In an unnamed coastal town, college lecturer Aare (Joel Rinne) is sweet on haberdashery assistant Emmi (Kaisu Leppänen), walking the street hand-in-hand, and taking bracing hikes in the woods. You might be forgiven for thinking that you had already walked in on a happy ending, but the townsfolk do not agree. Already in the opening scene, a passer-by scowls at the backs of the loving couple. Aare’s boss at the college hems and haws about “suitable companions”, and the women at a swish dinner party are aggressively flirtatious with a man who is supposedly spoken for, as if they regard him as their rightful property and his paramour as a risible diversion.
Aare has broken the rules, falling in love with a woman on the other side of the class divide, although as with the earlier The House at Roinila (1935), the nuances in behaviour and language are difficult for a foreigner to spot. Much of the storytelling is conveyed by the sets, contrasting the well-appointed society lounges of Aare’s circle with the grim, rooming-house clutter of the bedsit Emmi shares with her time-worn family, including brother Erkki (Eino Kaipianen).
The script for Syllisiäkö? is based on a 1933 play by Toivo Pekkanen, written and directed for the screen by former actor Jorma Nortimo, who makes a notable effort to push into the action, not only with the commonplace and distracting close-ups of his fellow Finnish directors, but with more intimate, over-the-shoulder angles, rather than a locked-off camera recording a play like so many Finnish films of the preceding decade. Although often defeated by the distractingly inexact jiggles of his focus-puller, Nortimo tries for literal kitchen-sink drama, contrasting Erkki scrubbing his face at a basin with Aare relaxing in an honest-to-goodness bath – more of a rarity in Finnish homes, which even today are more likely to use the same household space for a sauna.
The storyline’s 1933 origins are betrayed in part by some odd staging in a bar that suggests that Pekkanen’s original made more of flaunting the rules during Prohibition, although much of the scandal is diminished in a film version made six years after booze was legalised in Finland. In fact, since a fight at a drunken dance is what precipitates Aare’s fall from grace, we might argue that the entire drama somewhat misfires when restaged in an era when being drunk is no longer a crime. The preoccupations of the previous decade are also suggested when, 25 minutes into the film, Emmi suddenly starts singing to her mirror about her predicament, as if this were supposed to be a musical but someone had lost the memo until that moment. Kaarlo Kartio, as usual, criminally underused, turns up in a brief cameo as a shifty sailor selling stolen goods, another allusion that seems more suited to post-war 1920s austerity than the time in which the film is purportedly set.
“He’s a young man, and she’s a nice girl,” shrugs a gentleman at the ball-room, as if to ask if his dining companions if it’s really any of their business. In this case, it’s the womenfolk who tut and scowl about Emmi, although soon after, Emmi is harassed by men who presume she’s a part-time hooker. Putting a brave face on the trouble, she drags Aare away from the waltz to a working-class knees-up, only for the locals to similarly hiss behind their hands about her inappropriate choices.
The Culprits? is a departure from the Suomen Filmiteollisuus company’s contemporary run of a light-hearted comedies, pushing instead for an element of social realism and chin-stroking speculation. Its question mark is an integral part of the title and the poster design, challenging the audience to consider who is truly to blame for the drama that unfolds. Is it the snooty Finnish middle class, themselves unlikely to be more than a generation off the farms, or the sneering shop-girl frenemies who imply that Emmi has ideas above her station? Or is it the lovers themselves, pursuing a doomed romance despite “obvious” warning signs? Pekkanen’s original theatre script was called Siblings, suggesting a focus more on Emmi’s pugnacious brother Erkki (Eino Karpanen), whose confrontation with Aare at a dance makes it into the local newspaper, and takes the scandal public.
Meanwhile, there are a couple of noteworthy names among the faceless students in Aare’s class – a first appearance on camera for future film star Hannes Häyrinen, and a walk-on for Unto Kumpulainen, then a teenage camera assistant, but destined to become a cinematographer himself in years to come.
The Culprits? is a refreshing change from the norm in the chronology of Finnish cinema. Nortimo’s pursuit of realism is also a welcome innovation, not merely in his camerawork but in the presentation of a conflict that is relatively mundane and hence easy to identify with. That is, at least, until the final 20 minutes, when everybody starts to act as if another forgotten memo has been retrieved, telling them that everything is the end of the world, and nothing will ever be the same again, and the likelihood swiftly escalates that someone is going to get stabbed.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.