Hella W (2011)

In 1942, Soviet agent Kerttu Nuorteva (Maria Heiskanen) parachutes into Finland on a secret mission. Injured from a bad landing, she rings the doorbell of a mansion, and presents herself to the lady of the house looking for work as a maid. When they are alone, she reveals her true identity, and announces that she is looking for The Poet – the codename of a Soviet spy, the wealthy industrialist and author Hella Wuolijoki (Tina Weckström). Yes, says the lady of the house, that’s me.

Here, says the spy, I’ve brought you 100 grand spending money…

Wow, what a way to begin a film. Except that’s not how Hella W (2011) begins at all. It takes half a laborious hour to get to that scene, the real-life scandal that would ultimately land Hella Wuolijoki in prison, just missing the death sentence for treason by a single vote on a judicial appeal.

“What went wrong?” asked Tuomas Riskala in Iltalehti: “The editing is choppy and the narrative is disconcertingly fragmentary. Overdramatic music blows non-stop in the background. And why is a completely useless narrator’s voice glued on top? It is as if there is not enough trust placed in the story itself and its subject matter.”

Speaking as an author myself, particularly in the history field, even non-fiction works require a story – an elevator pitch, a grandstanding appeal to the cheap seats like the very best of book-jacket blurbs. I can spend years walking around a subject, examining it from different angles trying to work out where to start, where the story is. And so, I feel a certain degree of sympathy for veteran screenwriter Outi Nyytäjä, who not only seems to visibly struggle with finding a feature-length plot, but leaves all her abortive attempts to start on-screen until it feels like we are watching the first pages of a dozen discarded drafts.

In 1943, disgraced Finnish industrialist Hella Wuolijoki is sentenced to life in prison after a captured Soviet spy accuses her of two decades of subterfuge and espionage. She is stuck in a cramped cell with a chirpy, possibly-lesbian black-marketeer, and the two unlikely cellmates slowly become friends. Hella works on her appeal, and movingly pleads with a court martial that she only intrigued with the Russians to save Finland from a disastrous pact with Nazi Germany. When the Finns’ own government turns on the Nazis in 1944, Hella is suddenly released from prison.

No? Okay, how about…

In 1929, the onset of a global recession financially cripples the Finnish industrialist Hella Wuolijoki. Out of desperation, she turns to authorship, cranking out novels and plays under a variety of pseudonyms – she is unable to publish under her real name, because she is a known socialist in a country still smarting from its civil war. The Women of Niskavuori is performed in a left-wing theatre so impoverished that Hella has to lend the production her own furniture to use onstage. But the play is a rip-roaring success, and soon it, along with her later Juurakon Hulda, Forward to Life, and Green Gold are being adapted for the Finnish cinema…

No? Okay, how about…

1904. Estonian student Ella Murrik comes to Helsinki with little more than a suitcase, where she witnesses the upheavals of Russia’s defeat in the war with Japan, and marries a Mr Wuolijoki, a close friend of Lenin. Despite being a committed Marxist, she never joins the Communist party, being advised that she is of better use to the Bolsheviks as a wealthy aristocrat. Her house becomes a salon for left-wing thinkers, and an underground escape route for revolutionaries and spies…

Are you not entertained? All righty, then…

1944. Embittered landholder Vappu Tuomioja (Matleena Kuusniemi) struggles to keep the family estate functioning while all the men are off at war. She confronts her mother, Hella, who is in prison convicted of treason, over a life spent supposedly committed to socialism, whereas all Vappu can see is a soulless woman repeatedly, and vainly, trying to buy love with hard cash.

1945. Okay, in a tense Cold-War Helsinki, pardoned spy Hella Wuolijoki turns out to be the ideal choice to run Finland’s national broadcaster. Hijinks ensue as she tries to heal the wounds of the war and keep her former Soviet allies from invading again…

1943. An unnamed Finnish intelligence officer (Hannu-Pekka Björkman), has 24 hours to get a confession out of Hella Wuolijoki, a famous author whom he believes to be a Soviet spy. Unfortunately, he has yet to apprehend her contact, Kerttu Nuorteva, and must bluff his way through their interviews…

Amazingly, I could go on, and on, but that’s the problem with Hella W, a film directed by Juha Wuolijoki, a relative of its subject, and possibly too invested in telling everything. Nor was he the first to grapple with her amazing life; her grandson Erkki Tuomioja, wrote a joint biography of both Hella and her equally story-packed sister, under the title A Delicate Shade of Pink: The Lives of Hella Wuolijoki and Salme Dutt in the Service of Revolution, not long before he became Finland’s Foreign Minister. No, you really couldn’t make this up.

Hella Wuolijoki’s name has shown up several times in this blog of Finnish film history, and will show up several times again, since her Women of Niskavuori (performed in England as Women of Property – HG Wells went to the opening night, you know) would spawn several sequels, the most recent of which was a TV series in 1987. But sadly this bio-pic does not truly engage enough with any of the dozen possible angles that might have made it compelling. I was fascinated, for example, at the idea of a woman turning to writing to escape poverty, and the possibility that her theatrical success was buoyed up by aristocratic or revolutionary connections. And I was drawn to notes of ambiguity already present in the film, to the question of how Marxist Hella was when she was a sawmill magnate defaulting on her invoices, and how Marxist she was when a spy rang her doorbell and she essentially threw her out. And I was equally intrigued by the kind of shenanigans that must have gone on when she was appointed, presumably, as a Stalin-approved stooge to run Finnish media, so soon after being sprung from jail.

Instead, Juha Wuolijoki’s film admirably stretches its €1.7 million to the limit with lavish manor settings and country piles like some Finnish Downton Abbey, smoke-filled rooms and coldly-lit prisons, making the very best of the “found” architecture that still endures in modern-day Helsinki. One lovely scene, as Wuolijoki is arrested with a manuscript of one her plays, covered in invisible ink, is shot in Helsinki’s train station, right in front of where the Burger King is now. But it ends up feeling like a bunch of scenes from a dozen different films, leaving little space for any single one of them to shine.

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

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