Just a Night Watchman (1940)

Virtanen (Aku Korhonen) is an aging widower who works as a watchman at the Kuusela textile factory, and dotes on his daughter Aino (Regina Linnanheimo), who is dating the boss’s son Veikko (Unto Salminen). Mr Kuusela warns his son that relationships across class lines rarely work out, but Veikko assures his girlfriend that love will win in the end.

Virtanen surprises a would-be burglar, but lets the man go when he realises he has a family of four to feed. Later that night, he dozes off and has a premonition that Mr Kuusela will be in a car accident. Kuusela laughs it off, but is sufficiently spooked that he decides not to risk driving home drunk from the gentleman’s club. He takes a taxi instead, which probably saves his life, but ashamed of people laughing at his hangover the following day, Kuusela dismisses Virtanen for having clearly been asleep on the job – otherwise, how could he have had a prophetic dream?

Virtanen struggles to find another job, hobbled by his age and the fact he was fired for dereliction of duty. Veikko adds to everybody’s troubles by getting Aino pregnant and then spurning her. Aino runs away, but the womenfolk at the factory band together and threaten strike action unless the Kuusela family rallies around.

Finns have a remarkably odd attitude towards Christmas, and the sharp-eyed observer can see much pagan fatalism lurking in the local festivities, not the least in the local carols, which are mournful dirges about death and despair. So it should come as no surprise that this supposed “Christmas” movie reduces much of its festive spirit to an observation of people fallen on hard times, and a vaguely prosaic Christmas “miracle”, in which the Kuusela family is brought to its senses by a car accident not unlike the one that Virtanen had prophesied. Alone and reading a hefty Bible by candlelight, Virtanen hears carol-singers outside singing “Silent Night.” He has a vision of Aino, arriving at the head of a column of beaming factory girls and her new husband Veikko to assure him that all is well. If this were a Japanese movie, the final shot would show us that Virtanen had died, but instead this turns out to be actually true, and all ends well.

Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti condemned it for “American sentimentality” and its unlikely plot, although let’s be honest here, it’s set at a time of the year when the country celebrates a virgin birth. The left-wing press was more approving of the social message – Aino is a working-class girl poised on the cusp of societal levelling up, almost defeated but somehow winning through, which was a subject that appealed to Toini Aaltonen of the Suomen Sosiaalidemokraatti – it is interesting, in fact, to see what is essentially a plot that ends in tragedy in God’s Judgement (1939), and in defiance in The Child is Mine (1940), here assigned a more conservative and frankly miraculous solution.

Several reviewers noted that the film stood or fell on Aku Korhonen’s performance. The film had, in fact, been written by Erik Dahlberg with Korhonen in mind, and, not for the last time in Finnish film, the casting of a comedian in a melodramatic role pays huge dividends. Only a few weeks earlier, audiences had seen him larking about in Lapatossu & Vinski’s Department Store, and yet here he is, carrying a whole drama on his capable shoulders.

It’s not all doom and gloom: there are a couple of dance interludes, including an elegant performance of “La Cumparsita”, in which dancers Orvokki Siponen and Klaus Salin light up the screen. But even that comes tinged with melancholy, if you know the actual lyrics that accompany the tango classic: “The parade of endless miseries marches around that sick being who will soon die of grief.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

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