All the Nordic countries had unique experiences in the Second World War. Sweden was neutral; Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis; Iceland, rarely discussed, was occupied by the Allies. But Finland’s war was the most complex, abandoned by the Allies, left to fight alone against the Soviet Union, and entering a controversial pact with Germany, not as allies but as “co-belligerents” who happened to fight the same enemy. It was not the first time that Germany had proved to be Finland’s best friend in a time of need. The Finns ultimately turned against them in the little-discussed Lapland War, which destroyed every building north of Rovaniemi, and led to the bitter departure of some 700 Finnish women who refused to desert their German husbands.
Katja Kettu’s 2011 novel The Midwife (Kätilö) went out under that title in most of the 19 languages in which it was published, but seems to have been renamed Wildeye in attempts to flog it to the German- and English-speaking markets. Oddly, English seems to be one of the few major languages it hasn’t been translated into – perhaps there was some resistance among publishers to a romance that featured a Nazi male lead.
Antti Jokinen’s 2015 film version is now available to own – I could not face it raw in the cinema, but correctly guessed that it would have English subtitles on DVD. It is set in a Finland that no longer exists: that eastern arm stretching up to Petsamo and the Arctic coast, lopped off during World War Two and lost to Russia. Based on the depiction here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Finns were well rid of it – broad strokes swiftly delineate it as a grimy, miserable place populated with cackling, brown-toothed witches, racists, and thugs. Helena (the award-winning Krista Kosonen) is the closest thing that the locals have to a paramedic, forced to oversee difficult, bloody births in remote cottages. The film begins with one such event, swiftly followed by the locals’ stoic, heartless decision to drown the unfortunate infant in a swamp.
Helena is sick of it, too, and sees her chance to escape when she meets the steely blue-eyed gaze of Johann (Lauri Tilkanen), a half-Finnish German officer who has been posted to the nearby concentration camp of Titovka. At no point does the film claim to be a true story, although media coverage at the time of the novel’s publication suggests that it is partly based on the life of a real person – Kettu’s own grandmother. This opens up a whole can of worms by even suggesting that there were Nazi concentration camps on “Finnish” territory, where human experimentation (“Operation Cowshed”) was carried out on Russian prisoners and other undesirables. You would think someone would have brought this up before, if it were true!
Soon the sole surviving employee with any medical training, Helena finds herself complicit in the shaving of prisoners’ heads and the administering of “medicines” that turn out to be lethal viruses. This is explosive material to introduce into modern times. The extent of Finland’s cooperation or collaboration with the Nazi regime has been a matter of much reconsideration in recent years, most notably in the anthology Finland’s Holocaust: Silences of History, which challenges the nation’s usual narrative of firm resistance. In a 2011 interview in Kuvalehti, Kettu noted that modern historiography was reluctant to admit that one’s grandfather or uncle might have been a killer or a rapist. Her take on this, however, is gendered and universal, that war makes killers and rapists of us all. Helena is certainly an inadvertent stooge at Titovka, administering poison to doomed prisoners, and posing unhappily with two SS officers for the Third Reich newsletter. Even most of the Nazis are unhappy about their duties, but get on with it anyway in a jobsworth, everyday evil that is somehow more chilling than the open malevolence of the camp commandant Gödel (Tommi Korpela, channelling Ralph Fiennes).
This is no Schindler’s List – Helena ultimately only manages to help herself and a single prisoner escape, abandoning the rest of the camp to their fate. But that is at least part of Kettu’s point, that her heroine is almost entirely powerless, stripped of agency, left with little to live for but her own survival, and little to hope for but her unlikely prince charming.
Jokinen’s camera-work does a beautiful job of capturing a lost Finland on the edge of Norway, one with actual mountains. As with Jalmari Helander’s Big Game, this is achieved by filming somewhere that isn’t actually Finland – in this case Lithuania, which is not only 30% cheaper for film productions, but cheaper to reach by plane than the real Lapland. He also artfully captures the desperately awful conditions of Helena’s daily life, so that her decision to move to a concentration camp is indeed regarded as a step up. When it comes to the war itself, the film allots its €8 million budget superbly in capturing a worm’s-eye view of the Lapland War. In one notable scene, Helena is caught in the middle of an aerial bombardment, literally unable to turn in any direction for fear of death, spun in circles by a series of explosions like a human pinball.
The film evokes elements of the novel’s cut-up format – each of its original six sections began with a flash forward of a starving Helena in the remote Dead Man’s Cabin, on the run from the war and waiting for Johann to show up at their agreed meeting point. Only then it would it jump back to her horrible life in 1940s Lapland, the brief flurry of joy at her romance with her dashing officer, and the collapse into hell of Operation Cowshed and the Lapland War.
Elements of it inadvertently recall earlier Finnish war films – there has in fact, been a degree of carping from online pundits that all Finnish war films are the same, and seemingly strive to fulfil an annual quota of grim sisu and pyrotechnics. This is a most unfair comment to level here, particularly in the case of Wildeye, which is not even the first film to give a Finnish woman’s perspective on WW2, but certainly does so in an original, if melancholy, manner. I will note, however, that those playing Finnish War Film Bingo will have plenty to keep them occupied nevertheless, including a gratuitous oral sex scene ripped off from Rukajärventie and three people in a shed recalling Käki (The Cuckoo). This isn’t even the first Nazi-Finnish romance movie either – the so-bad-it’s-good Sensuela managed to beat it by decades, and that was a remake.
It also appears to have been a stage play.
From what I can glean from author interviews, Kettu never claimed that the Titovka concentration camp was a real place: her inspiration came from her grandmother’s letters about the war itself, the experience of stumbling across an abandoned hut on the Norwegian coast, and her childhood memories of playing in the ruins of a German prison camp near Rovaniemi. Instead, her interest was in telling the story of the human cost and effect of 200,000 German soldiers posted to Lapland, and their subsequent removal with extreme prejudice. The Lapland War is an embarrassment to the Finns, partly because it was one of those conflicts that effectively destroyed the place over which it was fought, displacing 168,000 residents, but also because it was a terrible betrayal of people who had been their friends.
The Titovka concentration camp is hence a handy device to confront the characters directly with the nature of Nazi evil, although it feels to me that this undermines one of the author’s intended points, that men like Johann were not goose-stepping fascists, but human beings caught up in a conflict not of their own making.
However, trawling through the Finnish-language web, I am surprised that nobody in Finland called the story out on its depiction of war crimes, which (commenters please correct me if I am wrong) seemed to have been invented by the author for dramatic effect, and yet are repeated in the film with an air of realism. Experience during the press junkets for my Mannerheim book taught me that many young Finns get far too much of their historical knowledge from movies and the internet, and are apt to accept any and all literary devices as representations of real events.
This is true all the world over, of course, and it is not the fault of Kettu or Jokinen that their book and film might be misinterpreted as more factual than they warrant. That would, perhaps, be something best addressed in DVD extras, but the version I bought in Finland offers nothing but a trailer, a teaser, and a picture gallery. For a subject that risks becoming so controversial, and so open to misinterpretation, this is a disappointment.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland (Available from Amazon in the US/UK).