Director: Kaaren Kaer
2007 European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I often find that comedies from other countries don’t strike me quite right. I’ve seen three comedies at the EU festival so far, and two of them—The Iceberg (Belgium) and Hostage (Latvia)—have really fallen flat for me. I always suspect (and probably am right to) that it is my fault for not understanding the culture. Once in a while, however, a comedy comes along with a sense of humor that relates to some of my cultural markers but also has an insane sensibility all its own. Men at Arms, a Monty Pythonesque romp through the history of Estonia in the 12th century, leaves its British counterpart in the dust. One of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, Men at Arms deserves to be the next midnight movie sensation here, there, and everywhere.
The Estonia of Men at Arms is composed of a loose association of counties, each headed by a male elder who calls the shots and deflowers the virgins so they can get married. In a jab at the view of powerful nations toward smaller ones, Estonians are portrayed as simple, golden-haired people who are deliriously happy to work extremely hard, copulate, and sing. Unfortunately for Estonia, it has a vital resource coveted by the French—frogs. The French must ensure that Germany does not gain permission from the Pope to enter Estonia first to bring Christianity to its pagan population.
The Germans have been pushing the issue with scattered raids. In one such raid to the county of Elder Lembitu (Ain Mäeots), the dreaded leader of the Germans, Hippolyt (Märt Avandi), sacks the village of Estola, kills the happiest man in the county, and captures young Uru. Crude computer animation shows the German troops moving across a map of Northern Europe (encountering small animations of cattle fighting, eating, and fornicating) and then sailing aimlessly until they finally crash into the port of Lubeck. There, Uru is baptized and receives a Christian education that naturally involves repeated floggings and being locked into a box where the “dark clouds gather”—a bare butt covers a hole at the top of the box and the rest is left to our disgusted imagination.
Young Uru grows into a very handsome man (Ott Sepp), if by that the narrator means his scraggly wig looks a little less lopsided than those of the other Estonians. He is approached one day by Wolfram (Üllar Saaremäe), who is a French spy. Wolfram offers to mentor him in the art of war so that Uru can help lead Estonia in a revolt against the Germans. Wolfram’s mentorship involves beating the bejesus out of Uru in hand-to-hand combat. Just as Uru learns ways to avoid Wolfram’s punches and fight back, Wolfram switches to judo and throws Uru to the ground. Again, this is an in-joke on the treatment of smaller EU countries by the big boys.
Eventually, Uru returns to Estola. He finds his old friends Tugis (Uku Uusberg), who is never without his plow, and fashion-forward Leholas (Argo Aadli) and enlists their help to try to get Lembitu to rally all the Estonian elders to raise an army to fight the Germans. Lembitu, unfortunately, believes Estonia’s treaty with Germany will be kept. He has important planing to do on the lintel of his front door. Wood shavings cram his synthetic beard. He pulls one of them off, takes a bite, then offers one to Uru. When Uru says that the time for work is over, Lembitu agrees and calls for the evening singing hour. A square dance through the mud ensues.
Lembitu sends peace emissaries (including a representative from a county so haughty that its inhabitants have taught themselves to fly) to renegotiate the treaty. A door closes, light from under the door shows movement, and then a flow of blood pours into the hall. Only Manivalde (Ant Kobin) survives to warn Lembitu. Enraged, Lembitu calls the smartest people from all the counties of Estonia to a council. Only one county does not respond because it doesn’t have anyone smart enough to attend. The council debates how to respond to the threat. Perhaps the most intriguing idea comes from the elders of Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa (subtitled in a pseudo-Scandinavian script for some regional humor), who propose that a giant hedgehog be built and filled with…smaller hedgehogs who will eat a particularly pesty weed and…well, you get the idea.
Some of the sight gags in this film are absolutely amazing. I was particularly taken with what happens to a French agent who eats a smuggled Estonian frog, only to discover that it contains a contagion worse than the bubonic plague. The man’s face literally melts as his panicked countrymen flounce about the room. Another side-splitting scene involves two fallen elders who talk about their funerals. One of them says he’d like to be buried. He’d bury himself if only his arms hadn’t been cut off. His comrade agrees to dig him a hole, even though it will cause him excrutiating pain. I was helpless with laughter watching him shuffle his body against the dirt while his comrade napped.
There is so much to love in this wacky, original history lesson from a country that wasn’t even a footnote in my high school history classes. Oh what we’ve been missing!
Reasonably priced downloads of Men at Arms are available here.