The Vagabond’s Waltz (1941)

Carefree Finnish nobleman Arnold (Tauno Palo) makes the mistake of beating a Russian prince at cards, and is challenged to a duel over the attentions of a lady. Fearing he is wanted for murder, he flees from St Petersburg back to his native land, switching clothes and identities on the train with a violinist. Hiding out among circus folk, he becomes the unwitting centre of a love triangle between an acrobat and a strongwoman, and has to flee once more, throwing in his lot with a band of gypsies who love his violin-playing.

He soon charms local lady of the manor, Helena (Ansa Ikonen), who is torn between the man she believes to be little more than a tramp, and local rich boy Eric (rent-a-cad Jorma Nortimo, sneaking back in front of the camera after many months directing behind it). Arnold plays up his vagabond status, wriggling out of an illegal fishing charge by pretending he can’t read the sign, and eventually accepting Helena’s charitable offer of a low-ranking job at her mansion in order to “better himself”. The two would-be lovers are surprised by the apparently justifiably jealous Eric, leading to a tense wedding in which Arnold and his gypsy band dominate proceedings. Arnold and Helena elope, only for him to drive her up to his own family mansion, and reveal that he has, somewhat cruelly, been lying to her all along.

All’s well that ends well, because he’s rich.

Leading man Palo is initially unrecognisable beneath a 19th-century moustache, in a film that comes loaded with baroque, imperial sets, hearkening back to the Bad Old Days when Finland was but a Grand Duchy within the Tsar’s Empire, and even posh Finns were little more than servants to the Russians. Much of the fun derives from the slurry of women that Arnold leaves spattered in his wake, including Athalia (Lida Salin), the incredibly enthusiastic circus strongwoman, and Cleo (Laila Jokimo), the lithe acrobat. Regina Linnanheimo in a black curly wig is uncharacteristically joyous and smouldering as “Rosinka the beautiful gypsy girl” for whose affections Arnold briefly wrestles, before being told something borderline racist about how “gypsies should keep to their own kind.”

Of course, he’s also “keeping to his own kind,” pursuing the usual wet-lipped and grasping Finnish film romance of a woman with pots of cash, although one imagines that the producers would plead that, at the time she elopes with him, Helena doesn’t believe he has two pennies to rub together. Ansa Ikonen’s face, in the final scene, is a picture of wounded pride, as she gets a happy ending, but only through a deception that has been perpetrated on her for the entire movie. She genuinely looks like she’s going to slap him, and then she actually does. Their romance is only saved at the last moment by Arnold’s fearsome mother (Elsa Rantalainen), who literally commands them to kiss – a dramatic device we have seen before in The Regiment’s Tribulation and Did Emma Laugh at the Sergeant.

The “Vagabond’s Waltz” was originally a Swedish tune written in 1909 by J. Alfred Tanner. It was the film director Toivo Särkkä who decided that such a well-known ditty deserved a film built around it, in a sort of precursor to modern juke-box musicals. He threw 50,000 marks at the writer Mika Waltari, whose summery script was then lensed in the dark and rainy days of a Finnish autumn, leaving the cast looking somewhat drab and bedraggled when they are supposed to be having fun.

Despite such tribulations, the film became one of the most popular ever at the Finnish box office, circulating in a dozen prints and making it as far afield as Bulgaria and Turkey. “One of the finest products of the Finnish film industry,” enthused the unimpressable Paula Talaskivi in the Ilta Sanomat. “A beautiful, glossy picture,” agreed Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti. “The viewer is happy to forget all the impossibilities of the plot for a couple of hours and surrender to the flow of events when they happen quite effortlessly and in a brisk good-natured way.”

“The film is the Finnish counterpart to the melodrama Gone with the Wind,” wrote Antti Lindqvist in Katso magazine in 1990. “Both works nostalgically describe the idyll of a bygone era that never existed.”

The real stand-out star, however, is Regina Linnanheimo, usually a bored-seeming and often sulky blonde onscreen, suddenly transformed into a vivacious dancer with flashing eyes. Maybe it was the wig?

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

Antreas and the Sinful Jolanda (1941)

Antreas (Olavi Reimas) is a blind man who sells brushes in the Helsinki marketplace. He charms everybody around him with his sunny disposition, including his neighbours, whom he invites in for the occasional booze-up. But Antreas is at the centre of an unwitting love-triangle, pining for the yuppie secretary Jolanda (Kirsti Hurme), and unaware that his neighbour’s daughter Martta (Kaija Rahola) harbours unrequited feelings for him. Jolanda, however, is busy climbing the social ladder in search of a suitably placed husband, and has no time for the kind-hearted salesman.

Matters change when Antreas turns out to be a millionaire, thanks to the discovery of a vein of silver ore on his late brother’s Australian farm. Jolanda suddenly changes her tune, agrees to Antreas’ previously spurned advances, and betroths herself to him before any other gold- (sorry) silver-digger can get her claws in. She then sets about busily spending his money, while embarking on an increasingly intimate series of liaisons with the musician Reimar (Kille Oksanen).

Suomi-Filmi’s melodrama begins with a bewitching slice-of-life of Helsinki’s harbour-side marketplace, where to this day you can be cheerily over-charged for a sausage. It’s as if director Valentin Vaala and cinematographer Eino Heino are drunk with enthusiasm for the restoration of normality after the Winter War, cramming in little bits of real-world detail just for the hell of it. This also comes across in some of the blocking, for which their sound recordist seems ill-prepared to capture scraps of dialogue amid throngs of students – Martta is supposedly a starry-eyed teenager, although, with the best will in the world, the 31-year-old Kaija Rahola has trouble not looking like one of the lecturers.

A kindly constable (Aku Peltonen) warns the blind Antreas that time is marching on, and hands him a fallen brush-head. Antreas thanks him and cheerily calls out; näkemiin (“see you later”), which the constable acknowledges with a melancholy smile. Much like a country struggling to come to terms with a hard-fought armistice, Antreas puts a brave face on his condition, and on his recurrent self-medication through alcohol, smiling unapologetically as he tap-tap-taps his way into the Alko store to buy a restorative tipple.

Shooting on Antreas and the Sinful Jolanda started in the summer of 1940, for some pick-ups in Helsinki, Turku and Nantaali, although as the year wore on, some of the later shoots had to move indoors. One sequence in a backyard has been plainly filmed in a studio. They did, however, risk the weather for a location shoot on Tehtaankatu in central Helsinki (home to today’s Russian embassy), where a kind-hearted passer-by did not realise that filming was underway, and tried to persuade the “blind” Olavi Reimas not to go into a booze shop. The film also seems notable for an animated credits sequence in which the stars’ names write themselves out in swirling calligraphy – something I don’t remember seeing previously in Finnish film, although possibly I have merely not noticed it before.

Early set-ups celebrate a blue-collar world of hard work and chirpy enthusiasm, not unlike the plucky Brits gurning their way through the Blitz. As all too commonly seems to happen in Finnish film, the antagonist gets all the best looks and the best lines, while the supposed romantic lead is forced to drip about on the sidelines. Fresh from her simmering bad-girl role in In the Fields of Dreams (1940), Kirsti Hurme delineates Jolanda’s “sinful” nature in several discreet tics and mannerisms, particularly her arched eyebrows at the banter of her office colleagues, and her surreptitious checking of her make-up. She is harshly lit in her scenes with Antreas, artfully imparting her features with a sinister cast that only we can see as she whispers sweet nothings, and even managing to turn a song about light-hearted fun into a sinister harbinger of doom.

It’s left to the ever-faithful Martta to take Antreas to Turku, where a German doctor is conveniently able to restore his sight – not for the last time in the 1940s, Germany is presented as a kindly and tech-savvy ally of Finland. The pair return to Helsinki, where Antreas pretends that he is still blind, although he now literally sees the terrible way that Jolanda is carrying on with Reimar – she is trying to get Antreas to sign a cheque for far more than the amount she tells him, and even openly snogging Reimar in front of him. Confronting Jolanda with her plan to swindle him out of 300,00 marks, he sends her packing, although he forgives Reimar, who earnestly refuses to accept a cheque written in bad faith. In a lovely moment, it is only when Antreas bends down to pick up the crumpled cheque that Jolanda realises he has been able to see through her dastardly plot.

Martta invites Antreas to the garden to see some puppies (no, really), whose eyes have just opened. “Only today have my eyes finally opened,” Antreas says. “And you, Martta, are the first person who begins to look beautiful in my eyes.”

The Finnish press in its day was largely approving, acknowledging that it was a difficult time and a difficult conditions to be squeezing out a dramedy. Even Toini Aaltonen in the Suomen Sosiaaldemokratti observed that for all its “naïve emotion”, there was something profound in the way that it focused on what was truly important to Antreas. Money is no object – Antreas literally hands Reimar all the cash that Jolanda has been trying to obtain by underhand means – but it’s more important to him that he has the love of a good woman. Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti was similarly impressed with a film he found “psychologically interesting.” I concur with Salama Simonen in Uusi Suomi, who enjoyed the “countless small details” in both filming and acting that made this more than the sum of its parts, even if the idea of a life-changing disability that can so easily be waved away is liable to leave many 21st-century viewers uncomfortable.

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

Helsinki Crimes (2022)

Timo Harjunpää is a dour, distracted detective who commutes into work on the train from the Helsinki suburbs. He has to deal with a series of quirky crimes, including a policeman’s son on a killing spree, a millionaire pushed over the edge by aggressively woke tormenters, and a male prostitute accused of murder. Meanwhile, Harjunpää’s wife hectors him about “never” spending time with his family, but does so while they’re at the beach, and continues complaining about it while they are sailing around in a yacht.

Sneaking without fanfare onto Netflix, the Finnish crime series Harjunpää is based on the novels by Matti Yrjänä Joensuu, retitled Helsinki Crimes for the international market, on the grounds that there is no point in having a hero whose name nobody can pronounce in the Home Counties. The character has appeared before in multiple adaptations, including a Swedish-language TV series in the 1980s and a Finnish series in the 1990s. Here, he is dusted off once more for the Scandi Noir generation, with adaptations of four of the Harjunpää novels, carefully dragged into the 21st century. Harjunpää and the Policeman’s Son, for example, was originally published in 1983, but here gains a subplot about online identity theft that would never have even occurred to the original author. Harjunpää and the Bullies, originally published in 1986, is here entirely transformed into a story of net stalking and catfishing.

The original novels were written between 1976 and 2010 by a serving police officer with a deep interest not only in the police procedural, but in the psychological grind of police work. Harjunpää himself was named in honour of a fellow cop, killed in the line of duty in 1968. Joensuu’s original novels focused on the damage done to Harjunpää by his encounters with crime and criminals. As noted in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, police officers tend to encounter people on “the worst days of their lives”, and the series zeroes in on Harjunpää’s troubles reconciling his day-job horrors with his distant family life.

Much of the appeal to Finnish viewers surely stems from the way that forty-year-old thrillers are updated for a new generation, but none of that will be visible to audiences overseas. Instead, they are liable to see an oddly well-off, reticent detective, blundering through a series of crime scenes, with a will-this-do? theme tune and a touchy-feely boss.

The subtitling team push their translation to the redline of acceptability, throwing in a bunch of policier slang (all “vics” and “K-9 units” and “broads” and even saying “911” when the emergency number in Finland is actually 112), which makes the script sound a lot cooler than it really is. The best scene in episode one, however, is completely wordless, as a father identifies his daughter’s body at the morgue, and the entire thing is played in Finnish silence.

Some truly interesting local nuances may slip past the casual foreign viewer, such as the calm and conciliatory behaviour of the police, who often seem to treat the criminals as if the crime they have just committed is something that has happened to them. Harjunpää has none of the “YOU’RE A LOOSE CANNON!” spats we might expect with his captain, who is, instead, a kind-hearted matron who asks him if he is fulfilled at the workplace. His conflict with his partner Onerva is not about the usual buddy-cop tensions, but about her unreconstructed opinion that criminals cannot possibly be reformed, and are only learning enough psychobabble to gain parole.

The filming schedule appears to have made the most of the short Finnish summer, although one sequence may play differently with foreign viewers. It looks at first as if someone is doing a terrible job of shooting day-for-night, but is in fact naturalistically filmed at midnight in July, which truly has an eerie teal pallor, like some otherworldly twilight.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.

Foxtail in the Armpit (1940)

Evacuated from the city of Viipuri, recently lost to Russia in the war, Valle (Arvo Lehesmaa) sets up a musical group with his old war buddies Nalle (Leo Lähtenmäki) and Jalmar (Martti Lohikoski). The boys are soon thrown into the company of a trio of fun-loving office ladies, who unwittingly drag them into a series of misunderstandings about a valuable fox-fur scarf that comes into their possession. Eventually, all’s well that ends well, three couples find love, but the women dutifully donate their engagement rings to the Finnish war effort, since every little helps.

Released in the last week of 1940 and not making it to many provincial theatres until the following spring, Ketunhäntä Kainulossa rounds up a bunch of B-list actors, overlooked by the Suomi-Filmi and Suomen Filmiteollisuus studios. Leading ladies Mirjami Kuosmanen and Aune Häme, for example, had only managed bit-parts in films for the majors, while Aino Angerkoski might have a familiar surname, but only because the recently deceased star Kaarlo Angerkoski was her brother. All gamely throw themselves into a farce that tries to make light of the war raging just outside – famously, Finland had banned dancing during the Winter War as a mark of respect to the hardships on the frontline, and the jazzy, toe-tapping resumption of fun times seen here would soon be repealed again when hostilities resumed. As a result, the cast desperately try to cram in as much singing and dancing as they can, from impromptu a cappella singalongs on apartment stairwells, to a full-on variety show that bulks out the running time in the last reel.

The film’s odd title derives from a Finnish slang term – a foxtail in the armpit, not unlike a wolf in sheep’s clothing, denotes a wily predator trying to pass himself off as something he is not. In this case, it refers to a folktale about a fox trying to pass as human by cramming itself into an overcoat, only for its tail to poke out, giving it away. It is also the title of one of the many songs sung during the course of the film – in this case, at a bizarre masked ball that the cast attends, and where people throw paper streamers in an attempt to make things more interesting. The song is reprised at the end in a song-and-dance number in which Lähteenmäki is surrounded by a bunch of lissome Finnish girls in hotpants, so life could be worse.

The film was written to order by Reino “Palle” Hirviseppä, a prominent radio scenarist hired to dash something off to capitalise on the armistice. His revue-style caper (compare to the contemporary S-F Paraati and the same company’s earlier Kaksi Vihtoria), throwing together a bunch of stock characters better known from Finnish radio, often lumbers towards incomprehensibility when divorced from the memes and call-backs of its original era. Hirviseppä openly feuded with director Blomberg over liberties taken with his script – rushed into production so fast there was no time to wait to shoot planned summer scenes, losing most of the first-choice cast to also-rans, and a bunch of rewrites that he regarded as ruinous. He would later comment that the premiere at the Helsinki Savoy was an unmitigated disaster, and that he was ashamed to be present. Audiences agreed, in a year for which cinema attendance was already in a slump – this was the fifth and last film for the production company Eloseppä, and its box-office failure caused the cancellation of the planned follow-up, Singing Cinderella (Laulava Tuhkimo).

The Helsingin Sanomat was unimpressed, with movie critic Paula Talaskivi archly noting that a movie billing itself as the “funniest Finnish movie of all time” failed to elicit a single chuckle in the cinema. Instead, she found it to be “the saddest thing imaginable,” betraying the audience’s trust by committing the most unforgiveable crime for any comedy: being boring. Olavi Vesterdahl was similarly damning in Tampere’s Aamulehti, berating the film for even bothering to staple its song-dance routines together with such a flimsy plot. The Swedish-language press commentary is beyond me, but I cannot resist sharing the Google translation of the review in Hufvudstadsbladet, which reads: “”This is an insertion for the whole of the landfill and the landfill of the landfill. However, the number of landfills used is not open to the public from the operative coupling of the ramp.” Say what you mean, Sweden.

Critics were more easily swayed in the Finnish provinces, where the Savo Sanomat called it a veritable “herring salad” (sillisalaatti – this is apparently a good thing if you come from Savo), and commented: “There’s such a vibrancy and momentum in the movie, so that no one sleeps at all while watching it. In places, the film touches such limits of respectability that it should be categorically kept from children.”

Two years later, director Erik Blomberg would marry leading actress Mirjami Kuosmanen, so I suppose someone found it raunchy enough outside Savo. Hirviseppä and Blomberg, however, never spoke to each other again, and were still bitter about the whole thing in interviews four decades later.

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

My Son the Consul-General (1940)

Hard-up student Inkeri (Helena Kara) wins a trip to That Fancy Stockholm, and in order not to stick out on the ship, borrows some clothes and accessories from her rich friend Kaisu (Lea Joutsena). She does everything she can to attract the attentions of the handsome Taavi Takkulainen (Tauno Majuri) but he is immune to her charms, largely because he recognises her borrowed cigarette case as a Korri family item, and assumes she is an irritating rich girl, as opposed to what she actually is, which is an irritating poor one. After this rather pointless case of mistaken identity, the young couple hit it off, and agree to meet the next day at the Grand Hotel, where Taavi’s brother Albert (Uuno Laakso), the Consul General, also happens to be staying.

In a series of farcical set-ups, betraying the origins of this film in a 1934 theatrical piece by The King of Poetry and the Migratory Bird’s Elsa Soini, everybody manages to miss each other, and someone ends up holding a fur coat like the Prince in Cinderella. Inkeri takes a job at the Takkulainen household, tutoring the family’s youngest son Erkki (Hannes Häyrinen). Confusions continue as the pushy mother of the Takkulainens tries to manoeuvre Inkeri into marrying Albert in order to increase his prospects as an international diplomat. Inkeri is batted between the brothers like a giggly tennis ball, before eventually Taavi wins through, dashing to her hospital room in the belief that she is dead, only to discover that she is perfectly fine and ready to hear his confession of undying love.

All this might sound rather humdrum, and indeed, on its later TV broadcast, the critic Ilkka Juonala rightly dismissed it as “a rather routine Finnish comedy that drives along the same old safe and familiar roads.” But over the Christmas season of 1940, this mediocre farce garnered oodles of praise in the nation’s newspapers. Kauppalehti singled out its “relentless pace”, Uusi Suomi called it “a triumph of cultural comedy” and Aamulehti called it a “fast-paced and funny film.”

As suggested by the fact that the titular consul doesn’t get the girl in the film, the movie version differed substantially from the original play, to the extent of marrying Inkeri off to a different brother. It also adds an entirely new first act – the play took place solely in the Takkulainen office and library, whereas for the film version, writer-director Ilmari Unho throws in that whole Swedish sequence at the beginning, presumably as a means of getting everybody away on a tax-deductible, fur-coat-wearing jolly to Stockholm amid wartime austerity measures. The opening half-hour, in fact, extends the running time to 109 minutes, which made it something of a whopper among many “features” of the era that struggled to make it past the 60-minute mark. Unsurprisingly, it’s the cast’s sly Swedish trip that is the most interesting part of this film, with glimpses of shipboard life before the Stockholm ferry became little more than a karaoke booze-cruise. The bulk of the film, however, was conspicuously shot in Helsinki, with only a few scattered Stockholm exteriors to suggest that the crew even got off the boat.

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

Sisu (2022)

In 1944, a company of Nazis flee across northern Finland towards the Norwegian border, burning anything they encounter. On the way, they relieve a passing prospector of his saddle bags of newly excavated gold nuggets, unaware that he is Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) a veteran of the Winter War and a fearsome commando. Armed with little more than a pickaxe and legendary Finnish sisu (which is supposedly untranslatable), Korpi hounds the Nazis across the unforgiving terrain.

Director Jalmari Helander’s previous Big Game was an outrageous action movie featuring Samuel L. Jackson as the US president, on the run in Lapland after terrorists bring down Air Force One, and forced to rely on the ingenuity of a teenage Finnish woodsman. But as I said at the time, it was a film about a “Finland of the mind”, shot overseas amid distinctly un-Finnish mountains as if he had no faith in the cinematic appeal of his homeland.

In Sisu, which seems liable to be released in many territories under the title Immortal, Helander returns to gory Hollywood-influenced action. One suspects there is an image board somewhere in his office, crowded with several iconic set pieces from the Indiana Jones films, a few stills from Mad Max: Fury Road and First Blood, and a bunch of old-school war movies and quite possibly the Norwegian Ofelas (a.k.a. Pathfinder). But he also clings to the real Lapland as his location, with Kjell Lagerroos’ cinematography pausing for long, loving vistas of the fells around Utsjoki and Inari, awash with gorgeous autumn colours, in what must have been a punishing shoot to seize each day’s limited light.

As Korpi, leading man Jorma Tommila barely has two lines in the whole film, instead carrying the whole thing through sheer force of grit and will. He is aided by a supporting cast of sufficiently dastardly Nazis (largely played by Finnish actors, but speaking English to help all those foreign cinema-goers, and dying in a number of increasingly visceral and gory ways), some plucky Finnish women, the obligatory dog in danger, and a score by Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä that steals the high-noon knells of many a Western, and ominous droning that recalls Mongolian throat-singing.

There are some corner-cutting VFX to add widescreen whistles and bells, including shots of Ivalo in flames and a war-torn Helsinki, but aside from Tommila himself and his increasingly ludicrous refusal to give up, the real star is Lapland, which Helander has chronicled before in his breakout Rare Exports, but never with quite so much loving attention.

As for “sisu” itself, the opening credits have a go at defining it: ““SISU on hampaat irvessä pystyyn nostettu nyrkki. Se on sitkeää uhmakkuutta kohtalon edessä. SISU syttyy, kun viimeinenkin toivonkipinä on hiipunut.” Sisu is when you raise your fist with your teeth clenched. It is stubborn defiance in the face of fate. Sisu lights up when the last spark of hope has faded.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland. Sisu is what keeps him going back to try terrible Finnish Asian-fusion buffets.

Just a Night Watchman (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.