Imagine if you will a rotating wheel formed of wood and axes with a steam-breathing cow skull filling its center. In stuttering animation, this contraption rolls across a hill to a shed where a cow is chained. The contraption uses its ax-leg-thing to break down the door, then drags the cow from the shed. Outside, the cow fights and leaps to no avail, and the contraption takes off, spinning like a helicopter into the air. It carries the cow over acres of countryside before crashing into a tree and dropping the cow outside the doorstep of one very happy villager. All of this is scored by doom metal guitar rifts.
This is the beginning of a special movie.
Director: Rainer Sarnet
Release Date: February 23, 2018
These contraptions, known as kratts, are the central symbol of the unraveled and crude mysticism at the core of November. In this ramshackle Estonian village fit for any Grimm fairytale, people scrape meager existences, struggling to survive no matter the means or sacrifice. These ambling kratts are built simply to steal and return to their masters with any and all ill-gotten goods. Watching them stutter to move as they hitch and creak, inspecting their cobbled designs of scrap metal, tools, and animal parts is a joy. A great deal of imagination is at display in this melting pot of folklore, religion, politics, and romance.
Every action of this village is steeped in superstition. Villagers will save even their communion wafers to use as bullets, since beasts always run to Jesus and will be helpless to avoid being shot. A woman scrapes the gold from a holy altar, since the gold is sacred, and Jesus will make sure it returns to her pockets after she spends it. Others grind a man’s hair to make him stupid or pull their pants over their heads and lie on the ground, so the plague will think they have two asses and be unable to infect them through the mouth. Every decision runs with a warped logic that’s fascinating to unravel, sometimes in dark humor and other times with the magical beauty of a fairytale. This logic fastens the world together and keeps November from feeling weird for the sake weird.
At its core, November is a tragic romance. In the soulless setting of the film love is the only fleeting pleasure anyone can expect. Liina (Rea Lest), a young woman contracted by her father to marry a disgusting man twice her age, is in love with a young man named Hans (Jorgen Liik). He, however, is in love with a German baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis) who lives in a castle and is reviled by the rest of the village. The baroness doesn’t know who Hans is and, outside of their first meeting, only looks to the village when she sleepwalks to the roof of her castle at night. Liina becomes a wolf to track Hans and schemes with a witch to turn his mind away from the baroness, while Hans cuts deals with the castle staff to visit the baroness’s bedroom as she sleeps and talks with his snowman-shaped kratt about what it means to love. Despite the unhinged world, the story is never a burden to follow, and the characters are all relatable for their struggles and desires. This human core is what elevates the movie into an engrossing experience, even for those who may not be accustomed to movies where the ghosts of the dead become giant chickens.
The black-and-white photography and woodland setting combine with the costuming and performances to create the antique feeling of films like Haxan or Vampyr. The high contrast exposes every crack and crag in the skin, making many of the villagers and some of the nobility look ghoulish, while at the same time it raises the whites of young porcelain skin like the classic beauty of early film. Even watching snow melt is moody and emotional in November. So many shots mix the beautiful with the vulgar, the crude with the magical. Sarnet has found an impressive way to display ugliness your eyes never want to leave.
At just under two hours, a moment is never dragged too long. No situation fails to develop in an interesting way. No lines fall flat. No ideas undermine the fever dream logic. The camera never fails to show images worth watching, and the story never fails to build attachments to its characters. It’s a movie that could easily never end, because it barely seems to scratch the surface of its damaged community and its imaginative world by the time the credits roll. And I mean that in the best possible way.
If there’s a part of you that has even a passing interest in weird European art films, this is the absolute one you ought to see.