The Man From Sysmä (1938)

Sysmäläinen begins with a playful prologue in which a young Arvid (Kalevi Koski, who would grow up to be Finland’s top dentist) is mercilessly taunted by a young Brita (Tuulikki Schreck) about their betrothal. The pair are married when still children, before a 15-year-time jump to Turku in the mid-17th century, where a grown-up Arvid (Olavi Reimas) is a swashbuckling nobleman, obviously modelled on the same year’s Errol Flynn Robin Hood. He’s barely finished his lunch before he is in a spirited sword-fight with some German guy, while a serving girl swoons with glee. There’s lots of hearty quaffing and tankard clashing, while we wait, twiddling our thumbs a little, for the story to begin. It does when Brita (Sirkka Sari) rides by, and Arvid fails to realise that she is his wife.

Valentin Vaala’s camera absolutely loves Sirkka Sari, last seen in The Women of Niskavuori, who first appears with a fantastic cavalier hat, riding a horse in a manner that is snooty, contemptuous and oddly alluring. Arvid, who doesn’t recognise her, falls for her hard, to the extent that he sends a message to the child-bride he hasn’t seen for years, telling her he wants an annulment because he loves another. Oh, the irony! So Brita disguises herself as a boy and becomes his servant.

So she wins his heart when she’s in a dress, but is Just Some Guy when she puts some trousers on. Some further suspension of disbelief is required over the matter of the dialogue, since one might reasonably expect the ruling class in 17th century Turku to all speak Swedish. Jalmari Finne’s original 1910 novel seems somewhat out of its time, a Walter-Scott frippery when war was just an excuse to dress up in high boots and swirly cloaks, while Arvid’s predicament could have been oh-so-easily avoided form the outset by Brita simply telling him her fecking name. The pina-colada fancy of a jaded old idiot, spurning his wife only to fall in love with her when he thinks she is someone else, was already pretty old. But it is the shadow of Errol Flynn that falls most obviously over this film, in everything from Arvid’s moustache to his habit of wandering around the woods looking for a fight.

As Johanna the perky serving girl, Kerttu Salmi steals all her scenes with a constant patter of doormat philosophy about how real men “start with scolding and end with love.” She has already decided that Arvid will be hers, and throws herself at him with entertaining abandon. Meanwhile, Sirkka Sari is desperately unconvincing as a boy called Adolf, despite looking awesome in her musketeer get-up. Naturally, she bests Arvid with a rapier, but that’s just Finnish girls all over. Because it wasn’t surreal enough already, “Adolf” agrees to dress as a woman in order to persuade Johanna to leave the manor and stop pestering Arvid.

I’m disappointed that the Finns haven’t revisited this story in some sort of post-modern spoof. They could call it A Girl Called Adolf, and relentlessly take the piss out of all the cross-dressing nonsense, which is surely only a thing in drama because it was convenient for Elizabethan playwrights to get their female impersonators back out of drag. In the woke 21st century, the transvestite angle takes on a new prospect, since Brita runs rings around Arvid from the outset, and is plainly the one who wears the breeches in that relationship, now and forever.

This DVD came with English and Swedish subtitles.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

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