Vares

Professional con-man Kraft (Jorma Tommila) persuades gullible schoolteacher Eeva (Laura Malmivaara) to help him bust out of jail, smuggling a pistol into their wedding ceremony to fight off his guards. As they wait for their fake travel documents to arrive, Eeva discovers a little too late that Kraft already has the slinky sexpot Ifigenia (Minna Turunen) waiting for him on the outside, and that he intends to bump off his rescuer as soon as the time is right. With nowhere left to turn, Eeva calls Vares (Juha Veijonen), a private eye she vaguely knows from the army reserves, who comes to the rescue with extreme prejudice.

Based on The Yellow Widow, one of the 25 Vares novels by Reijo Mäki, Vares: Private Eye (2004) was a monstrous success in its native Finland, spawning eight sequels in such a pig-pile of productions that later episodes would replace the director and recast the lead. Set in and around the picturesque city of Turku, it largely ignores the medieval charm of Finland’s former capital, focussing instead on a grotty wainscot society of dive bars, sex shops and motels, beneath drab skies and pounding rain. It’s less like Nordic-Noir than a Finnish Elmore Leonard, with a rich cast of characters entirely unaware that they are in a comedy, most obviously in a scene where two men stand around trying to suck their way through a job-lot of 500 chocolate penises that a local entrepreneur is having trouble shifting.

Vares is cast very much in the mould of Harri Nykänen’s Raid, another Finnish anti-hero who flourished in print a decade earlier, and whose own eponymous movie hit Finnish cinemas in 2003. But whereas Raid was an outlaw with a heart of gold, Vares is a smidge closer to the right side of the law. Since lead detective Mikko (Samuli Edelman) is in the pocket of organised crime and cannot be trusted, freelance Vares determines to both rescue the lady and spirit her away from the police.

Helped greatly by English subtitling on the DVD that decompresses laconic Finnish dialogue into sardonic quips, Pekka Lehtosaari’s script delivers a grand guignol of ridiculous blue-collar failures – a criminal kingpin in a polyester kimono, a corrupt detective who projects all his guilty feelings onto his long-suffering wife, and a mullet-sporting getaway driver whose day-job is pizza delivery. Several cast members seemingly stumble through the entire exercise drunk, including the Mary-Sue novelist Luusalmi (Markku Peltola), a shambling alcoholic with stringy hair and the night-sweats, who blunders in and out of the plot to offer worthless barfly philosophy.

It’s difficult to imagine anything more Finnish than this film. A pair of inept hitmen wear plastic gloves at all times, because they are allergic to everything. There is a sex scene in a sauna and plenty of dialogue about pizzas. The protagonist turns up late to the movie that bears his name in order to smack people around with a shovel, while a bunch of Russians swoop in at the last moment to make off with the McGuffin. Best of all, a throwaway scene features a naked Finnish girl serving as a human table for a banquet of meat products, wearing Swedish meatballs on her nipples and a sausage on her chest. This film is much more fun than it ought to be, and is probably best enjoyed in a cinema full of drunken Finnish truck-drivers, who won’t question too much the hokier nature of the plot, such as the likelihood that shooting someone point-blank with a grenade launcher is liable to have adverse consequences.

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

Advertisements

Sleeping with the Enemy

katilo-1024x773

All the Nordic countries had unique experiences in the Second World War. Sweden was neutral; Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis; Iceland, rarely discussed, was occupied by the Allies. But Finland’s war was the most complex, abandoned by the Allies, left to fight alone against the Soviet Union, and entering a controversial pact with Germany, not as allies but as “co-belligerents” who happened to fight the same enemy. It was not the first time that Germany had proved to be Finland’s best friend in a time of need. The Finns ultimately turned against them in the little-discussed Lapland War, which destroyed every building north of Rovaniemi, and led to the bitter departure of some 700 Finnish women who refused to desert their German husbands.

Katja Kettu’s 2011 novel The Midwife (Kätilö) went out under that title in most of the 19 languages in which it was published, but seems to have been renamed Wildeye in attempts to flog it to the German- and English-speaking markets. Oddly, English seems to be one of the few major languages it hasn’t been translated into – perhaps there was some resistance among publishers to a romance that featured a Nazi male lead.

Antti Jokinen’s 2015 film version is now available to own (Time Travel Footnote, and now available in the UK, 2017)  – I could not face it raw in the cinema, but correctly guessed that it would have English subtitles on DVD. It is set in a Finland that no longer exists: that eastern arm stretching up to Petsamo and the Arctic coast, lopped off during World War Two and lost to Russia. Based on the depiction here, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Finns were well rid of it – broad strokes swiftly delineate it as a grimy, miserable place populated with cackling, brown-toothed witches, racists, and thugs. Helena (the award-winning Krista Kosonen) is the closest thing that the locals have to a paramedic, forced to oversee difficult, bloody births in remote cottages. The film begins with one such event, swiftly followed by the locals’ stoic, heartless decision to drown the unfortunate infant in a swamp.

Helena is sick of it, too, and sees her chance to escape when she meets the steely blue-eyed gaze of Johann (Lauri Tilkanen), a half-Finnish German officer who has been posted to the nearby concentration camp of Titovka. At no point does the film claim to be a true story, although media coverage at the time of the novel’s publication suggests that it is partly based on the life of a real person – Kettu’s own grandmother. This opens up a whole can of worms by even suggesting that there were Nazi concentration camps on “Finnish” territory, where human experimentation (“Operation Cowshed”) was carried out on Russian prisoners and other undesirables. You would think someone would have brought this up before, if it were true!

1440647876163

Soon the sole surviving employee with any medical training, Helena finds herself complicit in the shaving of prisoners’ heads and the administering of “medicines” that turn out to be lethal viruses. This is explosive material to introduce into modern times. The extent of Finland’s cooperation or collaboration with the Nazi regime has been a matter of much reconsideration in recent years, most notably in the anthology Finland’s Holocaust: Silences of History, which challenges the nation’s usual narrative of firm resistance. In a 2011 interview in Kuvalehti, Kettu noted that modern historiography was reluctant to admit that one’s grandfather or uncle might have been a killer or a rapist. Her take on this, however, is gendered and universal, that war makes killers and rapists of us all. Helena is certainly an inadvertent stooge at Titovka, administering poison to doomed prisoners, and posing unhappily with two SS officers for the Third Reich newsletter. Even most of the Nazis are unhappy about their duties, but get on with it anyway in a jobsworth, everyday evil that is somehow more chilling than the open malevolence of the camp commandant Gödel (Tommi Korpela, channelling Ralph Fiennes).

This is no Schindler’s List – Helena ultimately only manages to help herself and a single prisoner escape, abandoning the rest of the camp to their fate. But that is at least part of Kettu’s point, that her heroine is almost entirely powerless, stripped of agency, left with little to live for but her own survival, and little to hope for but her unlikely prince charming.

Jokinen’s camera-work does a beautiful job of capturing a lost Finland on the edge of Norway, one with actual mountains. As with Jalmari Helander’s Big Game, this is achieved by filming somewhere that isn’t actually Finland – in this case Lithuania, which is not only 30% cheaper for film productions, but cheaper to reach by plane than the real Lapland. He also artfully captures the desperately awful conditions of Helena’s daily life, so that her decision to move to a concentration camp is indeed regarded as a step up. When it comes to the war itself, the film allots its €8 million budget superbly in capturing a worm’s-eye view of the Lapland War. In one notable scene, Helena is caught in the middle of an aerial bombardment, literally unable to turn in any direction for fear of death, spun in circles by a series of explosions like a human pinball.

kristatrl

The film evokes elements of the novel’s cut-up format – each of its original six sections began with a flash forward of a starving Helena in the remote Dead Man’s Cabin, on the run from the war and waiting for Johann to show up at their agreed meeting point. Only then it would it jump back to her horrible life in 1940s Lapland, the brief flurry of joy at her romance with her dashing officer, and the collapse into hell of Operation Cowshed and the Lapland War.

Elements of it inadvertently recall earlier Finnish war films – there has in fact, been a degree of carping from online pundits that all Finnish war films are the same, and seemingly strive to fulfil an annual quota of grim sisu and pyrotechnics. This is a most unfair comment to level here, particularly in the case of Wildeye, which is not even the first film to give a Finnish woman’s perspective on WW2, but certainly does so in an original, if melancholy, manner. I will note, however, that those playing Finnish War Film Bingo will have plenty to keep them occupied nevertheless, including a gratuitous oral sex scene ripped off from Rukajärventie and three people in a shed recalling Käki (The Cuckoo). This isn’t even the first Nazi-Finnish romance movie either – the so-bad-it’s-good Sensuela managed to beat it by decades, and that was a remake.

katilo_juliste_hr

It also appears to have been a stage play.

From what I can glean from author interviews, Kettu never claimed that the Titovka concentration camp was a real place: her inspiration came from her grandmother’s letters about the war itself, the experience of stumbling across an abandoned hut on the Norwegian coast, and her childhood memories of playing in the ruins of a German prison camp near Rovaniemi. Instead, her interest was in telling the story of the human cost and effect of 200,000 German soldiers posted to Lapland, and their subsequent removal with extreme prejudice. The Lapland War is an embarrassment to the Finns, partly because it was one of those conflicts that effectively destroyed the place over which it was fought, displacing 168,000 residents, but also because it was a terrible betrayal of people who had been their friends.

The Titovka concentration camp is hence a handy device to confront the characters directly with the nature of Nazi evil, although it feels to me that this undermines one of the author’s intended points, that men like Johann were not goose-stepping fascists, but human beings caught up in a conflict not of their own making.

However, trawling through the Finnish-language web, I am surprised that nobody in Finland called the story out on its depiction of war crimes, which (commenters please correct me if I am wrong) seemed to have been invented by the author for dramatic effect, and yet are repeated in the film with an air of realism. Experience during the press junkets for my Mannerheim book taught me that many young Finns get far too much of their historical knowledge from movies and the internet, and are apt to accept any and all literary devices as representations of real events.

This is true all the world over, of course, and it is not the fault of Kettu or Jokinen that their book and film might be misinterpreted as more factual than they warrant. That would, perhaps, be something best addressed in DVD extras, but the version I bought in Finland offers nothing but a trailer, a teaser, and a picture gallery. For a subject that risks becoming so controversial, and so open to misinterpretation, this is a disappointment.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland (Available from Amazon in the US/UK). The film was finally released in the UK in 2017 as Finland 1944, “based on true events”.

The Girl King

kuningatar kristiina elokuva kuvauksetMika Kaurismäki’s latest film, Tyttökuningas uses a deliberately counter-intuitive coinage in Finnish, directly translatable as “The Girl King.” Like Empress Wu and Queen Hatshepsut, the titular monarch was a woman who sought the recognition and power of a man in a man’s world. In the case of Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89) the terminology is truly apt – she was the sole heir of a doomed king desperate for a son, inheriting her father’s throne as a child, and, it seems, never quite growing up.

The movie is an earnest Europudding from multiple funding bodies – based on a French-Canadian play about a Swedish queen, but shot in Finland with Turku Castle and environs standing in for Stockholm. The Finnish connection eludes many international viewers, but is entirely apt; at the time that Christina took the throne, Finland formed the eastern marches of the Swedish empire. Christina was, indeed, also the Queen of Finland, and the Finnish republic remains peculiarly obsessed with Swedish royals.

tyttokuningasNETTIMichel Marc Bouchard’s script, based on his own 2012 stage play Christine: la reine garçon, makes much of Christina’s intellectual aspirations, depicting her as a crazy bibliomaniac, authorising the invasion of Czechoslovakia to get her hands on the king’s library (many books from which turn out to be in languages nobody can read), and frotting her girlfriend on the open pages of the stolen Codex Gigas or Devil’s Bible. In her own eyes she is a proud iconoclast, defying the old order represented by her chief minister, and scattering Enlightenment like fairy dust. In this mode, she pompously bestows china plates and wine glasses on the hidebound Swedish court, which she thinks is enough to qualify as a “revolution”, and pouts when she is not allowed to read books by Catholics.

Malin Buska smoulders persuasively in the title role, playing the clueless virgin queen as an occasionally saucy but usually baffled teenager with a winning lopsided smile. But if the film belongs to anyone, it’s the impotent menfolk who tut and wring their hands at the side lines. There is, to be sure, an argument that Christina’s mad life is best presented as a tragi-comedy, and the only moment that drew universal laughter in the Finnish cinema where I saw the film was the scene where Count Axel Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist) hems and haws and gamely tries to mansplain that “women’s friendships are different.” It’s Oxenstierna who shoulders the burden of running the country through his queen’s minority, and who begs her to do her duty, marry and get pregnant… and when she’s not up for that, to just try to be sane and not do anything daft like switch religious faiths at a time of political crisis.

True to any good historical movie, Kaurismäki and Bouchard do not rewrite the facts, although they do try and present them as best they can. A protagonist who does not change is a villain, not a hero, and the film struggles, as do historians and previous scenarists, to present Christina in any light other than that of a spoiled brat, impossibly deluded, drunk on power but shirking any sense of responsibility. She dresses in a tight, swashbuckling get-up, the first indicator of her androgynous personality, but then trips lightly around the castle balustrade pretending to be a pony: a far more evocative depiction of her infantile nature.

17-41592566ae4c65ab0dInitially, the story of Queen Christina must look like a dream come true for the queer film lobby: a European princess, raised as a boy, who falls in love with her lady in waiting and rails against the stuffy patriarchy! What a trailblazer she must have been… what a modern dash she must have cut among the dour Swedes. Except, no. The more one knows about the historical Christina, the more one cringes in embarrassment for any interest group that might dare to claim her. She has been depicted before in multiple media, including several operas, as well as the 1901 August Strindberg play Kristina, itself a source for the 1933 Greta Garbo costume drama Queen Christina. Garbo’s version pushed for an unlikely heterosexual resolution to her story, as did The Abdication (1974), in which Liv Ullman plays an older Christina, living in the Vatican and lusting after a cardinal.

There is, admittedly, some pleading of mitigation. Zachris Topelius, that great Finnish chronicler of the country’s Swedish past, wrote in his Stjärnornas Kungabarn of the similarities between Christina and her famous father King Gustav II Adolf, suggesting that her true misfortune was to inherit the hot temper and violent mood-swings that served him well on the battlefield, but which were deemed unwelcome in a regal daughter. Similar arguments are obliquely referenced in the film, particularly in an opening sequence which whisks through Christina’s awful childhood in thrall to a bonkers mother, who demands that she kiss her father’s putrefying corpse every evening, and who is later accused of having attempted to murder her. As the troubled dowager Maria Eleonora, Martina Gedeck periodically returns to chew the scenery, increasingly resembling a swivel-eyed Vivian Westwood, attended by an orbiting cloud of fops and dandies like a periodic pitch invasion by the cast of a Fellini film.

The script also pleads for the incipient intelligence of the young Christina. By the time she takes the throne in her teens, however, the bright, questioning girl of the early scenes has become a mercurial despot, unheeding of the advice of her ministers and generals, and promulgating a bipolar foreign policy that swings between hand-holding kumbayah internationalism and devious double-crosses. As her loyal subject Johan (Lucas Bryant) angrily berates her at one point, there is a human cost to every one of her decisions, and it is paid in the deaths and misery of others.

TheGirlKing_800aThere is an attempt in the closing scenes to present her abdication as a great self-empowerment, or the realisation of her True Self as some sort of wandering swordswoman. But there is also some sense remaining that this capricious termagant has skipped away from the burning wreckage of an entire kingdom, leaving broken treaties in her wake and a vast, costly expansion of the nobility, which someone else has to pay for. Queen Christina clung desperately to the trappings of royal power, even as she spurned any of the duties that it brought.

Christina is a privileged, predatory idiot when seducing her handmaiden Ebba (Sara Gadon), commanding her into bed and forcing herself upon her, only to realise that she has no idea what she should do next – a fitting metaphor for her entire life. And in the grand finale, as in the historical record, she marches smugly from the throne room, having dumped the crown on her cousin, riding not quite into the sunset, but into the Alps. A closing title reveals that she died in Italy as the centre of a great salon of intellectual debate, and understandably neglects to mention her pathetic return to Sweden in 1660, when she demanded the return of her crown and was sent packing by an establishment that was glad to be rid of her.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland, available now in print and on the Kindle (UK/US).

Big Game

“Samuel L. Jackson flies through a Lapland forest, in a fridge, while Titus Pullo dangles from a helicopter shooting at him with a sub-machine gun…” (trailer)

Big-Game-poster-excerpt

Lame-duck American president Samuel L. Mummofaffing Jackson (“Call me Bill”) is travelling to a conference in Helsinki when Air Force One is shot down over Lapland by jodhpur-wearing Arab Bastard (he is Arabic, and a Bastard) Mehmet Kurtulus, a “grade-A psychopath” who plans to mount and stuff him. Back at the Pentagon, a bunch of aides wring their hands and send the SEALs all over the place, while the President goes on the run with a 13-year-old Finnish boy Oskari (Onni Tommila), interrupted partway through his traditional manhood ritual, which involves running into the forest with a bow and arrow and bagging the biggest possible game. He was hoping for a bear or a reindeer, but instead finds himself playing impromptu bodyguard to POTUS.

Meanwhile, the President’s real bodyguard, Ray Stevenson, is secretly working with the Arab Bastard, in a troubled and contentious partnership that usually involves shooting a henchman every time they disagree. Tracking the fleeing President and his teenage guardian, they briefly apprehend them, leading to a bonkers escape sequence in which Samuel L. Jackson flies through a Lapland forest, in a fridge, while Titus Pullo dangles from a helicopter shooting at him with a sub-machine gun. They go to ground in an explosive shoot-out in and around the wreckage of Air Force One, which eventually seems to result in the blowing up of half of the Finnish countryside.

arab bastard no really its in the plot

As with writer/director Jalmari Helander’s previous film, Rare Exports, Finland itself is playfully stereotyped and archetyped to a wilfully silly degree. If the Americans are shouty morons with lots of guns and expensive tech that proves to be useless, the Finns are a bunch of earnest, grubby hunters with Bowie knives and trousers held up with string. They are enacting a portentous coming-of-age ceremony that involves running out into the woods and killing something. If Helander were not actually a Finn himself, we’d think he was a clueless hack, but since he plainly knows that Lapland isn’t actually a mere 45 minutes north of Helsinki, we can file his more absurd action-movie fudges as a deliberate invocation of a Finland of the mind – a sweetly childish playground of forest adventures and easily-outwitted bad guys, with time out to grill a sausage over a fire. He takes this to extremes with his landscapes, which replace the drab fells of the real Lapland with the breath-taking peaks of the Bavarian Alps, thereby hoovering up German film-fund money for a movie whose Hollywood action style is really a thin veneer over a multi-national Europudding.

With its 13-year-old protagonist and an 80-minute running time, Big Game is carefully targeted at the juvenile audience, despite its Die Hard trappings and the inevitable appearance of Samuel L. Mummofaffing Jackson’s favourite word, in a Yippie-kay-aye Moviegoer quotable that is long in coming but worth the wait. Helander’s script ultimately paints America as both an aspirational paradise and a corrupt rogue state, while its president is by turns baffled and charmed by Finland’s grim sisu resolve, and ultimately regains his self-confidence and poll rating through the acquisition of firearms and snark.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland.   Big Game is released in UK cinemas on 8th May.

Black Mannerheim

God bless YLE, Finland’s public service broadcaster, for its ever-innovative ways of spending the TV licence fee. A malicious puppet show about national icon Carl Gustaf Mannerheim was apparently not enough. Now YLE is shelling out for an arty Swahili film, The Marshal of Finland, about Mannerheim’s love life, in which all the parts are played by Africans.

The Finnish right wing is having conniptions. I’m rather looking forward to it. How much of Mannerheim’s incredible life and bizarre adventures would translate to Kenyan locations? How might a black actor capture the character and hauteur of one of the whitest men in history? As far as post-modern drama goes, this is surely a world-class bonkers idea. It might even work. And if it doesn’t, it’s going to be the biggest car crash in the history of television.

Someone had a meeting about this. A group of earnest Finns sat around an Ikea table and picked at biscuits from a MariMekko tray, while a crazy-haired producer said: “Also, there’s a bunch of Kenyans who want to shoot a movie in five days about Mannerheim’s life story. In Swahili. Sounds great, right?” Nor is this likely to have been some manifestation of the deluded hyper-inclusionism of the BBC, which recently decided The Hollow Crown needed to have a black Duke of York. No. Someone at YLE thought this would be a really great idea, and they will either be running the channel soon, or looking for a new job.

The Finns are so animated about Mannerheim that nothing really surprises me any more. When I wrote my book about him, concentrating on his relationship with China and Japan, the Finnish translation was actually published a week ahead of the British “original”. Mrs Clements and I often play Mannerheim Bingo in Finnish bookshops, trying to guess what odd spin on his life will be the next to get published. There has been a comic about his tiger hunting days. There has been a (rather good) Mannerheim cookbook. And the aforementioned puppet show, which claimed he had a Kirghiz catamite, and showed him partying with the Grim Reaper during the battle of Tampere. But that’s a problem with being a national icon; you need to be robust.

I will definitely be tuning in for Black Mannerheim, but that’s because I am a Mannerheim fanboy, on the record as saying that he is one of the greatest figures of the 20th century. But one can’t help but wonder what the real agenda is behind this. Is someone at YLE making a post-modern point about icons and heroes, or is this that other recurring element of Mannerheim’s legacy — the substantial number of Finns whose ancestors were defeated Reds, and who can’t resist the chance to carnivalise his memory in ever odder combinations. If so, Mannerheim is sure to survive this latest assault on his dignity. Mannerheim’s enemies had a field day with the animated Butterfly of the Urals, because its vague and unsupported insinuation about his sexuality became a swift-travelling meme among young idiots who never saw the programme, but liked being able to repeat the new “rumour”. But there is no such message here — instead, its artistic heritage is far more likerely to be a restatement of a truth that many Finns already acknowledge, that Mannerheim’s story is so amazing, and so eternal, that even actors in distant Kenya are inspired by it.

 

Jonathan Clements is the author of Mannerheim: President, Soldier, Spy.