The Activists (1939)

In the Grand Duchy of Finland in 1916, a group of independence activists plot to resist Russian oppression. They volunteer for the secret jaeger battalion being trained in Germany (for which see the previous year’s Jaeger’s Bride), they run off angry pamphlets on a hidden press, and they try to prevent a list of agents from falling into enemy hands.

Yrjö (Tauno Majuri) is an undercover agent planted in the Russian gendarmerie, pretending to be a collaborator while secretly passing information to the resistance. Kari (Turo Kartto) gives up the fight and takes a job with the Russian-friendly senator Niskanen, although he spends most of the film fulminating about what an arsehole Niskanen is, even to the senator’s face, so he is hardly hiding in the shadows. Niskanen’s fiery daughter Marja (Helena Kara) is openly sympathetic to the activist cause, which makes her the ideal candidate to sneak in to the quarters of the dastardly officer Vasiliev (Ville Salminen) and steal the papers.

Meanwhile, General Danilov’s daughter Katjushka (Tuulikki Paananen) is sweet on Yrjö, and mistakes his sneaking around for the actions of a two-timing cad, causing her to inadvertently start a vendetta against Marja, who really is out to stick it to the Russians, but not in the way that Katjushka thinks.

Released by Suomi-Filmi in April 1939, a time loaded with apprehension about a new Russian threat, and mothballed for 38 years after 1944 in order to keep the Soviet Union happy (see also The Jaeger’s Bride), Risto Orko’s Aktivistit is loaded with propagandistic exhortations for the people of Finland to fight to the last against the Russian eagle. There’s a lot of talk about the “sacred duty” to resist, and “no sacrifice is too great for the fatherland”, all priming the Finns for a real-world conflict just around the corner. A bunch of Finns go on the run for the Swedish border, tracked down to a remote farmhouse for a Christmas Eve shoot-out. All seems lost, and then 1917 dawns…

The most striking thing about The Activists is the confusion over what kind of revolution the Finns want – when a coup actually breaks out, it’s Russians overthrowing the Tsar, not necessarily Finns overthrowing the Russians, and the titular activists risk being lost in the melee. The story of the Finnish Revolution hence comes nested inside the Russian Revolution, and the film artfully encapsulates that confusion – there are many scenes where it is not all that clear whose side we are supposed to be on.

The opening overture references both the Communist Internationale and the national anthem of independent Finland, as well as La Marsellaise for good measure, foreshadowing a similar music sting in the opening credits of the later Casablanca. The cast themselves are split between good Finns, bad Finns, indifferent Finns, good Russians, bad Russians and bad Russians who might prove useful to good Finns. Yrjö is in such deep cover that he spends half the film being beastly to Marja, before she realises that he is on her side. Katjushka can’t make up her mind if she is a friend or a foe, while her father General Danilov gains the respect of the Finns, even as he fights them.

“Russia faces a great affliction,” says one of the activists grimly – of all of the Tsar’s domain, only Finland did not end up as a Communist state, and cinema-goers in 1939 had every right to fret that the jury was still out on that, too. There is a subtle emphasis on the lack of glamour faced by true patriots – Ville (Uuno Lakso) is the best agent among the activists, but largely because he is happy to slum it as an undercover drunk or rag-seller. Much is made of his mastery of disguise, and his noble willingness to get his hands dirty out of the spotlight.

When the Revolution breaks out, the Russians and the Finns both run for the local prison, hoping to free their own and fight their corner. An almost comical series of about-faces ensues, as Russian fugitives believe they have reached a friendly redoubt, only to find themselves chucked into the clink.

The film is, however, rather confused on other levels, too. Vasiliev is just about to shoot Yrjö in his cell, and then magically both of them are elsewhere, unharmed, even though we hear a gunshot. There are several moments of camera trickery that don’t quite work, including what appears to be early experiments with subliminal frames, and a drunk’s-eye view of his captors, as well as heavy-handed shadow symbolism, with crucifixes falling across pertinent pages from the Bible, and the patterns on shawls and curtains creating tattoo-like impressions on actors’ faces. For modern listeners, the revolutionaries’ exuberant celebration takes on a surreal tone when they spontaneously burst into the Russian folk-song Korobushka, better known today as “the Tetris tune.” Much of the action is marred by a bunch of actors who seem to think that getting shot equates with suddenly falling asleep, which is a shame, because The Activists has a number of rousing songs (the first ten minutes is practically a musical; later, there is an intricate dance scene with dozens of participants), and presents a fascinating glimpse of life in Finland when it was a duchy under Russian rule.

The DVD comes with English subtitles (which even rhyme for the songs), as well as several bonus features, including stills from the making of the film, and a documentary about horse-riding in Lappeenranta.

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

God’s Judgement (1939)

Jumalan tuomio turns upon a tawdry series of events, in which a local lawyer takes pity on a fallen woman – fallen through no fault of her own, but because her brother is a convict on the run. Helena (Ansa Ikonen) is packed off to Helsinki to study, where she falls for the judge’s son Aarne (Tauno Palo), who soon dumps his fiancée for her. But with opposition to their love, Helena considers marrying Mr Peltoniemi (Wilho Ilmari), her fallback beau.

Aarne, also a lawyer, undertakes to clear the name of Helena’s brother, but that’s not the only court case that unfolds around her, as Helena is accused of murdering the illegitimate baby to which she gives birth, alone, in a deserted barn.

In an incredibly complex denouement, testing one’s grasp of Finnish tenses to the limit, Helen confesses to drowning her child, although she is later found to have merely dropped it into the water and fainted from grief when a passer-by failed to help her rescue it. The case turns around the prospect that Helena wanted the child – evidence is presented of the baby clothes she was happily making – and to what extent any of this is anyone’s business but God’s, hence the title. But she is still wracked with guilt, and on a trip to the bridge where the child fell, she throws herself into the water and kills herself. The menfolk who have variously failed her, played her, bedded her and deserted her are left to wring their hands about how they could have played things better.

Although the above synopsis makes this film sound like a tense indoor drama, Toivo Särkkä and Yrjö Norta’s eleventh and last film as co-directors makes much of outdoor location work, with several Helsinki street scenes, and an expensive interlude in which Helena and Aarne go sailing. Although the dialogue is stagey and melodramatic, the effects work is impressive – not only is Helena’s bridge jump a believable and stomach-churning stunt, but the film ends with her body lying in state and a halo forming around her head. So I guess that’ll be God’s judgement.

The original 1937 stage play by Arvi Pohjanpää was set in the immediate aftermath of the Finnish Civil War. This movie adaptation deliberately stretches the time frame up to the 1930s, in order to give it a certain modern resonance.

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

Seagull Diner (2006)

Sachie (Satomi Kobayashi) is a Japanese woman inexplicably opening a café in Helsinki, where she thinks the Finns will like Japanese food because they like salmon. After a long month without any business, her first customer, Tommi (Jarkko Niemi) is an anime weeb with a terrible taste in T-shirts, who wants her to write out the lyrics to the Gatchaman theme. Unable to remember the lyrics (because this is an alternate universe where the internet doesn’t exist), she buttonholes a stranger in a Helsinki bookstore. Midori (Hairi Katagiri), knows the song, but is an oddball who has randomly picked Finland on a map, and now has nowhere to stay. Sachie offers her a place to live, and the two women muddle through at the café.

They are soon joined by Masako (Masako Motai), a third Japanese woman who has come to Helsinki to celebrate her “freedom” after twenty years as unpaid carer for her ailing parents. She is the only character whose back-story is really announced in any detail – whatever has brought the others to Finland is kept discreetly off-screen. They are three characters in search merely of acceptance and belonging, finding it in the oddest of places, and clinging, curiously, to a desire to be anywhere but Japan.

“A strange man just gave me a cat,” Masako announces. “So now I have to stay.”

It’s only when I write out the synopsis that I realise just how little happens in Naoko Ogigami’s feel-good film, Kamome Shokudo. The Japanese ladies experiment with new menu choices, and slowly win over the reserved Finnish passers-by in a Helsinki street. These include Liisa (Tarja Markus), an abandoned housewife who has to be carried home after collapsing in a drunken haze. Masako, meanwhile, has lost her luggage, and turns up in an increasingly garish selection of Marimekko dresses while she is waiting for her clothes to show up. Midori doodles some awful pictures on the menu, and Masako goes looking for mushrooms in the forest.

Whereas Master Cheng (2019) was a Finnish exercise in luring Chinese visitors, Seagull Diner is a very Japanese take on the Nordic countries – I am tagging it with my #finnfilms watchathon of every Finnish film ever made, but it is technically a Japanese film that happens to have been shot on location in Helsinki. Ogigami’s characters fall in love with Helsinki’s quaint streets and seaside cycle paths, its city markets and melancholy locals, and, presumably with a surfeit of product placement, since the café is packed with Finnish design classics. There’s no real jeopardy or crisis, just a slow infusion of joy as the ladies experiment with local ingredients, refine their menu, and eventually proclaim that the diner is a success, because it is full of happy Finns.

Ogigami’s script boldly dispenses with much of the whys of her leading ladies’ backstory, taking it as given that they are all fleeing from something, and simply seeking a harmonious, happy life in the land where the Moomins come from. Much in the spirit of My Neighbour Totoro, it’s a resolution that doesn’t see the need for conflict. They remain in a remarkably compact series of locations – huge tracts of the film pass in single locked-off shots in the café or Sachie’s flat, plus what looks like a single day’s shooting down in Helsinki harbour, a bike ride around Töölö, and a pick-up at the airport.

Matti (Aki Kaurismäki regular Markku Peltola) shows up to mansplain how to make good coffee. Apparently, you should stick your finger in it and make a wish, which explains an awful lot about Finnish coffee. He leaves a package of coffee that has been passed through the digestive tract of a civet cat. The Japanese women end up making coffee that is literally made of animal shit, and telling each other it’s lovely. For Kaurismäki fans, this was sacrilege, but for an entire generation of middle-aged Japanese women, marginalised and ignored, it was a wake-up call that they, like Sachie, could do whatever the hell they liked. Or in Sachie’s words: “not do the things I didn’t want to.”

Despite premiering in a single Japanese cinema with very little fanfare, it would become the fifth highest-grossing Japanese film in the year of its release. More than a decade late, it remains a potent soft-power ambassador luring Japanese tourists to Finland.

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

Scorned (1939)

Itinerant pedlar Takala (Eino Kaipainen) arrives at a thriving industrial town, where he befriends the locals, settles down as a shopkeeper, and soon goes into business as a subcontractor to the local factory. His business partner Toikka (Kaarlo Kartio) doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and Takala is ruined by a business rival, forced to sell off his shares in his own company.

Local girl Verna (Ester Toivonen), with whom Takala has had a turbulent flirtation since she was a teenager, flounces off to sob in her room, and Takala leaves for the big city. Both Takala and Verna end up marrying other people, while the outbreak of the Great War leads to changing fortunes. Toikka makes a pile as a war profiteer, while Takala is literally stabbed in the back by striking workers at his paper mill. He is thus conveniently hospitalised for the upheavals of the Finnish revolution and civil war, ready to return triumphant in a tense negotiation over the mill’s future, in which he and Verna, both now conveniently single again, join forces to vote the evil boss off the board.

Released in March 1939 in the short gap between The February Manifesto and The Activists, and hence somewhat eclipsed by two of the biggest films of 1939, Halveksittu is just as much about the transformations of the 20th century as they are. In a subtle, grass-roots way, it charts Takala’s progress from penniless pedlar to wealthy industrialist, in a liminal period that sees Finland itself go from Russian Grand Duchy to independent republic.

Based on Lauri Haarla’s 1930 novel A Man Scorned (Halveksittu mies) the film was criticised in the media for retaining much of the original’s “hollow pathos” – presumably the newspaper Suomen Sosialidemokraatti would have preferred a few more car chases. A review in Uusi Suomi more cannily noted that the film attacked two distinct sub-sections of Finnish society – the Swedish aristocracy, who are defeated by honest Finns, and the Finnish Reds, who are depicted here as thugs duped by demagogues. Writing and directing the adaptation, Jorma Nortimo jettisons much of the novel’s consideration of Takala’s early life, preferring instead to concentrate on the turbulent 1910s. The resultant story valorises the Goldlilocks-level Finnish middle class that remains the national ideal to this day – not too rich and Swedish, not too poor and Red, a just-right White.

The need to cover two or more decades leads to some desperate costuming decisions, not the least Ester Toivonen’s first appearance dressed as a schoolgirl and shopping for a live squirrel, and early scenes in which she inadvisably tries to act as if she has a mental age of about six. In one scene, she leaps enthusiastically onto her father’s lap, and the actor Yrjö Tuominen visibly winces in pain. Later on, her cosmopolitan but loveless marriage is neatly encapsulated in a single scene, in which she flips dolefully through a photo album of all the places she has been, only for a cigar-chomping Gavelius to come in and call her a silly cow.

One is left feeling rather sorry for the spouses who are jettisoned so that the central couple can rekindle their true love. Siviä (Laila Rihte) is Takala’s loyal shop assistant, who worships him from afar – only we see her simpering in wonder as he faffs around in his shop and leaps over his own counter. Gavelius (Joel Rinne) is the monocled dastard to whom the broken-hearted Verna turns for solace, but his sole purpose seems to be to whisk her away for a three-year hiatus, and then leave her a fortune which will allow her to buy her way back into Takala’s heart. Clad in black, and grey at the temples, Takala and Verna stride arm in arm from the conference room as if marching up the aisle to their own, long-delayed wedding. Reader, find someone who looks at you the way that Ester Toivonen looks at Eino Kaipainen when they’ve just joined forces to enact a hostile take-over of their local saw-mill.

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

Palm Beach Finland

On one of those heady summer days when the thermometer climbs into the low teens, there’s been a killing at “Palm Beach, Finland.” It wasn’t always Palm Beach, of course. But local entrepreneur Jorma Leivo thinks he can turn it into a Mediterranean-style resort, as long as he keeps the lifeguards in skimpy shorts, builds a giant pink flamingo and somehow acquires the Koski family home, which inconveniently sits on the land he needs for the deep-water marina.

Antti Tuomainen’s novel dispels much of its mystery in the opening chapter. We know exactly who has killed a thief in the kitchen of the Koski residence – two thugs sent by Jorma to scare Olivia Koski out of the house she has just inherited. And we also know that Jan, the holidaying maths teacher, new in town, is an undercover police officer investigating the crime. So there are no sudden revelations here – the reader is there to watch as the cast fumble and stumble their way towards a resolution, each of them chasing a nebulous dream that could conceivably be realised with just one smallish cash injection.

Everybody is living on the edge, tantalisingly within reach of a big break. Jorma’s visions of a Mediterranean resort on a Finnish beach merely require the acquisition of one final parcel of land. Chico, the local loser, just needs to do one dirty job in order to get the money for the guitar that will make him a rock star. In the most Finnish of dreams, Olivia has pipes that need re-doing, and builders’ expenses that keep escalating. And now the sinister gangster Holma has rolled into town, offering a five-figure sum for anyone who can help him find out who killed his hapless brother.

Considering that Jorma’s resort has 1980s-themed colours, and chalets named after the cast of a well-known Florida cop show, I am surprised that nobody thought to call this book Niemi Vice. It is, after all, the little cottage on the cape (niemi) that is the epicentre of all the violence, which includes an exploding shed and that most Finnish of torments, an attack on someone’s sauna. In any self-respecting Scandi-Noir, Jan Nyman the investigator would be the hero, but Tuomainen’s novel is an ensemble piece, with none of the characters quite perceiving where they are in a chain of obligations and vendettas, each of them making promises they can’t keep, about money they hope to get, for a service they hope to render.

Much like the work of Reijo Mäki, Tuomainen’s fiction revels in the disconnection between the melodrama of a hard-boiled, American thriller and the jejune realities of Finnish small-town life. These echo the ironies to be found in his The Man Who Died, which revolves around skulduggery in the rare-mushroom world, and Little Siberia, in which ne’er-do-wells in a one-horse town race to acquire a precious meteorite – it has spent aeons traversing the universe, only to end up crashing through the roof of a drunken rally-driver’s Audi. Palm Beach Finland comes similarly loaded with a sense of the absurd, not least in the character of Chico, whose life-changing encounter with the spirit of Bruce Springsteen is brought about by inhaling the toxic fumes from a fire started with painted wooden slats.

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

Olavi Virta (2018)

Factory worker Olavi (Lauri Tilkanen) wows the audience in a talent slot at a local dance in 1937, and is soon fronting a Helsinki big band as their star singer. In a career briefly interrupted by the Winter War, he drifts into movie roles and concert tours, wowing the impressionable women of Finland with his golden voice.

Despite a creative stretching of its budget, and a wonderful use of found-architecture to recreate 1950s Finland with pin-sharp digital footage, Timo Koivusalo’s bio-pic of Finland’s favourite crooner is tediously long and scatter-gun in its approach, like one constant montage of lip-sync classics, interspersed with scenes of drinking, bickering and half-hearted flirting. The material on offer makes it clear that this could have been a Boogie Nights or Mad Men of Finnish dance-hall culture, investigating the changes to the music scene in a country struggling to cope with new technologies and musical styles. An aside in an early scene alludes to a fascinating detail about Finland at war – that dancing was proclaimed illegal, as a mark of respect to the soldiers fighting at the front. From this low, low starting point, Olavi gets into big-band waltzes, but experiments, too, with being one more singer in a quartet, a celebrity voice with an anonymous backing group that tours the hinterland, a movie star who happens to sing, and the manager and impresario of his own record company.

Equally, this could have been a film about that perennial Finnish bugbear, the demon drink, starting with Olavi’s mother Ida (Jonna Järnfelt) and her Prohibition-inspired temperance, taking us through the leading man’s slow descent into alcoholism on the road. Had someone with any grasp of dramaturgy been let anywhere near this, it might have even been a post-modern exercise in the mess he left when he went away, ditching Olavi’s character entirely in favour of the way he is perceived through the women in his life – the mother who is terrified he will end up like his deadbeat Dad; the nameless brunette he humps and dumps in his first montage, and Irene (Malla Malmivaara), the teenage single mother who becomes his long-suffering wife, reduced to helping the kids glue postcards into an album of all the places their absent dad is touring. She eventually runs for Sweden (the shame…!), and returns at the end to tell him that they were never meant to be. Such an approach would have added real weight to a scene when an anonymous soubrette (Pamela Tola) rings Irene’s doorbell, announcing that she is Olavi’s muse and girlfriend, and that she has been stood up for their Friday-night tryst. Is she a nut-job or for real…? We never find out.

We know it’s going to end badly because of the gloomy framing device, beginning with an opening scene in the 1970s, when we see an old, impoverished Olavi (Raimo Grönberg), stuck helplessly on the sofa while the radio plays one of the classics from his heyday. But after that, it’s downhill all the way as Koivusalo’s script ticks linear chronological boxes like a TV movie. It is as if the fact of Olavi Virta’s existence is enough to have got this film greenlit; the music is supposed to speak for itself, which is all very well, but you can hear that without going to the cinema. As a media historian, I was more intrigued by the film’s off-hand allusions to cataclysmic disruptions in the world of Finnish music – walled off from the outside world, and enjoying the built-in obsolescence of fragile shellac gramophone records. Olavi Virta’s fame and subsequent fall from grace went hand-in-hand with the sudden opening up of the music industry to foreign imports, the rise of longer-lasting vinyl and the unstoppable onslaught of rock-and-roll – Bill Haley’s version of “Rock Around the Clock” dates from 1954, just as Virta was reaching the height of his dance-hall days.

For someone steeped in Finnish culture, there are all sorts of walk-ons and cameos, including figures from the history of Finnish film, and in one scene played unsuccessfully for laughs, an encounter with Vesa-Matti Loiri as a jazz-loving schoolboy. The songs, meanwhile, are deeply ingrained in the nation’s tango-dancing and easy-listening playlists, and the appeal of this film for Finns, presumably, is the way in which it embeds familiar tunes, forever part of the wallpaper, into the real-life events and traumas of their singer’s life experience. Except, even then, Koivusalo’s script hits oddly dissonant notes. A 1962 drunk-driving incident, for example, thought to be the beginning of the end of Olavi’s career, sneaks in as part of yet another montage, and you’d need to already know about it to appreciate what just happened.

A couple of scenes with a lickspittling journalist, flailing to read portent into everyday activities and mundane encounters, demonstrates an awareness of the many media fictions that surrounded Olavi Virta’s life. Shortly before this film was released, his adopted daughter Ilse Hammar, now a thoroughly assimilated Swede, published Isäni Olavi Virta (Olavi Virta My Father), which offered a series of stark challenges to the narrative promoted by the film. Hammar claimed, for example, that the main catalyst for Irene leaving Finland was not Olavi’s womanising or media attention, but the unbearably miserable and hectoring presence of her mother-in-law, Ida, who dominated their home life in Finland. One cannot simply refute hearsay with more hearsay, but it serves to demonstrate just how difficult it must be to salvage a single narrative from the whirlwind of materials surrounding Olavi Virta’s life.

Lauri Tilkanen, in rare moments when he is obliged to do more than lip-sync, shows an impressive grasp of the real Olavi Virta’s voice, although as in his earlier role in Tellus, he seems unable to rustle up a single teaspoon of chemistry with any of the adoring Finnish women who throw themselves at him. For a film that chronicles the sordid groupie-bedding life of a singer on the road, there is also an infuriating lack of gratuitous nudity – although this was a production intended for the cinema, it seems likely to endure best as a fast-cut trailer highlighting its budget and big set-pieces, and an afternoon TV movie, ignored in the background of a Finnish summer cottage, and occasionally attracting a moment’s attention when granny hears a golden oldie.

The Finnish press was merciless with this long film. Helsingin Sanomat observed that it simply wasn’t good enough to sustain two hours. Apu magazine commented that the “furniture looks genuine, but the people do not” – a not unreasonable review for a film that meticulously recreates the material culture of the 1950s, but then populates it with stick-thin 21st century actresses, and a cast that seems to be perplexed by tobacco, alcohol and old-fashioned phones. It’s also not clear to me to what extent Koivusalo believes the Olavi Virta hype. Much is made of his hit, for example, with a song from the movie Kalle Aaltonen’s Bride (1944), but to someone divorced from the film’s context and reception, it sounds rather mediocre, as if we are being asked to celebrate the career of a lounge-singer whose fame rested on being a big fish in a very small pond. In admittedly academic terms of “errors of historical practice,” why is Olavi Virta being commemorated?

I don’t ask this question out of spite towards the Finns. I have owned his Greatest Hits collection for a decade, long before this film was made. I danced to “Hopeinen kuu” at my wedding, and I was the one who put it on the playlist, and when my son was still a tiny little baby, I used to waltz around the living room to Olavi Virta songs with him in my arms, because I thought it was something his late grandfather would approve of. I have long been fascinated with the kind of steely determination that is required to make a living in the creative arts in a language territory with only five million inhabitants, particularly when a tour must take into account the expectations and tastes not of massive metropolitan enormo-domes, but of provincial dance halls and town theatres. When, for example, Olavi “treats” his band to a feast that amounts to two bottles of vodka and a bowl of a hundred sausages, I don’t know if we’re supposed to find this funny or… well, Finnish.

I am also not unaware of the aggressive nature of Finnish groupies, owing to the odd fact that I happen to bear a slight resemblance to a modern Finnish celebrity crooner, and have sometimes been molested by drunken Swedish-speaking cougars on trains and in bars, where their beer-googles refuse to let them see that I really am not who they think I am. But I digress – Koivusalo’s film marks out a tantalising possibility, that Olavi Virta’s rise and fall was a matter of his chance existence in a highly protected and forgiving musical environment, which collapsed when it was opened to wider competition.

Ten minutes before the end, Tilkanen disappears from the film, and we are confronted with Grönberg again as his twilight self – portly, haunted, shaking from a stroke, and cared for, it is revealed, not by a loving wife, but by a pragmatic housekeeper (Seela Sella). He stumbles out onto a stage to face a fractious crowd of hipsters, who are cowed and humbled when he launches into one of his tear-jerking classics. I can’t help but think that this should have been Grönberg’s film, with Tilkanen limited to a supporting role in flashbacks, in a story that could luxuriate in the overwhelming sadness lurking within so many Finnish songs. It’s certainly something I would have considered making more of, and indeed, may have been something that Koivusalo made more of in a discarded earlier draft.

“You can take my possessions, but not my voice,” snaps Olavi at the bailiffs as they pack up his house, but his proud boast turns out not to be true. He not only lost his voice, but had to re-learn his own songs after his stroke in 1966, and I wonder what the film would have been like if that had been our point of entry, forced, like him, to learn again from scratch what it had been that made him who he was.

The film ends with Olavi and Irene shipped off to a Spanish beach by a Finnish magazine for a breathless photo-call. The estranged couple are badgered by a journalist into saying something positive about rekindling their marriage, but Irene has long since moved on. This junket really did happen, although Ilse Hammar’s book adds provocative details that could have been another direction for Koivusalo’s script to follow.

“There were complete strangers on the beach,” she recalls, “who came up to Dad and thanked him for the songs, which he had given to them when they were young. When Mum told that story, it was so beautiful.”

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

Off with the Shirt and Vest! (1939)

Stuffy processor Sakari Valtio (Aku Korhonen) disapproves of his daughter Ilona (Sirkka Sipilä), who covets a life onstage, and has taken to courting Aarne (Unto Salminen), a ridiculously hammy stage actor.

Kaarlo Angerkoski turns up in the role of “Kiinan Kalle” (China Charlie), a professor newly returned from Shanghai with a Song dynasty vase in a crate. Inevitably, his arrival becomes the catalyst for a bunch of misunderstandings, starting with Aarne’s co-star Irma (Kaisu Leppänen), who mistakes him for Dr Vartio and starts stripping for her examination. “I’m a professor of sociology!” he pleads, nobly covering his eyes. But Dr Valtio isn’t that smart, either, as proved when he tries to open his porcelain crate with a hammer. The Song dynasty vase (which looks like it cost about €10) becomes a second misunderstanding that the cast have to deal with, leaning on a theatre prop department to try and glue it back together before China Charlie notices.

With a title like that, if Takki ja liivit pois! were a British film, I would be expecting to at least see some boobs. But even the jovial exclamation mark is little solace when the fateful words “based on a play by Agapetus” appear on screen. Still, even a comedy without any laughs is liable to be a welcome break from all the worthy films celebrating the Finnish revolution and cocking a snook at the Russians in 1939. And director Jorma Nortimo gets off to a rip-roaring start with an opening shot that shows Ilona’s car driving through the streets of Helsinki, its badge reading “SF” as in the studio Suomen Filmiteollisuus, and its number-plate reading “A-22”, the designation for this movie in the studio catalogue. Such playful juxtapositions continue with the introduction of Aarne, who is shown locking lips with some floozy, only for the camera to pull back to reveal he is onstage, rehearsing a role.

Korhonen reprises his role from the stage version, and is remarkably naturalistic – director Nortimo even leaves in some sequences in which the surgeon and his daughter talk across each other, preserving a certain naturalness of tone. Other elements are conspicuously theatrical, such as Jacob Furman, a 12-year-old tap dancing prodigy, appearing in a brief cameo as a soft-shoe-shuffling telegram boy. He at least is supposed to be performatively noticeable; many other members of the supporting cast are just pretty terrible – a particular thumbs-down for Inna Ahti as Siiri the nurse, who seems permanently annoyed about something, quite possibly that she is only playing Siiri the nurse. Ahti was one of the girls inducted into the recently established Suomen Filmiteollisuus acting school, where she apparently seems to have learned very little. And one presumes that she is particularly sulky that her fellow student, Sirkka Sipilä has somehow snagged the lead role in this frippery.

The production retains the unnervingly extreme close-ups of actors addressing the camera which seems to be a staple of Suomen Filmiteollisuus adaptations from the stage. However, rather than the locked-off camera filming a stage production as if sitting in the audience in a theatre, Nortimo’s camera here leaps vivaciously between two-shots, close-ups and mains.

Whatever. It’s another unfunny Agapetus comedy, filmed somewhat creatively on limited sets, with only seven exterior scenes in the entire film, a reasonable way of cranking out something for the cinema-goers who don’t want to sit through the season’s anti-Russian agit-prop. And perhaps Suomen Filimiteollisuus was on to something, since this film performed above average at the box office, despite having been shunted off the production line like a proverbial sausage, while its fellow films that year ran way over budget.

The doctor falls for Irma the actress in a passionate scene backstage at the theatre, where the rest of the cast are performing some bizarre orientalist confection which involves Ilona giving herself Nosferatu eyebrows and cat-flick eye make-up which apparently “make her look Chinese.”

“Not in any way a sparkle of joy,” commented the reviewer in Uusi Suomi. “Perhaps my enthusiasm would have been greater if the film had been a bit livelier.”

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

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.