Guest post by Piibi-Kai Kivik.
The second film in the Nordic Privilege and Anxiety series is The Temptation of St. Tony by the Estonian director Veiko Õunpuu. The film shocks and disturbs, its black-and-white starkness and surreal images visually contrasting with the saturated colors of Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope.
However, Õunpuu has cited Aki Kaurismäki as an influence. This is what Õunpuu said about Kaurismäki in 2010 (my translation):
“Aki Kurismäki’s main appeal is that differently from the 99% of films made today his films still talk about something significant. Something important, which we constantly keep forgetting as we whirl about in the amnesia-inducing dance of technological progress and capital — how to be a human and not a dumb animal.
Kaurismäki’s cinema is poetics of the highest sorts, with a Robert Bresson stamp of quality, with Baudelaire and Henri Michau its distant ancestors, with Luis Buñuel its moral engine, with Douglas Sirk its melodramatic model and Vittorio De Sica its consciousness, and no self-respecting film enthusiast has any justification whatsoever not to be familiar with it.
I hearby demand that the Ministry of Education would adapt his complete filmography as a text for the civics courses, so that in our country at last people would grow up to grasp, as Aki Kaurismäki once said, the fact that the purpose of life is to acquire a personal morality that respects another human being and nature, and subsequently, to live according to this moral code.
Also, it is not futile to hope that his films help the viewers to perceive more clearly the tragic humor involved in our existence, and such intellectually mature citizens would, in turn, benefit the development of our national economy.”
The comment, in Õunpuu’s characteristically ironic style, reveals the shared interest in morality, goodness and its possibility in the world of profit-oriented progress.
I asked Liina-Ly Roos, a doctoral researcher studying Baltic and Scandinavian film, to comment on the two directors as well as the place of St. Tony in this series.
P-K: Although the two directors are quite different in their scale and focus of work, what could be said about their similarities and differences?
L-L: Just like Õunpuu says here that Kaurismäki’s cinema is poetics, Õunpuu’s cinema is also very poetical. Some of the similarities that are manifested in both the visual style and themes of their films are a search for a morality and social consciousness of the injustice of the neoliberal/capitalist systems. Õunpuu’s two earlier films, Empty and Autumn Ball, are more similar to Kaurismäki’s cinema, as they focus on the irony and melancholy of loneliness. Autumn Ball has been called a black comedy and it shares the comedy in hopelessness that is so present in many of Kaurismäki’s films.
Another similarity is their approach to narrative and verbalization. There are not many words in the dialogues (something that Kaurismäki is particularly famous for), but the silences are full of tensions, making the audience more conscious of the fact that they are watching a film, not just being entertained. Õunpuu takes this even further than Kaurismäki, and experiments with his film style more in St. Tony. His training as a painter at the Estonian Academy of Arts has definitely influenced his preference of pictorial language and images over narrative and text. Õunpuu resists having everything written on the script, and also has resistance towards the neoliberal Estonian film industry, which is becoming more profit-driven and, thus, the scripts are evaluated based on their potential for profit.
In St. Tony we can actually see more of the differences between Kaurismäki’s and Õunpuu’s filmmaking. The irony in hopeless and dark situations is still there, but along with that there is experimentation with a more conventional art cinema mode. In St. Tony, the camerawork starts out with more long shots that move towards close-ups and extreme close-ups where the camera focuses on one corner of a face and other body parts, including Tõnu’s mouth and fingers in the last scene. Õunpuu, thus, pays more attention to the bodies of his audiences, trying to affect them physically.
P-K: Estonia does not (yet!?) fall in line with the Scandinavian welfare societies when it comes to the various happiness rankings. These tend to reflect, rather, the anxiety of post-Soviet transformations and pressure to “catch up” with the affluent Nordic neighbors. One aspect that ties the series’s three films together is the critique of capitalism and the dehumanizing effects of modern society. In Õunpuu’s Estonia, it is the neoliberalism that is under attack. What, however, could be termed Nordic in his work?
L-L: St. Tony is a really good example to think about “the Nordic” in Estonian cinema. When talking about Õunpuu’s oeuvre, in addition to Kaurismäki’s influences, people have mentioned names such as Bergman, von Trier, Ozu, Antonioni, and Tarkovsky. From the Nordic cinema, I would add Roy Andersson whose choice of long takes, criticism of the neoliberal Swedish welfare state and the disruptive memories of war in the national psyche remind me of Õunpuu’s Sügisball and St. Tony. The theme of privilege that is so present in the depictions of the Scandinavian Guilt and anxiety due to noticing something immoral about oneself and one’s country is also manifested in Tony’s character. He reminds me of several characters in Nordic films (that mostly deal with immigration or the global Other) who suddenly notice that they are privileged and then want to fix the problems in the world or they just remain in a constant struggle within themselves (like many of Bergman’s characters for example). In some of the Nordic films, these “white savior” figures often do end up saving the situation but increasingly the filmmakers are also depicting their failure to do so (like in Ruben Östlund’s recent film The Square or in previously mentioned Kaurismäki films).
P-K: What does “privilege and anxiety” mean in Õunpuu’s work, particularly in St. Tony? Is it different or similar to the Nordic “privilege and anxiety?”
L-L: In St. Tony, the privilege comes from being a middle-class man whose native language is Estonian, and the anxiety increases in Tony as he travels through Estonia and sees the stark contrasts between poverty and affluence, Estonian-speakers and Russian-speakers. His search for “goodness” in the old ruined church reminds me of the some of the characters in Bergman’s and Andersson’s films, who start out with a naive belief that they can fix the world (because of their privilege), but it does not work out. Tony is not able to save neither the Russian-speaking woman nor the dogs that he is very attached to. The feeling of privilege is, thus, quite similar in the Nordic and Õunpuu’s contexts (particularly when it comes to class-based privilege), but Estonia’s history and position between the Western and Eastern Europe also changes the feel or mood of “privilege and anxiety” slightly.
Striving to become more similar and restore connections with Western Europe as a reaction to becoming free from the Soviet occupation makes sense. What does one do, however, when one realizes that the result of that endeavor has in some cases sadly meant brutal measures that take down forests, abuse of cheap labor force and building up a class-system with the stark contrasts of ruined, muddy countryside houses and luxurious new buildings in the suburbs as portrayed in St. Tony? One can try to fix it, inspired by heroic and moral actions in Hollywood narrative cinema where the hero will save the day. If that does not work, however, there is no resolution to make the audience feel good, because it is Õunpuu’s goal to make the audience think and be more conscious of their actions. I think that with the exaggerations (scenes of cannibalism, extreme gluttony) he wants to shock the audience who might have (in their privileged position) come to enjoy an artistic work.
P-K: Õunpuu loves to play with allusions to cinematic and literary classics. What, if anything, makes him particularly Estonian or what might an Estonian viewer relate to in his works, including St. Tony?
L-L: His incorporation of space definitely refers to both the recent history of Estonia and the building boom in the 2000s. For example, in Autumn Ball, the paths of various people are crossing in the same neighborhood, Lasnamäe, which was built during the 1970s for the large number of people who were relocated to live and work in Estonia from all over the Soviet Union. These apartment blocks have an affective value to the Estonian audiences — the trauma of the Soviet occupation is starkly present in Õunpuu’s depiction of the re-independent society that has not fulfilled its promises but instead caused other kinds of injustice by adopting the Western neoliberalism.
St. Tony refers to the Soviet history less, but he does point to the problematics of the Russian-speaking minority who in this film are also lower-class and suffering from the “neoliberal cannibalism” similar to lower-class Estonian-speakers. The guilt that this film plays with is similar to other artistic explorations of the identity in re-independent Estonia. What is criticized, along with the neoliberal economy model, is the immediate association with Western Europe, the “selling-out” to foreign companies and investors and the “temptations” of wealth. This is visible also in Õunpuu’s choice of film style, as in this film there are many more extradiegetic shots, unmotivated characters and elliptical editing. Thus, he is resisting the mainstream narrative cinema that is so prevalent in the profit-oriented Western world.
The Temptation of St. Tony will be shown at the IU Cinema on March 5. This screening is part of the film series Nordic Tales of Privilege and Anxiety, which is sponsored by the departments of Germanic Studies and Central Eurasian Studies, Institute for European Studies, Russian and East European Institute, Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, and IU Cinema.
Liina-Ly Roos is a PhD candidate in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle. She has published on Nordic cinema and literature and is currently finishing up her dissertation, titled The Child in Nordic and Baltic Film and Literature. Her research interests include Baltic and Nordic cinema and literature, auteur cinema, melodrama, trauma and memory studies.
Piibi-Kai Kivik, a Lecturer in the IU Department of Central Eurasian Studies, teaches Estonian language as well as culture courses (Estonia’s Place: Borders and Neighbors; Introduction to Hungary, Estonia and Finland; Old Barny, The Czar’s Madman and Estonian Survival). She is an applied linguist with training in cultural studies. Her research interests are second language interaction and learning, language and identity, Uralic languages and their speakers.