‘The Fencer’ Director on Making His ‘Most Difficult’ Movie

TheWrap’s Screening Series: Finland’s Klaus Härö admits, “It was a film with children and in two languages I have not mastered”

“‘The Fencer’ is my fifth film and by far the most difficult,” Klaus Härö said at TheWrap’s Screening Series in the  iPic Theater on Tuesday in Los Angeles. But Härö, whose film about a mysterious and inspiring fencing teacher in Estonia during the Soviet occupation in the 1950s is Finland’s submission for the foreign Oscar–his fourth film to be submitted, beating Ari Kaurismaki’s record–has no regrets.

“It was a film with children and in two languages I have not mastered, Estonian and Russian,” said Härö. “But I thought, “Wow, this is the most beautiful story, the most beautiful screenplay I’ve ever read.” The movie combines the Cold War paranoia of Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” and the young Spielberg’s instinctual ability to direct winsome kids in affecting ways.

Härö said his own inspirations were closer to home: the wry yet sad work of Lasse Hallstrom, Bille August, Jan Troell, and Ingmar Bergman, who personally chose Härö as a winner of the Ingmar Bergman Award.  “They were the real models for me, a good Scandinavian tradition of novels as well as stories of kids in a tone that changes from light and dark and respects the experience of a child.”

For the kids’ fencing master, based on the real character Endel Nelis, Härö cast Mart Avandi. “I chose Mart because he looked a little like a young Max von Sydow, like a knight, sad and beautiful, with a secret. In a country with a population of 1.5 million, he was a huge star. When I’d walk with him, I remember kids running out in their pajamas in the winter asking for his autograph. Not mine!”

To coax performances from his young actors and prevent fencing injuries on the 39-day shoot, Härö tried to direct with a firm but not a Stalinist hand. “I’m not a kind director when it comes to kids, but I’m not brutal, I hope. I hope I’m Khrushchev.” Without discipline, he warned, “I’ve made commercials with kids who take the film hostage. ‘Would you like some candy and maybe you’ll say your lines?’”

For “The Fencer,” Haro was more like Louis Gossett, Jr. ordering Richard Gere around. “I’d say, ‘Weapons down now! Up now!’ Like you see in films like ‘An Officer and a Gentleman.’”

At first, Härö had trouble with a young translator who failed to convey the director’s  instructions to the kids. “I’d say [something short], and the translator would go, ‘Blabbity blabbity’ at length. I was told, ‘Oh, he’s studying to be a director. So we reassigned him.” Haro thinks the language barrier was good for the film. “Movies are best when there are few words,” he said.

Now that Härö has won dozens of film festival prizes, from Berlin to Palm Springs, and only one of his last five films failed to be Oscar-submitted by Finland, his future looks bright. “I’m working on a couple Finnish films. As a pessimistic Finn, I won’t believe something is happening until the camera’s rolling.”