Orphaned Karelian girl Anu (Henny Valjus) is reluctant to follow through on her late mother’s promise that she will marry the nice-but-dim rich boy Junu (Reino Valkama). Instead, she has eyes only for the handsome carpenter Mikko (Santeri Karilo), even though Mikko backs off in the mistaken belief that Anu loves Junu. Mikko runs away to the big scary city of Helsinki, where he hits on the idea of returning home to start a furniture factory – shades here of the woodtastic prospects of Green Gold (1939).
Based on a 1932 play by Kersti Bergroth and subsequently remade with the same title in 1956 and again for TV in 1975, Orvo Saarikivi’s Anu ja Mikko is an initially baffling choice for so many productions. It was shot at Suomi-Filmi’s Munkkisaari studios, but also features a number of exteriors showing off Nurmijärvi in the summer of 1940 – Finnish cinema audiences had almost nothing to chew on for half the year, and then a sudden rash of titles either mothballed during the Winter War or rushed into production that spring. There are also some lovely exteriors of 1940 Helsinki as Mikko gets off the train to seek his fortune, although his exit from the station is rather compromised by the camera’s sudden interest in a woman in a white dress, so much so that Mikko in his dark clothes practically teleports into focus only when she is out of shot. There’s also a lovely moment in which the camera lingers on a tanned cop outside the parliament building, irritably functioning as a human traffic light for the local trams. Both these striking figures in the film appear to be members of the public who happened to be caught by Uno Pihlström’s camera.
There is a certain return of the mixed messages of Bergroth’s earlier Rich Girl, along the lines of “money isn’t everything (BUT IT REALLY HELPS).” We are supposed to believe that Anu and Mikko are made for each other, but that Mikko is only worthy of Anu when he is a humble carpenter. When he tries to better himself by going into business, Anu finds his industrial mind-set off-putting. When his business fails, it’s Junu’s family money that bails him out. Junu finds love with Heti the maid (Anitra Kartro), but would she really have been all that interested in him if he hadn’t been the lord of the manor? Meanwhile, Anu is something of a drip and a wallflower – her most characterful moment in the film is at a dance, where everybody expects her to sing, but she is so heartbroken that she can’t get the words out.
Repeatedly in Anu ja Mikko there is the assertion that there’s no place like home. Mikko leaves for the big city, but returns to his hometown girl and his hometown dreams (whatever they are, since apparently making a living isn’t one of them), as does “American” Mari (Aino Lohikoski), a local girl recently returned from New York, who fills everybody’s heads with tales of international travel, but ends up marrying a local accordion-player. Mari is a fantastically uppity snob in an impractically frilly dress, who insists on using English words and trills excitedly about the talking pictures she has seen (this film is set in the 1930s, when such things would have been more new-fangled).
It is precisely the sort of drama one might expect to find a ready audience after a wartime disruption, gently soothing the viewer that things will soon be back to normal and everyone can go home. Except everyone can’t – author Bergroth was a native of Viipuri and director Saarikivi was born in Sortavala, both now on the Russian side of the border, along with the village of Antrea (now Kamennogorsk), the real-world inspiration for Bergroth’s fictional “Kaunuskala”. Many of the cast members were themselves of Karelian origin, although the degree to which they were refugees is questionable – Viipuri was Finland’s second city, so having been born there was a bit like having been born in Birmingham or Glasgow, hardly a matter of note until the day it was suddenly rebranded as Russian territory.
Paula Talaskivi, the hard-to-please movie critic, was totally taken in, writing in the Ilta Sanomat that even hard-bitten Helsinki urbanites would love the rural, Karelian snapshots of a time past and a land lost. Salama Simonen, the critic for Uusi Suomi, thrilled to the sound of the Karelian accent (something that would also charm viewers of the same year’s Lapatossu & Vinski’s Department Store), singling out Santeri Karilo as a genuine Karelian… all gentle nudges largely lost on the average modern reader, but reminding 1940s Finns that the Winter War has displaced thousands of Karelians, and lost much of the Karelian heartland celebrated in this film. The allusions and evocations of a lost land, which by my ad hoc reckoning, has an immediate family connection for one out of every four modern Finns, is a primary contributor to this story’s enduring presence.
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.