"I wanted to make something that would look like, or feel like, a monument— that the film itself would be symbolic and something to remember for those people who are still alive"
- FLMTQ Interview
Martti Helde is an Estonian screenwriter and film director. His first feature film, In the Crosswind, premiered at Göteborg where it won the Audience Award for Best Feature Film; Thessaloniki where it won an award for Special Artistic Achievement; and Warsaw, where it took home the Ecumenical Jury Award.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Martti Helde discusses cinema as monument, the suggestive power of sound, the fallibility of memory, and his next project.
In the Crosswind, Martti Helde (2014)
MARTTI HELDE: Just looking at the first question— I think it’s important to say that in the beginning, In the Crosswind was meant to be a documentary film. The idea was to make a short documentary, about 50 minutes long, and then when we shot the first scene and everyone saw that it’s not a documentary but more like a feature film we decided to make— okay, let’s call it a feature film. There have been several documentaries about the same subject, but In the Crosswind was the first feature film about the June deportations. There is another film, made in the late 80’s, about the March deportations, made during the end of the Soviet Union. It was a very symbolistic film, so it wasn’t really a direct film about the deportations. During the beginning of the 90’s I think the Estonian Film Society didn’t have enough money to produce historical drama, perhaps that's why mine was the first one. So, that’s the history of these kind of films in Estonia.
FILMATIQUE: You’ve mentioned that there have been quite a few documentaries about this subject so I guess that’s the question also: “Why did you decide to also make another one? What’s the importance in your artistic vision of working with this piece of history?”
MH: I think the reason was that those documentaries were really like TV documentaries. They were really simple and really straightforward, and I wanted to add something. I wanted to make something that would look like, or feel like, a monument— that the film itself would be symbolic and something to remember for those people who are still alive. So the idea behind the film was something bigger than just a film. We wanted to make something beautiful, especially for those people who are still with us.
FLMTQ: Was this film difficult to fund? I suppose you got some money for the short, and then you moved on to a more expensive project. How was the reception?
MH: It was quite a nightmare for production because I was 23 when I started the project, and it was my first film. Everybody who saw the material before it was ready enjoyed the visual style, but nobody really wanted to finance it because they didn’t believe it would work as film. So it was really really difficult for the producer to get at least something to make it. We had a really small budget for a historical drama, but as we shot the film over the course of three years, people started to know about the project. So it was easier to get people on board, because it was such a crazy idea and if the idea is crazy enough, then people are ready to do whatever.
FLMTQ: That’s fantastic, that’s great news!
MH: So yeah, our biggest finance was people who believed in the project. And people really helped us— I think people were the biggest resource for this film. The budget was based on good people.
FLMTQ: Well, it’s a beautiful story. The film is very humane as an act of homage, of respect, to the tragedy that happened and to the contemporary audience who doesn't directly share that history.
So the next question relates to Erna, the character through which the audience witnesses this part of history. How did you encounter her letters? Do they have a special place in the historical memory of the nation? Why it is her voice, her perspective, the channel via which we learn about the tragedy?
MH: The truth is that the main character, Erna, is not fully a real person. 60% of the veterans in the film are one person, but another 40% are a mix of different people and different victims.
The reason is very simple: the main character’s life wasn’t suitable for the film. We used Erna’s life for the main narrative, but we borrowed lots of events from different life stories. The idea behind this was to create a kind of universal story. We wanted to make the film suitable for others as well, for other victims. And the main character was meant to be as a synonym for an Estonian, for the people. So that’s why even if we choose the main actor or actress for the role, I was looking for a person who would reflect Estonia in the 1940’s. The actress, Laura, who plays the main character, is the face of that era. Her attitude and her pain is very similar to those who were active back then.
The protagonist is a metaphor for one nation. We wanted those letters and the character and the actor all combined together to reflect the nation as one. So, it’s a combination. A combination of people, of atmospheres here in Estonia, back in the 1940’s.
In the Crosswind, Martti Helde (2014)
FLMTQ: Sound design seems to occupy a significant role in the narration. The first sequence commences with the sound of a wind storm, blending with less discernible sounds, and then with the sounds of steps and voices. This registers a feeling of ominousness of what will follow.
And so, the relationship between sound and image is dialogical, a relationship of contrasting feelings. At the beginning, the image Erna's smiling face vis-à-vis her voice-over, and more harsh sounds, seem to disturb our relation with this smiling face and seems, again, to evoke the violence to come.
How did you conceive of this suggestive aural experience to communicate a feeling, before the audience gains access to narrative through images?
MH: When we were shooting the film we knew that sound would play an important role and my idea was to use sound as one story element, one way to narrate the film. So when we went to sound editing, I told my sound designer that I wanted the design to be as powerful as the images. I wanted the sound to tell the story but not the same story.
And so sound design gave us an opportunity to go deeper and to tell something that preceded the image, something that will come after the image. It also gave us an opportunity to move, to create the feeling of movement— somebody’s running, somebody’s screaming— so we used sound design as one storyteller, or one way to narrate the film and give something extra. I think that every film should do that. There’s no point to hear the same thing you can see.
FLMTQ: Yes, it’s redundant. It’s a real problem in contemporary filmmaking.
MH: The storytellers just delete one option of how to move the story forward— so for me sound design was and still will be in every film that I make voice number two, or number three. Soundtrack is one of the most important elements of filmmaking. And it was In the Crosswind too.
FLMTQ: The next bit I'd like to explore are your ideas of cinematography. From the moment the characters in In the Crosswind face deportation onwards we encounter a series of tableaux vivant. The camera moves, leading the audience through different expressions of the characters who are, in a way, stuck in history— in the tragedy that they have become victims of.
Why did you decide on memory as the orienting principle— from that point onward, telling the audience that the story belongs to the past— and how did you decide on this particular concept of mise-en-scène camera-work? What challenges did this particular choice of film language pose production-wise?
MH: Maybe it’s good to start with how we planned the scenes. The difference between the Holocaust and the Soviet deportations is that the Nazis recorded photos and videos, but the Soviets didn’t. It was a secret of Russia so there are hardly any photos of the event itself.
We only had five really foggy amateur photos of the train and some drawings— the idea was to recreate those images. The only other source we had was people who are still alive, and biographies. Lots of books and memories and diaries. So we researched archives and libraries and we read a lot, and we made notes about props, about people, how they dressed, what kind of things they took along with them, how people looked, how the trains looked. Basically, we were highlighting texts from that time as we didn’t have any materials.
The idea behind the visual style, on one side, was to recreate this photo, or those photos, so that the next generation can see and experience this event. The idea was to create a kind of three-dimensional photograph wherein the audience travels alongside the main character.
That was one side of the visual style. The other side was even more important— the stillness, the feeling that time has stopped. This idea came from one precise letter found in the archive. There was a line written by an Estonian lady: “I feel like time has stopped. I feel that my body has been taken away. My mind is still in my homeland but time has stopped and nothing is moving.”
So that was the breaking point. In the beginning, when we were developing ideas I felt that I wanted to integrate that feeling. I wanted to create a film in which the audience would feel the same way as those people felt back then. At that moment I knew I wanted to make a still film where nobody is moving. The idea was to recreate that feeling, and the visual style came along with that.
FLMTQ: From a physical point of view, was it difficult to shoot? Did you have to rehearse for many days, and then shoot on a single day?
MH: That was— it was a nightmare. All together it took three and a half years to shoot the film. It meant we had approximately two to six months of preparations for each scene.
The biggest scene is with 150 actors— the train station. It took us six months to prepare. We made plans of where and how everybody is standing and all the actors have numbers. We did costume rehearsals and lighting rehearsals, and we had only one day for shooting because of the budget. So we went in the morning to set and we already knew how things would be, and then we'd rehearse, and then usually by the end of the day we got one take. So that scene in the train station took us sixteen hours to shoot, and we got only one take— all the other takes were out of focus, somebody was moving, or the wind was too strong, It was almost impossible to shoot this scene because it was so technically difficult.
But some of the scenes took only three months, four months to prepare. The system was: preparation time, one day for shooting, then preparing another scene, one day of shooting, and so on. All together three and a half years. It was too expensive and too technical to shoot in one week or two weeks because we had seven hundred actors in total.
Watch an excerpt from In the Crosswind's train station scene below.
In the Crosswind, Clip (Train Station)
FLMTQ: Between the research and shooting, how long did it take?
MH: The process lasted all the way, if, for example, every scene is a different subject. The scene I was talking about, the deportation night, we researched over the course of six months. Then the subject was the prison camp, and we researched the prison camp. And I had editors who read books before me, to recommend what kind of book is good and what kind is not. They fed me books so that I wouldn't waste my time on not so good books.
FLMTQ: So the people who edited the film provided input to shape the material you could read and that would be best for them?
MH: Yes. They were trying to cultivate the facts because it’s really tricky, it’s a really tricky subject in a way because those people who are still alive were kids. The memory of kids is tricky because they remember things differently, so the facts from real people and the facts from biographies were, in some cases, night and day. The facts were different because their life stories were different. So we were trying to understand what was correct and what was right historically, because all the sources were so different. Today I have three shelves of books only about deportations.
FLMTQ: The film has been shown in your country, and also in Lithuania and Latvia. How has the reception been? How have people who haven't lived through the events responded to the film? What has been the response of people who have and are still alive?
MH: After the premiere in Estonia, two years ago now, one old man came to me and said, “Thank you for the film. It was exactly like that.”
I remember the feeling I had, I almost started to cry, because that’s why I made the film. I made the film for you. And that was, and still is, the biggest compliment. Somebody who has been there says it was like that.
The overall feedback from Estonia was really warm, it got good numbers in cinemas for almost three months and many prizes here. It’s easier to work now in Estonia because everybody loves the film. Everybody is talking about the film as though it’s their film, which is important for the nation, so I think that the film served its purpose— in a way that it is a monument.
It was the same reaction in Latvia and Lithuania. The people there know the history, they know about the events, and they really were moved because the film is not only about Estonia, it was about the Baltics. I felt that they were happy about the film. So it went good.
In the Crosswind, Martti Helde (2014)
FLMTQ: The film contains original soundtrack music, alongside "Last Sunday," a tango song from 1936. This particular tango was played many times in deportation camps when the Jewish prisoners were led to their deaths, and has appeared before in other films such as Nikita Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun.
It's interesting that you use the song in two very different moments— one during an act of chilling violence, and one preceding a marriage. Why did you choose such a evocative song, recognizable from other films, that instills a memory of the brutality and downfall of Stalin's power?
MH: It’s hard to remember the reason. The historical background is by the year 1950 most Estonians were already quite Russian-minded in a way that they already felt that Siberia was home. So they took everything that happened there very personally— they observed Russia as their homeland, in a way.
The subtext my sound designer and I discussed was to present the scene where Stalin dies in a way that the locals would take it. So even if the melody for the sound is jolly, the overall atmosphere has to be churned or twisted. I then really liked the counterpoint of the melody that would reflect the same scene when violence befalls the protagonist, so that the audience would remember the pain from that scene, and take that feeling along to the culmination.
I wanted the audience to think backwards, to remember all those things that had happened to the main character and the music was one way to do it. I didn’t want to say it with words. So I think the main reason was the feeling of recurrence, that the audience had felt something before with her.
FLMTQ: There is an interesting cyclical connotation in the image of the ribbon, which is touched by the protagonist at the beginning and at the end of the film. At the beginning, the touching of the ribbon seems to suggest hope; at the end, it's about disappointment. The relationship between the two images, and the texts the protagonist reads aloud, changes though the image remains the same. How did you decide to tell a non-linear narrative, that we understand fully only at the end, via a particular image charged with a shifting significance?
MH: It’s funny to reflect on my own ideas. I don’t remember. I mean, I can answer this, but I don’t know if I was aware of this at the time.
I remember the idea to create the film in a reversed feeling. The goal of the main character is to go back to her homeland. That’s the ultimate need or goal she wants to achieve. And that’s the face in the beginning, that’s the expression in the beginning of the film. And the ribbon is the symbol of home, of family, of love and in the end the face reflects the opposite.
That’s the paradox of the film and the story— that the main character has achieved what she wanted. She is home. She is back home, but she’s alone. When she achieves her goal, she actually understands the price of getting home. She didn’t know that she had to pay that price.
When you want to achieve something you never know the price of it. This kind of bittersweet smile— that’s what happened with all the deportees. They wanted to go back, and when they were back in the beginning of the 1950’s, they saw that their homeland, Estonia as a country, was not the same anymore.
The historical background of the idea is that those people that came back, who managed to stay alive, weren’t allowed to go back to their homes. It was forbidden. The Soviets who occupied Estonia and the Russian Government didn’t allow them to go home. The distance was 50 miles, so even if you were able to go to Estonia, you were starting from scratch. You didn’t have anything. No home, no apartment, no job, nothing. So that’s the reverse feeling— maybe it wasn’t a good idea to come back. Maybe the goals in the beginning weren't good enough.
In the Crosswind, Martti Helde (2014)
FLMTQ: After working for many years on this, I’m assuming that you are at work on something new. Could you to unveil a bit about the subject of your next film?
MH: My next film is called A Scandinavian Silence and it’s about silence. We've shot half of the film, or a little bit more than half, and this Saturday we have one shooting day again. It’s about two characters and it’s about people and the silence between people. The question that I’m asking is, Why is it so hard for us to speak to one another? Why, when facing each other, are we closed— why we don’t open to each other? Why do we open when it’s too late?
So it’s about silence. There’s lots of silence in the film, and it’s about human nature. I hope the film will urge people to talk more, to speak up before it’s too late. I like silence a lot, between people.
FLMTQ: The title A Scandinavian Silence is interesting insofar as it evokes The Silence by Ingmar Bergman, and of course, quite a few of his films. The Silence is part of a trilogy about people who communicate in very odd ways. Silence creates pain, and then it’s often when people are about to die or something really tragic has happened, that then they eventually speak or connect in a proper way to one another. Is this part of your inspiration?
MH: I love Bergman's texts. He’s a perfect writer. But I’m not really a big fan of his films. I love to read his work. He was a mastermind.
*Interview conducted by guest curator Dr. Loreta Gandolfi.