1 Sep 2019

The Riddle of Jaan Niemand (Kaur Kokk, 2018)

☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼☼ out of 10☼

The arresting two-minute-long opening shot which is masterfully counterpoised by the profoundly effective final frames depicts a mass of jagged rocks covering a beach bathed in winter sunlight representing the last beacon of hope, as we are about to learn very soon. A couple of figures approaching from a distance appear as some forlorn souls wandering with no sense of direction, their ragged clothes betraying their social class and historical setting likewise. They turn out to be Hinrik (Peeter Volkonski) and Tiidrik (Pääru Oja), a local baron's most trusted servants who discover an enigmatic man lying unconscious at the shore, and bring him to their lord's manor. After waking up, the wretch (excellently portrayed by Meelis Rämmeld) realizes that he can't remember who he is or how he got there, which renders him a stranger not only to everyone around him, but to himself as well. Many questions arise, but the circumstances for seeking answers are far from ideal, because the land - Estonia at the beginning of the 18th century - has been ravaged by war, plague and famine, with a sad bunch of survivors scraping for bare sustenance.

The first hint at the titular protagonist's identity arrives in the form of a well-equipped doctor's traveling case which belonged to someone called Jaan Niemand. Initially confused, the uninvited guest is bound to accept the 'man of medicine' role, especially after fluently reading and instantly recognizing the Latin names for muscles in a book provided by his blue-blooded host (Andres Lepik). For the two of them, this hypothesis works as a blessed convenience, given that the aged baron's only child has been in a near-catatonic state of shock for a while, with no medic around to treat him. However, both Jaan's presence and scientific knowledge happen to be a curse in the eyes of superstitious villagers whose anxiety and despair keep growing rapidly... And the way Kaur Kokk - a young Estonian filmmaker of lavish talent and skill - weaves all these elements into a puzzling, deliberately paced story is just astounding.

Possessing great confidence and firm directorial grasp which gives him full creative control over every single aspect, he leaves the impression of an experienced / old-school film veteran who effortlessly brings his atrabilious vision to life. From the entire cast, he elicits magnetic performances that primarily rely on actors' physiognomy and body language due to the sparseness of dialogue, and long periods of brooding silence. The latter becomes a powerful tool in establishing a dense, deeply immersive atmosphere of pre-apocalyptic darkness and hopelessness amplified by claustrophobic interiors and depressing winter scenery of leaden skies, bare trees and muddy grounds. Gorgeously captured by the brilliant DoP Mart Taniel (The Temptation of St. TonyNovember), the imagery of physical and spiritual dreariness finds its faithful sonic counterpart in the ominously humming score by Ülo Krigul who also worked on Veiko Õunpuu's fascinating neo-surrealistic drama The Temptation of St. Tony.

A cinematic equivalent of some slow-tempo gothic-doom metal album (let's say, A Dream of Poe's An Infinity Emerged), Kokk's debut feature may not be 'a grandiose costume drama', but it sure is a magnificent 'kammerspiel mystery', to borrow the phrases employed in the official synopsis. Part feverish journey of self-discovery and part sullen tone poem, The Riddle of Jaan Niemand (originally Põrgu Jaan, lit. Jaan from Hell) is the work of an author more than worth keeping an eye on.

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