Darkness in Tallinn



Tallinn Pimeduses / City Unplugged : Estonia/Finland 1993 : Ilkka Jarvilaturi : 99 mins

Darkness In Tallinn was one of the first films made in a former Soviet country to be shown in the west, showing the rough-and-ready atmosphere as ‘new’ countries like Estonia took their halting first independent steps. But this isn’t just a historical curio – Darkness works as an original, blackly comic heist thriller, and while Tallinn hardly lacks photogenic backdrops and historic buildings director Jarvilaturi and cinematographer Rein Kotov (the real star of the show) avoid the picture-postcard trap, cranking up the shadily sinister atmosphere in a succession of striking monochrome scenes set in bleakly exotic locations.

Their actual story isn’t especially complicated: during WWII, Estonia sent its gold reserves to a Paris bank for safe keeping. Fifty years later, the new state waits to welcome back the precious bullion – but a gang of bloodthirsty crooks have their eyes on the loot. Their audacious plan involves cutting off Tallinn’s power, enabling them to make their escape under cover of darkness. Crucial to their machinations is mild-mannered electrician Toivo (Ivo Uukkivi), whose wife Maria (Milena Gulbe) is expecting their first child. On the fateful night, Toivo swings into action – and back home Maria goes into premature labour. Paul Kolsby’s script switches back and forth between the couple, shamelessly cranking up the melodrama as the baby goes into an incubator just as the city’s electricity is ‘mysteriously’ cut off. The parallels between the infant and the ‘infant’ state of Estonia are all handled with similar clumsiness, and it’s surely going too far to tell us that (a) Maria had previously lost a child via miscarriage and (b) her own mother died during childbirth.

There’s no doubting the sincerity of the film-makers’ intentions, however, and the earnest cheapness of their juxtapositions is more than outweighed by the recurring strain of crazy humour (the wild-haired doctor delivering Maria’s child is a particular Kaurismakian delight) and by Kotov’s remarkable images: the kings of Hollywood noir photography would applaud his manipulation of light and dark, especially one Cat People-ish sequence involving an indoor swimming pool on which floats a tiny model of the Estonian National Bank. But he goes further, pulling off a unique visual coup towards the end that, like the film, satisfies as an emotional, artistic, psychological and political breakthrough. It’s a miraculous, magic moment, justifying everything that’s gone before, everything that comes after. But you’ll have to find out what it is for yourself.

16th December, 2001
(seen on video, 2-Dec-01)

by Neil Young
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