Laundry-worker Elsa (Kaisu Leppänen) marries Antti (Harry Sinijärvi) after a whirlwind one-day courtship, only to suffer for three years of constant failures to have a child together. Increasingly obsessed over getting pregnant, she goes away to the countryside to stay with Antti’s sister Katri (Lilli Sairio), only to enter into a torrid and ultimately fertile romance with local labourer Rannikkolainen (the ever-smoldering Eino Kaipainen). Protesting that she still loves her husband, but cannot keep away from Rannikkolainen’s rugged charms, she continues their affair, despite words of warning from Katri that village gossips are talking about her.
When the ailing Antti comes to visit, Elsa confesses to Rannikkolainen that she is pregnant, but that her child “…is neither yours nor my husband’s. The child is mine.” After Elsa chooses to return to the city with her husband, a heartbroken Rannikkolainen begins a relationship with Kaisu (Regina Linnanheimo), a local girl who has carried a torch for him for years. Elsa, meanwhile, confesses to her dying husband that she is pregnant, and asks for his forgiveness. She returns to the countryside in search of Rannikkolainen, but he has already agreed to marry Kaisu. Accepting her fate, Elsa congratulates Kaisu and returns to the city and her job in the laundry, asking her infant son not to judge her.
Well, that escalated quickly. Drawing on Helvi Hämälainen’s 1937 novel The Empty Embrace (Tyhjä syli), scenarist Arvi Kivimaa delivers a surprisingly progressive account of what was sure to be a recurring social issue in post-war times – a spate of unwed and/or widowed mothers recalling the scandals and tragedies seen before in The Women of Niskavuori (1938), Green Gold (1939) and God’s Judgement (1939). The early scenes of this Suomen Filmiteollisuus film are particularly good on the drudgery of blue-collar work, as Elsa, her biological clock ticking like timpani, pouts and sighs her way around the grim, back-breaking work of washing Finnish bedsheets in the days before washing machines. But as the script makes clear, she is not desperate – she rejects the advances of the handsy chauffeur Nieminen (Ossi Elstelä), so it’s not like she is ready to plight her troth with the first man to blow in her ear.
Not that Antti is a dreamboat hero, sweeping her off her feet. When he proposes to her, with the twin, thin rings of Finnish tradition (one for engagement, the other to be added at the wedding itself) she acts as if he has just run over her cat, and, somewhat gauchely, immediately starts wittering about how this her chance to have a child. In a charmingly Finnish moment, when her fellow washerwomen see that she has got engaged, they line up to shake her hand enthusiastically, bellowing their congratulations – no squeals and squees here. In fact, the no-nonsense, go-getting strength of Finnish women is a constantly recurring theme in this film, showing up in all manner of set-ups, such as the time that Elsa bodily ejects a drunken, abusive man from a tenement, and where she, with her powerful washerwoman’s arms, elects to row a boat on the lake, leaving even the manly Rannikkolainen to meekly hold the tiller.
Actor-turned-director Jorma Nortimo concentrates conspicuously on the joys of the Finnish countryside, as if delivering a celebration of all that is wholesome and good about agrarian life, almost as if suggesting that the sickly Antti was an urban, modern failure – a dud who would have died on Elsa sooner or later anyway, and that Rannikkolainen is something of a noble savage, part-Heathcliff, part-Mellors, doing his bit for posterity by helping to make little Finns. He is helped greatly in this by the casting, since Eino Kaipainen had been a Shatner-esque leading man for years, while Harry Sinijärvi had only appeared in two previous films, and is hence something of a non-entity. Kaipainen, in fact, is so magnetic on-screen that he even manages to get a smile out of Regina Linnanheimo, who as previously noted on this blog, usually looks like she is chewing a wasp. He first appears, driving a horse-drawn milk cart standing up, like a Ben Hur of the Finnish countryside, and is no less gropey with her than the city-man she had previously rebuffed.
Nortimo, meanwhile, tries every trick in the book to inject the film with symbolism and subtleties, such as a scene in which Elsa is filmed through the mesh of a fisherman’s net, as if she, too, is entrapped by her circumstances, or where Elsa and Rannikkolainen’s embrace is shot in silhouette, criss-crossed by telling barbed wire. There are some lovely stills kicking around from this production, suffused with the light of a forgotten Finnish summer, the exteriors presumably held off until the very last days of shooting, in order to make the most of June-July, and have the film ready for its release in September 1940.
The Finnish press of the time was guardedly positive about a “sensitive subject”, although the Swedish-language newspapers seemed to latch onto it as a quintessentially “Finnish” theme, as if only Finnish country bumpkins got up to this sort of thing, and Swedes would never dream of it.
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.