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November

[…] These moody “kratts” perform the work that no one wants to do, and steal food from the Baron’s mansion. There is an interesting double alienation in play between the peasant and his labour. They compromise their souls whether they perform the work or not.

[…] While the beauty of each frame, the strong performances from an intensely invested cast, and the well-integrated electronic score from Polish composer Jacaszek could together be a stand-alone reason for why the experience of the film is cogent; it is Sarnet’s interpretation of the narrative deftly crafted in a balanced conversation with these aspects that allows us to enter this odd world with the comfort of a well-unfolded fabula.

White on white. A landscape cleansed with layer upon layer of water in its different states: liquid, ice, snow, vapour. The opening images of Rainer Sarnet’s November bathe us in an artificial purity that later, stunningly pierces through the shadows and darkness in the monochromatic play of Mart Taniel’s extraordinary cinematography. This visual purity takes on more meaning as we meet the peasants of the forest, who clamber about in the muck and the filth, somehow existing between life, death and the afterlife. It’s a detestable life, always hungry and without, always strategising to get food, clothing, loot – and love.

Based on the popular Estonian novel by Andrus Kivirähk Rehepapp ehk november, the film plunges us into a folkloric, animistic and supernatural hell. Dead relatives comingle with the living on “All Souls Day”, stuff themselves with a meal, then retire to a steaming sauna. Animals are the innocent embodiment of the plague (katk), they enter the village looking to infect, but pass in confusion as the people lie motionless pretending to have “two arses”. Roughly crafted assemblages of branches, animal skeleton heads and metal tools (kratts) are given souls negotiated in Faustian style pacts made with a blood licking Devil in the forest at night. These moody kratts perform the work that no one wants to do, and steal food from the Baron’s mansion. There is an interesting double alienation in play between the peasant and his labour. They compromise their souls whether they perform the work or not.

The behaviour of the peasants toward the oppressive feudal and Church order is one of malaise and indignation – they steal whatever they can whenever they can with no fear of damnation given the self-serving logic of their pagan beliefs. Kivirähk’s narration gestures toward Estonia’s long history of fighting for its independence against land and power grabbers from every country in the Baltic territory (the Danes, Swedes, Germans, and finally Soviets). We hear this from the Baron’s head servant Ints (Taavi Eelmaa) who in mentioning the might of King Lembitu (a 13th Century King who led the struggle for independence against the German Livonian Brothers of the Sword) allows us to see a subtle form of resistance in the peasants’ lazy acceptance of their non-independence, with small liberties enjoyed from their stolen loot and outspoken, overplayed disrespect towards authority. An authority that is further diluted by Sarnet’s choice to keep the nobility comatosed, indifferent, or quiet.

The peasants’ eclectic spiritual practices are immediately understood to be unique and undisturbed by the occupier’s system of Christian faith – a mark of resistance in many colonised societies. Sarnet amplifies this aspect with a great focus on these peoples ongoing exchanges with non-terrestrial beings manifesting in all modes of being. Without some dedicated attendance to the narrativity of the film, the very clear logic of these practices and beliefs in relation to a political claim could be lost, and the film dismissed as far too bizarre. While the beauty of each frame, the strong performances from an intensely invested cast, and the well-integrated electronic score from Polish composer Jacaszek could together be a stand-alone reason for why the experience of the film is cogent; it is Sarnet’s interpretation of the narrative deftly crafted in a balanced conversation with these aspects that allows us to enter this odd world with the comfort of a well-unfolded fabula

November is also a love story. It is a love triangle with a Shakespearean twist: not two star-crossed lovers, but three, all wanting the one they cannot have. The dirty faced Liina, superbly played by Rea Lest, loves Hans (Jörgen Liik), the village hunk, who loves the Baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis) – an untouchable doll with a somnambulist death wish. Liina does all she can to divert Hans’ obsession, including a quick werewolf transformation and some witch counselling, finally resigning with rational insight that Hans’ heart would never heal were his beloved killed.

Love becomes more harmful than the Devil himself in the trade for souls. Love is higher and more unattainable than the soul. All who feel it seem unable to grasp it in any authentic sense, seeking an ugly revenge on those who are obstacles. Hans sells his soul to the Devil to animate his own kratt, a snowman, meant to kidnap the sleeping Duchess. In the next few scenes we watch the snowman poeticise Hans’ feelings for a woman. Wide eyed with awe, Hans experiences culture for the first time: romance accessed through language. It seems far more beguiling to him than the pretty face of the Duchess. He listens to stories of what the snowman, once water, has known. It is an elemental vision of human relations and the nature of love. In an arresting scene, Liina eventually presents herself to Hans in a stolen black dress, which is the emblem of nobility, and hides her face in a lace veil. Both kneel opposite each other in ice and snow that dissolves into mud as the heavy rain beats down on their swelling hearts. A long silence and stillness is finally broken by a first and final kiss.

Death comes with loves ultimate failure. The Duchess plunges her sleeping body from the roof of the mansion during her nightly promenade. Liina the young virgin drowns herself when Han pays his debt to the Devil for his now melted kratt. She is dragged from the lake onto the bank and lain atop her family’s hidden treasure. A pre-Raphaelite Ophelia, her blonde hair is strewn and stretched across porcelain cheeks: white on white, on white.

My last words are for the artistry found in Taniel’s use of light. The way he sculpts figures into eerie relief with a stark and brilliant coldness to contrast with the surrounding woods at night is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s early cinematographer Gunnar Fischer (The Seventh Seal, 1958) who would artificially illuminate the actors faces with stage lighting in outdoor, supernatural scenes. Taniel equally retards light to blacken the mood. Faces in close-up move in and out of shadows with sombre, sometimes wicked thoughts. The interior scenes of the peasant houses are dimly lit with distributed pits of fire and flickering candle light, sometimes the grainy daylight filters in through filthy panes. The scenes are like moving Caravaggios. We squint hard to view these inhospitable rooms and broken hearts, but find release in the over-exposure of a coming winter landscape, bleached beyond a certain blandness.

First published: March 16, 2018

November | Film | Rainer Sarnet | EST-NL-PL 2017 | 115’ | Cinéma Bellevaux Lausanne

Best Cinematographer at Tribeca Film Festival 2017

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Screenings at Cinéma Bellevaux Lausanne

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