Borrowing Some Matches (1938)

Fat old man Antti Ihalainen (Aku Korhonen) pops out to get some matches, and runs into his old friend, the widower Jussi Vatanen (Uuno Laakso), who has just hitched a new horse to his cart, and is on the road to give it a test. But Jussi is also in a celebratory mood, having waited a reasonable year since the death of his wife. Agreeing on a vague plan for finding Jussi a new bride, the two men go off on a drinking spree, forgetting all about the matches. They cause several accidents on the road, and start several fights, and as news of their escapades drift back to the farm, Antti’s family comes to believe that he has decided to abandon them and emigrate to America.

While his daughter Maija-Liisa (Ester Toivonen, in a wacky Princess Leia hair-do) cries on the shoulder of her idiot farmhand beau Ville (Joel Rinne), Antti and his drinking buddy become involved in chasing a piglet around the nearby town. Then they forget where they left the horse, so they steal another one.

They really should have called this one Dude, Where’s My Horse? At least Tulitikkuja lainamassa is mercifully short, and if the misunderstanding-about-man-off-on-a-common-errand plot is already tired and weak in Finnish film narrative (see, for example, The House at Roinila, 1935), there’s plenty of broad humour to be had. There’s also a lot of unintentional comedy provided by the cast, with Ester Toivonen entertainingly unable to take the plot seriously enough to weep convincingly, a piglet that often outperforms the professionals, and a series of policemen trying a little too hard to be funny, through outrageous facial hair and a running style inspired by the Keystone Cops.

For the 21st century viewer, there is also an intriguing glimpse at the customs and mannerisms of the era, not the least the ready way that the menfolk are prepared to trade their daughters in marriage, with only the merest acknowledgement that the ladies (still eight years away from the right to vote when the original story was written) might want a say in it. The cast also have a strange and stilted way of saying “America”, referring constantly to Amerriikka, as if they have misheard someone speaking of Amer-reich or Amer-riike, a mythical Land of Amer across the sea.

The Finns provide ample material for passing anthropologists with their custom of drinking coffee from a saucer (juoda tassilta), pouring their drink into a cup, staring at it for a while as if wondering what it is for, and then decanting it into a saucer so they can slurp at it like kittens. This was apparently the way of cooling one’s drink down faster – only the upper classes had the time to drink from one of those cup things. Antti also ostentatiously holds a sugar lump in his mouth as he drinks, the better to offset the bitter taste of his discount coffee.

Aku Korhonen reprises much of his Lapatossu schtick as the silly old Antti, adopting the one-eyed school of acting whereby winking constantly substitutes for any other expression. Notable in part for the degree to which the camera can’t keep its eyes off her is the 18-year-old former Miss Heinola, Nora Mäkinen, in the role of a young girl who attracts Jussi’s fancy. She has appeared in bit parts in a couple of previous Suomen Filmiteollisuus productions, but here visibly shines.

The original novel on which the film was based was published in 1910 as by “Maiju Lassila”, a pseudonym for the left-wing radical author Algot Untola (1868–1918), who famously edited the last edition of the Työmies newspaper single-handed in 1918, even though there was nobody left in Helsinki to read it. As well as his exhortations to overthrow the state, he paid the bills by knocking out potboilers under a variety of names, with Borrowing Some Matches sharing shelf-space with his The Barn Boys, The Young Miller and Love. His life took him from what is now Russian Karelia to St Petersburg, and then Finland, where he fled after being implicated in a terrorist conspiracy. His first marriage ended within days, allegedly because Mrs Untola turned out to be a hermaphrodite. His second ended in tragedy when his child died and his wife poured sulphuric acid on his genitals. It ended under doubtful circumstances in 1918, when, captured by the White Guards and on the way to his execution in Helsinki, he either jumped from the deck into the icy waters, or was shot and pushed overboard. He was himself the subject of a biopic, the 1980 film Tulipää (Firehead), which concentrated on his radicalism and ignored his “Maiju Lassila” works entirely.

As if this couldn’t get any more surreal, the screenplay for Borrowing Some Matches was adapted by Jorma Nortimo, a regular player in front of the camera, appearing briefly here in a cameo as a disapproving magistrate. And because once wasn’t enough, the story was adapted as a film a second time, in 1980, the same year as the Tulipää movie pretended it didn’t exist.

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

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Juurakon Hulda (1937)

Lured by tales of bright lights and the big city, country girl Hulda Juurako (Irma Seikkula) comes to Helsinki to make her fortune, but finds herself the object of study in the salon of judge Soratie (Tauno Palo), where girls like her, migrating to urban areas, are regarded as “the pinnacle of social problems.” The outspoken and sharp-witted Hulda bristles at the class divisions of 1930s Helsinki, where servants are not permitted to use the same entrance as their masters, and buries herself in studies in the hope of bettering herself.

She does so, with Pygmalion-like success, despite the patronising attitude of the men around her, and the outright hostility of the women of Helsinki parlour society, who regard her as an upstart hick, devoid of manners or class.

The release of a complete Suomi-Filmi box set late last year, to complement the previous Suomen Filmiteollisuus box already in use, means that this blog can now start interpolating the works of two Finnish film companies from the 1930s, beginning with this, the first of several in which director Valentin Vaala adapted originals by the author Hella Wuolijoki.

This film has had a wild ride in terms of critical reception. It sold a million tickets at the box office in 1937, a tall order in a country with only three million inhabitants, while many of the locations became tourist spots in their own right. Some praised it as a piquant puncturing of bourgeois tastes, while some home-owners forbade their servants from watching it, lest they get dangerous ideas. The film was denigrated during the 1970s, but rediscovered in the 1990s, quite possibly because its approach to upstairs-downstairs interactions, while mansplainy and naïve by today’s standards, was nevertheless fiercely progressive when compared to similar films of its era. Certainly, Seikkula is an actress ahead of her time, boldly claiming her space on the screen, parading around the kitchen with her hands in her pockets and speaking with her mouth full, but most notably giving as good as she gets in fast-paced arguments with the menfolk. The film was remade in Hollywood as The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), for which Loretta Young won an Oscar, and in the 1990s, Kari Uusitalo selected it as one of the Top 100 Finnish films of the twentieth century.

But there’s more, because the class tensions of this film have, deep, deep roots in Finnish identity, back to the Red-versus-White conflict of the Civil War, and even further to the Fennicisation of its upper class in the late 19th century – Mr Soratie, it is revealed, was once the more Swedish-sounding Mr Sanmark, but changed his name along with many other Finns. Author Hella Wuolijoki (1886-1954) was a vehement left-winger and Communist sympathiser, and long suspected by the Finnish police of being a Russian sleeper agent. She would, eventually, be arrested for harbouring a Soviet spy in 1943, and sentenced to life imprisonment, although she only served a few months before her release, and soon after becoming a politician in the Finnish People’s Democratic League, a king-making left-wing alliance in post-war politics.

All of which seems a world away from a spunky country girl, singing to herself as she washes the windows while perched precariously on a sixth-floor balcony, but let’s not forget that in the same year, the rival company Suomen Filmiteollisuus released The Assessor’s Woman Troubles, supposedly a light-hearted comedy, promoted with a shot of Aku Korhonen literally raising his fists to a cowering Laila Rihte. Hulda is a creature from a different dimension, who believes that a simple education will turn her into a better person, ready to stand up to the braying ninnies in the parlour who think that they are smarter than her because their husband bought them a nice necklace. She is shown climbing the steps of the polytechnic in a seasonal montage, inadvertently foreshadowing a similar march of progress in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex (2018). She is in fact, the first of several powerful women to appear in screen adaptations of Wuolijoki’s books plays, although the following year’s The Women of Niskavuori (1938) would not have quite such a happy ending.

[The DVD of this film also came with a seven-minute documentary Vaala’s Film Rolls, about the work of the director Valentin Vaala.]

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

The Unruly Generation (1937)

After years buried among his books and papers, the leading mathematician Reinhold Varavaara (Uuno Laakso) pronounces his academic work complete, only to discover that the world has moved on. His wife is a stranger to him, his three children are carefree teenage tearaways, and his family has got so used to his absence, that all they care about is the prospect of the money he might earn by getting an award. The only person who seems to “get” him is Marja (Ansa Ikonen), his son’s girlfriend, in whom Varavaara increasingly seeks counsel and solace.

Ironically for a story that supposedly huffs and puffs about “kids today”, The Unruly Generation (Kuriton sukupolvi) is a rather timeless situation, Mika Waltari’s 1936 play made it swiftly to the screen, but it would be reprised twenty years later with a different leading man, fulminating about different youth habits and popular music, beatniks and atom bombs. Finnish critics are divided about the extent to which the story is autobiographical, with some pointing out that the professor’s name seems to be a hybrid of several tutors that the young Waltari had at the University of Helsinki. Others go further, suggesting that Waltari, then only 28 but already a husband and father, saw himself in the character of the daffy Professor Varavaara, emerging from his study after a marathon writing session, to discover that the world has changed around him. Life was certainly imitating art – the story goes that the workaholic Waltari wrote the play after his wife taunted him that he was incapable of writing a comedy. On the basis of this talky, drawn-out dirge, Mrs Waltari might have had a point, at least this time.

Waltari is one of the most fascinating creatives in Finnish culture, a ridiculously prolific author who seems to be a little overlooked today because many of his most famous works were international in outlook, rather than focussed on the Matter of Finland. He wrote The Unruly Generation fresh after finishing his play Akhnaton, Born of the Sun, which would transform some years later into the work that made his name internationally, Sinuhe, The Egyptian – later adapted into a Hollywood movie starring Yul Brynner. But Waltari did write many works focussed on Finland, several of which would be adapted by Suomen Filmiteollisuus, not merely A Stranger Came to the Farm (Vieras mies tuli taloon, 1938), but also the better known Inspector Palmu series

The Unruly Generation presents a chaste and romanticised notion of a happily married man, tempted by but ultimately resisting a giddy infatuation. Adapting his own script, Waltari delights in the opportunity to shoot on location – the film begins with a prank in which the professor’s son is caught herding cattle at the Helsinki parliament building. He throws away numerous scenes to make space for such larks (jettisoning the play’s reconciliation between husband and wife that leaves the film version a little more ambiguous), but crams so much in that his screenplay originally topped out at 259 pages. Even with cuts, it drags on seemingly forever, with little to offer the contemporary viewer except a glimpse of 1930s Finnish youth culture: singalongs in a cloud of cigarette smoke, energetic ballroom dancing, and a hard-drinking generation fervently embracing the lifting of Prohibition since 1932.

By this point, Suomen Filmiteollisuus was ramping up its production schedules, because there are a bunch of new faces both in front of the camera and behind it. Wilho Ilmari directs for the first time for the company, and although there are some familiar faces in the cast (blink and you’ll miss sometime leading man Jorma Nortimo as a waiter, and cinematographer Eino Kari as a gambler), the cast is largely drawn from the players of the original stage version. One notable exception is the actress Rauni Luoma (last seen here in The House at Roinila), the smouldering beauty upon whom Waltari supposedly developed a crush not unlike that of his fictional Professor Varavaara on the vivacious Marja.

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

Lapatossu (1937)

As the railroad slowly takes shape from Turku in the south to Vaasa in the north, construction bosses discover that their path is blocked by land belonging to the widow Laurila (Siiri Angerkoski), who will take some persuading. Unexpectedly, they find themselves leaning on the negotiating skills of Lapatossu (Aku Korhonen), an aging, workshy railway builder who reveals a previously unknown knack for disguises.

The Lapatossu stories were originally published at the turn of the twentieth century by the author Juho Nurhonen. The relation of these original tales, however, to Aku Korhonen’s portrayal of the character on film is tenuous at best, with only faint reminders that our easy-going everyman might be a noble fallen on hard times, or some sort of Holy Fool watching the modernisation of the Finnish countryside with wry bafflement. Lapatossu is an old builder on the new railway – in a triumph of unimaginative translation, the film can somehow be found referred to in English as The Old Railroad Worker. But there is so much more to him that that – he seems to slide with chameleon-like ease between the hard-pressed bosses and the happy-go-lucky navvies; he is respected by his fellow workers, and indulged by the cooks and housemaids.

Within the context of my film-by-film marathon of Suomen Filmiteollisuus productions, Lapatossu is a sudden burst of creativity and experimentation. In one scene, the Finnish slang flies so fast that Swedish subtitles sneak onto the screen, to help all those urbane posh people who might have trouble following the gags. Elsewhere, the dialogue takes on a naturalistic tone, with actors interrupting each other or visibly trying to stop themselves giggling at Korhonen’s onscreen antics, while the camera flits between conversationalists, apparently unsure of who is going to speak next. This film has plainly been shot in the short Finnish summer, and the crew make the most of outdoor locations, figuratively shrugging at minor glitches in foley, audio and focus. The music, meanwhile, is oddly terrible, unless the Helsingin Teatteri Orkesteri was somehow deliberately playing the score flat and tunelessly, in imitation of an ad hoc band of amateurs.

There are some notable departures in casting. Jorma Nortimo, once a recurring dastard, more recently a romantic lead, transforms himself once again into the foppish milksop Heikki, by the simple expedient of putting on a pair of spectacles. Aku Korhonen, who played several character roles for Suomen Filmiteollisuus with varying degrees of success, suddenly gets to shine here in the loveable title role, finding a new sidekick in Kaarlo Kartio as Vinski. Lost in the supporting cast since his star turn in Scapegoat (1935), Kartio gets to work as Korhonen’s foil, setting up numerous gags, and channelling Laurel & Hardy in a dance routine in which Korhonen camps it up by donning a shawl and playing the coquette. Korhonen is also visibly charming in his flirtations with the older actresses, shunting the usual half-hearted young-lead B-plot romance out of centre stage, to the extent that the fey Heikki’s ham-fisted wooing of the widow’s daughter Irja (Laila Rihte) is played almost entirely for laughs and cringes.

Lapatossu is somewhat defeated by the picaresque, episodic nature of its origins, as if a bunch of one-page vignettes have been clumsily stapled together until they bulk out to feature length. The saga of the missing cream is solved with broad humour when Lapatossu doses a jug with a strong laxative, while the widow Laurila is briefly won over when Lapatossu disguises himself as a visiting dignitary. But just when you think the film is done, Lapatossu and Vinski run away and join the circus for a pointless interlude in which he masquerades as a strongman.

Possibly because by the time this film was made, the railway had been a fact of everyday life for a generation, there is no sense imparted of the incredible engineering achievement of building a railway from south to north – Lapatossu and his fellow workers might as well be working on a building site. Taken out of historical context, Lapatossu is frankly forgettable, but it is a cut above most other Suomen Filmiteollisuus comedies of its era, and was made at a crucial point in history. Thanks to its 1937 success and the commissioning of two sequels, it and its leads were propelled to austerity stardom in the dark days of wartime. The title character, in particular, became something of an icon among the soldiers of the Winter War.

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

Like Sleep or Shadow (1937)

The arrival of city-boy surveyor Yrjö (Jorma Nortimo) drastically disrupts the way of life in a remote Ostrobothnian village. He falls for Eliina (Ansa Ikonen), the disabled daughter of a local bigwig, whose devout sister Johanna (Ester Toivonen) is torn between two suitors, her life-long neighbour and betrothed, and a newer arrival of whom her father disapproves.

Kuin uni ja varjo was based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Eino Railo, which was at the very height of its popularity – in 1937, it had been reprinted three times in the two years since it was published. Certain elements of it seem to break with Finnish filmic tradition, particularly the pat romantic denouements so beloved of Suomen Filmiteollisuus. Spoiler warning: only one of the two leading couples ties the knot by the end, in a miserable ceremony in which the bride and groom wear Gothic black, a man bitterly proclaims his religious faith after being blinded, and a jilted lover almost dies of consumption on the sidelines.

Much of the tension revolves around the clash of privileged newcomers rolling into a town where everybody knows everybody, and has assumed for years that fates are well and truly predestined. Life has not changed a whole lot in the countryside for decades – Yrjö’s arrival is a taste of things to come, as the horse and cart, the church as the centre of village life, and the expectations of Finnish youth are all about to be radically transformed. The wedding scene that closes the film is supposedly a happy ending, but is also a glimpse of a dying rural culture.

The likes of Yrjö serve as a sudden, unexpected wake-up call that there is a whole world beyond the edge of the village, and that things really don’t have to be the way that the villagers have assumed. The nuances of Ostrobothnian language fly right over my head, but are apparently a Thing here, as are a series of unintentionally ridiculous fight scenes, in which men heartily wrestle with one another as if nobody has ever suggested they try throwing a punch. It is also oddly jarring to see a 19th-century church congregation belting out a hymn, since my 21st century experience has been one of Finns staring glumly at their shoes while the church organist plods through the tune and a lone cantor sings along at the back.

Ansa Ikonen, a major stage actress who had thus far only appeared in bit parts for Suomen Filmiteollisuus (better known, in fact for films by the rival studio Suomi Filmi), gets top billing on the poster in the role of Eliina, for which she lurches around on crutches and simpers adoringly at Yrjö. In a scene that might seem clichéd today but was probably a winner in its time, she has a dream sequence at a village dance in which she leaps to her feet and dances with Yrjö, only to be woken from her reverie when her crutches drop loudly to the floor.

Ester Toivonen is winningly severe as the religious Johanna, although she disappears for entire stretches of the film, leaving her rival suitors to duke it out between them. The third big female name on the poster is Laila Rihte as the serving girl Kerttu, whom I barely noticed for the first half of the film, before she is suddenly parachuted into the drama as an alternate love interest. Blink and you also miss Kaarlo Kartio, as ever unrecognisable in another brief character role.

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

The Assessor’s Woman Troubles (1937)

The cantankerous Alfred (Aku Korhonen) loses his long-serving housemaid and makes life hell for her replacement Vieno (Laila Rihte). He writes to his lady friend Matilda (Siiri Angerkoski), newly returned from America, and asks her to take over, but the love-struck Matilda mistakes his invitation for a proposal, and packs for a permanent stay. Misinformed that Matilda has already arrived, Alfred hides out on the night train to Viipuri, arriving to discover that he is penniless, and that he must lean on unexpected friends for assistance.

Based on a play by “Agapetus” (Yrjö Soini), Asessorin naishuolet is a disappointment all round, presented as a box-ticking exercise in formulaic farce with the usual Finnish over-confidence in the comedy value of drunk scenes. From the very first scene, in which he wakes up and demands his newspaper in bed, Alfred is a horrid, tantrum-prone man-child, ranting and raving at the tearful Vieno because she’s put the sugar bowl on the wrong side of the breakfast tray. It makes it hard to care in the least whether he finds the love of a good woman or not, rendering much of the later drama pointless. Seemingly shot on sets for the original play with little more than backdrops to denote changes in scenery between Helsinki, Vaasa and Viipuri, the film is short on location work and offers little to the modern viewer except a glimpse of the tribulations of 1930s maidservants, and of the social atmosphere of pre-war Helsinki, wreathed in cigar smoke. In an unwelcome musical interlude, singer Annikki Arni stages a pitch invasion at a restaurant, where she warbles at resentful patrons who glare at her as if she is holding them hostage.

Ester Toivonen, as ever, reliably easy on the eyes, appears in a half-hearted subplot about a lawyer’s daughter Aino who falls for a painter she sees in the park. The two stories clunkily dovetail in Viipuri, when the painter Veikko (Jorma Nortimo) comes to the rescue of Alfred, thereby winning over his reluctant father-in-law to be. Ilse Erkkilä puts on a memorable turn playing Toivonen’s teenage sister (barely suppressing her excitement at the sight of her sister’s suitor), as does Kaarlo Kartio in a minor role as a shopkeeper, a character actor who has thus far demonstrated the widest range of anyone on Suomen Filmiteollisuus’s books, looking palpably different in every film he is in, but increasingly fading into the background after his leading role in 1935’s Scapegoat. But little can save this tired rehash of formulae already dragged out in several previous works from the same studio.

All is supposedly well that ends well, with Alfred proclaiming his love for the gleeful Matilda, who signifies her cosmopolitan status by cramming English words into every one of her lines, Yes, Yes, Wonderful. Aino gets hitched to Veikko, and the cast presumably celebrates by biting the ends off another set of cigars, since cigar-cutters seem not to have made it to Helsinki yet.

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

The Ostrobothnians (1936)

There’s trouble on the Harri family farm. Someone called the farmer’s daughter Maija a whore, and now her fiancé Antti (Jorma Nortimo) is going to stand trial for defending her honour. Meanwhile, Maija (Irja Aholainen) has embraced an extreme, dour form of Lutheranism, and spends her time in the dining room fulminating about God’s will. Her brother Jussi (Eino Kaipainen) stands up to a bunch of marauding thugs, only to discover that Antti has absconded during the fight. Falsely accused of aiding the prisoner’s escape, Jussi gets into a fight with the local Sheriff, leaving both of them mortally wounded.

Considering how quickly the plot of The Ostrobothnians can be summarised, it’s amazing how long it takes to limp through it. Part of the problem is the interminable singing interludes, left-overs from the musical version of the original 1914 stage play by Artturi Järviluoma, as well as far too much time spent trying to wring humour from the sight of men drinking. Opera singer Irja Aholainen is supposedly the female lead, but is oddly mannish in the role, out-bloking many of her male co-stars, all of whom seem to be wearing more eyeliner than she is. Laila Rihte tries to take up the ingénue slack as Jussi’s would-be girlfriend Liisa, but appears to have got dressed in the dark at a tablecloth factory, wearing a distracting clash of checks and stripes like a human test card.

Jorma Nortimo, who thus far had only played cads for Suomen Filmiteollisuus, here manages a heroic, understated turn as Antti, a man who thinks Siberian exile will be worse than the awful farm he currently lives on. Eino Kaipainen is the stand-out performer as the put-upon Jussi, railing against injustice in a skin-tight sweater like a young William Shatner, and challenging a bizarrely well-dressed bunch of singing thugs to a wrestling match to save his village from a rumble. As the Russian-appointed Sheriff, Swedish actor Thorild Bröderman speaks Finnish like the foreigner that he is, adding to the disjuncture between the 1850s crofters and the aristocracy that lords it over them.

Directors Toivo Särkkä and Yrjö Norta do their best with the material, lifting it out of its original staging for some set pieces of dance meetings and outdoor locations, but The Ostrobothnians was a much-loved Finnish work because it was the closest thing that the country had to a national opera at the time. Ripping out most of the songs and trying to make it more filmy was never going to work, particularly when the best the film-makers could do was some point-of-view camera trickery to present a drunk’s-eye view of some of the scenes. And this wasn’t even the first time someone had tried it – there was already a film version ten years earlier, which apparently wasn’t enough.

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