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Finland’s "The Fencer" and Hollywood’s "12 Mighty Orphans" have much in common!

Audrey Kupferberg, seated at a desk in her office
Audrey Kupferberg
Audrey Kupferberg

In this season of blizzards, travel delays, and grey mornings, it is a boost to the spirit to watch movies about hope triumphing over despair, particularly—since I am a retired educator, movies involving groups of children whose lives are enriched through the intervention of teachers.

The Fencer, a product of the Finnish, Estonian, and German film industries, was released here in 2017. Available with subtitles for streaming and on disc, the story begins as a teacher starts work at an elementary school in a poverty-stricken Estonian village shortly after World War II. Endel Nelis is a champion fencer, but he cannot stay in Leningrad where he is noticed as such, because he was conscripted into the German forces as a teenager, and Stalin’s secret police are out to arrest him. He flees to his native Estonia to blend with the population under a changed name.

The Fencer tells a based-on-fact story, although details are changed. It has a skillfully crafted script and is nicely produced. Winner of various film festival awards, it was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and was the Finnish candidate for Best Foreign Film for the 2016 Oscars. It was directed by Klaus Haro, himself a winner of the esteemed Ingmar Bergman Prize.

The story of The Fencer focuses on the teacher who is quiet and somewhat distant from his young students. Soon the stories of several of the students and their situations are revealed. We see one youngster witness Stalin’s men take away his grandfather to a labor camp for those who differ politically from Stalin’s USSR mandates. We see the poverty and monotony of the daily lives of the children.

As the scenario builds, the teacher engages the pupils in fencing, first with cut branches, then with donated equipment. He eventually risks his own freedom to take several children to compete in in Leningrad. The Fencer is an effective film, a heartfelt look at human kindness in the face of adversity.

Similar in theme, also based on a true story, is the American film 12 Mighty Orphans from 2021. Luke Wilson stars as a well-intentioned football coach who gives up a prestige job to teach, along with his wife, at a Texas orphanage in the late 1930s, a time when the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression resulted in extreme poverty, desperation, and death.

Similar to the story of The Fencer, a newly-arrived teacher organizes a sports team to educate young people about life and give them something to live for. At the start the team doesn’t even have a football. The orphanage is depicted as a Dickensian hell where kids are beaten and commercially exploited. Unlike The Fencer, 12 Mighty Orphans is a conventional melodrama. And as a melodrama, its story is filled with villains and guardian angels. The story advances from a world of bleak despair, slowly to reveal tiny steps of advancement, narrow rays of hope which then are squelched repeatedly by nasty meanies. Critics noted how paint-by-number the melodrama plays out. While I agree, I feel that 12 Mighty Orphans, which is available for home viewing, is worth an audience’s attention. In addition to Luke Wilson’s performance, Martin Sheen appears as the doctor in the place. He’s a widower, an alcoholic, but he also is the one shining light in the orphanage, besides Wilson’s character, who can see the evil being done to the youngsters. There is something extraordinary about Martin Sheen in any role; his screen presence is awesome.

The Fencer and 12 Mighty Orphans tell the same story, share the same important theme, that adults with good hearts can change children’s lives. These films are tributes to the fine work of so many of our teachers.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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