Martti Helde’s In the Crosswind is a powerful look at the harrowing events of the Russian Holocaust through the eyes of an Estonian woman who is exiled to Siberia with her young daughter. Its emotional potency and historical accuracy, though, only take it so far. Told mostly through the structural conceit of frozen moments in time, with actors frozen in their places as the camera moves around them, the filmmakers are able to craft an impressive physical re-enactment of reality. Unfortunately, as the film goes on, tableau after tableau, the film feels like merely a formal exercise, or a video-based museum exhibition, rather than an engaging piece of cinema.
The press notes of the film say as much, promoting the extensive preparation time for each of the thirteen sequences in the film (months) relative to shooting time (one day each). Whilst it is an achievement in organisation, and at times a clever blurring of temporal boundaries, the focus of the film seems more on its shooting method than its content. That content is arresting on its own, voiceover narration drawn from the letters of Erna Tamm (played by Laura Peterson) to her husband (played by Tarmo Song) after they are separated in the Stalinist purge of the Baltic countries. The film spans years, starting with their relatively idyllic day-to-day life before the purge and bookended with a bittersweet return to Estonia. The first tableau is one of the strongest, which opens on a clothesline in the family’s backward, panning slowly across to reveal the family being herded into a truck at gunpoint; it’s a vivid depiction of helplessness and confusion accentuated by the camera’s end point – in the truck with the family. There’s no voiceover for this first sequence either, only the stirring musical score by Pärt Uusberg.
As becomes apparent, though, the stylistic approach taken by the filmmakers is drawn from the letters themselves. At one point, Erna says that life “is like a dull black and white photograph” and at another, that during these years “time stands still”. It’s indicative of a desire to fully embody the emotional resonance of the letters whilst only providing a literal and shallow interpretation. Though the film commits to an eventually tiresome string of long takes, cinematographer Erik Pollumaa does capture some truly stunning images within them. There’s a shot of a snow covered forest, tree trunks only a light grey against a sea of white, which then transitions into springtime greenery, that is more visually impactful than so many of the narratively driven long-take scenes.
Some of the narrative issues are in scope, as the letters are intimate and highly personalised, yet so often Erna is reduced to being in just one snippet of the overall scenes, the camera wanting to re-create space moreso than feeling or perspective. This expansive approach naturally requires a lot of extras, which has the unfortunate yet unavoidable issue of a shattering of the illusion of stillness. Because the frozen moments can’t be executed perfectly, each time an actor blinks or we see their breath in the cold, the construction of the visual device is placed at the forefront of the film. Again, though not entirely undermining the visual approach, it does convey just how reliant the film is on these frozen long-takes rather than specific engagement with the letters being read out.
The ambition of Helde and Pollumaa in stitching together this tableaux is truly admirable, and there are points of fairly stunning convergence of letters being read out and the long takes – one involving a work camp and a firing squad in particular plays with time and dramatic irony in a compelling manner – yet the almost relentless adherence to this formal device dims the potency of the film’s narrative, leaving In The Crosswind an occasionally powerful exercise in staging and cinematography rather than a vivid realisation of a harrowing perspective in history.