The Heir of Tottisalmi (1940)

Baron von Sumers (Paavo Jännes) is worried about his legacy. His grandson Klaus (Kalevi Koski) is displaying oddly violent and aggressive tendencies, and seems to have little sense of his obligation to be kind to his underlings, staff and servants. Fretting that Klaus needs to be taught about noblesse oblige before it is too late, the Baron tries to arrange for him to visit a local pastor’s family, where Klaus predictably acts like an entitled dick, and fights with the pastor’s boy Yrjö (Raino Hämälainen). But Yrjö isn’t the pastor’s son, he is the pastor’s ward, whose past increasingly obsesses the Baron.

Klaus is the child of the Baron’s daughter. But the Baron had a son, who was cast out and disowned twenty years earlier over a misunderstanding. Could it be that Yrjö is the Baron’s long-lost grandson, sired by the son in exile, and hence, technically, the true heir of Tottisalmi?

Well, yes, he is, but not if the scheming locals have anything to do with it. The Baron’s horrible son-in-law Frederik (Sasu Haapanen) is the guilty party who framed the heir all those years ago, now fretting that his machinations will be found out. Apparently unaware that the best thing to do when stuck in a hole is to stop digging, he instead enlists his servant Jonas (Hugo Hytönen) in a scam to frame Yrjö as a thief, before the bright and sunny boy wins over any other members of the family.

Not unlike the same season’s The Tenant Farmer’s Girl from rival studio Suomen Filmiteollisus, this Suomi-Filmi production displays all the signs of a company scrabbling for something to offer comfort under austerity conditions. Turning aside from the miseries of contemporary life, director Orvo Saarikivi instead delivers a slice of old-world aristocracy, itself deriving from Anni Swan’s 1914 children’s novel, featuring the producer’s ten-year-old daughter, Tuulikki Schreck in one of the lead roles, and even using the Schreck family’s home and furniture. Originally intended as a Christmas film in 1939, but postponed by the Winter War until it shuffled out in April 1940 to widespread indifference, it took several years to earn back its production costs, despite really obvious corner-cutting, such as a running time of a mere 66 minutes, and that’s with a 90-second opening overture that plays over an entirely blank screen.

Again, as with The Tenant Farmer’s Girl, the transplant of a 19th-century story to a 20th-century setting only serves to accentuate the vast gaps in culture and expectations in the intervening period. In particular, the fact that the original story called for Yrjö’s father to die in the Battle of Navarino, during the Greek War of Independence in 1827. This explains how he ends up to have a posthumous son, born to a Greek woman six months later, and why a bunch of Greeks (Turo Kartto and Evald Turho, wearing fezzes because fezzes are cool) descend upon Tottisalmi to lend weight to Yrjö’s claim and, ultimately, spirit him back home to his mother in the Aegean. Presumably, von Sumers junior has been reimagined as some sort of volunteer in the First World War, but that would have just meant he dodged any involvement in the revolution and Finnish Civil War back home, and would hardly have endeared him to older viewers.

Little was written about it in a Finland still recovering from the Winter War, and by the time it appeared on television in 1975, the world had changed even more. “This is a film that has had its day,” wrote Mauri Taviola in the Helsingin Sanomat. “The children bang briskly through their lines like they are reciting verse at a six-year old’s birthday party, but you can hardly call it acting.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

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