In The Crosswind, 2014.
Directed by Martti Helde.
Starring Ingrid Isotamm, Mirt Preegel, Laura Peterson, Tarmo Song and Einar Hillep.
In 1941, an Estonian woman and her young daughter struggle to find their way home after being deported to Siberia by the Soviet occupiers, in this dreamlike saga of survival inspired by a true story.
Monochromatic Estonian war drama In the Crosswind has less in common with traditional feature filmmaking than it does with a confrontational art installation. Director and co-writer Martti Helde’s debut feature comes with all the bold pluses and frustrating minuses such a description suggests: thought-provoking originality, as well as pretentiousness and sometimes maddening abstractness. Filmed in a handful of long takes, in which the characters and the action are frozen as if in a 3D photograph or live-action museum display, the camera of In the Crosswind slowly (and occasionally lackadaisically) moves around the scene, exploring the drama as Laura Peterson’s increasingly downtrodden Erna narrates.
Think the tableaux vivant snippets of Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England expanded to feature-length. The pictures Helde draw, or rather arrange, are of mundane horror, perhaps all the more haunting for Western viewers for the fact that most will never even have heard about the subject depicted: Stalin’s Baltic holocaust and its tens of thousands of victims, a large-scale atrocity that history class never even thought significant enough to mention.
The film begins in movement, with Erna and her husband in freer, happier times in quiet countryside Estonia, before they’re shipped away to Siberian work camps. We’re never told why, as the film then turns to its signature style and becomes as if frozen in fear, forcing the viewer to watch helplessly as Erna and several other women are transported like cattle to what will prove their snow-blasted open prison for unknown years.
That Helde chooses to forego expectations of this medium of the ‘moving image’ by making his scenes into static dioramas is almost the ultimate in exercising directorial control. No risk of actors – who here might as well be glued in place – mis-delivering lines or missing marks, no chance of props accidentally being moved out-of-place. It means there’s also no chance of ‘happy accidents’, those on-set happenstance’s that can make cinema feel so alive. The static style can lend a feel of taking a tour of a moment paused in history, but it also means the passionate voiceover feels detached from the rest of the movie. Where Peterson’s narration is alive, the images on-screen are not.
With the history behind the film one so poorly known, In the Crosswind’s decision to take only an abstract glimpse at the Soviet cleanse of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania feels like a missed opportunity. The cumulative impact when movement finally comes at the end of the film hand-in-hand with resolution, is effective, but a more comprehensive take on the story could have prevented the film from feeling so light. Originality in cinema should be welcomed, but it feels on this occasion like the filmmaker could have done better with the material at hand if he’d adapted it a bit more conventionally.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Brogan Morris – Lover of film, writer of words, pretentious beyond belief. Thinks Scorsese and Kubrick are the kings of cinema, but PT Anderson and David Fincher are the young princes. Follow Brogan on Twitter if you can take shameless self-promotion.