Film Review: ‘In the Crosswind’

This mix of live-action with living tableaux provides a requiem for the inhabitants of the Baltic countries whom Joseph Stalin ordered deported or killed.

In the Crosswind Toronto FIlm Festival

Offering a unique take on the moving picture, “In the Crosswind” is a black-and-white slice of history that mixes live-action with living tableaux to provide a requiem for the inhabitants of the Baltic countries who, in the summer of 1941, were deported to Siberia or killed on Stalin’s orders. Estonian helmer Martti Helde’s debut is an art film in every sense of the word; the extraordinary visual techniques he uses to convey a sense of being frozen in time won’t be to all tastes, but those open to a different sort of cinema will find it a very poignant experience.

Although the film depicts events from more than seven decades ago, the recent Russian annexation of Crimea lends it a sense of urgency. If history truly does consist of patterns that repeat themselves, then “In the Crosswind” serves as a timely warning.

Through well-modulated voiceover narration, the pic adopts the perspective of a pretty Estonian wife and mother, Erna (Laura Peterson), whose Siberian diary, with its acute observations, provides the inspiration for the film. There is no dialogue; instead, Helde employs a highly crafted sound design that includes affecting music, imagined diegetic background sounds and the occasional muffled murmuring of voices in Estonian or Russian.

Before June 14, 1941, Erna lives in a rural idyll with her husband, Heldur (Tarmo Song), a farmer and member of the Estonian Defense League, and their young daughter Eliide (Mirt Preegel). Although some of their friends and relatives, more prescient about the fate of Estonia during the war years, urge them to flee, they decide to remain in their homeland.

From the moment that the Soviet forces arrive at their farm, time takes on another dimension for Erna. To underscore this radical change, the style of the pic changes, too. As Erna’s voice describes events and her feelings, the camera slowly pans, circles and snakes in between groupings of people, frozen in a moment of chaos and panic. Mothers reach out to their children, men grasp weapons, Soviet soldiers snarl. The tableau vivant style remains in effect until 1954, when Erna is allowed to return home.

We see women and children on their way to Siberia by train, suffering in crowded cattle cars. Unbeknownst to them, their men, bloodied and filthy, endure torture in prison camps and eventual execution. By the time Erna reaches the remote, snowy kolkhoz (Siberian collective farm) where she and the other “enemies of the people” are stationed, their ranks have thinned through hunger and disease. They are forced to perform difficult and dangerous lumberjack work and given only a mere 200 grams of bread a day, with no special allowance for the children. One of the most emotionally wrenching tableaux depicts Erna in the act of stealing some bread for the ailing Eliide.

Per press notes, each of the 13 tableaux required two to six months of preparation and only one day of shooting. In addition to obtaining or creating historically accurate costumes and props, Helde and lenser Erik Pollumaa studied paintings, sculptures and even the Alexander technique to mold the actors’ postures and expressions in the most dynamic way.

Responding brilliantly to a different sort of acting challenge, stage and screen performer Peterson evokes a full range of emotions with her voice and static body. The innovative craft package fully supports the director’s intent, with the impressive widescreen lensing a standout.

Film Review: ‘In the Crosswind’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema), Sept. 7, 2014. Running time: <strong>87 MIN.</strong> (Original title: "Risttuules")

  • Production: (Estonia) An Allfilm production with support from the Estonian Film Institute, Estonian Cultural Endowment, Estonian Ministry of Defense, Estonian Ministry of Culture, Estonian World Council, Estonian American Council. (International sales: Deckert Distribution, Leipzig, Germany.) Produced by Pille Runk, Piret Tibbo-Hudgins.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Martti Helde. Camera (B&W, widescreen, HD), Erik Pollumaa; editor, Liis Nimik; music, Part Uusberg; production designer, Reet Brandt; visual effects supervisors, Heiki Luts, Joosep Volk; sound (Dolby 5.1), Jaane Laine.  
  • With: Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song, Mirt Preegel, Ingrid Isotamm, Einar Hillep.