Boss-eyed wantwit Adalbert (Kaarlo Kartio) inherits nine thousand marks from his uncle. Deciding, for reasons unclear, that he really wants to open a milk shop, he finds a job at the swish Helsinki department store Sampo, in order to learn about sales. There, he is swiftly dragged into the schemes of the vivacious shop-girl Irja (Ester Toivonen), who persuades him to become the store’s in-house scapegoat. Whenever a customer has a complaint, Adalbert publicly takes the blame, thereby saving the more established staff from censure.
Adalbert soon tires of his role, but glumly agrees to work out two weeks’ mandatory notice, during which time Irja comes to realise the error of her ways, and that her suitor Mr Vaara (Jaakko Korhonen) is really the owner of the company, observing his wayward staff undercover.
Based on a 1930 stage play of the same name by Yrjö Soini (a.k.a. Agapetus), director Erkki Karu’s film displays an uncharacteristically ham-fisted grasp of the cinematic medium, alternating between locked-off shots of entire scenes from the stage version, occasionally invaded by sudden, poorly integrated close-ups. The contemporary Ilta Sanomat review pointedly noted its failure to utilise the potential of the movie camera. This looks and feels like what it is – an unimaginative restaging of the play, occasionally enlivened by location footage.However, Syntipukki (Scapegoat) is notable for its location shots, not only of what was then Heikinkadu in central Helsinki (thirteen years before the street was renamed Mannerheimintie), but also of the famous Stockmann department store, which itself was only completed in 1930, and doubles for the fictional Sampo. There are some touching moments of local colour, particularly a sequence of an army of cleaners, bashful before the camera, as they arrive to prepare the store for its morning opening, and a bunch of naturalistically irritating schoolboys in the street, who have plainly ignored the director’s exhortations to neither look at the camera nor get in the actors’ way. In a remarkably confident decision on product placement, Stockmann embraced the idea of a film that showcased its flagship store, seemingly shrugging off the depiction of the staff within as work-shy and corrupt. Compare this to the more modern sensibilities of the Reebok corporation, which sued TriStar Pictures for $10 million in 1996 after the Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire took money for product placement and then had its cast repeatedly shout “Fuck Reebok!” on camera.
No such worries appear to have bothered Stockmann, which is presented as a lavish paradise of consumption, complete with sequences of a catwalk model show where Adalbert is pursued by a female contortionist, and a café performance by the singer Mary Hannikainen. The cobbled streets outside have altered remarkably little; the fixtures within are similarly unchanged, except the famous Stockmann Clock, which was not installed until 1965. Considering the fetish that every guidebook and language textbook has for wittering about this supposedly iconic meeting spot, it is strange indeed to see shots of the outside of the store that do not include it. As the good-hearted innocent Adalbert, Kaarlo Kartio is a holy fool, his nose pressed literally against the glass of the shop windows in a scene that both allegorises his outsider status and milks it for comedy value. He represents the vast majority of Helsinki urbanites, only recently arrived from a “countryside” that suddenly finds itself on the outskirts of a modern city, baffled by the customs and mores of the metropolis, even though many of the people around him are likely to be only a generation or less removed from similar rural backgrounds.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.