Dir. Rainer Sarnet. Starring Rea Lest, Jorgen Liik, Taavi Eelmaa
In the Wild West, they had tumbleweeds rolling across the desert scrub. In the 19th Century Estonia of November, they have kratts clanking in front of a town’s single manor. Made of three scythes and a cow’s skull, one of these kratts makes its way to a shed where a calf is chained to the wall. The kratt—not that we have a name for it at this point—enters through the previously unlocked door, rolls in, and poses at its absolute height. It’s not the most absurd image of the film by a long shot, but it is one of the funniest. With two of its scythes in the air and its head wearing the ghastly smile of bleached bone, it seems to be shouting “Surprise!” at this little cow who has no idea what it’s staring down. When the scythes become rotors and the calf goes airborne, it’s nothing less than the most special episode of Kratts’ Creatures. Alas that this vignette can only carry itself so far: the strangeness of November is its greatest asset, and when it is amplified by typically striking and sometimes transcendent photography, the strangeness is delightfully overwhelming. The problem is that this is not merely an art film, or even a full retro silent film, but a romance as well. What’s thrilling about November are the visuals, not the words, and too often words take over the film.
There’s a more traditional movie in here when words are spoken, one which looks at a pair of young lovers growing apart. Sarnet, who also wrote the screenplay, is interested in the lives of these typical mortals, Liina (Lest) and Hans (Liik). Liina will occasionally rub herself all over with earth and gyrate in the mud, howling and screaming, and when she becomes desperate for the love of her distracted young beau, she seeks out a witch for help. Hans builds his own unusual kratt from snow; where other kratts are crude or simple-minded, this one is eloquent in ways that befuddle his yokel master. Liina misses her dead mother and lives with her disinterested nogoodnik father who is prepared to sell her off to a gruff, drunken neighbor. (The presence of her dead mother a little after midnight on All Souls’ Day does little to reassure her.) Hans is handsome, almost too handsome for this ramshackle village, and he is blindsided by the presence of a beautiful baroness who lives in that one mansion. Liina is the right girl for him, but he fills his head with dreams instead. And why shouldn’t he? He has seen scythes and springs and pitchforks come to life and work; he will watch a plague enter a pig and speak to the assorted townspeople while blood flowed from a Bible. The first time he sees the baroness, he is at church, spitting out the host so it can be made into perfectly accurate bullets. (No animal can resist Christ, we find out, and so the Communion wafers are much more useful for hunting than they are for soul-saving.) Even Communion, which is a rite familiar to billions all over the world, is made strange when viewed from the perspective of the priest. One old crone is absolutely terrifying as she opens her mouth to take her bread. The profane coexists with the prosaic in this town, and it is the spring of Hans’ doom.
The secret to the poetic, historical kratt is his watery body. He can recall the story of two lovers in a boat above him, of the ring the young women threw in the water when the young man told her that he could not have her, but could only give her a ring; it is a story which seems older than time, perhaps even outside of it. Water, Sarnet realizes, is ageless, and it is no wonder that this snowman kratt should have knowledge and language completely alien to his place. Water is also malleable and ever-changing, whether it’s the moving stream where the ring falls or, of course, the melting snow that obliterates Hans’ kratt and seals his fate.
Whiteness is essential in November, even more so than water, and it is further established by the black-and-white photography. (It’s also the reason why some of these afterliving characters, wearing white makeup, don’t appear comical. They are obviously different, but like Paul of Tarsus assumed, “we shall be changed.”) The film begins with shockingly white ice, and when the ornery cow’s skull kratt takes his calf buddy on an aerial ride, the trees are bleached. The dead on All Souls’ Day proceed from behind a cloud of white fog. The dead themselves have white faces and wear white clothes, and two of them enter a sauna as white chickens. More eerily, windows are intensely white in this film, a sign of death beginning to encroach on the characters. The baroness sleepwalks behind her white curtains. Hans, watching a kratt used as a stepladder, plays his Jew’s harp. He is backlit by that window, if not angelically, then posthumously.
That scene where the villagers queue up a second time to spit the host into the hand of one of their own is probably the funniest of the film, mostly for how unexpected it is, though the matter-of-fact explanation is also gold. It also gets a response from the nobility. The baroness is put off by it; what they are doing is sinful, she says. It’s easy for her to say, having arrived in her carriage and wearing her fine clothes. (Her ease and coolness is part of what attracts Hans, for Liina is no less beautiful than the baroness but is clearly more worried than the typically placid noblewoman.) For the farmers staring down pestilence and hardship, winter and poverty, they have no room for scruples; hunger outweighs piety. The villagers would be a bunch of rogues even without their inclinations to seek the Devil’s more direct help rather than an unseen God’s mercy (more on that in a sec). Thievery is the norm in the town, as people take whatever isn’t nailed down. Liina uses a stolen dress of the baroness’ to seduce an unsuspecting Hans late in the film, buying it off with the treasure of dead men who come back to ask after it; the film ends with an ancient treasure surfacing into the waiting hands of two of the village’s more shameless folks. Working his way into the baroness’ room turns out to be a snap for Hans, who simply has to pay off one of her servants to get the access he wants. These people have no vocabulary for “black market,” but certainly they’ve got the concept figured out just fine.
A kratt’s soul is bought from the Devil himself, who takes payment in three drops of blood made as a mark in his book. The Devil is the most active character in the film, both white and black in coloring, wearing wild shaggy hair and a beard, shaking his long tongue at his midnight parishioners who come to him at the crossroads. That someone should go to him is not a sign of devotion to him, but a sign of desperation. Liina’s father says he needs a kratt because without one he may not make it through the winter; when he does see the Devil, he squeezes currant juice into the book, and when the Devil licks the juice salaciously out of his book, he screams with disappointment at having been tricked. Hans tries to do the same to the Devil when he goes for the soul for his kratt, but the Devil didn’t get that far being stupid. He takes the blood himself, and when the snowman kratt melts, he’ll take Hans’ neck in just the same way.