Antreas (Olavi Reimas) is a blind man who sells brushes in the Helsinki marketplace. He charms everybody around him with his sunny disposition, including his neighbours, whom he invites in for the occasional booze-up. But Antreas is at the centre of an unwitting love-triangle, pining for the yuppie secretary Jolanda (Kirsti Hurme), and unaware that his neighbour’s daughter Martta (Kaija Rahola) harbours unrequited feelings for him. Jolanda, however, is busy climbing the social ladder in search of a suitably placed husband, and has no time for the kind-hearted salesman.
Matters change when Antreas turns out to be a millionaire, thanks to the discovery of a vein of silver ore on his late brother’s Australian farm. Jolanda suddenly changes her tune, agrees to Antreas’ previously spurned advances, and betroths herself to him before any other gold- (sorry) silver-digger can get her claws in. She then sets about busily spending his money, while embarking on an increasingly intimate series of liaisons with the musician Reimar (Kille Oksanen).
Suomi-Filmi’s melodrama begins with a bewitching slice-of-life of Helsinki’s harbour-side marketplace, where to this day you can be cheerily over-charged for a sausage. It’s as if director Valentin Vaala and cinematographer Eino Heino are drunk with enthusiasm for the restoration of normality after the Winter War, cramming in little bits of real-world detail just for the hell of it. This also comes across in some of the blocking, for which their sound recordist seems ill-prepared to capture scraps of dialogue amid throngs of students – Martta is supposedly a starry-eyed teenager, although, with the best will in the world, the 31-year-old Kaija Rahola has trouble not looking like one of the lecturers.
A kindly constable (Aku Peltonen) warns the blind Antreas that time is marching on, and hands him a fallen brush-head. Antreas thanks him and cheerily calls out; näkemiin (“see you later”), which the constable acknowledges with a melancholy smile. Much like a country struggling to come to terms with a hard-fought armistice, Antreas puts a brave face on his condition, and on his recurrent self-medication through alcohol, smiling unapologetically as he tap-tap-taps his way into the Alko store to buy a restorative tipple.
Shooting on Antreas and the Sinful Jolanda started in the summer of 1940, for some pick-ups in Helsinki, Turku and Nantaali, although as the year wore on, some of the later shoots had to move indoors. One sequence in a backyard has been plainly filmed in a studio. They did, however, risk the weather for a location shoot on Tehtaankatu in central Helsinki (home to today’s Russian embassy), where a kind-hearted passer-by did not realise that filming was underway, and tried to persuade the “blind” Olavi Reimas not to go into a booze shop. The film also seems notable for an animated credits sequence in which the stars’ names write themselves out in swirling calligraphy – something I don’t remember seeing previously in Finnish film, although possibly I have merely not noticed it before.
Early set-ups celebrate a blue-collar world of hard work and chirpy enthusiasm, not unlike the plucky Brits gurning their way through the Blitz. As all too commonly seems to happen in Finnish film, the antagonist gets all the best looks and the best lines, while the supposed romantic lead is forced to drip about on the sidelines. Fresh from her simmering bad-girl role in In the Fields of Dreams (1940), Kirsti Hurme delineates Jolanda’s “sinful” nature in several discreet tics and mannerisms, particularly her arched eyebrows at the banter of her office colleagues, and her surreptitious checking of her make-up. She is harshly lit in her scenes with Antreas, artfully imparting her features with a sinister cast that only we can see as she whispers sweet nothings, and even managing to turn a song about light-hearted fun into a sinister harbinger of doom.
It’s left to the ever-faithful Martta to take Antreas to Turku, where a German doctor is conveniently able to restore his sight – not for the last time in the 1940s, Germany is presented as a kindly and tech-savvy ally of Finland. The pair return to Helsinki, where Antreas pretends that he is still blind, although he now literally sees the terrible way that Jolanda is carrying on with Reimar – she is trying to get Antreas to sign a cheque for far more than the amount she tells him, and even openly snogging Reimar in front of him. Confronting Jolanda with her plan to swindle him out of 300,00 marks, he sends her packing, although he forgives Reimar, who earnestly refuses to accept a cheque written in bad faith. In a lovely moment, it is only when Antreas bends down to pick up the crumpled cheque that Jolanda realises he has been able to see through her dastardly plot.
Martta invites Antreas to the garden to see some puppies (no, really), whose eyes have just opened. “Only today have my eyes finally opened,” Antreas says. “And you, Martta, are the first person who begins to look beautiful in my eyes.”
The Finnish press in its day was largely approving, acknowledging that it was a difficult time and a difficult conditions to be squeezing out a dramedy. Even Toini Aaltonen in the Suomen Sosiaaldemokratti observed that for all its “naïve emotion”, there was something profound in the way that it focused on what was truly important to Antreas. Money is no object – Antreas literally hands Reimar all the cash that Jolanda has been trying to obtain by underhand means – but it’s more important to him that he has the love of a good woman. Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti was similarly impressed with a film he found “psychologically interesting.” I concur with Salama Simonen in Uusi Suomi, who enjoyed the “countless small details” in both filming and acting that made this more than the sum of its parts, even if the idea of a life-changing disability that can so easily be waved away is liable to leave many 21st-century viewers uncomfortable.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland. He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.