Olavi Virta (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off with the Shirt and Vest! (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The February Manifesto (1939)

In 1807, Napoleon Bonaparte (Ossi Elstelä), offers Finland to Tsar Alexander I (Leo Lähtenmäki) Finland as part of a treaty negotiations. The Swedish crown is chipped off Finnish buildings, and the people of what was the eastern Swedish marchlands are now suddenly Russian subjects. Oh dear, you might think, except Alexander II (played by the statue of him that still stands in the centre of Helsinki), is the “Good Tsar”, who offers his new Finnish subjects freedom to keep their language, their currency and their right of self-rule.

It is Alexander II’s dastardly, feckless grandson Nicholas II (Arvo Kuusla) who proclaims the February Manifesto of 1899, announcing that it’s time for the Finns to shut up, learn Russian and kneel before Zod. Don’t make the Finns angry; you won’t like them when they’re angry.

Helmikuun manifesti is the first film I’ve seen which boasts a “military uniform expert”, Bure Litonius, on the credits, but his influence is palpable from the earliest scenes, when the camera lingers momentarily on a perfectly recreated Chevalier Guard in the Tsar’s council chamber. The Finnish historian is apt to wonder what the chances were that one Lieutenant Mannerheim was indeed standing guard on the day that Nicholas II decided to shaft his most loyal subjects, undoing all his grandfather’s good deeds and creating an upswell of anti-Russian sentiment.

Cue a lot of scenes of Finns sitting around reading the words of the February Manifesto and getting annoyed about it. As the evil Governor Bobrikoff (Aku Korhonen) imposes increasingly draconian restrictions on journalism and the media, the men of Finland refuse en masse to answer the Tsar’s conscription call for the Russian army, chanting: “GOD IS OUR FORTRESS!”

The film gradually zeroes in on the middle-class Jaakko Kotka (Tauno Palo) and the working man No-first-name Sihvola (Eino Kaipainen), two very different patriots, united in their desire for Finnish independence, and cunningly integrating them into moments of crucial Finnish history. So it is that when they are practising their marksmanship at a shooting range, they run into a man with a pistol who is way, way better than them. Aino Sihvola (Regina Linnanheimo) is more interested in the young man’s dog, while the menfolk struggle to remember his name. Oh yes, it was Eugen Schauman… played here by Runar Schauman, a distant cousin of the man who would assassinate Bobrikoff in 1904. This is just one of many sensationally realist touches in this film. It’s not just that Schauman plays his own relative, or that Korhonen is a dead ringer for Bobrikoff, it’s that the killing is filmed in the actual spot in the old Finnish senate building where it happened.

Mika Waltari’s script for The February Manifesto is wonderfully, provocatively nuanced. Finns, then as now, are often surprised to hear how popular the Russians once were in Finland, despite the evidence offered by Alexander II’s statue in Helsinki, where well-wishers still leave flowers to this day. Nicholas II is not presented as a snarling baddie, but as a fretful milksop, wringing his hands as he signs away all the goodwill his ancestors built up. “Niin alkuu,” he writes – so it begins. Implicit, but not quite stated outright, is the idea that Nicholas II lost his last, best friends on that day, and effectively signed his own death warrant 18 years down the line. A voice-over suggests that such cultural artefacts as the Kalevala, regarded today as an early step in the move towards Finnish independence, were harmless entertainments until they were co-opted into the anti-Russian movement. In other words, the February Manifesto claims to mark not just the beginning of the end for the Tsar, but the beginning of an independent Finland.

With Russian clampdowns on the press, the Kotka family become instrumental in the distribution of the underground newsletter Vapaita Sanoja (Free Words). The Tsar’s gendarmes, a not-so-secret police, hunt down would-be rebels, and destroy dangerous propaganda like prints of Eetu Isto’s controversial painting The Attack. In one emotional scene, Jaakko’s dissident father (Yrjö Tuominen), banished from his homeland, waves goodbye from the back of a train leaving a rain-swept station. The crowd that has come to see him off breaks into song, singing “Maame”, which would ultimately be adopted as Finland’s national anthem.

Jaakko and Sihvola get involved in gun-running, supervising the landing of a boat full of rifles from the infamous John Grafton – about which I shall one day be writing a book of my own. There also some wonderful glimpses of Finnish traditions, including a Yuletide sequence of the Kotka family melting tin in a fireplace ladle, and then flinging it into a bucket of snow to see what prophetic shapes are formed. This, incidentally, is what a Finn probably means if he tells you he has been to a New Year’s party ,”looking at some slag.” In this case, the flash-hardened tin forms the shape of a Cossack on horseback, cutting straight to a scene of cavalry riding through the streets of Helsinki.

The womenfolk are a little under-used, forced to largely stand at the side-lines and react, although Sihvola’s sister Aino (Regina Linnanheimo) does get the chance to play an occasionally comedic but largely, cringingly tense scene as she attempts to sweet-talk a bunch of Russian soldiers intent on searching her house for Jaakko.

Waltari is good on the liminal moments of resistance and collaboration. There are Finns prepared to stand idly by; Finns prepared to make a stand; Finns ready to join the resistance when a hero moves among them, but cowed before Russian might when they lack a leader. There are Finns who hate the Tsar, and Finns who are ready to support the Bolsheviks that replace him. Such confusions are entirely, historically accurate, and are echoed in 1939’s rival resistance film, The Activists.

The story ends with the great tragedy of Finnish independence, that it came hand-in-hand with the bloody catastrophe of the Finnish Civil War. Jaakko and Sihvola both seek help for Finnish independence from different, doomed sources – Jaakko runs away to train in Germany with the jaegers, while Jaakko comes to believe not in Tsarist Russia, but in Russian Communism. Jaakko and Sihvola inevitably end up on opposite sides, with Jaakko fighting for the Whites while Sihvola is duped into supporting a Red revolution, only to be gunned down by Russian soldiers.

Jaakko and his jaegers march through the forest in distinctive white camouflage, foreshadowing what the Finns would be wearing themselves in the Winter War to come. The scenes are intercut with rushing waters, and suddenly it is not clear if we are watching Finland in 1917 or 1939.

Jaakko brings home Sihvola’s personal effects.

“So high is the cost of Finland’s freedom,” says his mother (Irja Elstelä), practically turning to the camera and staring pointedly at the audience.

“And we are only halfway there,” says Jaakko, putting his arm around his betrothed, Aino Sihvola.

Both this film and The Activists would be banned in Finland for several decades after the Second World War, for fear that they would offend the Russians. I’d say that The February Manifesto in particular, in its treatment of sustained resistance to oppression, would still struggle to get a public release in some parts of the world today. I can think of several places where a screening of The February Manifesto would be liable to start a riot.

But the context for The February Manifesto in 1939 was about something else – the palpable threat that war would soon break out with Russia, and that Finland would face the threat alone. Nowhere is this clearer than in the closing shot of Suomenlinna, “the fortress of Finland”, where a still-extant inscription on the King’s Gate reads: “Eftervärld, stå här på egen botn, och lita icke på främmande hielp.” Those that come after us, stand here on your own foundation, and trust not in foreign help.

It’s a surprisingly moving film, not only in its account of the bravery of the Finns, but of the human drama contained within, such as one desperately sad moment when Eugen Schauman, knowing that he will not come back from his mission alive, fondly kisses his loyal dog goodbye.

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

Forward to Life (1939)

As Finland reels under increasingly oppressive Russian rule in the early 1900s, Robert Harmelius (Tauno Palo) dedicates himself to Finnish independence. Or rather, he talks about it a lot in order to impress his uncle’s housemaid Justiina (Regina Linnanheimo), and the pair of them become a pair of real activists, until uncle Fred catches them in bed together. That’s one form of activity that nobody was expecting, and Robert flees town, leaving Justiina discredited and pregnant.

Years later, Robert has changed his surname to the more Finnish-sounding Harmaalahti, and is a promising politician in the new republic, married to a singer, Hilda (Emmi Jurkka), and with a young daughter of his own. Fallen on hard times, Justiina is a housekeeper, and their son out-of-wedlock son Olavi (Leon Lähteenmäki) works as a gardener at the house to which Robert moves.

Their feelings are soon rekindled, leading Robert’s spurned wife Hilda to avenge herself on him by seducing Olavi. Nobody saw that one coming! Olavi throws himself off a cliff and bangs his head, and Robert prepares to shoot Hilda in revenge, only for Justiina to intercede. “If you want to avenge your son,” she breathes, “help us make a world where such women have no power!”

Er… singers? Vamps? Loveable curves? I am not sure how the creation of modern Finland is going to stop hearty cougars from chasing toyboys. We don’t even get to enjoy the seduction of Olavi, since prim censors in 1939 insisted on cutting 15 seconds of snogging from Eteenpäin elämään, which has not been restored in subsequent releases. I think that, deep down, there is some sense that Hilda is a representative of the tawdry, Russian-Swedish aristocracy, and Robert and Justiina’s love is somehow purer and more Finnish, worth fighting for… although apparently not at the time that Justiina could have done with any real support. The film from Suomen Filmiteollisuus was based on the 1937 stage play Justiina by Hella Wuolijoki, but lacks much of the bite and wit of her earlier Women of Niskavuori. Meanwhile, the film oddly keeps much of the limiting indoor settings – even the Civil War largely happens off-screen as a series of sound effects, while a bunch of Finns stare worriedly at some maps. People spend a lot of time in their drawing rooms, talking about Finnish independence instead of going out to get it.

It’s hardly the basis for a revolution, and in dragging Finland’s struggle for independence into a family drama about star-crossed young lovers, the film rather shoots itself in the foot. I can only imagine how it might play in a modern remake, which would surely focus on the put-upon Olavi’s teen trauma, while Robert would be presented as a heartless brute of a politician, ducking his responsibilities to the woman who has borne his child because of some sort of hand-wavy “oppression”. The Russians get the blame for everything, including Justiina’s bastard child, although surely Robert had a hand in it all. Well, it wasn’t his hand.

As the leading lady, Regina Linnanheimo is bafflingly stiff and ill-at-ease, as if she is being forced to act at gunpoint, with a face substantially craggier than some of her male co-stars’. Emmi Jurkka is far more vivacious and fun as the ivory-tinkling, chanson-belting Hilda, but we are supposed to hate her because she giggles a lot – she is entertainingly sultry, and comes oddly attended by two camp opera singers Andersson (Arvo Kuusla) and Oramaa (Ossi Korhonen), who seem to be the first markedly gay characters I have seen in Finnish film. Meanwhile, in the roles of Olavi and his half-sister Riikka, Leon Lähteenmäki and Marjo Penttala are the least convincing teenagers I have ever seen, plainly of similar age to the people who play their parents.

In everything from its breathless title to its addled approach to the founding of the Finnish republic, Forward to Life! is a poor show of a film. Released in January 1939, it would have merely a few weeks in the grim winter sunshine before it would be roundly trounced by Suomen Filmiteollisuus’s own February Manifesto and, soon after, Suomi-Filmi’s rival The Activists, two vastly superior works. They didn’t just get 15 seconds trimmed out; they were banned completely for decades, sure to be a sign of truly revolutionary films.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

Heavy Trip (2018)

Turo (Johannes Holopainen) is a hospital porter who moonlights as the lead singer in a heavy metal band, in a small town far in the north of Finland. Lead guitarist Lotvonen (Samuli Jaskio) searches for a new riff, and finds it in the sound of a reindeer carcass stuck in a meat grinder. When Norwegian rock festival director Frank Massegrav (Rune Temte) stops by the local abattoir in a search for reindeer blood, enthusiastic drummer Jynkky (Antti Heikkinen) hands him a demo tape, hoping to be invited to the Northern Damnation rock festival in Norway.

Suddenly, they are local heroes, as the townsfolk misunderstand the news, and assume that the band has already been invited. The local boy-racers stop yelling “HOMO!” at Turo every time he cycles past. Florist Miia (Minka Kustonen, bright-eyed and flirty, unlike her dour turn as a humourless hipster in Tellus) finally agrees to go out on a date with Turo, and the mayor presents them with the key to the city, or as near as dammit. Unfortunately, Frank calls to say that there is no space for the band, now named Impaled Rektum, at his festival. When Jynkky is killed in a road accident (swerving to avoid a reindeer), Turo decides to tough it out, digs up Jynkky’s coffin, steals a van belonging to local lounge singer Jouni (Ville Tiihonen), and runs for the border. Oh, and since he’s short a drummer, he busts lunatic Oula (Chike Ohanwe) out of the local asylum, because Finland. They rehearse on the road, perfecting their “symphonic post-apocalyptic reindeer-grinding Christ-abusing extreme war pagan Fennoscandian meta” sound, something defined by their bass player Pasi (Max Ovaska), who insists now on being referred to as Xytrax.

Jouni tells Miia’s dad, the chief of police, that his van has been stolen by terrorists, leading the Norwegian border guard to spring into action, assuming that a truck full of suicide bombers is bearing down on them. Owing to a case of mistaken identity, the over-enthusiastic Norwegians accidentally blow up a van containing a Twelve Apostles-themed bachelor party, allowing the members of Impaled Rektum to get across the border. Throwing themselves into a fjord, they are rescued by a bunch of medieval re-enactors with their own Viking long-ship, arriving at Northern Damnation in style.

Despite previously been told that they are not welcome, they have become media stars. Thanks to the fact they have stolen a corpse, almost started a war on the border, and broken a mental patient out of a Finnish asylum to join their band, Impaled Rektum are allowed to play a single song, while the Vikings hold off the Norwegian riot police. They are arrested at the end of their set, secure in the knowledge that they are very metal.

Like Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports (2010), another quirky Finnish film with an enthusiastic overseas following, Hevi Reissu apparently began as a short, Impaled Rektum (2007), written by Jukka Vidgren and Juuso Laatio — that, at least, is what was reported in at least one press story, although there is no sign of the earlier incarnation in their public filmographies. The pair previously made a splash with Dr Professor’s Thesis of Evil (2011), which was Vidgren’s final-year project at an Oulu college, and Vidgren’s name shows up as an assistant cameraman on Forbidden Fruit (2009). Laatio is credited on IMDB with an entire portfolio of abilities, not only as co-writer of the script but of some of Impaled Rektum’s conspicuously terrible songs (including “Flooding Secretions” and “Good Old-Time Death Metal”), as well as stints as an art director, compositor and animator.

Plainly, much of the work undertaken by their production company, Mutant Koala, is below the line — commercials, shorts and production assistance for TV shows, which only makes Heavy Trip all the more impressive. Finnish cinema in the 21st century is riddled with overblown student films, which audiences are expected to indulge and forgive for even trying. With 20% of the population, Helsinki remains the centre of the creative arts, while the provinces are expected to count themselves lucky if anyone finds anything to write about them at all. In such a context, Heavy Trip is an accomplished, enjoyable celebration of what it means to be different in a small town in the middle of nowhere.

The music by Lauri Porra, sometime bass player with Stratovarius but also a film composer in his own right, is wonderfully hard-core, including at one point, a death metal pastiche of the James Bond theme, as Jynkky breaks into the local police station to steal a picture of the band taken by a speed camera. There are also some fantastic, so-bad-they’re-good retreads of rock classics, shredded with loving care. This ties into the film’s loving homage to many a rock icon, including a moment at Jynkky’s funeral where Pasi, sorry, Xytrax, delivers a heartfelt, poetic eulogy that turns out to be some Ronnie James Dio lyrics. This is a film that goes up to eleven, like Finland itself.

The critical reaction in Finland, however, was mixed, with a four-star review in the Tampere newspaper Aamulehti, but an ambiguous three stars in the Helsingin Sanomat, which damned it with the faint praise that it was a “sympathetic and enterprising” film that “doesn’t get boring.” Jussi Huhtala in Episodi, Finland’s answer to Empire magazine, was unimpressed, scoffing that this was a “clumsy and childish film… unfortunately not Finland’s Spinal Tap.” But a comparison with This is Spinal Tap is misleading — the music might be metal, but this is a film that owes far more to the humour and aspirations of The Blues Brothers. In particular, Huhtala objected to the digital sleight-of-hand used to create many of the film’s iconic moments, and objected to a scene in which Turo breaks into a zoo and punches a wolverine. Taneli Topelius in the Ilta-Sanomat was similarly dismissive, acknowledging the film’s luxuriance in heavy-metal cliches, but sternly conceding that he “could not give it more stars than the Devil has horns.”

The foreign press was far more enthusiastic. The Hollywood Reporter called it a “rollicking romp,” AV Club found it to be “a charming ensemble of morbid dorks,” and Roger Ebert.com pointed out that it was “probably the only film you will see this year with a crowd-surfing corpse..”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

Forbidden Fruit (2009)

Raised in the Laestadian religious sect in northern Finland, Maria (Amanda Pilke) decides to run away to the big city. Her best friend Raakel (Marjut Maristo) is dispatched by the local elders to bring her back, but finds new temptations in Helsinki that challenge the way she has been raised. Your mileage may vary. Dome Karukosken’s film is even-handed in its treatment of the different worlds of the Laestadian rural cult (which claims some 110,000 members in modern Finland) and Helsinki hipsterism, presenting both as frankly innocent worlds that embrace the simple joy of boys and girls hanging out together, albeit with slightly different ideas of what that might entail. The two worlds are united by the predatory presence of men, who do not differ all that much between town and country – in the north, they are pious family heads who swap daughters like Pokémon cards; in the south they are Swedish-speaking lotharios who cackle amongst themselves in English that they have rounded up a couple of teinihuorat (teenage sluts).

Laestadians shun television, cosmetics and pre-marital sex, although on the plus side they tend to get married as teenagers, so there’s not a whole lot of time to be sexually frustrated before you are a parent to six kids and too tired to care. Bicycles are apparently okay. Oddly, I wrote a similar story myself in 2010, in a Judge Dredd script called The Devil’s Playground, which was also about a religious cultist dispatched to a metropolis to find a lost friend. But in my version, she arrived to find that her friend had been murdered. I had been inspired by the same thing that surely inspired the makers of Kielletty hedelmä, which was the fact that American Amish deliberately send their children into the modern world for a year’s sabbatical, secure in the knowledge that they will reject it.

In a sweetly solipsistic touch, the joy of the modern world is represented through cinema, as Raakel meets her modern man at the movies, with Karukosken’s camera lingering on the flicker of a projector and flirting in the dark at arthouse matinees. The soundtrack contrasts the epic silence of the Finnish countryside with the din of city life. The irresistible temptations of Babylon are presented, variously, as cider, make-up and snogging, which gives the whole thing something of a Handmaid’s Tale feel, not the least when a trio of elders show up, intoning “Blessed Be” and trying to entice Maria back to a life of constant childbirth and kumbayah happiness. If I have any complaints about this film, and I can’t believe I am saying this, it’s that it isn’t gay enough, because although there are vague allusions to the possibility that the two teenage runaways might have feelings for each other, they spend rather a lot of time blowing hot and cold over the attentions of a couple of long-suffering Helsinki metrosexuals, who repeatedly apologise for groping them, when they only want to be groped 50% of the time.

Aleksi Bardy’s script ends up presenting them as a couple of girls who really don’t know what they want, with Maria eventually returning home to face the parentally-determined music, while Raakel cannot resist slapping on some lippy, which she surely knows will get her banished from her father’s table because make-up is apparently evil. Like cider. And snogging. In a final irony, by being sent to retrieve her wayward friend, she is lost to the religious cult, and finds herself banished, weeping on the bus back to the big city. That’s Helsinki, by the way, which really isn’t that big.

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

The Stopgap (1939)

Suomi-Filmi celebrated its twentieth anniversary with this film, which plays with the concept of time from the moment that a bored schoolteacher decides to push the hands of his clock forward so he can sound the closing bell five minutes early. Priest’s daughter Vappu (Helena Kara) falls for college boy Jalmar “Jali” (Kullervo Kalske), a determined social climber who has eyes only for rich-girl Elina (Nora Mäkinen). When Elina ditches Jalmar for someone else, Vappu offers consolation, but several years later, when they meet each other as grown-up workers, they half-heartedly agree to marry each other.

An unhappy marriage ensues, with Jalmar finding increasingly ready excuses to go on business trips to Jokela, where he is pursuing local girl Linda (Liisa Kartto). Vappu heads up north and befriends Linda without revealing that she is the wife behind whose back Jalmar is playing around.

All’s well that ends well, with Vappu prepared to offer her wayward husband a divorce for his own happiness, only for Jalmar to come to understand the degree to which his “stopgap” spouse is a loyal and worthy companion. Vappu herself faces temptations from a man who is more ready to claim that he sees her value.

Apparently this was a comedy. I didn’t notice any jokes. The time-jumps that take us from wedding ceremony to baptism tantalisingly offer the prospect that we are moving into the near future, but The Stopgap (Hätävara) makes no attempt to establish that its ten-year span is anything but a permanent Now. It neither starts in the past nor finishes in the future. Everybody just bickers a bit more and the kids get larger.

Released on 15th January 1939 (but not making it to Jyväskylä or Vaasa for a further two months), a print of The Stopgap also somehow made it to Canada, where it was screened in cinemas for Finnish immigrants. The DVD came with Swedish subtitles, albeit not with Finnish ones, and three bonus shorts: What is Suomi-Filmi?, a collection of candid home-movie reels taken on the film set, and West Uusimaa, an entirely unconvincing travelogue unlikely to make anyone go anywhere near Espoo.

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

The Man From Sysmä (1938)

Sysmäläinen begins with a playful prologue in which a young Arvid (Kalevi Koski, who would grow up to be Finland’s top dentist) is mercilessly taunted by a young Brita (Tuulikki Schreck) about their betrothal. The pair are married when still children, before a 15-year-time jump to Turku in the mid-17th century, where a grown-up Arvid (Olavi Reimas) is a swashbuckling nobleman, obviously modelled on the same year’s Errol Flynn Robin Hood. He’s barely finished his lunch before he is in a spirited sword-fight with some German guy, while a serving girl swoons with glee. There’s lots of hearty quaffing and tankard clashing, while we wait, twiddling our thumbs a little, for the story to begin. It does when Brita (Sirkka Sari) rides by, and Arvid fails to realise that she is his wife.

Valentin Vaala’s camera absolutely loves Sirkka Sari, last seen in The Women of Niskavuori, who first appears with a fantastic cavalier hat, riding a horse in a manner that is snooty, contemptuous and oddly alluring. Arvid, who doesn’t recognise her, falls for her hard, to the extent that he sends a message to the child-bride he hasn’t seen for years, telling her he wants an annulment because he loves another. Oh, the irony! So Brita disguises herself as a boy and becomes his servant.

So she wins his heart when she’s in a dress, but is Just Some Guy when she puts some trousers on. Some further suspension of disbelief is required over the matter of the dialogue, since one might reasonably expect the ruling class in 17th century Turku to all speak Swedish. Jalmari Finne’s original 1910 novel seems somewhat out of its time, a Walter-Scott frippery when war was just an excuse to dress up in high boots and swirly cloaks, while Arvid’s predicament could have been oh-so-easily avoided form the outset by Brita simply telling him her fecking name. The pina-colada fancy of a jaded old idiot, spurning his wife only to fall in love with her when he thinks she is someone else, was already pretty old. But it is the shadow of Errol Flynn that falls most obviously over this film, in everything from Arvid’s moustache to his habit of wandering around the woods looking for a fight.

As Johanna the perky serving girl, Kerttu Salmi steals all her scenes with a constant patter of doormat philosophy about how real men “start with scolding and end with love.” She has already decided that Arvid will be hers, and throws herself at him with entertaining abandon. Meanwhile, Sirkka Sari is desperately unconvincing as a boy called Adolf, despite looking awesome in her musketeer get-up. Naturally, she bests Arvid with a rapier, but that’s just Finnish girls all over. Because it wasn’t surreal enough already, “Adolf” agrees to dress as a woman in order to persuade Johanna to leave the manor and stop pestering Arvid.

I’m disappointed that the Finns haven’t revisited this story in some sort of post-modern spoof. They could call it A Girl Called Adolf, and relentlessly take the piss out of all the cross-dressing nonsense, which is surely only a thing in drama because it was convenient for Elizabethan playwrights to get their female impersonators back out of drag. In the woke 21st century, the transvestite angle takes on a new prospect, since Brita runs rings around Arvid from the outset, and is plainly the one who wears the breeches in that relationship, now and forever.

This DVD came with English and Swedish subtitles.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

The Bachelor Patron (1938)

Katariina (Helena Kara), “call me Kati”, is an orphan teenager sent away from Oulu to Helsinki to be raised by Mauri (Tauno Majuri) a friend of her late father’s, appointed as her guardian. I think you can probably imagine what’s going to happen, as do all of Mauri’s friends, who tut in disapproval when he announces that he’s going to get a barely-legal ward. The housekeeper Mrs Simola (Aino Lohikoski) does her best to put a brave face on the arrival of a vivacious young girl in the house of a confirmed bachelor.

Directed by Orvo Saarikivi for Suomi-Filmi, Poikamiesten holhokki was based on a novel, originally set in England, by one “Denys Aston”, which turned out to be a pen-name for the Finnish author Anni Inkeri Relander. In other words, the original was a comedy of manners that turned upon a very British set-up. Etiquette in Finland is a somewhat bipolar issue – much like Mauri and Kati, there is an unspoken stand-off between “Swedish” self-declared urban sophistication, and a homespun, folksy charm born of the Finnish countryside.

In the lead role, Helena Kara is a luminous presence a generation ahead of her time, whose mannerisms and carriage could easily mark out her out as a time traveller from the 1950s. She had, legendarily, been spotted by director Risto Orko when working as an usherette in a Turku cinema in 1937, and appears here, just a year later, with palpable star quality.

“Wotcher, Mauri!” says Kati, blundering into his all-boys salon and heartily shaking everybody’s hand. In a subtle audio touch, she speaks at all times at a volume a couple of notches above everybody else, even supporting characters to whom she is supposedly deferent. She puts her feet up on the furniture and invites Mauri’s doctor friend to have a look at her feet, eagerly accepting a cigarette from a cavalryman. Neither of them are getting what they bargained for, and it’s unclear on their first encounter who has the upper hand – is Kati a breath of fresh air, or a wayward wild-child in need of some discipline? One is reminded, immediately, of the strong woman of Juurakon Hulda, but the emphasis with Kati is more that she is a free spirit. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the first country in Europe to give women the right to vote, Kati is by no means the first female lead in Finnish cinema to represent everything that is modern and progressive.

She bounces on the bed, she sings in the shower… it’s hardly smoking crack on the stairs, is it? Mauri tuts and frets about her dangerous ways, but without any real understanding of why he is so morose and snappy, it is difficult to know if he wrestling with problems of his own or just a git. He stuffily suggests that she should take up embroidery or singing, and she giggles that girls her age are more into smoking fags and riding horses. Their encounters become increasingly wearing, as the script demands that Kati repeatedly behave like a pouty ingénue, and Mauri frowns at her like she’s just farted. One is tempted to suggest that Helena Kara’s naturalist verve becomes increasingly trammelled and hesitant the more she is pushed upon to actually act. Meanwhile, the film itself seems unsure how to fill its middle section, bogging down in a long soirée in which Kati (and the audience) must sit fidgeting through two musical numbers, and then packing her off on a bus to get a job in shoe shop, as if even the script writer has grown bored with the previous set-up.

The shoe shop is initially a fascinating glimpse of 1930s Finnish life, lined with anonymous boxes as if the notion of customer choice is still a distant dream. Visitors creep in and speak in hushed tones as if they are in the Church of Footwear.

“I would like some brown shoes,” intones the first customer, as if he is participating in some arcane ritual.

“What size are you?”

“Forty-four.”

Such inadvertent entertainments, however, soon turn just as dreary as Mauri’s distant lounge. Comedy is supposed to derive from the fact that five boxes are hard for a small woman to carry.

With only twenty minutes to go, the film reluctantly gets around to its central romance, with all the insouciance of a surly teen getting out of bed. Jaska (Ossi Elstelä) the chauffeur has bonded with Kati over horse-care, but has been forgotten for half the film. Kullervo Kalske, one of the most impossibly handsome men in Finland, fresh from charming the ladies in the same year’s For the Money, parachutes into the story to wow Kati’s fellow shop-girls as Baron Klaus von Bartel, a wealthy man of the world. He asks Mauri for Kati’s hand, and Mauri is suddenly reluctant to divest himself of the tearaway teen.

With all the enthusiasm of a man ticking the No Junk Mail box on an email subscription, Mauri suddenly confesses that Kati has brought magic into his life and he doesn’t want her to go. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, as someone once snarked.

Damning it with the faintest of praise in Aamulehti, journalist Orvo Kärkinen noted that it “met its most significant requirements.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland. He is watching every Finnish film ever made, so you don’t have to.

For the Money (1938)

The title of this comedy from Suomi-Filmi is a pun – “For the Marks”, i.e. something along the lines of “One for the Money”, but also “For (Mr) Markka”, the stuffy old bachelor (Uuno Lakso) whose mansion is just about to be invaded by a cast of rude mechanicals. Released in October 1938, and clearly filmed at the height of the Finnish summer, it makes much of the sunshine and sporting opportunities of the Finnish riviera – the opening sequence bathes in the heady life of the Hanko peninsula, all beach balls, water slides, and games of leapfrog. In strangely timeless encounters that would not look out of place 80 years later, the menfolk conspire over how to chat up girls, not that the impossibly handsome Kullervo Kalske, last seen here in The Jaeger’s Bride (1938) needs to do anything more than snap his fingers. While there are several male leads, however, the film belongs almost entirely to the two ladies who variously pursue them or are pursued by them.

Gym teacher Ritva (Irma Seikkula) is looking for her sister Irmeli (Birgit Kronström) in Hanko, because she needs her for a fashion show… no, I don’t know why, either. But Ritva can’t find anywhere to stay, until she is offered a crash-space by Tilda (Aino Lohikoski), the maid at a rich man’s house. In an echo of the confusions of All Kinds of Guests (1936), she is ordered not to let anyone but the owner in, only to find the house besieged by a bunch of unexpected visitors, including the two lounge lizards that her sister Irmeli has met out on the town. If the plot device of random visitors descending on a house seems tired already, I would argue that it is emblematic of the limitations not of Finnish film, but of the Finnish theatre repertoire from which so many Finnish films then derived.

Although Markan Tähden was based on a play script, Hilja Valtonen’s Day of the Heiress (Päivä perijättärenä, 1932), it seems that the play version was never staged. Instead, it forms the latter acts of a movie that begins with vivacious outdoor location scenes, luxuriating in the opportunities presented for comedy business and Finns in swimsuits. It is, in fact, something of a let-down when the film grudgingly gets around to its actual story, tramping off to the real-world location of a Kulosaari mansion (supposedly just off the beach, but actually a hundred miles away in Helsinki, in what is now the embassy district), in order for a bunch of would-be couples to get bogged down in a series of misunderstandings, accidents with soda canisters, mistaken identities and pratfalls.

Comedy, such as it is, is expected to derive from wide-boys trying to scam a posh restaurant, and social climbers attempting to marry into money. Irmeli inveigles a stranger into pretending to be her Dad in order to throw off an unwelcome suitor, only to find that she has inadvertently charmed a man with loads of money. Seikkula, most memorable for her turn as the titular Juurakon Hulda (1937), wanders through each scene in a slight daze, as if the whole thing is beneath her, while Kronström, a multi-talented Swedish-Finn blessed with comic timing and musical skills, shines here in what would become the first of several flapper roles that would make her a wartime star. She certainly lights up every scene she’s in, and that’s before she sits down at the piano and starts belting out songs live.

The Finnish press criticised the film for some “somewhat unnecessary scenes”, although one wonders what that was supposed to mean. Frankly, the entire plot is unnecessary, and regardless of the critical reception at the time, the film’s value in 2020 comes from the wonderful glimpses it offers of Finland in the summer of 1938, before giving way to another dreary farce. As the two wayward sisters, Kronström and Seikkula are also hypnotically watchable when in individual scenes (including Seikkula in a bare-backed bubble-bath moment that was surely testing the bounds of 1930s respectability), but clunkily lacking in rapport when they are together. As the Finnish papers noted at the time, it created an odd situation whereby they were only believable as siblings went they weren’t in the same room.

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