Kevade/ Spring (USSR – Estonia, 1969) Arvo Kruusement

September 8, 2008 at 5:19 am

Kevade/ Spring is clearly a classic of Estonian cinema, and is probably the best film to see for whoever wants to get acquainted with this cinematic tradition. Shot in 1969 parallel with the great hit Viimne Reliikvia, the film cost about 300,000 roubles to make (just about a third of the other film’s budget). Director Kruusement really wanted to shoot in color but all the resources at Tallinnfilm at the time were directed to The Last Relic, so he could only afford the usage of a black and white stock. Cameraman Harry Rehe intervened and persuaded the director that a black and white film would certainly be closer to the spirit of the work, set around the turn of the the 20th century. In addition, the black and white photography would give the film a more timeless feel.

Based on the work of Oscar Luts (1887-1953), the novel Kevade dates from 1912-1913. It had also been turned into a stage play that had often been part of the repertoire of various theatrical companies across the country. Usually, however, it were adult actors that were playing the teenage protagonists. It is for the film that director Arvo Kruusement insisted on casting young people of the same age, a move that was considered particularly progressive at the time. The actors were recruited as a result of a nation-wide search, which allegedly also increased the anticipation of the film across this small country. It was also the director’s decision to change the focus of the novel from the more comical characters such as Toots and Kiir (who still dominate the later films) to a scrutiny of the fragile relationship of Arvo and Teele, and make this lyrical tone dominant for the film.

The story evolves in the region of the town Paunvere; all the protagonists are in one way or another related to the small community and the center of action takes place at a mixed-gender half-boarding school where a wise Teacher, a Church Master, a drink-loving servant (Lieble), and a range of teenage pupils spend most of their days. It is a close-knit community where most interactions evolve around daily events of formative importance and where simple situations and exchanges can lead to serous ethical conclusions. Like in other coming-of-age films situations like first attractions, jealousies and disappointments are in the centre of attention, and so are funny and mischievous friendships. One of the protagonists covers up for a friend just to realize very soon that someone else is punished unjustly because of his false testimony; it is all resolved in an emotional confession from the culprit. All in all, the teenagers at the school form an interesting bunch of endearing characters — the funny Kiir, the phantasist Toots, the bear-like Tonisson, the dreamer Arvo, the musical wonder Imelik. It is mostly the boys, however, who remain in the centre of attention, with only one female character, Teele, developed to some extent and all the other girls remaining indistinguishable from each other on the background (the fact that they are all blond certainly does not help characterisation).

The centrality of this film for the Estonian legacy is remarkable also because it is typical for Central and West European literary traditions to have such coming-of-age novels (and films respectively) as cornerstone of their identity discourse at the onset of the 20th century (I am thinking here of German-language novels by Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Robert Musil, for example).

Even though every national cinema tradition probably has a film of this type, Kevade‘s superb artistry makes it stand out. The biggest achievement in my view is the superbly paced action — many various events are crammed in the 84 minutes of the film, many requiring detailed complex characterization, yet it is all balanced neatly in the space of the film. The performances are excellent, most likely due to the well thought-over casting and competent work of the director with the teenage actors, both the music and the camerawork are memorable.

The two further parts of the trilogy Suvi/ Summer (1976) and Sügis/ Autumn (1990) were made seven and twenty one years later, respectively. By casting the same actors, the director is able to capitalize on the natural process of aging and thus enhance the familial feeling that the trilogy leaves. Margus Lepa (as Kiir), Riina Hein (as Teele), and Rein Aedma (as Imelik) and Arno Liiver (as Arno) have only played in the trilogy and have never been engaged as actors in other films, thus leaving the viewer with the feeling that, by appearing in the three installments, they have shared part of their real lives. Director Kruusement is responsible also for other important Estonian films, most notably the cheerful musical Don Juan of Tallinn (1971).

Here is a non-subtitled clip from the film, a scene usually referred to as The Sauna, featuring characters like Tonisson and Toots.

Along with the two other parts of the trilogy, Kevade is restored and released on DVD. I saw the trilogy out of a box set where the three films are available with English and Russian subtitles. There is also a separate DVD edition of Kevade only, which comes with a 50-minute long documentary about the production history of the film (featuring interviews with the director, members of the crew, and the actors), and with a variety of subtitling options in English, German, Russian, Finnish, Swedish and Estonian.

© Dina Iordanova
8 September 2008