At the time of its release, Runon kuningas ja muutolintu was the longest-gestating film in Finnish history. Playwright Elsa Soini was commissioned to write the script in 1937, principal photography by Yrjö Norta commenced in 1938, but was delayed by the onset of the Winter War, with the premiere of the film not coming until October 1940 – compare to similar delays besetting The Heir of Tottisalmi and In the Kitchen.
The story spans a crucial decade from 1837 to 1848, beginning with poet J.L. Runeberg’s acceptance of a post teaching Latin literature at a Porvoo college. This inevitably drags him away from the hustle and bustle of life in That Fancy Helsinki, and his wife Frederika (Anni Hämäläinen) frets that his creative genius will wither in the provinces.
A few years later, the young Emilie Björkstén (Ansa Ikonen) moves to Porvoo and soon attracts the wagging tongues of the town gossips, who regard her as trouble because she is a beautiful woman without a squire – “the right jar of syrup to catch flies.” A fan of Runeberg’s poetry, she is drawn to him, and he to her, in a series of will-they-won’t-they, did-they-do-they encounters. Runeberg (Eino Kaipainen) protests that he is a man, not merely a poet, seemingly warning her that her fangirling over him might be misinterpreted by his hindbrain as sexual advances.
Eventually, the two end up snogging, and Emilie’s landlord, the local bishop (Ossi Elstelä) accuses her of “tarnishing the poet’s crown.” Brow-beaten into staying away from him Emilie puts on a brave face, and tells him at their next meeting that she is expecting to be betrothed to her beau Robert (Unto Salminen). But instead of taking this for what it is – a gentle acknowledgement that their love is not to be – Runeberg calls her a temptress and a flirt for stringing him along.
Leo Schulgin in the Helsingin Sanomat thought it was “the best Finnish film yet made”, while the hard-to-impress Paula Talaskivi in Ilta-Sanomat deemed it to be “a pleasant surprise,” praising not only for its choice of subject matter, for its attention to detail and the fact that it was shot in extremely adverse circumstances. These two leading reviewers were echoed by much of the rest of the press, with Uusi Suomi remarking on the loving evocation of mid-19th-century Porvoo. Posterity has been less kind, with more cynical modern commentators regarding it as an entirely unbelievable version of the past, accorded way too much slack by the audiences of the 1940s.
But Runon kuningas ja muutolintu was dogged by controversy from the moment it commenced production, based on Bert Edelfelt’s book Some Old Pages from a Diary (1922, Ur en gammal dagbok). There is a whirlpool of tensions beneath the surface of this film, in which a resolutely Finnish production team celebrates the Swedish-speaking poet who would write Finland’s national anthem, but also reveals that he was a human being with human foibles. On announcing that the film was in production, director Toivo Särkkä was mobbed by a delegation of university lecturers, pleading with him not to besmirch the character of Finland’s national poet. Runeberg was an untouchable demigod of Finnish culture, and to suggest that he might have his head turned by some girl was regarded as sacrilege. I am also tempted to point out that leading man Eino Kaipainen had founded his entire movie career to date on being a Finnish heart-throb that no red-blooded woman could possibly resist, which rather places an unfair pressure on any character obliged to remain immune to his charms.
Our own era has been even more critical of the film, noting that it sets up Runeberg as some pious, dutiful patriot, and his lover as a flighty “migratory bird”, breezing into his life to cause chaos like that uncaring strumpet in The Women of Niskavuori. This, modern critics have argued, is only Runeberg’s film because of what his written work has become to Finns – pity the poor woman whose poetry doesn’t get sung at public occasions decades after she has died in obscurity. But that is precisely what Elsa Soini’s script is driving at through much of the film – the fact that gender and customs and assumptions of the mid-19th-century have doomed posterity to assume that Emilie is a talentless flirt, and Runeberg a tormented poet, when in fact, allowed to interact as equals, they prove to be able and creative collaborators. Runeberg’s own wife dismisses his flirtation with a shrug, Emilie thanks God for helping her “resist temptation”, but buried deep down in all this is an artful consideration of noble sacrifice.
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.