Fantasia 2017 Review: Estonian film November (Rehepapp)

In the Estonian film November (Rehepapp), Liina’s mother is waiting for her daughter in the graveyard.

November (Rehepapp) is a black-and-white film that draws upon Estonian history and folklore. It plays out like a timeless, definitely-not-Disney fairy tale – almost everybody is dressed in rags and has a very dirty face, even though they DO have saunas. As far as we can see, those saunas are used more by the dead than by the living. Every autumn, villagers await their deceased relatives in the local graveyard, then take them home for food, gossip and a sauna. Rumour has it that the dead are somehow transformed into giant chickens while using the sauna.

Even more fantastical than those ideas, for me, was the concept of the kratt – a sometimes cranky, sarcastic creature made from odds and ends (branches, pitchforks, hay) who serves his master by stealing things and doing chores around the farm. A kratt does not come cheaply, though – a person has to sell his soul to the devil to make his kratt come alive. Where does one meet the devil? At the crossroads, in the dead of night, of course.

There’s nothing bucolic about life in the countryside – the peasants face hunger, poverty and the plague. There is conflict between parent and child, Christianity and paganism. Co-operation seems like an unknown concept; greed and selfishness abound. People are willing to betray family, friends, and neighbours for any small advantage. Many hope to get their hands on a legendary cache of hidden silver.

In the Estonian film November (Rehepapp) Liina (Rea Lest) watches in dismay as Hans (Jöšrgen Liik) stares at the baron’s daughter.

Young Liina (Rea Lest) lives with her father, who wants to marry her off to his gross old drinking buddy, Endel. Liina will have none of it; she wants to marry Hans (Jörgen Liik), her friend and contemporary. But Hans is smitten by the sleep-walking daughter of the German baron who rules the area from his imposing manor house. (Unlike the others, the baron and his daughter have clean faces and clean clothes. At home, the baron wears a fancy embroidered coat that makes him look the Liberace of his day. German actor Dieter Laser plays the baron; says he was also in the Human Centipede films.)

The baron (Dieter Laser) and his daughter (Katariina Unt) are among the few clean, well-fed people in November(Rehepapp). Just how tall is that hat, anyway?

Google tells me that Estonia was among the last European countries to be Christianized, and the last to abolish serfdom, as well. Though the characters in the film are nominally Christian, that doesn’t stop them from stealing things from the church, nor does it stop Liina from asking a witch to help her win Hans over. If they are still serfs, that would go far in explaining their miserable circumstances.

I saw November (Rehepapp) at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal. Both screenings were sold out, so I was very lucky to see it at all. Unlike some of the other popular films at the festival, November is not full of laughs, or action, but it’s well worth seeking out.

Oscilloscope Films has the North American distribution rights and will give the film a theatrical release in the fall.  Watch out for it! An article on the web site has a very apt quote from Oscilloscope’s Dan Berger: “November is one of the most unique and stunning films to come along in some time. It’s equal measures beautiful love story and balls-to-wall bonkers-ass folk tale. It keeps you rapt, guessing and intrigued from its first frame to its last.” Yeah, what he said!

Some films are quite entertaining while we’re watching, but once they’re over we move on. After  watching November the first thing I looked up was the kratt – was it the author’s invention or was it part of folklore? Folklore it was! Then I wanted to know about Estonian history, its rulers, serfdom, paganism and Christianity, saunas for the dead, the ravages of the plague, etc., etc. I really like it when that happens, though such exploration delays my reviews a bit.

November’s cinematographer Mart Taniel won the Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature award at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. I can’t find photos of one of the more stunning images in the film – a lake surrounded by trees with white leaves.

November is based on the novel Rehepapp, by Andrus Kivirähk. There doesn’t seem to be an English translation yet, but it has been translated into French, as Les Groseilles de novembre: Chronique de quelques détraquements dans la contrée des kratts. Another book by Andrus Kivirähk has been translated into French as Homme qui savait la langue des serpents. In English it is called The Man Who Spoke Snakish. Kivirähk’s books are available at Amazon and Indigo; Indigo has German and Spanish translations of the “Snakish” book, as well.

The film November is based on Andrus KivirŠahk’s book Rehepapp. It has been translated into French as Les Groseilles de novembre: Chronique de quelques dŽétraquements dans la contrŽée des kratts. There is no English translation. Another one of his books is available in French and English translations as L’homme qui savait la langue des serpents and The Man Who Spoke Snakish.

November (Rehepapp) is an Estonia, Poland, Netherlands co-production, in Estonian and German, with English subtitles.
Written and directed by Rainer Sarnet
Cast: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik, Dieter Laser, Katariina Unt, Taavi Eelmaa, Arvo Kukumägi, Heino Kalm, Meelis Rämmeld
Cinematographer: Mart Taniel
Production company: Homeless Bob Production, PRPL, Opus Film
North American distribution by Oscilloscope.

See legendary adventure film The Thief of Bagdad, with live musicians, Saturday night!

This Thief of Bagdad image is from the Facebook page created by Le CinŽclub de MontrŽal / The Film Society.
This Thief of Bagdad image is from the Facebook page created by Le CinŽclub de MontrŽal / The Film Society.

Douglas Fairbanks! His name, along with Errol Flynn’s, was once synonymous with swashbuckling adventure and derring do, and for some people, it still is.

See what the fuss was about when Le Cinéclub de Montréal / The Film Society presents The Thief of Bagdad on Saturday, May 30, 2015.

The Thief of Bagdad, which was made in 1924, is a silent film, but that just means that you won’t hear the actors speak. The evening itself will not be silent, far from it. Guillaume Martineau (piano) Joannie Labelle (percussion) and Jean-Sebastien Leblanc (clarinet) will provide lively musical accompaniment. (That’s one more person than the Cinémathèque Québécoise had on hand when it showed the film in 2013.)

The sets of The Thief of Bagdad are elaborate and luxurious.
The sets of The Thief of Bagdad are elaborate and luxurious.

The Thief of Bagdad appears on the “must-see” lists of many critics. The fairy-tale adventure was directed by Raoul Walsh and features sumptuous costumes by Mitchell Leisen, large, lavish sets by William Cameron Menzies, and genies, giant jars, magic baskets, flying carpets and other special effects, along with the proverbial “cast of thousands.” The $2-million budget was quite extraordinary for the time.

"Ah ha! Treasure!" Douglas Fairbanks as the thief, in The Thief of Bagdad, a silent film from 1924.
“Ah ha! Treasure!” Douglas Fairbanks as the thief, in The Thief of Bagdad, a silent film from 1924.


Douglas Fairbanks plays Ahmed, the thief of the title, who decides to go big and steal a princess, the daughter of the Caliph of Bagdad. But through one thing and another, he ends up in one of those competitions so common in myths, legends and fairy tales where a suitor has to prove his worth by doing, discovering, or defeating, some thing or someone.

Fairbanks is incredibly acrobatic, with lots of leaping, swinging, and climbing; he’s usually smiling, and he’s often shirtless, too. (Fairbanks was also the producer, and one of the screenwriters of The Thief of Bagdad.)

The princess is played by Julanne Johnston, whose name is not well known today. The better known Anna May Wong is listed as the “Mongol slave” of the princess, though she was actually more of a (scantily-clad) spy. In a different era she might have been given bigger and better roles.

Anna May Wong in The Thief of Bagdad.
Anna May Wong in The Thief of Bagdad.


Here are excerpts from some reviews of The Thief of Bagdad:
Kim Newman, Empire Magazine:  “Grinning impishly, (Fairbanks) has an energetic magnetism that few stars have since managed to recapture, every set-piece designed to showcase his swashbuckling prowess. Silent cinema at its most magical.”

The New York Times: “. . . Fairbanks. . .essentially invented the American action star, with his combination of easy athleticism, can-do optimism and self-deprecating humour. By the time of “The Thief of Bagdad” he had moved from modern dress to costume roles (“The Mark of Zorro,” “Robin Hood”) and into the particular timelessness of the superstar, standing at the centre of his own universe. . . ”
“The film’s extraordinary production design — located somewhere between the swoony Art Nouveau curves of Aubrey Beardsley and the robust literary illustrations of N. C. Wyeth — is the first major work of William Cameron Menzies, a brilliant jack-of-all-trades who would leave his mark on movies from “Gone With the Wind”. . .to the low-budget nightmare “Invaders from Mars.”

“Using a panoply of optical and mechanical effects Fairbanks leads the viewer through a range of magical worlds. Most memorably there is an undersea kingdom, where the chandeliers. . . are giant jellyfish composed of Venetian glass.”

From an unsigned review in TV Guide:  “Forty-year-old Douglas Fairbanks was at his peak when he released the film in 1924. Stripped to the waist virtually throughout, Fairbanks displays the physique of a 20-year-old gymnast and the exuberance of a person even younger. His daringly, beautifully florid performance is grounded less in dramatics than in dance. . .and acrobatics. . . Fairbanks’s kinetic performance is saved from pretentious posturing by his enormous likability, effervescence, and predisposition to self-mockery.”
The Thief of Badgad, Saturday, May 30, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 7.)
United Church 4695 de Maisonneuve W. (Vendôme Metro)
Tickets at the door, cash only, are $13, $9 (for students and those 65, and over, with ID).

Or buy your tickets online at
The film is approximately two hours long. Coffee, tea, beer, popcorn, and sweet treats will be on sale before the film and at the intermission.

For more information visit the Facebook page for The Thief of Bagdad screening.

Learn more about Le Cinéclub de Montréal / The Film Society on its web page.