A Stranger Came to the Manor (1938)

Someone has been shot on the Jönsson farm, and the farmer’s wife Astrid (Kaisu Leppanen) sits in a court-room, watching the proceedings with hollow eyes. A police officer enters an old rifle and a hatchet as exhibits in what appears to be a murder case, and a series of participants are sworn in…

In flashback, Jonni (Eino Kaipainen) arrives at the Jönsson farm in search of work. He’s plainly desperate, as no sane person would want to spend more than ten minutes in the company of Astrid’s shouty, boozing husband Alfred (Kaarlo Angerkoski), a self-styled engineer who thinks that farm work is beneath him. Inevitably, Astrid seeks comfort in Jonni’s arms, and drama ensues.

Annoyed with some of the critical reaction he was getting for his urban tales and historical novels, the author Mika Waltari (see The Unruly Generation) decided to pull a fast one in 1937 by submitting this rural melodrama, Vieras mies tuli taloon, to a writing competition under a false name. His usual haters largely ignored it, although there were plenty of complaints about its moral turpitude, and a film version was swiftly rushed into production the following year, drawing both on the original and on Waltari’s sequel Jälkinäytös (Posthumous, 1938), a novella written in part to assuage critics who were annoyed at the unjust ending.

If it wasn’t shot on a staggered schedule on several occasions, then it makes masterful use of locations to imply that its outdoor scenes cover a farming year from the late days of winter to the collection of the harvest in the autumn. But the entire production seems to struggle with the degree of social realism it wants. Angerkoski is grimy and clammy-faced as befits his character, but Kaipainen and Leppanen both exhibit their usual movie-star good looks, all chiselled features (for him) and radiant skin (for her), which might be said to create a degree of audience sympathy — they look like a pair of romantic leads, so of course they are going to get off with one another.

Meanwhile, a palpable lack of incidental music in the early scenes plays up the loneliness and isolation of the remote farmhouse, only for the orchestra to suddenly strike up after twenty minutes, as if they were caught outside having a fag and are tardily grabbing their instruments. In what could have easily been a kitchen-sink playlet that never left the claustrophobic farmhouse, Waltari’s own adaptation of his stage script spends a conspicuous amount of time outside, chronicling the bright sun and rainy days of forest life. One scene brings a dose of unintentional humour, as the two would-be lovers try to have a romantic picnic in a birch grove, and Astrid visibly struggles to break a hard Finnish rye loaf in half. Her character yearns, constantly to make the best of the situations she finds herself in, pointedly noting when it is a nice day, bullishly insisting on a swim in a bracing lake, and sprucing up her horse with a sprig of flowers. But as the film progresses, these incidents take on an anxious tone, revealing that Astrid’s constant looks on the bright side of life are the symptoms of a woman at the end of her tether.

A stand-out character, largely through not standing out at all, is Aku Korhonen as Hermanni the forester, his usual loquacity dialled down to almost zero, and his features hidden so completely behind a bushy beard that I didn’t recognise him, even though he is a major presence in the whole film. In one, rare, comic scene, he slaps Angerkoski with a fish, so there’s that to look forward to.

Drinking and drunkenness is a recurring obsession in Finnish films of the period, in part because alcohol genuinely was a social problem, but also because of the fascination brought about by a more than a decade of Prohibition, which only ended in 1932, and hence remained a subject of interest years later, not only for authors but for the films that tag along behind their books like a delayed sonic boom. Whispered in the background as well is the matter of women’s rights, particularly after Jonni pulls a drunken Alfred away from an incident of attempted spousal rape.

Despite beginning after the events have happened, the film waits until the last ten minutes to reveal exactly what transpired — is it a double murder? Was it self-defence? Did anyone walk away to turn up as a last-minute witness for the defence…. or the prosecution? Of course they did!

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

1 thought on “A Stranger Came to the Manor (1938)

  1. Pingback: Master Cheng (2019) | The Official Schoolgirl Milky Crisis Blog

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