Hella W (2011)

In 1942, Soviet agent Kerttu Nuorteva (Maria Heiskanen) parachutes into Finland on a secret mission. Injured from a bad landing, she rings the doorbell of a mansion, and presents herself to the lady of the house looking for work as a maid. When they are alone, she reveals her true identity, and announces that she is looking for The Poet – the codename of a Soviet spy, the wealthy industrialist and author Hella Wuolijoki (Tina Weckström). Yes, says the lady of the house, that’s me.

Here, says the spy, I’ve brought you 100 grand spending money…

Wow, what a way to begin a film. Except that’s not how Hella W (2011) begins at all. It takes half a laborious hour to get to that scene, the real-life scandal that would ultimately land Hella Wuolijoki in prison, just missing the death sentence for treason by a single vote on a judicial appeal.

“What went wrong?” asked Tuomas Riskala in Iltalehti: “The editing is choppy and the narrative is disconcertingly fragmentary. Overdramatic music blows non-stop in the background. And why is a completely useless narrator’s voice glued on top? It is as if there is not enough trust placed in the story itself and its subject matter.”

Speaking as an author myself, particularly in the history field, even non-fiction works require a story – an elevator pitch, a grandstanding appeal to the cheap seats like the very best of book-jacket blurbs. I can spend years walking around a subject, examining it from different angles trying to work out where to start, where the story is. And so, I feel a certain degree of sympathy for veteran screenwriter Outi Nyytäjä, who not only seems to visibly struggle with finding a feature-length plot, but leaves all her abortive attempts to start on-screen until it feels like we are watching the first pages of a dozen discarded drafts.

In 1943, disgraced Finnish industrialist Hella Wuolijoki is sentenced to life in prison after a captured Soviet spy accuses her of two decades of subterfuge and espionage. She is stuck in a cramped cell with a chirpy, possibly-lesbian black-marketeer, and the two unlikely cellmates slowly become friends. Hella works on her appeal, and movingly pleads with a court martial that she only intrigued with the Russians to save Finland from a disastrous pact with Nazi Germany. When the Finns’ own government turns on the Nazis in 1944, Hella is suddenly released from prison.

No? Okay, how about…

In 1929, the onset of a global recession financially cripples the Finnish industrialist Hella Wuolijoki. Out of desperation, she turns to authorship, cranking out novels and plays under a variety of pseudonyms – she is unable to publish under her real name, because she is a known socialist in a country still smarting from its civil war. The Women of Niskavuori is performed in a left-wing theatre so impoverished that Hella has to lend the production her own furniture to use onstage. But the play is a rip-roaring success, and soon it, along with her later Juurakon Hulda, Forward to Life, and Green Gold are being adapted for the Finnish cinema…

No? Okay, how about…

1904. Estonian student Ella Murrik comes to Helsinki with little more than a suitcase, where she witnesses the upheavals of Russia’s defeat in the war with Japan, and marries a Mr Wuolijoki, a close friend of Lenin. Despite being a committed Marxist, she never joins the Communist party, being advised that she is of better use to the Bolsheviks as a wealthy aristocrat. Her house becomes a salon for left-wing thinkers, and an underground escape route for revolutionaries and spies…

Are you not entertained? All righty, then…

1944. Embittered landholder Vappu Tuomioja (Matleena Kuusniemi) struggles to keep the family estate functioning while all the men are off at war. She confronts her mother, Hella, who is in prison convicted of treason, over a life spent supposedly committed to socialism, whereas all Vappu can see is a soulless woman repeatedly, and vainly, trying to buy love with hard cash.

1945. Okay, in a tense Cold-War Helsinki, pardoned spy Hella Wuolijoki turns out to be the ideal choice to run Finland’s national broadcaster. Hijinks ensue as she tries to heal the wounds of the war and keep her former Soviet allies from invading again…

1943. An unnamed Finnish intelligence officer (Hannu-Pekka Björkman), has 24 hours to get a confession out of Hella Wuolijoki, a famous author whom he believes to be a Soviet spy. Unfortunately, he has yet to apprehend her contact, Kerttu Nuorteva, and must bluff his way through their interviews…

Amazingly, I could go on, and on, but that’s the problem with Hella W, a film directed by Juha Wuolijoki, a relative of its subject, and possibly too invested in telling everything. Nor was he the first to grapple with her amazing life; her grandson Erkki Tuomioja, wrote a joint biography of both Hella and her equally story-packed sister, under the title A Delicate Shade of Pink: The Lives of Hella Wuolijoki and Salme Dutt in the Service of Revolution, not long before he became Finland’s Foreign Minister. No, you really couldn’t make this up.

Hella Wuolijoki’s name has shown up several times in this blog of Finnish film history, and will show up several times again, since her Women of Niskavuori (performed in England as Women of Property – HG Wells went to the opening night, you know) would spawn several sequels, the most recent of which was a TV series in 1987. But sadly this bio-pic does not truly engage enough with any of the dozen possible angles that might have made it compelling. I was fascinated, for example, at the idea of a woman turning to writing to escape poverty, and the possibility that her theatrical success was buoyed up by aristocratic or revolutionary connections. And I was drawn to notes of ambiguity already present in the film, to the question of how Marxist Hella was when she was a sawmill magnate defaulting on her invoices, and how Marxist she was when a spy rang her doorbell and she essentially threw her out. And I was equally intrigued by the kind of shenanigans that must have gone on when she was appointed, presumably, as a Stalin-approved stooge to run Finnish media, so soon after being sprung from jail.

Instead, Juha Wuolijoki’s film admirably stretches its €1.7 million to the limit with lavish manor settings and country piles like some Finnish Downton Abbey, smoke-filled rooms and coldly-lit prisons, making the very best of the “found” architecture that still endures in modern-day Helsinki. One lovely scene, as Wuolijoki is arrested with a manuscript of one her plays, covered in invisible ink, is shot in Helsinki’s train station, right in front of where the Burger King is now. But it ends up feeling like a bunch of scenes from a dozen different films, leaving little space for any single one of them to shine.

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

Serenade on a War Trumpet (1939)

Cheeky soldier Malakias Paavonen (Kaarlo Angerkoski) is supposed to be peeling potatoes but is caught sculpting one, instead, into the image of a woman. The angry Sergeant Tiainen (Ossi Elstelä) orders him confined to kitchen duties for the duration of the ongoing military manoeuvres, which are just about to be thrown into chaos. Battalion commander Major Harteinen (Tauno Palo) insists on conducting the military exercise on the grounds of the Mäkipalo estate, chiefly because he has designs on the lady of the manor, Oili Mäkpalo (Ansa Ikonen).

For reasons that defy understanding, an earlier Suomen Filmiteollisuus military farce by “Topias” (Toivo Kauppanen), The Regiment’s Tribulation (1938), was one of the biggest successes of the decade at the Finnish box office. This half-hearted respray, which crams many of the same actors into similar roles and situations, was intended to rake in more money from the punters, but failed to garner quite the ticket numbers as its predecessor, both in the theatre in 1938 and at the cinema the following year. Notably, the outdoor location shots were all completed first to make the most of the short Finnish summer in June and July 1939. The interiors, comprising the bulk of the footage, were shot in September, when the decline in good weather would not be an issue. The film was planned for a national release in November, but was held up by the outbreak of war. A few scattered provincial screenings did occur before the official Helsinki opening night on 1st January 1940, which is why I, along with the Finnish film archives, continue to list this film as a 1939 release.

As with The Regiment’s Tribulation, (and indeed its 1939 imitation Kalle Kollola, Cavalryman) the most interesting element of Serenaadi Sotatorvella is the primitive nature of the military equipment. Paavonen’s mess unit entirely comprises horses and carts. The sergeant tries to interfere with Paavonen’s cooking of that old military staple, pea soup, which ends with a bag of salt dropped into the pot and a ruined meal. Paavonen falls for local milkmaid Sandra (Siiri Angerkoski), providing a rare element of meta-textual comedy, in which Kaarlo Angerkoski is obliged to woo the actress that everybody in the audience knew to already be his wife.

Unfunny comedy business is provided by Korni-Mikko (Toppo Elonperä), a venerable veteran of the Turkish Wars, determined to befriend the young Finnish conscripts and lead them in a bunch of hearty shanties – as with Our Boys in the Air (1934), the film that began this watchathon, the script repeatedly calls for the cast to burst into song in precisely the same way that Finns don’t.

Misunderstandings and hijinks subsequently ensue, the Major loses his trousers and mistakenly believes that Oili doesn’t love him, and all’s well that ends well in a war game that entirely downplays the vicious conflict that Finns were already knee-deep in by the time this film actually saw the light of day. In theatrical exhibition, it laboured under the unfortunate alternate title of Soldier Paavonen’s Lucky Pants.

Perhaps luxuriating in the fact they got to see the film before all those hipsters in Helsinki, the provincial press acted like it was the best thing since non-stick frying pans. “A great stimulant to the mind” wrote an anonymous local critic in Vaasa, where people are apparently easily impressed. “Vigorously and briskly performed,” wrote some toady in Tampere. It may well be that they were moved to give the film more credit than it deserved because like the same year’s Rich Girl, it was tinged with tragedy. Leading man Angerkoski died shortly after filming was completed, suffering a heart attack in Kotka at a stage performance of The Jäger’s Bride. He died in his wife’s arms, and the Finnish media made much of the punishing hours of Finnish film-making, and the toll they had taken on him in late-night shoots, coffee and cigarettes.

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

The Little Fiddler (1939)

The vagrant Anna (Regina Linnanheimo) leaves her son Olavi (Heimo Haitto) with Antti (Jalmari Rinne), a cobbler, where the boy soon develops a love and affinity for music. Placed in an orphanage after Antti dies, Olavi escapes with nothing but a cat and a violin. Eventually he is taken under the wing of The Professor (Aku Korhonen, charming as ever), who drags him into the performing arts.

Pikku Pelimanni was constructed as a star vehicle for the teenage Haitto, a violin prodigy from Viipuri, who had already wowed the Finns and several other countries with his musical ability in real life. It was co-written by Boris Sirpo, himself a student of Sibelius, and Haitto’s mentor, impresario and foster-father. One imagines that the idea was that Haitto himself would tour the Finnish cinemas, whipping up enthusiasm for this fictionalised account of his early teens. But by the time the film had been released, 12th November 1939, Haitto and Sirpo had already fled the country ahead of the war, and would sit out the next few years in the United States, where they toured giving concerts for Finnish war relief, and where Heimo would appear as himself in The Hard-Boiled Canary (1941). By 1945, Haitto had married a wealthy heiress and taken a job with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He would come back to Finland briefly in 1948, which would lead to the film’s edited re-release in 1949 under a new title, From the Little Fiddler to the King of Violinists (Pikku pelimannista viulun kuninkaaksi), in which an extra fifteen minutes brought the leading man’s story up to date.

Unfortunately for the 1939 footage, the sound quality is utterly atrocious – half the dialogue sounds like the wah-wah-wah nonsense of the off-screen teacher in Peanuts. Meanwhile, even though Haitto has been hired for this role because he really is a violin prodigy, the production adds insult to injury by getting him to mime his own violin playing… which he turns out to be really bad at.

The best part of the film comes at the end of the 1949 re-release, which features a live film-studio recital by the adult Haitto, although this, too, is partly ruined by a Finnish narrator who witters over half of the performance. In a moment of touching self-reflexion, the camera tracks around director Toivo Särkkä  and his crew as they listen, spell-bound, catching itself and its operators momentarily in a mirror. The film ends with intercut footage of the younger and older Haitto, almost as if he is conducting a duet with himself, the better sound quality and extra decade’s experience of the 1948 footage serving to show how far he has come. But the elision between fact and fiction is clumsy and confusing — this is a concert by Heimo Haitto, but a coda to the story of the fictional Olavi.

Haitto would go on to lead a colourful life, including some years spent as a tramp roaming the United States, before a brief but triumphant return to form in the 1970s. His life would become the subject of another Finnish film, Da Capo (1985), which dealt in greater depth with the pressures and trials of childhood celebrity.

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

Seven Brothers (1939)

In what has to be the worst Finnish film so far on this watchathon, seven idiots in the Häme hinterland are chastised for keeping a bad house. They struggle to learn to read, and bellow at each other about how hard life is. They get into a bunch of fights, and build a house, and they kill some cows.

The film begins with a pious shot of the statue in central Helsinki of Aleksis Kivi, concentrating on his face, and not on the whole image, which genuinely looks as if he is shifting uncomfortably in his seat as if he has just sat in a wet patch. And it’s the fact that this was Kivi’s first and only novel, an early work of Finnish literature, which supposedly saves this shouty nonsense in the eyes of Finnish critics. A big deal for being based on the first Finnish novel, but really, it’s so boring that you’re left surprised that anyone ever wrote another one.

Credited to the usually reliable Mika Waltari, but actually a work that Waltari had doctored from a set of other drafts by other writers, the story is defeated by the impossibly over-large cast, with seven leads, all of whom have to take turns speaking like they are some kind of boy-band.

Musicians play a merry jig, while a woman at the edge of shot stares at them angrily as if they have just stamped on her cat. The brothers dance with the local girls, and apparently they are accepted into the local community. Whatever, it’s awful, rivalled only by The Heath Cobblers (1938), another Aleksis Kivi adaptation, in its crushing dullness.

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

Red Trousers (1939)

Irja (Helena Kara) breezes through town in an open-topped sports car, a carefree blonde loving life, until her car breaks down in the road and blocks the path of an entire column of cavalrymen. Luckily for her, the handsome Kyrö (Kullervo Kalske) is there to give her a push in more ways than one. He drives off in her Bantam Roadster, and she retaliates by stealing his horse.

Like The Regiment’s Tribulation (1938), which similarly made light of the reasons why a country might have an escalating military presence in the first place, Red Trousers plays the soldier’s life for laughs and glamour. Much is made of Kyrö’s cavalry band playing their instruments as they ride, an effect almost immediately ruined by the sight of the drummer enthusiastically bashing away despite there being no drums on the soundtrack. First-time director Ilmari Unho wastes miles of film in lavish beauty passes of the cavalry, as if their mere presence should be enough to excite us, and has plainly badgered entire mobs of extras to act as if it excites them.

The extras, in fact, are the most hypnotically awful thing to watch in this film – happy crowds who are plainly not happy, and old ladies who talk excitedly to thin air as if they are providing walla for an audio-only production. Deep down, the script, adapted by Unho and Aarne Orri from Valfrid Ahonen’s 1934 radio play The Dragoons Arrived (Rakuunat tulivat), seems to want to grapple with the tensions brought about by the arrival of a military unit in a mundane town. There are attempts to document the clashes in expectation and flirtation – the local girls who swoon at soldiers, the local boys who feel threatened by the presence of men in uniform, and the older townsfolk who just wish they wouldn’t put their freshly polished boots on the furniture.

For the modern viewer, it is interesting to see how little has changed. Location footage has been shot near the castle and waterfront at Lappeenranta, which has retained many of its early 20th-century buildings to this day. I recognised the streets immediately. A year after he was ogling the talent on the beach at Hanko in For the Money (1938), Kullervo Kalske is back for another instalment of his Summertime Chat-up School, flirting shamelessly with Helena Kara amid the waterfront cafés. Local women, depending on their mood and situation, either giggle helplessly or sneer contemptuously at the randy soldiers, while both town and fort have to negotiate compromises in acceptable behaviour.

Although, I have to point this out: Lappeenranta is a town with a giant military base in the middle of it. It’s not like they’d never seen a soldier there before, which makes the choice of filming location slightly problematic, particularly because all these soldiers ever do is play musical instruments and chase girls. There seems to be a definite disconnection between the original performance for a non-visual medium and the images on screen, many of which often seem as if they have been stuffed up there merely to fill space. In particular, at the 30-minute mark, we are subjected to three pointless musical interludes. Well, they seem pointless, now – perhaps in 1939 they were the ideal chance to nip out for a piss and a pastry. Within a year, the impetus towards variety would see films that were nothing but musical interludes, such as S-F Parade (1940) and Foxtail in the Armpit (1940) – we’ll get to those soon enough.

There’s also an element of class consciousness. Kyrö and Irja, an officer and a lady, seem destined for an acceptable onscreen romance, whereas a similar mutual attraction between their underlings – his squaddie and her maid – is greeted with scowls and scoldings. Meanwhile, Hannes Häyrinen, an actor fated to go on to great things, is here saddled with the role of Uuno, the hapless, bespectacled, stuttering milksop, presumably intended as an allegory of everything that a Finnish fighting man is not, but played here so savagely that it borders on mockery of the afflicted.

The media reaction to its November 1939 release was one of muted praise, with many a reviewer commenting with a resigned shrug that anything bringing a note of joy in difficult times should be welcomed. But seen with the eyes of posterity, Red Trousers feels like an ill-judged carnivalisation of serious matters, an attempt to laugh off the escalating approach of war. Everybody has a laugh about the soldiers in their midst, as if genteel ladies are taking tea and attempting to ignore the elephant in the room.

Eleven days after it was released, military matters descended on Finland for real, with nearly half a million Soviet troops mustered at the border, and 61 Finns killed in a bombing raid on Helsinki.

“When the red trousers go on,” decrees Kyrö, presumably referring to his dragoon jodhpurs, “nobody can resist.” Except this film is in black and white, so I have no idea what colour his trousers are at any given point, and it might as well still be radio.

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

The Two Vihtors (1939)

Hen-pecked husband Vihtori Rantamo (Eino Jurkka) takes rather too enthusiastically to his newfound freedom when his wife Klaara (Annie Mörk) goes out of town, and ends up making a fool of himself on national radio. Hearing him singing, Klaara confuses her husband with his duet partner and namesake Vihtori Hiltunen (Arvi Tuomi), a recently divorced man cavorting in Helsinki high-society. Assuming that she has been ditched in absentia and that some floozie has stolen her husband, a shocked Klaara returns to make amends or exact revenge, depending on how she feels. Meanwhile, their daughter Hilkka (Sointo Kouvu ) is up to no good with her foppish boyfriend Robert (Helmer Kaski), creating a series of misunderstandings of her own that will all solve themselves when he turns out to be a millionaire.

“Laugh Bomb!” (naura pommi!) promises the film poster for Kaksi Vihtoria, rather optimistically, particularly considering that director Nyrki Tapiovaara was obsessed with realism in cinema, but obliged here to confine his work within the usual, humdrum constraints of yet another “random-people-descend-on-a-mansion” plot. This, in turn, owes its origins to the fact that so many Finnish cinema productions in the 1930s and 1940s drew their source material from stage plays that predictably called for the recycling of the same sets and props guaranteed to be found at repertory theatres throughout the country.

This one, however, has a fascinating production history, creating a huge set of behind-the-scenes influences and connections. The story itself derives from the stage play Klaara and Her Vihtori (1931), written by Tatu Pekkarinen, but this itself was based on the comic strip known in Finland as Vihtori ja Klaara, and in its native United States of America as Bringing Up Father or Jiggs and Maggie. The strip, created in 1913 by George McManus, ran in Uusi Suomi from 1929 to its final issue in 1991, and presented the intriguingly modernist tale of a blue-collar labourer, suddenly coming into money, and trying with little success to cling to his old friends, haunts and habits, while his wife eagerly embraces the new temptations of the middle class.

This film-by-film blog of Finnish cinema derives from the two massive box sets of the works of the production houses Suomi-Filmi and Suomen Filmiteollisuus, which account for most of the films in the country before the 1960s. There were, however, a number of squib companies and upstarts, works from which I am doing my best to slide into this narrative as and when I can. This film is from one such also-ran, the company Elo-Seppo (“Cine-Smith”), such a small-time operation that it needed to rely on the laboratory at Suomi-Filmi to process its footage.

You know that this is going to be a different film from the very first scene, in which Vihtori is seen innocently, but creepily flirting with a leggy secretary at his office (the sultry Senja Soitso), only for Klaara to walk in and whack him on the head with a rolling pin.

Determined to add a bit of pizzazz, director Tapiovaara takes every conceivable opportunity to cram songs into the storyline. In a film that runs for 103 minutes, entire scenes drag by in perky vaudeville routines and impromptu sing-alongs. In the role of Vihtori and Klaara’s daughter Hilkka, Sointo Kouvu is first encountered playing one song on the piano, before her mother interrupts her and asks her to play another one, all as a prelude to a tiny little bit of plot-creating dialogue. The cast also perform several versions of a song called “Do the Lambeth Walk and there is No Chalk in Your Veins.” Which really is a mutant version of the “Lambeth Walk” in Finnish. Can you imagine? The Lambeth Walk was the last, great global dance craze of the pre-war era, although that is no excuse. Although if you really want to see terror up close, have a look at these tormented Finnish teenagers, grimly shuffling around to the tune of the actual Lambeth Walk at some godforsaken school prom in 2016. I’ll say this for the cast of the 1939 movie – at least they appear to be enjoying themselves.

And, surprisingly, this all works rather well – creating a variety experience in the days before channel surfing, in which a jumble of sketches and songs propel along a vague plot, and if there is something onscreen that you don’t like… just wait a minute. The reviewer for Uusi Suomi, a paper with a vested interest in promoting this movie, wrote that it was “a farce of the lightest species, the sole purpose of which is to produce harmless fun for its viewers.”

The Helsingin Sanomat agreed, noting that “a farce such as this hardly requires a logical plot, since its sole purpose is to entertain the audience, and in that respect the film fulfills its purpose well.” Decades later, particularly since it was shot in a square 4:3 format, it looks less like a film from the 1930s, and more like a sitcom from the early days of television.

Scenes in the café get their own separate billing in the opening credits as a “cabaret programme”, in which the likes of Alexander Saxelin, Mirjami Kousmanen (dressed like a refugee from Planet Mongo), “the Harmony Sisters” and a bevy of can-can dancers bring the story to a grinding halt for another ten minutes of song-and-dance. Chief offender is the apparently unstoppable ukulele-playing, tap-dancing Matti Jurva, who sings songs, juggles hats and hassles people trying to eat. And at the end of it all, the cast leap into one more rendition of the “Lambeth Walk”, dancing on the tables in the drawing room like a bunch of nutters.

Another film, Teuvo Tulio’s Vihtori ja Klaara was released only a few months later, in August 1939, and represents a thorny issue in film historiography, since it both was and was not a sequel. Finding himself without a script and a looming production schedule for the company Tarmo-Filmi, director Teuvio Tulio allowed himself to be persuaded by his already-hired leading man Eino Jurkka to rip off and change the names in an earlier script, Valentin Vaala’s If Father Says So (1935, Kun isä tahtoo), made for Bio-Kuva four years earlier. Jurkka, who had played the leads both in that film and in Kaksi Vihtoria, now played an entirely different Vihtori in this version, although inattentive viewers, of which Finnish cinema seems to have legions, might easily be fooled into thinking that the Vihtori Vuorenkaiku of this film was the same guy as the Vihtori Rantamo of the earlier one, or indeed the same guy as August Lampanpää in If Father Says So, all of whom were, of course, played by the same actor. I never said this would be easy.

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

Green Gold (1939)

Rich trophy wife Kristine (Hanna Taini) is exuberant at the opportunity to return to her native Lapland on a business trip, where she swiftly ditches her priggish industrialist husband Gustav (Sven Relander) and volunteers for a tour of some of the outlying work units. She is placed under the care of the dashing Suontaa (Olavi Reimas), a capable, entitled woodsman who has recently transferred from the government forestry commission and remains ill at ease with the priorities of corporate logging.

“Treat me like a lumberjack!” she breathes. Oh, this is going to be trouble.

During nights under the Lapland stars, and days spent travelling in a real-life one-horse open sleigh, Kristine and Suontaa swiftly see in each other a kindred spirit. But both of them are married, and each resists the temptation of what Suontaa calls a karhu-leikki (“bear’s game”) – a dangerous flirtation. Quoting Immanuel Kant, because he’s that kind of lumberjack, Suontaa observes that he is guided as ever by “the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Director Valentin Vaala’s Lapland romance Vihreä Kulta, filmed partly on location in Kittilä and Pallastunturi, delights in the opportunity to present Finland as the nexus of a global business. These trees end up as “a floor in Scotland, a ceiling in Holland, or a pub table-top in Marseille” – leading to a well-depicted clash between the cosmopolitan industrialists and the simpler folk of the forests. This is best summed up by Heikkinen, a melancholy woodsman comically unsuited to his job, who mourns the death of every tree, and rails against the businessmen who only see “three 18-foot logs and a bit of firewood on top” in a 200-year-old fir.

At least, I think it was Heikkinen. In a bizarre and unrepeated experiment, Green Gold has almost no written credits, instead announcing the major cast members as a voice-over in the style of a religious antiphon, as if a congregation of mumbling worshippers were chanting “starring Keanu Reeves” at the beginning of John Wick. I thought for a moment, that this was going somewhere, and that part of the plot would revolve around the powerful religious fundamentalism to be found in parts of the Finnish hinterland, but no, the only thing that this affectation achieves is to severely damage the film’s artistic heritage. Without visible credits, it is extremely difficult to work out who is who, and eighty years later, its Finnish Wikipedia page lacks a credit list. Full marks, however, to whomever it was that decided the name Fanny Aromaa would be nicely inconspicuous for Elsa Rantalainen’s doctor character.

The film had a troubled production, with the wintry location shoots plagued by bad weather and corrupted footage, so much so that although Vaala began shooting right after completing The Women of Niskavuori (1938), reshoots delayed its release until October 1939. Vaala managed to shoot and release Rich Girl (1939) in the interim. By the time the film reached cinemas, Finland was on the brink of war, which reduced cinema attendance and made its scenes of peacetime prosperity seem out of place.

Green Gold was Vaala’s third adaptation from the plays of Hella Wuolijoki, rushed into production (without adequate appreciation of cold-weather shooting) after the box office smash of their earlier collaboration The Women of Niskavuori (1938). Wuolijoki’s stage version, in fact, featured a cameo role for a “Mrs Soratie” (the titular Juurakon Hulda, after her happy ending), who offers relationship advice to Kristine once she returns, pining for the pines, to Helsinki. This, however, does not appear in the film version, possibly because actress Irma Seikkula was off filming For the Money (1938) with another director.

The film’s only major flaw is the complete lack of chemistry between the two would-be lovers, who seem emotionless and uninterested, placing far too much faith in the scripted dialogue to convey their irresistible attraction and tormented resistance. But there are certain elements that are only revealed in hindsight – Gustav is an insufferably patronising cockwhisk in the opening scenes of the play, but later revealed as a two-timing cad, whose clandestine relationship with a busty Swedish waitress Kristine has been discreetly overlooking.

Meanwhile, Suontaa’s wife Alma (Lea Juotseno) has a single scene in the first half of the film, where she rolls her eyes and laughs about her husband’s love of the wilderness. This is later revealed as evidence of a marriage facing irredeemable collapse, as Alma matter-of-factly announces when she pays a house call on Kristine with her new and more acceptable beau, a portly magistrate. This is a cultural element worth noting – a habitual bluntness and honesty among Finns can often wrong-foot foreigners, while what in English might be regarded as harmless banter can leave Finns red-faced and shocked. Both Suontaa and Kristine are destined for divorces from the very first scene, but such a nuance is inaudible to the English viewer, who hears spouses playfully insulting each other on a daily basis.

All’s well that ends well. Gustav can have his booby Swede and Alma can have her fat judge, and that frees Kristine and Suontaa to run off into a hut in the woods. It’s not quite the cross-class romance of Juurakon Hulda, since Suontaa is an educated man, and Kristine has been yearning for a log cabin since the start. And it does rely rather conveniently on a degree of sleight-of-hand, in which two frankly more interesting plots happen off-screen purely in order to leave Kristine with the moral high ground. I probably would have preferred to see a film about Suontaa’s apparently amicable divorce, which ends with a bogglingly contemporary custody agreement over his two off-screen kids, or Gustav’s torrid affair with a woman who has a Laughing Buddha statue on her mantelpiece. This last item is dismissed, in a moment of jarring racism, as a “Chink” souvenir, which I would have liked to hear more about.

In a welcome bonus, the DVD of this Suomi-Filmi production comes with Finnish, Swedish, English and French subtitles, as well as a short film, Helsinki Awakes, crammed with valuable footage of the workers in Finland’s capital, going out their business in the early hours of a pre-war morning.

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

Towards a New Horizon (1939)

Newly orphaned youth Yrjö (Kullervo Kalske) heads off to the big city in search of his fortune, stopping briefly to meet, and it turns out, impregnate his childhood sweetheart Elsa (Irma Seikkula). An innocent in the urban jungle, not unlike his co-star in her previous Juurakon Hulda, Yrjö advertises in the newspaper as a man looking for work, only to attract the attention of a liquor smuggler who wants him to work on the wrong side of the law. Penniless and destitute, Yrjö is just about to throw himself in front of a train, when he is rescued by the friendly Lehtinen (Reino Valkama), and put back on his feet by the Salvation Army.

Pretending to be a trader’s long-lost nephew, Yrjö gets a job at last, and after a long series of misadventures, becomes a champion athlete, before returning to the countryside and cluelessly playing with Elsa’s son Matti, unaware that he is the father. Tardily coming to realise his responsibilities, both to Elsa and to Finland, he competes in the 10,000 metres race at the Helsinki Olympics and, after a tense battle, wins the gold medal.

Once again, town and country are a vital juxtaposition – a happily backward rural paradise, all sunny fields and friendly carters, contrasted with the bustle of the big city, where even an honest country boy has to duck and dive (and lie) in order to make it. The divide between the rural and urban Finland, of course, was more than just geographical – it tended to reflect the stand-off between whites and reds in the Finnish Civil War, and even today, often marks the line between conservative and socialist voters.

Urho Karhumäki’s novel Avoveteen (literally Into Clear Water, but referenced in English sources as Towards a New Horizon) was an obvious choice for a Finnish movie, having won the gold medal for “epic literature” at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which featured an artistic achievement category. The film went into production shortly after Japan gave up on the idea of hosting the 1940 Olympics, claiming that it had better things to do with the money. The Olympics were instead awarded to Helsinki, creating a little cul-de-sac in history of commemorative 1940 Helsinki Olympics memorabilia, and inspiring director Orvo Saarikivi to make a film adaptation. However, the 1940 Helsinki Olympics were fated not to happen, either. Avoveteen, like Lapatossu and Vinski in Olympic Fever, was made and released in the brief 12-month window between Helsinki receiving and cancelling the Olympics after the November 1939 outbreak of the Winter War, making the near-future finale of this film a brief moment of alternate-universe science fiction. Or, considering that Finns also win silver and bronze, fantasy…

The film is notable for its scenes of athletes in training, and for something oddly rare in early Finnish films: a sequence filmed in a sauna. Yrjö’s Olympic victory is filmed in a real stadium, cunningly steered to sound Olympic through cutaways to the radio announcer and drop-ins of a crowd watching some real-life event, and through occasional glimpses of foreign flags (including, notably, a Nazi one), and foreign press (including a Japanese cameraman). Yrjö and his fellow runners are never shown running with the crowd in the background, although the camera does sneakily get a good shot of them passing the distinctive tower of the Helsinki Olympic stadium, which would not get to host the Games for real until 1952.

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

Rich Girl (1939)

Based on a 1921 novel by Kersti Bergroth, Rich Girl premiered in September 1939, just before the Soviet Union would bring peace tumbling down. It is suffused with flapper-era jazz, born both from its 1920s origins and a certain, desperate attempt to feel good in the face of impending conflict.

Anni Hall, no really, is the titular rich girl played by Sirkka Sari, revealed in a prolonged montage of wakings, dressings, washings and nights out, as she busies herself with the apparently exhausting job of doing nothing in Helsinki.

“All this riding and dancing is starting to feel retarded,” she says – the English subtitles presumably also belonging to a less enlightened age. But her friend Lea (Lea Joutseno) suggests that they go off somewhere exciting and strange. For a moment, there is a tantalising prospect that his film will take Finns off to Morocco or Iceland, but no, things take a different turn when Anni’s horse is spooked by a car in the road, and the upheaval causes her and her friend Lea to meet the handsome Mr Vinter (Olavi Reimas).

Love is in the air for the rich girls, but only once they have vaguely come to appreciate the message that money isn’t everything (although as the film inadvertently implies, IT REALLY HELPS). Particular fun is had at the expense of Edla (Eija Londén) a loan-shark’s daughter who cluelessly bounds over the class fences when she attracts the marriage proposal of the well-to-do Lasse (Uolevi Räsänen). At least there is something interesting about Edla – as the film relentlessly drives home, the main cast have nothing in their lives but sailing and riding, leaving them even boring themselves.

“What are your hobbies?” Anni asks Allan (Turo Kartto).

“Same as yours,” he shrugs, in a conversation liable to be repeated on Tinder all over contemporary Finland.

Anni attempts to take poor-girl Irja (Irma Seikkula) under her wing, but only frustrates her by offering solutions to her love life and career that require a privileged easy access to wealth. She pleads the potions and lotions she offers her are gifts, but is scolded for not understanding that Irja will not be able to afford to replace them once they are gone.

The film is infamous in Finnish cinema history for the tragedy that hung over it. After her star turns in The Women of Niskavuori and The Man from Sysma, this was Sirkka Sari’s third and last film, and premiered two months after its lead actress had died in a freak accident towards the end of filming. Finishing early one day due to bad weather, the cast retired to Hotel Aulanko in Hämeenlinna, where, Sari went to the roof to see the view with a man she had met. He took the elevator, she took the stairs. He arrived on the roof but found no sign of her.

Her body was recovered soon after from the hotel furnace, into which she had tumbled down a chimney from the roof. It has always been presumed that she mistook the chimney for an observation platform, discovering a moment too late that it had no floor. The film was completed without her, and she was buried in the church where she had planned to get married in 1940. Sari’s scenes were completed with a body double.

The grisly scandal did the film no harm at the box office, but is pretty much all it is remembered for. That’s something of a disservice to the young singer Olavi Virta (“Finland’s Bing Crosby”), who turns up briefly here crooning in a night club, and would go on to become one of the greatest Finnish stars on or off-screen.

Five decades later in 1993, Tapani Maskula in the Turun Sanomat argued that Rich Girl was a deeply under-rated film, far ahead of its time, praising its nuanced ability to see both sides of the class divide. I think that’s rather forgiving for a movie that ends with Mr Vinter revealing to Anni’s parents that he was only pretending to be a workman all along, and that their daughter has cleverly fallen in love with a Rich Boy.

The DVD includes a repeat of What is Suomi-Filmi?, as well as the short Pelle-Petteri and The Height of Fashion, an advertorial of some of the best in European fashions, just before the women of Europe would spend the next five years making their clothes out of old potato sacks.

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

Lapatossu and Vinski in Olympic Fever (1939)

Workshy navvies Lapatossu (Aku Korhonen) and Vinski (Kaarlo Kartio) are fired from their jobs working on the new railroad. They are soon hired by local industrialist Mr Saro (Antero Suonio), who mistakenly believes that they are skilled sportsmen, and needs ringers in the company team to help win a bet with a rival company, run by the dastardly Karhi (Jorma Nortimo, the studio’s go-to dastard). There’s more than cash at stake, as Saro has rashly promised the hand of his daughter Raili (Laila Rihte) to another sportsman on the company team, much to the annoyance of Raili herself, who fancies Aarne (Unto Salminen), a cashier wrongfully accused of embezzling company funds.

Yrjö Norta’s film for Suomen Filmiteollisuus checks out after a mere 55 minutes, which probably helps. The presence of Lapatossu and Vinski, refugees from the earlier Lapatossu (1937), is rather superfluous, since they serve merely as comedy monkey-wrenchers who help to rig the various events at the athletics meet. It’s almost as if they were shoe-horned into an entirely different script, which could have easily gone on without them, although if it had, it would have been one of the usual unfunny Finnish comedies.

Karhi’s corporation is entertainingly festooned with crumpet. There is a typing pool right outside his office that is packed with perky Finnish girls, but for some reason he has set his sights on the rather dreary Raili Saro. A little comic relief is offered by Kaarlo Angerkoski in a ridiculous stunt moustache, who steals every scene he’s in as the unnamed secret policeman from “Eyes and Ears”, a private investigation company that suspects everybody and everything. In a lovely bit of unscripted comedy business, played entirely in mime, he pulls a long hair off Mr Saro’s jacket while talking to him, and gives him a suspicious side-eye.

The official English title of this film is Lapatossu and Vinski at the Olympics, which I regard as a step too far – the Finnish title makes no attempt to place them at the actual games, which would have been hard anyway, since the onset of the Winter War in September 1939 meant that Helsinki’s shot at the Olympics was postponed. This film, like Towards a New Horizon in the same year, was commissioned to capitalise on the forthcoming sporting event, but completed mere weeks before it was rendered irrelevant by world politics. How fortunate, then, that the original Finnish title referred only to Olympic fever, making it just about possible to get away with releasing it anyway, and turning the pound-shop Laurel & Hardy schtick of Aku Korhonen and Kaarlo Kartio into wartime box-office gold.

Shot in the sunny summer of 1939, and with a closing act almost entirely outdoors in a sports field, Lapatossu & Vinski in Olympic Fever channels a number of cartoonish Warner Bros moments, not the least when Lapatossu pours a handful of ants down Karhi’s shirt to distract him in the 400 metres race. Vinski inadvertently wins the marathon by falling asleep in the back of a cart, and as a reward for their shenanigans, the two layabouts win a car. They drive off into the sunset, bragging about how easy the summer has been, pursued by an angry widow that Vinski has somehow duped.

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