God’s Storm (1940)

In something of a structural innovation, Valentin Vaala’s film begins where so many might end, on someone’s wedding day. But all is not as it seems at the nuptials of Kilian (Olavi Reimas) and Elisa (Kaija Rahola), a chain of escalating disasters soon revealed in a series of flashbacks.

Two years earlier, Kilian was a happy-go-lucky philosophy student, forced to retrain as a lawyer after the sinking of a lumber transport placed his father’s business in jeopardy. Putting a brave face on corporate brinkmanship, Kilian is dispatched to a remote region to turn around a small business, only to find a bunch of surly locals who rightly do not trust him. But the good-hearted new trouble-shooter makes friends after saving the life of a young boy, and falls for local girl Hanna (Irma Seikkula). That might have been the beginnings of a happy ending, but Kilian is obliged to marry for money, not love… which brings us back to where we came in, a wedding tinged with tragedy, and just about to be tinged with a load more.

The screenplay for this film was written by Turo Kartto, an actor last seen on this blog being entertainingly dickish as a reluctant British tourist in All Kinds of Guests (1936). He does a nice job hammering Lauri Haarla’s 1937 novel into a movie, to the extent that the TV reviewer in the Helsingin Sanomat a generation later commented that the only thing wrong with it was the occasions where it had to adhere to the “pompous and pathetic” dialogue from the original book. That’s a little economical with the truth – Kaija Rahola sports an utterly ridiculous hat that is liable to be the most memorable thing about this film, while the gorgeous Kirsti Hurme is forced to wear a costume that makes her look like a fondant fancy, and not in a good way.

Haarla purportedly based this 1890s melodrama on an incident from the history of his own extended family, and one gets the sense that its adaptation in 1940 was intended to impart a little allegorical message of the necessity of self-sacrifice on a nation still reeling from the Winter War. The film took several years to earn back the cost of its production, although once the Continuation War was underway, it did get a little boost from being released in Germany, inexplicably with Uuno Klami’s stirring score ripped out and replaced by that of a German composer.

For reasons unknown, the film was premiered in November 1940 not in That Fancy Helsinki, but hundreds of miles to the north in Oulu, despite featuring location work shot on the shores of lake Päijänne in the middle of Finland.

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

A Short History of Finland (2022)

‘Highly entertaining’ – Nordic Reach

‘Written in a lively and humorous style, including many personal anecdotes, this book would be a good introduction to Finland’ – Scandinavian Journal of History

The modern nation of Finland is the heir to centuries of history and heritage, as a wilderness at the edge of early Europe, a borderland of the Swedish empire, and a Grand Duchy of Tsarist Russia. From prehistoric reindeer herders to the creators of Angry Birds, medieval barons to the rock band Lordi, Finnish history is rich with oddities and excitement, as well as unexpected connections to the outside world – the legendary English bishop who became its first Christian martyr; the Viking queen who hailed from the wastes of Lapland; the bored country doctor who helped inspire The Lord of the Rings; and the war heroes who held off the Soviet Union against impossible odds.

Jonathan Clements examines Finland’s public artworks and literary giants, its legends, folktales, and its most famous figures, building an indispensable portrait of this fascinating nation. This updated paperback edition includes expanded coverage on WW2 and new sections on Finns in America and Russia, as well as the centenary of the republic, taking Finland’s history up to its battle with COVID-19 and its historic application to join NATO.

And if you’re wondering where the awesome cover image comes from, you can read all about it here.

Department Store Lapatossu & Vinski (1940)

Workshy layabouts Lapatossu (Aku Korhonen) and Vinski (Kaarlo Kartio) are reduced to reading recipe books to stave off hunger, when they suddenly find themselves inheriting a department store. They throw themselves into swindling the public by over-charging for material goods instead of their usual hustles, only to be plunged into a price war with Senttinen (Toppo Elonperä), the dastardly owner of the rival store across the street. Senttinen, meanwhile, hopes to seduce the innocent Kirsi (Laila Rihte) a woman who mistakenly believes that her beloved Erkki (Onni Korhonen) has been killed in the war.

The critic for the Helsingin Sanomat was unforgiving – noting that while there was indeed an actual plot, huge chunks of Tavaratalo Lapatossu & Vinski were devoted to bloated comedy sidebars, as well as two pointless musical interludes, common in Finnish film since the late 1930s. This seems a trifle unfair on the Lapatossu franchise, both former instalments of which followed a similar pattern of letting Korhonen and Kaartio steamroller a series of comedy set-ups through the middle of an otherwise gormless romance among the supporting cast.

In fact, it’s the pointless comedy business that supplies the most memorable moments of this film, particularly in the opening reel, as Vinski pleads that they should find some work so they should not go hungry, only for Lapatossu to grimly intone that work is a serious business, as if his companion has just proposed strolling into Mordor. Lapatossu and Vinski capitalise on the locals’ love of lining up for bargains (Finns, as the saying goes, “will stand in line for a free bucket”), by creating a fake queue for a non-existent sale. They then make their way back down the line, selling their places in the queue, before announcing that the “sale” has ended before anyone can get in. Similarly, once they take over the store, they try to tart themselves up as salesman, resulting in a pair of camp toadies like the “Suits-You-Sir” tailors, ably assisted by Jacob Furman (last seen as a tap-dancing telegram boy in SF Parade) and a robot dancing instructor.

Whereas Lapatossu & Vinski in Olympic Fever (1939) clocked in at a surprisingly short running time, this sequel is bulked out by a far more cunning means, stretched to feature length in part by a long, rambling closing speech, as Lapatossu ties up the plot strands and leaves his store to the young couple. Director Toivo Särkkä shoots the whole address in a single take – Lapatossu is giving a prepared speech and so is even permitted a crib sheet in front of him – and tries to pull the wool over the audience’s eyes with occasional cutaways to the crowd plainly filmed at a different time. It’s a clever way to stretch out the film by eight minutes, but it is also a tediously Finnish way of doing so.

After the film’s opening in November 1940, there was a certain degree of excitable trilling in the press about the surname-less newcomer “Annakaarina” (in fact Kaarina Salonoja, who had been previously glimpsed in Have I Arrived in a Harem? and The Culprits? both in 1938), whose Karelian accent was a bit of over-the-border exotica for the Finns, not unlike Catherine Zeta-Jones going full-on Welsh. But despite an electrifying smile and killer cheekbones, she, like her co-star Laila Rihte, is somewhat defeated by frumpy austerity-era fashions and servant headscarves, and it doesn’t help that the script takes her ingénue role to breathless, Bible-thumping extremes. I confess I had a bit of trouble following the Karelian lines, which sounds like Finnish put through an Estonian wringer, but clearly the cast have much the same problem, too, with Vinski reduced to smiling and nodding at some of Hilma’s weirder vocabulary. The sudden presence of Karelian accents in Finland, of course, was a matter of some contemporary notice, with so many refugees from east Finland flooding into the country – a phenomenon also referenced in the same year’s Anu and Mikko and Foxtail in the Armpit.

The whole film is tinged with tragedy, starting with its matter-of-fact incorporation of the recent (and as it would turn out, ongoing) war into the romantic subplot. Erkki (Onni Korhonen) has lost his arm in the conflict, and mistakenly believes that his betrothed Kirsi (Laila Rihte) will no longer love him. Ihantala, the Karelian village where much of the action takes place, would prove to be the site of the apocalyptic battle of Tali-Ihantala four years after this film was released. It, along with 10% of the rest of pre-war Finland was trimmed off by the Soviets, drastically altering the shape of the map that forms this film’s opening shot. Today, as part of the lost lands of Karelia, it is the Russian town of Petrovka. And this would prove to be Kaarlo Kartio’s last film, since he would die before completing his next. Confined to character roles since his star turn in Scapegoat (1935), the Lapatossu films were his last chance to shine as a leading man. At least in this one he got the girl, if only for about half a minute.

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.

Finland, Our Dear Native Land (1940)

Wounded in the Winter War, Karelian soldier Eino (Eino Kaipainen) is granted leave by his senior officer to visit his dying mother. He finds her in Antila, central Finland, just in time to bid a final farewell, but his late mother’s landlady Annikki (Ansa Ikonen) says he can stay if he works at the manor. Reluctant to rely on others’ charity, but fearing a lifetime of sofa-hopping and vagrancy, Eino takes her up on her offer, and starts renovating a nearby cottage.

He encounters his old war buddy, Janne (Vilho Auvinen), and they sing old songs from their lost homeland. Eino clashes with Annikki over her earnest offer of donating some old clothes to him, and eventually comes to realise that the various odd jobs he is performing are not intended to better the lives of the locals, but to prepare some of the manor land for a profitable sale.

Mika Waltari is back after his triumph with The February Manifesto (1939), and it never ceases to amaze just what a different a real writer can make. Oi, kallis Suomenmaa was based on his own article “Sotilan paluu” (The Return of the Soldier), published in the wartime bulletin Sotainvaliidi, a call for how things should be, “”a description of Finland in 1940, with its sorrows, struggles and hopes for the future.” Renamed to allude to the stirring Heikki Klemet anthem that plays over its ending credits, it is a fascinatingly modern treatment of the refugee condition, delving deep into the experience of being removed from one’s homeland and dumped in a faraway place, uprooted from all support. There is a certain irony, particularly in the English title for this film, Finland, Our Dear Native Land, since the Karelians are both natives and not-natives, “real” Finns who nevertheless hail from a place that has suddenly been turned into part of Russia. The fascinating story of how several hundred thousand Karelians were welcomed and somehow incorporated into free Finland in the 1940s is a story rarely told or referenced today, but Waltari’s script offers a form of up-close reportage of what it must have been like. Eino and his colleagues are variously welcomed, pitied, exploited and even pushed towards criminality by their experience, while the locals in their new home have to come to terms with the needs and wants of these very different people in their midst.

In a particularly moving scene, Eino and Janne run into the old kantele player Aku the Karelian (Toppo Elonperä), whose appearance will recall to any Finn watching the mythical poet of the Kalevala, Väinämöinen. But the bearded Aku is reduced to little more than a busker on the streets of Heinola, his hat on the ground conspicuously empty of any coins from the uncaring passers-by. He lurks in the rest of the film as a Gaimanesque phantom, an echo of ancient times somehow observing and participating in the modern world.

Ultimately, Eino’s hard work pays off, and he wins both his croft and the hand of fair Annikki, ending with the young lovers gazing down on the lakes and rolling fells of their beloved land. Director Wilho Ilmari ably steps up to the task, pausing the film wherever he can to point the camera literally and pointedly at the land of Finland itself.

There was a slew of films that touched on the Karelian refugees in the latter part of 1940, and Oi, kallis Suomenmaa was arguably the best when set against the likes of Anu and Mikko or Foxtail in the Armpit. Critics in the press were nowhere near as happy with it, decrying it for being too close to its material, too sentimental, and too naively patriotic. Leo Schulgin in the Helsingin Sanomat opined that it would take time and distance from the war to truly document events in dramatic form, but the story of the Karelian evacuees is one that remains scandalously undertold, even today. Writing for the Karjala newspaper in Lappeenranta, Erkki Paavolainen complained that its portrayal of Finland as a glorious pastoral paradise was one-sided, and rather avoided the burned-out homes and blackened forests of Karelia itself – a rather pointless criticism that seems to wish Waltari’s script had been about something else altogether. Notably, Waltari’s original script did begin with a montage of war-torn Karelia, but Ilmari cut it in pre-production. Only the unimpressable Paula Talaskivi in the Ilta Sanomat was actually impressed, praising the Suomen Filmiteollisuus studio for “tackling a delicate and demanding subject with excellent tact and consideration.” She also noted the strong use of Karelian music, an audio evocation of what the men have left behind, in its way just as expressive as Paavolainen’s wish-list for wreckage and ruins.

There are all sorts of lovely touches in this film, including Annikki’s fantastic expression at Eino’s mother’s graveside, as Eino puts his mother’s wedding ring on her finger, and she visibly struggles to contain her glee at what is supposed to be a sombre event. The camera pans across the other graves nearby, double-exposed on footage of marching soldiers, as if to say: this is why we fought.

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

Aunt Eulalia (1940)

In the sleepy seaside town of Tukkilahti (Uusikaupunki here in exteriors), local banker Mauri (Eino Jurkka) is so busy that he has three back-to-back meetings in the evening, and no time to even stop to consider the marriage proposal from local law student Eino (Onni Korhonen) to his daughter Kyllikki (the vivacious Tuire Orri). That’s fine because neither me, nor you, nor cast, nor crew seem to care either, and the gormless young-lovers subplot is largely ignored in favour of a series of comedy capers.

Mauri and his friend Roger (Arvo Lehesmaa) are packed off to Helsinki on business, ostensibly so that local rivals can manufacture a means of ensuring their dismissal. In fact, they are intent on tracking down “Aunt Eulalia”, a wealthy widow whom they believe to be the custodian of a large inheritance for them. However, Eulalia (Birgit Kronström) turns out not to be the daffy old lady the men were expecting, but an attractive young woman who sings raunchy songs in nightclubs, and has already remarried a wealthy doctor, thereby confusing the legal standing of her late husband’s will.

A series of manufactured misunderstandings soon ensue, with Mauri’s trustworthiness called into question and the mistaken belief that someone has kidnapped someone’s cat, culminating in a hot-headed council meeting in which Tukkilahti shop stewards demand Mauri’s resignation, only for the overlooked Eino to deliver an impassioned speech in his defence.  Mauri realises that Eino is ideal son-in-law material (albeit rubbish at pretending to play the piano, I will observe), Eulalia reveals that she has ten thousand marks each set aside for Mauri and Roger, and Roger’s long-suffering wife Edla (director Eino Jurkka’s wife Emmi) comments that none of this would have happened in the first place if the men had just listened to their womenfolk – a sentence that functions as both a plot synopsis and a review.

The Finnish press was more forgiving, thrilling to the adaptation of the original 1929 play by Hjalmar Nortimo, and praising the Sampo-Filmi production team for integrating many of the songs from the original with a bunch of sea-shanties and variety pieces. Reading between the lines of the reviews in Helsingin Sanomat and Uusi Suomi, everybody loved the original play so much that a cinema version would have to be terrible indeed to get a bad notice – the sole complaints, that Aunt Eulalia wasn’t in it enough (this is true – the film is halfway done before they get to the Helsinki trip) and that the script flagged a bit in places, pointedly single out some of the only elements changed for the movie version. On the subject of which, Suomi-Filmi’s Ilmari Unho again penned this one under a pseudonym as he had done with Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman (1939), but rather gave the game away by writing on Suomi-Filmi headed paper. Don’t ever let that boy write a detective drama!

One also suspects that there was something about Nortimo’s original satire of small-town concerns that people who’d moved to the big cities could feel superior about, and ten years after the original play, that was almost everybody! Damning with faint praise, the student paper Ylioppilaslehti commented that “by the middle, you don’t want to leave.” By the middle, I was shouting at them to get on with it, but then again, when they do get to Helsinki we are treated to a bizarre Tarzan-and-Jane dance sequence, a teenage ballet recital and Eulalia’s singing, all as part of the “variety” sequence at her night-club.

Truth be told, at the time of the November 1940 premiere of this film, it had been a while that the Finnish cinema had seen such an obvious adaptation of a repertory-theatre farce for the screen (compare to All Kinds of Guests and For the Money), so perhaps there was a hope among critics that audiences were ready for it. Ironically, however takings were only mediocre in Helsinki, and slightly better than average in the provinces. As a result, despite such widespread praise, this second feature film from the Sampo-Filmi company was its last. Sampo-Filmi would make a handful of shorts over the next few years, but hereafter only shows up on databases as a distributor for foreign movies, in which capacity it continued to function into the 1960s.

Seen with 21st century hindsight, Aunt Eulalia is most memorable for the brief opening glimpses it offers of 1940s Uusikaupunki, majestic ships in the harbour, and unpaved streets still spattered with horse manure, wooden single-storey shops, with modest signs put up in the days before marketing.

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

Did Emma Laugh at the Sergeant? (1940)

In this pointlessly convoluted farce, company director Tobias (Uuno Laakso) tries in vain to persuade tailor and officer reservist Hesekiel (Reino Valkama) to sell him his property so that he can expand his factory. Meanwhile, at the garrison, the impossibly handsome Lieutenant Raimo (played by the impossibly handsome Kullervo Kalske) wants to marry the colonel’s daughter Helvi (Lea Joutseno), but her mother will have none of it, because she wants Emma to marry a poet, not a military man. In a vain attempt to win over the impossible lady, Raimo commissions his adjutant Asko (Oiva Sala) to knock up some terrible poetry, and to keep bombarding her with it until she admits Raimo is a better bet.

Meanwhile… look, everything’s “meanwhile” in this film, everything happens at once and while it is all sort of tied up with a bow like a well-greased episode of Seinfeld, there are an incredible number of moving parts and childhood associations, and somehow Tobias’s medical records are mixed up with someone else, and he ends up conscripted into the military, where the only person who can save his bacon is the very same tailor he has been harassing, who happens to be an old friend of Raimo. Amidst all this, the colonel’s maid Emma (Irja Rannikko) apparently laughs at something, which seems an odd thing to hang the whole film on.

Based on a 1939 novel of the same name by “A.V. Multia” (in fact, serving military officer Akseli Viljasalo), this baffling film is a return to the barracks larks of Cavalryman Kalle Kollola (1938) and The Red Trousers (1939). Critics were unimpressed, shrugging off something that they regarded as old hat, and not much in a mood to laugh at a soldier’s life so soon after a war. It was, however, lapped up by Finnish audiences, presumably now almost universally close to matters military, and happy to see it all treated so lightly.

In the closing scene, in a parody of military protocol, the colonel orders Raimo to stand to attention, face left and then kiss his daughter, which is all very well, but surely audiences of the time will remember seeing the same joke in The Regiment’s Tribulation (1938)?

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.

Anu and Mikko (1940)

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.

London Calling

After the Russian attack on Finland in 1939, BBC producers scrambled to rustle up some Finnish speakers to produce programming. It took them so long that by the time the first broadcast went on-air in 1940, the Winter War was already over. Reasoning that there was still a value in pandering to the Finns and correcting whatever nonsense the Russians were telling them, the BBC broadcasts kicked off anyway, and were hence already up and running when the Continuation War broke out.

Moscow tried to seize the airwaves with their own stooges, including Armas Äikiä, who had briefly been the Minister for Agriculture in the short-lived “Finnish Democratic Republic” proclaimed in what is now the St Petersburg suburbs. The real star, however, albeit for all the wrong reasons, was Aino Kallio, a.k.a. “Moskovan Tiltu”, bestowed with a name that recalled, for Finns, imagery from a popular 1920s song of credulous teenage cluelessness. While “Tiltu” harangued the Finns about their co-belligerency pact with the Nazis, (a style ridiculed in a popular song as nothing but “soup and rattling”) the BBC also entered the fray, with broadcasts from Greta Kivinen, a.k.a. “London Jenny.” She also slagged off the Finns for getting into bed with Hitler, but tried to warn them off Stalin as well.

In the Finnish-language book This is London: the BBC’s Finnish Broadcasters in the Information War Between East and West (Lontoo Täällä: BBC:n Suomalaistuomittajat Idän ja Lännen Välisessä Informaatiosodassa) editor Ilpo Salonen and contributors Risto Uimonen and Hanna Rajalahti present a bitty grab-bag of reminiscences and anecdotes. There are, in fact, dozens of authors, with almost every surviving journalist seemingly given a couple of pages to reminisce about their challenges and careers. This can occasionally lead to chapters that repeat themselves, but represents a fascinating patchwork of accounts of the changing requirements of these obscure cogs in the Bush House machine, who referred to themselves as the bushfinnit.

During the Cold War, it was not even clear if anyone was listening. The Soviets began jamming the BBC’s short-wave radio frequency, such that many Finns reported nothing but a crackle of static when they turned the dial to the correct point. Up until 1956, when the Soviets returned the Porkkala peninsula to Finland, “you had to strain to listen carefully if you wanted to hear something through the noise.” By the 1960s, the journalists had got the hang of it, and worked out what sort of news stories would be catnip to the Finns. In the face of ongoing BBC bureaucratic stone-walling, they fought for extra time to do justice in Finnish broadcasts of Churchill’s funeral (1965) and the state visit to London by the Finnish leader Urho Kekkonen in 1961.

A new generation of staffers arrived in the 1970s, determined to shake up what they saw as a stuffy establishment. As the old guard retired, their younger replacements, raised on sixties radicalism, began to argue that while they understood that it was the mission of the BBC’s foreign service to report on the world from a “British” perspective, they would secure a larger audience if they tried to pander, at least a little, to Finnish interests. There were, for example, substantial arguments behind the scenes over the BBC’s intended coverage of Vatican matters, since Finland hardly has any Catholics who would give a toss. The Finnish section was also somewhat wrong-footed by the occupation of the Falkland Islands, which they regarded for several days as an eye-rolling “And Finally…” joke, until Thatcher sent a task-force to counter-attack.

Many of the correspondents are plainly incredible Anglophiles, and there are many touching stories about Swinging London and the early rumblings of Cool Britannia. Not to mention a cringe-worthy Alan Partridge moment, as, after the broadcast of Paul Macartney’s glasnost-era concert in Moscow, famously featuring the triumphalist “Back in the USSR”, the Finnish section’s Petri Nevalainen spots Macartney coming out of a studio, and sees the chance for doorstepping journalistic gold.

He grabs the former Beatle, shoves a microphone in his face, and demands to know why he has never performed in Finland.

“I did,” says Macartney. “With Wings.”

For many years, the BBC maintained at least one stringer in Finland, but from 1996 had a dedicated Helsinki office in Kaisaniemi, effectively moving much of the Finnish broadcast operations in-country. There was, however, a less obvious need for the BBC to stick its oar in at all, and in the face of cutbacks and increasing competition from the Finns themselves, the short-wave broadcasts shut down for good in 1997.

A closing essay by Jyrki Kokki takes the story of the foreign languages section up to 2020, amounting to a litany of funding cuts, ill-conceived revenue-generation initiatives, and the slow shuttering of a service once deemed vital by government and administrators. In some cases, this was a matter of changing demographics – there seems, notes Kokki, little point in running German-language broadcasts if all the Germans speak English anyway. But there is also a note of quiet concern, as a national broadcaster is undermined by its own government, slowly chipped away into nothing, even if nation still needs to speak unto nation.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. Lontoo Täällä: BBC:n Suomalaistuomittajat Idän ja Lännen Välisessä Informaatiosodassa is published by WSOY.

The King of Poetry and the Migratory Bird (1940)

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.