"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.
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.
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.