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

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.

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.