Ilkka Remes

“At times, his speculations cleave so closely to the headlines of the day that they risk being parsed not as possible futures, but as fake news.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up Ilkka Remes, the best-selling Finnish novelist of the last 20 years.

The February Manifesto (1939)

In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte (Ossi Elstelä), offers Finland to Tsar Alexander I (Leo Lähtenmäki) Finland as part of a treaty negotiations. The Swedish crown is chipped off Finnish buildings, and the people of what was the eastern Swedish marchlands are now suddenly Russian subjects. Oh dear, you might think, except Alexander II (played by the statue of him that still stands in the centre of Helsinki), is the “Good Tsar”, who offers his new Finnish subjects freedom to keep their language, their currency and their right of self-rule.

It is Alexander II’s dastardly, feckless grandson Nicholas II (Arvo Kuusla) who proclaims the February Manifesto of 1899, announcing that it’s time for the Finns to shut up, learn Russian and kneel before Zod. Don’t make the Finns angry; you won’t like them when they’re angry.

Helmikuun manifesti is the first film I’ve seen which boasts a “military uniform expert”, Bure Litonius, on the credits, but his influence is palpable from the earliest scenes, when the camera lingers momentarily on a perfectly recreated Chevalier Guard in the Tsar’s council chamber. The Finnish historian is apt to wonder what the chances were that one Lieutenant Mannerheim was indeed standing guard on the day that Nicholas II decided to shaft his most loyal subjects, undoing all his grandfather’s good deeds and creating an upswell of anti-Russian sentiment.

Cue a lot of scenes of Finns sitting around reading the words of the February Manifesto and getting annoyed about it. As the evil Governor Bobrikoff (Aku Korhonen) imposes increasingly draconian restrictions on journalism and the media, the men of Finland refuse en masse to answer the Tsar’s conscription call for the Russian army, chanting: “GOD IS OUR FORTRESS!”

The film gradually zeroes in on the middle-class Jaakko Kotka (Tauno Palo) and the working man No-first-name Sihvola (Eino Kaipainen), two very different patriots, united in their desire for Finnish independence, and cunningly integrating them into moments of crucial Finnish history. So it is that when they are practising their marksmanship at a shooting range, they run into a man with a pistol who is way, way better than them. Aino Sihvola (Regina Linnanheimo) is more interested in the young man’s dog, while the menfolk struggle to remember his name. Oh yes, it was Eugen Schauman… played here by Runar Schauman, a distant cousin of the man who would assassinate Bobrikoff in 1904. This is just one of many sensationally realist touches in this film. It’s not just that Schauman plays his own relative, or that Korhonen is a dead ringer for Bobrikoff, it’s that the killing is filmed in the actual spot in the old Finnish senate building where it happened.

Mika Waltari’s script for The February Manifesto is wonderfully, provocatively nuanced. Finns, then as now, are often surprised to hear how popular the Russians once were in Finland, despite the evidence offered by Alexander II’s statue in Helsinki, where well-wishers still leave flowers to this day. Nicholas II is not presented as a snarling baddie, but as a fretful milksop, wringing his hands as he signs away all the goodwill his ancestors built up. “Niin alkuu,” he writes – so it begins. Implicit, but not quite stated outright, is the idea that Nicholas II lost his last, best friends on that day, and effectively signed his own death warrant 18 years down the line. A voice-over suggests that such cultural artefacts as the Kalevala, regarded today as an early step in the move towards Finnish independence, were harmless entertainments until they were co-opted into the anti-Russian movement. In other words, the February Manifesto claims to mark not just the beginning of the end for the Tsar, but the beginning of an independent Finland.

With Russian clampdowns on the press, the Kotka family become instrumental in the distribution of the underground newsletter Vapaita Sanoja (Free Words). The Tsar’s gendarmes, a not-so-secret police, hunt down would-be rebels, and destroy dangerous propaganda like prints of Eetu Isto’s controversial painting The Attack. In one emotional scene, Jaakko’s dissident father (Yrjö Tuominen), banished from his homeland, waves goodbye from the back of a train leaving a rain-swept station. The crowd that has come to see him off breaks into song, singing “Maame”, which would ultimately be adopted as Finland’s national anthem.

Jaakko and Sihvola get involved in gun-running, supervising the landing of a boat full of rifles from the infamous John Grafton – about which I shall one day be writing a book of my own. There also some wonderful glimpses of Finnish traditions, including a Yuletide sequence of the Kotka family melting tin in a fireplace ladle, and then flinging it into a bucket of snow to see what prophetic shapes are formed. This, incidentally, is what a Finn probably means if he tells you he has been to a New Year’s party ,”looking at some slag.” In this case, the flash-hardened tin forms the shape of a Cossack on horseback, cutting straight to a scene of cavalry riding through the streets of Helsinki.

The womenfolk are a little under-used, forced to largely stand at the side-lines and react, although Sihvola’s sister Aino (Regina Linnanheimo) does get the chance to play an occasionally comedic but largely, cringingly tense scene as she attempts to sweet-talk a bunch of Russian soldiers intent on searching her house for Jaakko.

Waltari is good on the liminal moments of resistance and collaboration. There are Finns prepared to stand idly by; Finns prepared to make a stand; Finns ready to join the resistance when a hero moves among them, but cowed before Russian might when they lack a leader. There are Finns who hate the Tsar, and Finns who are ready to support the Bolsheviks that replace him. Such confusions are entirely, historically accurate, and are echoed in 1939’s rival resistance film, The Activists.

The story ends with the great tragedy of Finnish independence, that it came hand-in-hand with the bloody catastrophe of the Finnish Civil War. Jaakko and Sihvola both seek help for Finnish independence from different, doomed sources – Jaakko runs away to train in Germany with the jaegers, while Jaakko comes to believe not in Tsarist Russia, but in Russian Communism. Jaakko and Sihvola inevitably end up on opposite sides, with Jaakko fighting for the Whites while Sihvola is duped into supporting a Red revolution, only to be gunned down by Russian soldiers.

Jaakko and his jaegers march through the forest in distinctive white camouflage, foreshadowing what the Finns would be wearing themselves in the Winter War to come. The scenes are intercut with rushing waters, and suddenly it is not clear if we are watching Finland in 1917 or 1939.

Jaakko brings home Sihvola’s personal effects.

“So high is the cost of Finland’s freedom,” says his mother (Irja Elstelä), practically turning to the camera and staring pointedly at the audience.

“And we are only halfway there,” says Jaakko, putting his arm around his betrothed, Aino Sihvola.

Both this film and The Activists would be banned in Finland for several decades after the Second World War, for fear that they would offend the Russians. I’d say that The February Manifesto in particular, in its treatment of sustained resistance to oppression, would still struggle to get a public release in some parts of the world today. I can think of several places where a screening of The February Manifesto would be liable to start a riot.

But the context for The February Manifesto in 1939 was about something else – the palpable threat that war would soon break out with Russia, and that Finland would face the threat alone. Nowhere is this clearer than in the closing shot of Suomenlinna, “the fortress of Finland”, where a still-extant inscription on the King’s Gate reads: “Eftervärld, stå här på egen botn, och lita icke på främmande hielp.” Those that come after us, stand here on your own foundation, and trust not in foreign help.

It’s a surprisingly moving film, not only in its account of the bravery of the Finns, but of the human drama contained within, such as one desperately sad moment when Eugen Schauman, knowing that he will not come back from his mission alive, fondly kisses his loyal dog goodbye.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Forward to Life (1939)

As Finland reels under increasingly oppressive Russian rule in the early 1900s, Robert Harmelius (Tauno Palo) dedicates himself to Finnish independence. Or rather, he talks about it a lot in order to impress his uncle’s housemaid Justiina (Regina Linnanheimo), and the pair of them become a pair of real activists, until uncle Fred catches them in bed together. That’s one form of activity that nobody was expecting, and Robert flees town, leaving Justiina discredited and pregnant.

Years later, Robert has changed his surname to the more Finnish-sounding Harmaalahti, and is a promising politician in the new republic, married to a singer, Hilda (Emmi Jurkka), and with a young daughter of his own. Fallen on hard times, Justiina is a housekeeper, and their son out-of-wedlock son Olavi (Leon Lähteenmäki) works as a gardener at the house to which Robert moves.

Their feelings are soon rekindled, leading Robert’s spurned wife Hilda to avenge herself on him by seducing Olavi. Nobody saw that one coming! Olavi throws himself off a cliff and bangs his head, and Robert prepares to shoot Hilda in revenge, only for Justiina to intercede. “If you want to avenge your son,” she breathes, “help us make a world where such women have no power!”

Er… singers? Vamps? Loveable curves? I am not sure how the creation of modern Finland is going to stop hearty cougars from chasing toyboys. We don’t even get to enjoy the seduction of Olavi, since prim censors in 1939 insisted on cutting 15 seconds of snogging from Eteenpäin elämään, which has not been restored in subsequent releases. I think that, deep down, there is some sense that Hilda is a representative of the tawdry, Russian-Swedish aristocracy, and Robert and Justiina’s love is somehow purer and more Finnish, worth fighting for… although apparently not at the time that Justiina could have done with any real support. The film from Suomen Filmiteollisuus was based on the 1937 stage play Justiina by Hella Wuolijoki, but lacks much of the bite and wit of her earlier Women of Niskavuori. Meanwhile, the film oddly keeps much of the limiting indoor settings – even the Civil War largely happens off-screen as a series of sound effects, while a bunch of Finns stare worriedly at some maps. People spend a lot of time in their drawing rooms, talking about Finnish independence instead of going out to get it.

It’s hardly the basis for a revolution, and in dragging Finland’s struggle for independence into a family drama about star-crossed young lovers, the film rather shoots itself in the foot. I can only imagine how it might play in a modern remake, which would surely focus on the put-upon Olavi’s teen trauma, while Robert would be presented as a heartless brute of a politician, ducking his responsibilities to the woman who has borne his child because of some sort of hand-wavy “oppression”. The Russians get the blame for everything, including Justiina’s bastard child, although surely Robert had a hand in it all. Well, it wasn’t his hand.

As the leading lady, Regina Linnanheimo is bafflingly stiff and ill-at-ease, as if she is being forced to act at gunpoint, with a face substantially craggier than some of her male co-stars’. Emmi Jurkka is far more vivacious and fun as the ivory-tinkling, chanson-belting Hilda, but we are supposed to hate her because she giggles a lot – she is entertainingly sultry, and comes oddly attended by two camp opera singers Andersson (Arvo Kuusla) and Oramaa (Ossi Korhonen), who seem to be the first markedly gay characters I have seen in Finnish film. Meanwhile, in the roles of Olavi and his half-sister Riikka, Leon Lähteenmäki and Marjo Penttala are the least convincing teenagers I have ever seen, plainly of similar age to the people who play their parents.

In everything from its breathless title to its addled approach to the founding of the Finnish republic, Forward to Life! is a poor show of a film. Released in January 1939, it would have merely a few weeks in the grim winter sunshine before it would be roundly trounced by Suomen Filmiteollisuus’s own February Manifesto and, soon after, Suomi-Filmi’s rival The Activists, two vastly superior works. They didn’t just get 15 seconds trimmed out; they were banned completely for decades, sure to be a sign of truly revolutionary films.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

Heavy Trip (2018)

Turo (Johannes Holopainen) is a hospital porter who moonlights as the lead singer in a heavy metal band, in a small town far in the north of Finland. Lead guitarist Lotvonen (Samuli Jaskio) searches for a new riff, and finds it in the sound of a reindeer carcass stuck in a meat grinder. When Norwegian rock festival director Frank Massegrav (Rune Temte) stops by the local abattoir in a search for reindeer blood, enthusiastic drummer Jynkky (Antti Heikkinen) hands him a demo tape, hoping to be invited to the Northern Damnation rock festival in Norway.

Suddenly, they are local heroes, as the townsfolk misunderstand the news, and assume that the band has already been invited. The local boy-racers stop yelling “HOMO!” at Turo every time he cycles past. Florist Miia (Minka Kustonen, bright-eyed and flirty, unlike her dour turn as a humourless hipster in Tellus) finally agrees to go out on a date with Turo, and the mayor presents them with the key to the city, or as near as dammit. Unfortunately, Frank calls to say that there is no space for the band, now named Impaled Rektum, at his festival. When Jynkky is killed in a road accident (swerving to avoid a reindeer), Turo decides to tough it out, digs up Jynkky’s coffin, steals a van belonging to local lounge singer Jouni (Ville Tiihonen), and runs for the border. Oh, and since he’s short a drummer, he busts lunatic Oula (Chike Ohanwe) out of the local asylum, because Finland. They rehearse on the road, perfecting their “symphonic post-apocalyptic reindeer-grinding Christ-abusing extreme war pagan Fennoscandian meta” sound, something defined by their bass player Pasi (Max Ovaska), who insists now on being referred to as Xytrax.

Jouni tells Miia’s dad, the chief of police, that his van has been stolen by terrorists, leading the Norwegian border guard to spring into action, assuming that a truck full of suicide bombers is bearing down on them. Owing to a case of mistaken identity, the over-enthusiastic Norwegians accidentally blow up a van containing a Twelve Apostles-themed bachelor party, allowing the members of Impaled Rektum to get across the border. Throwing themselves into a fjord, they are rescued by a bunch of medieval re-enactors with their own Viking long-ship, arriving at Northern Damnation in style.

Despite previously been told that they are not welcome, they have become media stars. Thanks to the fact they have stolen a corpse, almost started a war on the border, and broken a mental patient out of a Finnish asylum to join their band, Impaled Rektum are allowed to play a single song, while the Vikings hold off the Norwegian riot police. They are arrested at the end of their set, secure in the knowledge that they are very metal.

Like Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports (2010), another quirky Finnish film with an enthusiastic overseas following, Hevi Reissu apparently began as a short, Impaled Rektum (2007), written by Jukka Vidgren and Juuso Laatio — that, at least, is what was reported in at least one press story, although there is no sign of the earlier incarnation in their public filmographies. The pair previously made a splash with Dr Professor’s Thesis of Evil (2011), which was Vidgren’s final-year project at an Oulu college, and Vidgren’s name shows up as an assistant cameraman on Forbidden Fruit (2009). Laatio is credited on IMDB with an entire portfolio of abilities, not only as co-writer of the script but of some of Impaled Rektum’s conspicuously terrible songs (including “Flooding Secretions” and “Good Old-Time Death Metal”), as well as stints as an art director, compositor and animator.

Plainly, much of the work undertaken by their production company, Mutant Koala, is below the line — commercials, shorts and production assistance for TV shows, which only makes Heavy Trip all the more impressive. Finnish cinema in the 21st century is riddled with overblown student films, which audiences are expected to indulge and forgive for even trying. With 20% of the population, Helsinki remains the centre of the creative arts, while the provinces are expected to count themselves lucky if anyone finds anything to write about them at all. In such a context, Heavy Trip is an accomplished, enjoyable celebration of what it means to be different in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

The music by Lauri Porra, sometime bass player with Stratovarius but also a film composer in his own right, is wonderfully hard-core, including at one point, a death metal pastiche of the James Bond theme, as Jynkky breaks into the local police station to steal a picture of the band taken by a speed camera. There are also some fantastic, so-bad-they’re-good retreads of rock classics, shredded with loving care. This ties into the film’s loving homage to many a rock icon, including a moment at Jynkky’s funeral where Pasi, sorry, Xytrax, delivers a heartfelt, poetic eulogy that turns out to be some Ronnie James Dio lyrics. This is a film that goes up to eleven, like Finland itself.

The critical reaction in Finland, however, was mixed, with a four-star review in the Tampere newspaper Aamulehti, but an ambiguous three stars in the Helsingin Sanomat, which damned it with the faint praise that it was a “sympathetic and enterprising” film that “doesn’t get boring.” Jussi Huhtala in Episodi, Finland’s answer to Empire magazine, was unimpressed, scoffing that this was a “clumsy and childish film… unfortunately not Finland’s Spinal Tap.” But a comparison with This is Spinal Tap is misleading — the music might be metal, but this is a film that owes far more to the humour and aspirations of The Blues Brothers. In particular, Huhtala objected to the digital sleight-of-hand used to create many of the film’s iconic moments, and objected to a scene in which Turo breaks into a zoo and punches a wolverine. Taneli Topelius in the Ilta-Sanomat was similarly dismissive, acknowledging the film’s luxuriance in heavy-metal cliches, but sternly conceding that he “could not give it more stars than the Devil has horns.”

The foreign press was far more enthusiastic. The Hollywood Reporter called it a “rollicking romp,” AV Club found it to be “a charming ensemble of morbid dorks,” and Roger Ebert.com pointed out that it was “probably the only film you will see this year with a crowd-surfing corpse..”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

Forbidden Fruit (2009)

Raised in the Laestadian religious sect in northern Finland, Maria (Amanda Pilke) decides to run away to the big city. Her best friend Raakel (Marjut Maristo) is dispatched by the local elders to bring her back, but finds new temptations in Helsinki that challenge the way she has been raised. Your mileage may vary. Dome Karukosken’s film is even-handed in its treatment of the different worlds of the Laestadian rural cult (which claims some 110,000 members in modern Finland) and Helsinki hipsterism, presenting both as frankly innocent worlds that embrace the simple joy of boys and girls hanging out together, albeit with slightly different ideas of what that might entail. The two worlds are united by the predatory presence of men, who do not differ all that much between town and country – in the north, they are pious family heads who swap daughters like Pokémon cards; in the south they are Swedish-speaking lotharios who cackle amongst themselves in English that they have rounded up a couple of teinihuorat (teenage sluts).

Laestadians shun television, cosmetics and pre-marital sex, although on the plus side they tend to get married as teenagers, so there’s not a whole lot of time to be sexually frustrated before you are a parent to six kids and too tired to care. Bicycles are apparently okay. Oddly, I wrote a similar story myself in 2010, in a Judge Dredd script called The Devil’s Playground, which was also about a religious cultist dispatched to a metropolis to find a lost friend. But in my version, she arrived to find that her friend had been murdered. I had been inspired by the same thing that surely inspired the makers of Kielletty hedelmä, which was the fact that American Amish deliberately send their children into the modern world for a year’s sabbatical, secure in the knowledge that they will reject it.

In a sweetly solipsistic touch, the joy of the modern world is represented through cinema, as Raakel meets her modern man at the movies, with Karukosken’s camera lingering on the flicker of a projector and flirting in the dark at arthouse matinees. The soundtrack contrasts the epic silence of the Finnish countryside with the din of city life. The irresistible temptations of Babylon are presented, variously, as cider, make-up and snogging, which gives the whole thing something of a Handmaid’s Tale feel, not the least when a trio of elders show up, intoning “Blessed Be” and trying to entice Maria back to a life of constant childbirth and kumbayah happiness. If I have any complaints about this film, and I can’t believe I am saying this, it’s that it isn’t gay enough, because although there are vague allusions to the possibility that the two teenage runaways might have feelings for each other, they spend rather a lot of time blowing hot and cold over the attentions of a couple of long-suffering Helsinki metrosexuals, who repeatedly apologise for groping them, when they only want to be groped 50% of the time.

Aleksi Bardy’s script ends up presenting them as a couple of girls who really don’t know what they want, with Maria eventually returning home to face the parentally-determined music, while Raakel cannot resist slapping on some lippy, which she surely knows will get her banished from her father’s table because make-up is apparently evil. Like cider. And snogging. In a final irony, by being sent to retrieve her wayward friend, she is lost to the religious cult, and finds herself banished, weeping on the bus back to the big city. That’s Helsinki, by the way, which really isn’t that big.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

Life in the Fast Lane

And why, you may be asking, has Helsinki airport suddenly got a “fast lane” down the main concourse? Nobody seems to pay it much heed. Those two ambling tossers up ahead are dawdling along like they’ve got all the time in the world, and one of them is walking into oncoming traffic. As I’ve been barrelling down it in the last few months, I have bulldozed through clouds of clueless pensioners and slowpoke Swedes, none of whom have bothered to look down at the Red Lines of Danger.

Helsinki’s “fast lane” is a laughable Band-Aid over a problem of Finnair’s own making, in which flights from smaller cities in Finland, transferring to the non-Schengen gates at the other end of the terminal, have often been assigned outrageous transfer times. I have been dumped on several occasions at Gate 4 as my London flight has already started boarding at Gate 42, a transfer time that the airport’s own signage assesses at 28 minutes.

On paper, it’s a 40-minute transfer time. In reality, if someone has trouble stowing their skis onboard in Kajaani and the plane’s just a few minutes late, you’re going to miss your flight. As it is, you sprint across the airport, risking a heart-attack and “fast lane” collisions. To add insult to injury, when I arrive, panting and sweating, at my connection, a text shuffles onto my phone warning me that it might be a bit tight. Yes, I KNOW, but if I’d stopped to read the message, I would have missed it. There is literally not enough time to piss. Something they might have liked to mention when they sold me the ticket.

Finnair will grudgingly offer new tickets to you if you miss your flight. On one occasion, I was told that the next flight had been cancelled, but if I wanted to wait at the airport for five hours, I could get aboard a four-hour bus home. I decided to pick up my luggage and just get the train, at which point I was refused any compensation, because of Reasons. And if you want to escalate any complaints to the ombudsman, you have to do it in Finnish.

So if you’re flying to or from the Finnish hinterland from abroad, via Helsinki, check the transfer times on your ticket. Forty minutes is a joke. Get another flight. Nowadays, I usually just get the train to Helsinki. It takes longer, but I am not flirting with death or discomfort by trying to meet their physically impossible transfer times. One day, this is going to kill someone. But not me.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.

The Stopgap (1939)

Suomi-Filmi celebrated its twentieth anniversary with this film, which plays with the concept of time from the moment that a bored schoolteacher decides to push the hands of his clock forward so he can sound the closing bell five minutes early. Priest’s daughter Vappu (Helena Kara) falls for college boy Jalmar “Jali” (Kullervo Kalske), a determined social climber who has eyes only for rich-girl Elina (Nora Mäkinen). When Elina ditches Jalmar for someone else, Vappu offers consolation, but several years later, when they meet each other as grown-up workers, they half-heartedly agree to marry each other.

An unhappy marriage ensues, with Jalmar finding increasingly ready excuses to go on business trips to Jokela, where he is pursuing local girl Linda (Liisa Kartto). Vappu heads up north and befriends Linda without revealing that she is the wife behind whose back Jalmar is playing around.

All’s well that ends well, with Vappu prepared to offer her wayward husband a divorce for his own happiness, only for Jalmar to come to understand the degree to which his “stopgap” spouse is a loyal and worthy companion. Vappu herself faces temptations from a man who is more ready to claim that he sees her value.

Apparently this was a comedy. I didn’t notice any jokes. The time-jumps that take us from wedding ceremony to baptism tantalisingly offer the prospect that we are moving into the near future, but The Stopgap (Hätävara) makes no attempt to establish that its ten-year span is anything but a permanent Now. It neither starts in the past nor finishes in the future. Everybody just bickers a bit more and the kids get larger.

Released on 15th January 1939 (but not making it to Jyväskylä or Vaasa for a further two months), a print of The Stopgap also somehow made it to Canada, where it was screened in cinemas for Finnish immigrants. The DVD came with Swedish subtitles, albeit not with Finnish ones, and three bonus shorts: What is Suomi-Filmi?, a collection of candid home-movie reels taken on the film set, and West Uusimaa, an entirely unconvincing travelogue unlikely to make anyone go anywhere near Espoo.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland