356. NOVEMBER (2017)

“They’re the sort of old legends that are made up just to find a simple reason for every complicated thing. No one wants to admit that they’re foolish. The Frog of the North appeared in the sky from who knows where, and he disappeared again who knows where. But people couldn’t be content with that! Humans can’t stand things that are outside their reach.”–Andrus Kiviräh, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Rainer Sarnet

FEATURING: Rea Lest, Jörgen Liik

PLOT: Estonian peasant Liina, who may be able to transform into a wolf, is in love with fellow villager Hans, who returns her affection until he catches a glimpse of the daughter of the German baron who now rules their territory and is immediately smitten. Liina appeals to a witch to cast a spell to turn Hans’ heart to her. Hans, in turn, makes a deal with the Devil to build a kratt he believes will help him reach his beloved.

BACKGROUND:

  • November is based on the Estonian novel “Rehepapp: ehk November” by Andrus Kiviräh, which was a massive success in its homeland. “Rehepapp” has not been translated into English, although Kiviräh’s second novel, “The Man Who Spoke Snakish,” which treats fading pagan beliefs in a similar fashion, has been.
  • The producers raised money through crowdfunding to produce a model of a kratt, then used the test footage to secure money for the film from Polish and Dutch sources.
  • Most of the minor villager roles are played by nonprofessional actors.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Our first look at a kratt: it’s a cow skull tied to three sticks, with sharp farm implements tied to them, which cartwheels across the lawn of an 19th century villa on its way to break down a stable door.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Kratt airlifting cow; the chicken dead; two-ass plague gambit

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a world where our forefathers’ craziest superstitions are literally true, November weaves a Gothic tapestry of sleepwalking noblewomen, hags, bewitched friars, and dead ancestors who sometimes manifest as chickens. And, of course, kratts that turn into primitive helicopters. You could not have seen that one coming.


U.S. trailer for November

COMMENTS: November is, at least superficially, like the Estonian movie  never made1)A quick refresher for those who haven’t been following along at home: starting in the 1960s, Soviet filmmaker Parajanov became famous for a series of experimental, nationalistic movies exploring the individual history and folklore of the various Soviet satellite republics, specifically Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and  Azerbaijan. Written during a period of shaky independence rather than imperial domination, however, the tone of November is far different than Parajanov’s nationalist fantasies—it’s cynical rather than nostalgic, shot in a shadowy black and white rather than Parajanov’s eye-popping psychedelic color schemes, emphasizes the peasants’ shabbiness and superstition rather than their elegance and nobility. Although the story treats Estonian folk beliefs as if they were true—the Devil really does meet supplicants at the crossroads, and the robotic kratts are real things that argue with their masters—the Estonians are far from the heroes of the tale. While we might expect the German overlords to come off badly, they are mostly just shown as effete and ineffectual. The Estonians, meanwhile, whether because of their crushing poverty or their natural temperament, are greedy and banal, as eager to steal their own neighbor’s cow as they are the Baron’s underwear. November subverts our expectations of nationalist cinema, showing the conquered to be as venal, if not more so, as their conquerors.

Set in a 19th century that feels like the depths of the Dark Ages (aside from a few anachronisms like muskets and tobacco), November unspools like a compendium of folk legends. Beginning on November 1, All Souls Day, when the dead join their descendants for a light meal, the story takes us on a tour of peasant beliefs and traditions, with a few mini-tales recounted inside of the main plot: stories of mysterious women seeking passage across the river, of lovers mooning in a gondola. The most exotic feature of this magical realist landscape are the kratts, automatons made from whatever farm implements (or other materials) the peasants have lying around, powered by souls they must purchase from the Devil. Before the opening credits we meet a three-legged monster cobbled together out of broomsticks, metal rods, an axe, a sickle, and a skull; it’s capable of airlifting a cow, and develops a nasty temper when it’s not assigned enough work. The kratts may be the most uniquely Estonian element here, but folkloric magic is an everyday part of these character’s lives: diabolic meetings at midnight crossroads, lupine transformations on the full moon, disgustingly compiled love potions, and a bizarre scheme to trick the plague into skipping over the village all play parts in the story. Persistent pagan beliefs dominate Christian ones, leading to absurdly humorous situations. The villagers see Jesus as a powerful deity who, like the Devil, they can game for personal gain, and find non-Church sanctioned uses for consecrated hosts.

The dreamlike monochrome camera and a doom-laden musical score nurture the magical atmosphere, while the griminess of the characters’ hygiene and the baseness of their morals adds a contrasting level of realism that makes this alternate Estonia strangely believable. November rightfully won multiple awards for its cinematography. Passages of ineffable beauty arise like wispy winter blossoms growing out of the dung of the farm village. A parade of dead souls glows in formal white robes as the walk out of the black forest. The Baron’s daughter sleepwalks on the roof, her diaphanous nightgown lit by the full moon. Pasty Venetian lovers with jewels embedded in their eyebrows kiss on an overexposed boat ride. And of course, there’s the magical fascination of the lurking kratts, monstrosities cobbled together from coils, blades, leather, and bones, always clanking and creaking (are the peasants too cheap to oil their mechanical slaves?) The peasant’s lives are hard and brutish, and their society is a confederation of backstabbers and thieves, but there is beauty to be found by those who can appreciate it.

While the Estonian villagers have adapted the magical elements of Christianity to their own purposes, they haven’t internalized its ethics: they are a barbaric, mean, and backstabbing lot of louts, continually scheming and stealing from both their doting German overlords and from each other. This depraved condition may be imposed on them by the necessity of their hardscrabble existence and servitude. Young love, however, remains a beacon of pure idealism, even in this bleak world; only proving, perhaps, that some ancient superstitions remain with us even today. Set in a world at a crossroads, where the Old Ways were still hanging on by a thread against encroaching Christianity and European cultural assimilation, November dawns in a world of interstitial cultural relativism. Folk beliefs are depicted as real, but only to show how absurd, grotesque, and self-serving human mythology can become. It’s especially humorous to see how the people unthinkingly accept Christian beliefs as valid, but twist them so that they are consistent with their pre-existing mythologies and prejudices; for example, assuming that, if they scrape the gold off of a religious icon, Jesus’ “sacred gold” will return to their pockets when they spend it.

Liina and Hans’ tragically separate loves, on the other hand, transcend and cross cultural boundaries; their romantic yearnings are universal, neither Estonian nor German, pagan or Christian, but pieces of the human soul. Their loves both begin selfishly, as befits their humble origins. Liina steals family heirlooms, which she trades for rich clothing; Hans, succumbing to the lure of the foreign, is willing to become an overseer and oppress his own people just to try to curry favor with the Baron. But through the course of the story they both move away from their individual desires to find a selfless, universal love. Liina repents of her plan to kill Hans’ beloved. As for Hans, his encounter with his own spirit kratt introduces him to a concept of love beyond mere possession. A fellow villager can’t understand why the lover in the snowman’s tale would volunteer a valuable ring to his beloved, and even foolishly digs through the snow looking for the symbol of ardor which he believes the kratt must have left nearby. The villagers are cunning, able to cheat the Devil out of their souls by substituting currant juice for blood, but poor guileless Hans has less luck—because he is no longer one of them. Nor is the kratt he builds typical of its species; he crafts a poet instead of a laborer. Set apart from the peasants, he has lost their hardness and is vulnerable to tragedy. But it is only through learning the value of sacrifice that Hans and Liina’s lives can have any meaning; there is no hope in the selfishness of the village. Caught in a cycle of survivalist materialism, the peasants can’t even imagine a better life, much less an eternal one. But by absorbing the wisdom of a snowman, Hans learns of a current of humanity that flows far beyond Estonia’s borders, of other people who have thought noble thoughts unimaginable to his countrymen. Despite the loving recreation of very specific local folk legends, November is not a celebration of authentic Estonian identity; instead, it’s a celebration of learning to transcend one’s roots and find the universal truths hidden within the traditions.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…deeply strange…  deliciously, anciently offbeat…”–Jessica Kiang, Variety (contemporaneous)

“A deeply peculiar folklore-informed picture… Its stranger notes may initially put viewers in mind of early Guy Maddin or even Czech animator Jan Svankmajer, but November (adapting Andrus Kivirahk’s novel Rehepapp) proves a bit more accessible than either, ultimately boiling down to a universal story of yearning.”–John DeFore, The Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

“…fantastical, strange, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, and just the right amount of weird to give us this strange fairy tale that we feel it’s a world we might have inhabited in a past life.”–Shelagh Rowan-Legg, Screen Anarchy (contemporaneous)

OFFICIAL SITE:

November – U.S. distributor Oscilloscope’s November page, with stills and links to press notes

November – Homeless Bob Porductions – The production company’s site has more still and the kratt test footage (warning: nudity)

November ehk Rehepapp – Official Facebook page, in Estonian and English

IMDB LINK: November (2017)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Estonian gothic: inside the dark, folkloric world of Rainer Sarnet’s November – Revealing essay/interview with the film’s director by Carmen Gray of “The Calvert Journal”

‘November’ Clip, “March of the Souls” – Short promotional clip from the movie

Estonia submits “November” for the foreign language Oscar consideration – Short article about the film for an Estonian newspaper

“November” cinematography awarded in the US – An Estonian newspaper report on Mart Taniel’s American Society of Cinematographers’ Spotlight Award

November: Pagan poetry – This short article on the film from Cineuropa’s Tristan Primägi has an interesting Estonian take on its theme

FOLK BELIEF OR ANECDOTE?: ON THE GENRE LOGIC OF REHEPAPP BY ANDRUS KIVIRÄHK IN THE CONTEXT OF FOLKLORE GENRES – This analysis of three types of “discourses” in November was written about the novel, but much of it applies to the film as well

2017 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: MOVIES & MAYHEM IN MONTREAL, VOL. 2  

LIST CANDIDATE: NOVEMBER (2017) – This site’s original List Candidate review

HOME VIDEO INFO: Oscilloscope snapped up the rights to November and issued a DVD and Blu-ray in 2018 (buy). Supplements on video include the trailer; an 11-minute video essay by John DeFort examining the film’s folklore in some detail; and the three minutes of test footage of the kratt (it turns out to be an alternate version of a scene that made it into the movie). There is also “Rekt Iäbi Setumaa,” a seven-minute short documenting the lives of Estonian farmers in 1913, an extra most people won’t care about much, but one that is of historical significance. There are also a pair of trailers for other Oscilloscope features, including fellow Certified Weird title The Love Witch (2016).

At the time of this writing November is currently streaming on Amazon Prime for free, or available for purchase or rental separately for non-subscribers (November on-demand).

References   [ + ]

1. A quick refresher for those who haven’t been following along at home: starting in the 1960s, Soviet filmmaker Parajanov became famous for a series of experimental, nationalistic movies exploring the individual history and folklore of the various Soviet satellite republics, specifically Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and  Azerbaijan

4 thoughts on “356. NOVEMBER (2017)”

  1. Fine review — upon reading it, the thought re-dawned on me on what I could compare this otherwise singular movie to. While Alexei German / Ingmar Bergman fits, perhaps it could be described even more-so as a potential A. German / A. Tarkovsky project: the muck and coarseness of (effectively) Middle Ages life fused with the sublime poetry of the near-supernatural of lore and dreams.

    I recall this movie was nearly overlooked here at 366, as it was the third screening of the day (after a long, differently bleak movie) when my tired eyes first gazed up at its hazy, dark beauty; fortunately Greg took a stab at it.

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