Teenage orphan Sirkka (Sirkka Salonen) meets local rich boy Aarne (Kille Oksanen) when he almost runs her over with his horse. The couple begin a flirtation that leads to a relationship, in which Aarne risks his family name by forging cheques in the name of his elder brother in order to help cover Sirkka’s family debts. When Sirkka inevitably becomes pregnant (this happens so often in Finnish films that one is surprised anyone cares any more), Aarne fights with his brother and leaves the manor. Sirkka gives birth to a son, but the boy is stolen by a gipsy (no, really – Evald Terho in a nameless and off-handedly racist role) in revenge for the poor treatment he received at the manor house. Kirsti (Kirsti Hurme), her former rival for the attentions of Aarne, piles on her troubles by accusing her of having murdered Aarne, for which she goes to prison for six years.
Returning in disgrace to her home town, Sirkka gets work back at the manor house as a maid for Aarne’s elder brother Urho (Kyösti Erämaa), who has always believed that she was framed. Her innocence is finally proven when Aarne shows up in a motor car, announcing that he has merely been away working hard, and the lovers are reunited. Meanwhile, the dying gipsy tells his adopted son (Timo Jokinen) to seek charity at the nearby manor, where the boy is identified by a distinctive birthmark, and reunited with his real parents.
Based on a Swedish film from 1933, itself based on Henning Ohlson’s play Hälsingar (1922), Unelma karjamajalla was already a creature out of time by the time it had its September 1940 premiere, notably not in That Fancy Helsinki, but out in the provinces in Kuopio, Lahti and Pori. This was not a production from the majors, but from the relatively small Tarmo-Filmi company, but it was one of the first movies to make into cinemas after the Winter War, and hence seems to have been unjustly praised by movie critics starved of content. Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti called it “content with the old customary style, and this is perhaps its strongest point.”
Eighty-two years later, the most striking thing about this film is the naturalism of its low-budget exteriors, as director Teuvo Talio snaps windswept location work among the farms of Nurmijärvi and Hämeenlinna, and shoots a tense scene by a ravine as Sirkka Salonen (a former beauty queen in her only feature role) rescues a fallen lamb, accompanied by Bach’s “Toccata & Fugue”. There is also the powerful shadow of class differences. Sirkka Salonen and Kirsti Hurme are fierce, strong presences on the screen when they are bickering with each other, but shapeshift into downcast, timid wallflowers when addressed by the lord of the manor.
Hurme in particular is a striking femme fatale, stealing the show in a role that would propel her out of the theatre and into a brief but remarkable movie career, poached in 1941 by Suomi-Filmi, and effectively becoming the forces’ sweetheart of the Continuation War – her public appearances for the troops were apparently very popular. She appeared in numerous vampy roles over the war years, fading briefly from the public eye after marrying her first husband in 1944, and almost completely after marrying her second, the industrialist Leo Martin, in 1951.
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.