Film Review: The Fencer


Dead Swordsmen’s Society: Estonian teacher seizes the day in an inspiring historical drama.

Loosely based on a true story, The Fencer is director Klaus Haro’s fifth film to be submitted to the Oscars and the first to make the shortlist.

In 1952 former champion fencer Endel Nelis (Mart Avandi) is fleeing from the secret police. Hiding out in the remote Estonian town of Haapsalu he has been advised to keep a low profile. The country has been under Soviet rule since the end of World War II. Stalin’s regime is ruthlessly hunting down people who were conscripted by the Nazi occupying forces.

Finding work as a teacher despite feeling uncomfortable being in the company of children, he plans to keep his head down and throw himself into his new job. Endel soon learns the under-resourced school is sharing its limited supply of gym equipment with a local military academy.


Pupils and teacher bond and learn from each other when Endel starts an after-school club. Teaching the children how to fence he gives a class of mostly orphans something to believe in.

An antagonistic head teacher (Hendrik Toompere Sr) is committed to the revolution and highly critical of Endel’s decision to start a sports club. When parents oppose the head teacher’s attempts to stop fencing being taught he starts digging into the teacher’s past and reports his findings to the authorities.

The real Endel Nelis founded a fencing school that survives to this day. His story has, until now, been largely unknown outside of the fencing community. Screenwriter Anna Heinämaa was visiting friends in Haapsalu, Estonia, where the story takes place, when she learnt about Endel’s sacrifices and his ongoing legacy. Speaking with Endel’s daughter and other people who knew him the writer developed the script while studying for Salford University’s Masters degree in Film Screenwriting.

The Fencer is a powerful drama about a paranoid time. A story of how one man was prepared to risk imprisonment so that his class could have a momentary glimpse of hope. This richly rewarding recreation of an era when a disagreement might lead to a spell in a gulag is brought to life by graceful cinematography and restrained performances.

The Fencer is screening at the Nordic-Baltic Film Festival.