nevis lived until 1993 and the fencing club that he founded exists to this day.
“The Fencer” is a lovely, gently told story, beautifully filmed and directed. Its star, Mort Avandi, is a special treasure, as are the children who followed him like ducklings.
This film opened in Los Angeles on August 18.