Martti Helde directed this film which was actually made in 2014 (it was shown at the Toronto Festival that year) but is available to North American audiences only now. “In the Crosswind” is based on a real story. It tries to recover the memory of a Second World War episode that not always gets much attention: the fate of a small country in the middle of two powers in conflict, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. On June 14, 1941, thousands of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were forcefully removed from their countries under Stalin’s orders and sent to Siberia. The Baltic States had been part of the old Russian Empire until World War I. Still, when the Bolsheviks took over after the Russian Revolution of 1917, they became independent. In the case of Estonia, that independence had been recognized by the Soviet authorities in 1920.
Under Stalin, however, the Soviet Union reversed the previous policy of respecting the right to self-determination of the small nations. By 1941 the Soviets had annexed Estonia, and, given the tensions with Germany, they wanted to have a military presence in the Baltic States, and at the same time, to get rid of those termed “enemies of the people.”
The movie takes us from that tense moment in Estonian history. Heldur (Tarmo Song) was actually a member of the Defence League, a paramilitary volunteer force. He, his wife Erna (Laura Peterson), and their daughter Eliide (Mirt Preegel) are then sent to Siberia by the Soviet authorities. During the transfer to a train, men and women are separated, so Erna will no longer see her husband. While the men were taken to a concentration camp, the women and children were located in a kolkhoz (a collective farm). At that time, while suffering a harsh treatment on the part of the kolkhoz head (Einar Hillep), Erna starts writing her letters, hoping that someday they will reach her husband.
Time passes, the war ends. Hermiine, one of her friends, decides to marry one of the Russians. Some of the rules are relaxed; Erna is recognized as a good worker at the farm. She is even able to buy a cow. After the death of Stalin in 1953, there is a gradual process of relaxation, and the deported Estonians are finally allowed to return to their homeland. Erna takes the trip back and tries to find clues about her husband’s fate. However, life would never be the same as that of the warm summers when her husband and Eliide would go for a boat ride on the local river. The dress laces that her husband liked to tie around her waist would no longer be there.
“In the Crosswind” was shot in black and white, which contributes to deepening the drama. However, perhaps the most original aspect of the film is that, except for the scenes taking place in Estonia itself, at the beginning and at the end of the film, all the other scenes depicting the train transportation, the deportation journey, and Erna’s stay in Siberia, were filmed with all the characters frozen. At first, they seem to be still photos, but they are not, since the wind still moves the women’s dresses and watercourses are shown moving. This technique makes the spectator feel the freezing of the time spent by the Estonians in Siberia too. Perhaps, how distant they felt from that environment in which they were prisoners, victims of an ethnic cleansing policy.
It is recommended for those interested in Estonia’s and the Baltic States recent history and their cinema, of course. Those with interest in world history, and those film lovers who may like to see a movie with a very particular narrative style where you can appreciate the beauty of many of the scenes, may also like it. However, others may resent the slow pace of its narrative.
In Estonian with English subtitles. Available online from streaming service Film Movement Plus (filmmovementplus.com)
Duration: 87 min