Tallinn pimeduses (City Unplugged aka Darkness in Tallinn). 1993. Estonia/Finland/Sweden/USA. Directed by Ilkka Järvi-Laturi. Screenplay by Paul Kolsby. With Ivo Uukkivi, Milena Gulbe, Monika Mäger. In Estonian; English subtitles. 35mm. 99 min.
When Estonia declares freedom from the Soviet Union, a gang of Russian criminals decide to steal the national treasury’s holdings - approximately $900 million in gold bullion, locked away in a Paris bank for safekeeping ever since the outbreak of World War II. Anticipating its transfer to the newly independent country’s capital of Tallinn, the thieves decide to shut down the city’s power grid, but in order to carry out their mission they need the help of Toivo (Ivo Uukkivi), a bumbling power plant employee whose wife is due to go into labor any minute.
City Unplugged was born of a friendship between Järvi-Laturi (who had relocated from Helsinki to New York following the success of his first feature) and screenwriter Paul Kolsby, at NYU’s Creative Writing graduate program. Their hustle to make “Estonia’s first independent film” on location resulted in a surreal and often-chaotic production, complete with dubious financiers, unfakeable helicopter shots and the use of a real, just-shuttered power plant. What results is a nailbiting heist thriller, shot on discount post-Soviet film stock in the kind of black and white monochrome (courtesy director of photography Rein Kotov) that would have made noir cinematographer John Alton proud.
Ilkka Järvi-Laturi’s masterpiece, City Unplugged ruminates with bitter sarcasm on the carving up of national borders during wartime; indeed the Russian mobsters’ ruthless, winner-take-all approach anticipates the oligarchies and petrocracies of the post-Soviet Eastern Bloc with disturbing acuity. But it’s also a disarming black comedy, peopled with real Estonians (often cast from the bars and theaters of Tallinn); the main heavy is a mobster with one long, never-ending cigarette rolled behind his ear, played by Tõnu Kark (described by Jarvi-Laturi as the Jack Nicholson of Estonia.) In a promotional interview, the director said his intention was to make City Unplugged the ultimate date movie, with “elements suspenseful enough that your date will cling to you when the bullets are flying… And some tenderness towards the end.”