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

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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

All Kinds of Guests (1936)

When the young lady of the manor Irma (Ester Toivonen) goes off on a trip, her feckless nephew Erkki (Jorma Nortimo) hits on a money-making scheme with his new-found drinking buddy Mauri (Toivo Palomurto). Posing as hoteliers, they rent out rooms in Irma’s country mansion, persuading the gullible house-maids that all the new residents are long-lost friends. Comedy, such as it is, arrives with the titular All Kinds of Guests, including a honeymooning couple, a hypochondriac lawyer and a randy retired colonel.

This adaptation of Kaikenlaisia vieraita, a 1934 stage play by “Agapetus” (Yrjö Soini) is not quite as low on laughs as the earlier Scapegoat (1935), but nevertheless struggles with a cast so large that it sometimes forgets where the plot should be going. Matters are not helped by a tediously unfunny ten-minute sequence in which Erkki misses his train and gets falling-down drunk, watches a drunken Finn murder “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto, and is then mistaken for a thief when he sneaks into his aunt’s house at night. There are, however, some genuine laughs to be had from the servants – stern Finnish farm-girls who collapse into giggles at the sight of a handsome man – and the widow Mrs Salo (Emmi Jurkka), who is at first repelled by, then extremely enthusiastic about the overtures of the bawdy Colonel Sora (Aku Korhonen).

Still struggling after the death of its founder, Erkki Karu, the Suomen Filmiteollisuus studio seemingly slapped this together with whomever and whatever it had lying around. Nominal director Toivo Särkkä shares the credit with Yrjö Norta, although the film is notable for a surfeit of camera trickery, as if the cinematographer has been left to his own devices and wants to play with a new toy. The first sign comes in the opening credits, as each on-screen card transitions out with a wipe. This innocuous innovation is soon creating special effects between matched shots, such as a “magic trick” in which newly-wed Paavo (Kaarlo Kartio) gets his wedding ring to jump between his fingers, or a stunt in which he hurls a record across the room to land squarely in place on the gramophone. The most obvious use comes in the dual role of Laila Rihte, who is called upon to play both the honeymooning Hilkka and the house manager’s daughter Elli, whose identical appearance is introduced as a costly but ultimately minor plot device. Rihte’s sister Lea occasionally appears as a body double in long shots featuring the two – presumably, the crew were planning on making much more of the peas-in-a-pod subplot, but gave up on it partway when the set-ups proved too fiddly.

Gently stereotypical humour pivots on the minor characters, including a fat German couple (Uuno Montonen and Eine Laine), who descend on the dinner buffet like vultures. Writer and future director Turo Kartto has a supercilious turn as The Englishman, a monocled twit who is aghast at the state of Finnish food and frustrated by the Finns’ inability to speak English. Even in silence he exudes a snooty desire to be elsewhere, fishing from the back of a boat while the rest of the cast try to enjoy a day out. His spouse, played by director Särkkä’s real-life wife Margarita, remains silent throughout, possibly because as a Russian-Lithuanian, she wouldn’t have sounded very English if she spoke.

Inevitably, the lady of the manor returns – Ester Toivonen sporting Nosferatu eyebrows – and wryly plays along with Mauri as he flirtatiously tells her she can have the best room in his “hotel.” Surprisingly forgiving of the man who has invaded her home and sold the contents of her larder to strangers, she falls for him in what passes for the film’s romantic denouement; one of several couples formed in the course of the story. All is revealed, of course, when Erkki comes face to face with his aunt – he runs off into the distance in cartoonish double-time; the second occasion in this film where the cinematographer plays that trick.

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

A Stroke of Luck (1936)

Reino (Toivo Palomurto) is a high-level engineer at a shipyard, laid off along with many of the workers as the recession bites. His girlfriend Maire (Ester Toivonen) is sure they’ll muddle through, but her father, the shipyard owner Mr Rauta (Yrjö Tuominen) has other ideas, and is determined to find a more suitable suitor for his daughter. Mistakenly believing that Reino has stolen ten thousand marks, Rauta forbids Maire from seeing him, although all’s well that ends well after she’s fought off the cad Korppi (Jorma Nortimo) and the scheming shopkeeper Nixman (Kaarlo Kartio).

Erkki Karu planned on directing this remake of the Swedish Uppsagd (1934, Laid Off) after completing the previous year’s The House at Roinila, collaborating on the script with Ensio Rislakki, a journalist and satirist known for wordplay and literary parodies. But Karu’s demise dumped the project unceremoniously on Glory Leppänen, a 35-year-old theatre director whose film experience was limited to acting roles in a couple of silent movies.

Inadvertently becoming Finland’s first female film director, Leppänen delivers Onnenpotku (A Stroke of Luck) on the cusp between silent and sound. A dozen plot points are conveyed by close-ups on letters, notes and posters, as if she misses the days of intertitles, and in what is either a provocative staging decision or a fault in the audio, a whole dance sequence without any accompanying soundtrack. It is as if she doesn’t trust audio to convey anything of worth, causing several sequences to unfold as mime. Most notably, the rude mechanical Jussi (Aku Korhonen) accidentally robs the nervous shopkeeper Nixman, when the latter mistakes his cigarette case for a gun, a scene played entirely silently, when the words “Oh, it’s only a cigarette case” might have helped dispel the misunderstanding.

In a reversal of the original Swedish version, the Finnish title “A Stroke of Luck” emphasises the hero’s escape from straitened circumstances, rather than his unemployment. The film certainly caught the spirit of its time, finding a Recession-era audience ready to sympathise with its downtrodden workers making the best of a bad situation. Employers and capitalists are presented as snarling baddies, with both Korppi and Nixman sporting ridiculous caterpillar moustaches. If anything, Leppänen is let down by her leads, both of whom had played similar roles before, but who seem ill at ease with performing as a couple already in a relationship. When they kiss, it looks like Palomurto is trying to eat Toivonen’s chin. Meanwhile, Yrjö Tuominen is creepily hands-on in his dealings with his on-screen daughter, constantly pawing at the former Miss Finland under the guise of delivering paternal advice.

Toivonen seemed to spend much of her acting career similarly put-upon. She was still only 22 at the time she appeared in this, her third feature film, catapulted into the limelight by her beauty-queen status. That, in itself, carried a heavy burden, forcing her into a role as an example of pure Finnish womanhood, intended to demonstrate to overseas immigration bureaus that Finns were Europeans, not as had been argued in some quarters, Asians. Pushed into an acting career she for which she was ill-prepared, she would marry and retire at the end of her twenties, later writing in her memoirs of her perpetual annoyance with directors, critics and cinema-goers who were unable to see past her looks.

But many workers in cinema’s early days were similarly finding their feet by trial and error and would not necessarily stick around – Glory Leppänen would return to a successful career in theatre; Toivo Palomurto would retire behind the camera to become a film composer, and Jalo Kalima, who played “Man in Coffee Shop”, would go back to being the Professor of Slavic Philology at the University of Helsinki.

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

The House at Roinila (1935)

Elli Ojala (Laila Rihte) is duped out of her inheritance by her devious cousin Olli (Kaarlo Kartio), and has come to find work at the neighbouring farm, Roinila. There, she falls for Eero (Eero Eloranta), the heir to Roinila, who starts to suspect that Olli has not told Elli everything about her late father’s will. Eero and the retired sea captain Matti (Hemmo Kallio) sneak off to Helsinki to consult a judge. Finding Eero’s hat in the lake, the farm matron Sanna (Kaisu Puuska) immediately assumes he is dead, and breaks the news to the manor folk. Eero and Matti return to save the day, waving notarised documents, the sputtering Olli is taken away by the authorities, and everybody else heads off for a multiple wedding.

The last film directed by Erkki Karu (1887-1935), The House at Roinila (Roinilan talossa) is based on the 1883 play by the same name by Minna Canth (1844-97), a writer and activist so celebrated that she became the first Finnish woman to get her own national flag day. But The House at Roinila is unrepresentative of the work that made Canth truly famous, written two years before she would drift into gritty social realism with A Worker’s Wife (Työmiehen vaimo). Instead, it is a rather gentle and frankly unfunny pastoral comedy, in which three intersecting couples fall in love and overcome their tribulations. Elli and Eero are the supposed leads, although their romance is shadowed by that of Anna (Rauni Luoma), the daughter of Roinila, and her farmhouse manager Mauno (Toivo Palomurto). But although Canth was renowned in later life for her commentary on Finnish class and gender roles, The House at Roinila seems to offer little in the way of distinction between upstairs and downstairs. Mauno and Anna might witter about the struggle they face for coming from different worlds, as if they are somehow in some star-crossed dilemma like the characters in Miss Julie (1888), but there seems little difference – in class, clothes, mannerisms or language – between the lady of the manor and the peasant at the plough.

This may be a feature of the shift in setting. Canth’s stage play was a contemporary drama, and indeed, there is little in the first half of the film to make you think it is not set in the 1880s. A glimpse of electricity wires crossing a field presages the sudden influx of modern technology partway through the film, as Eero goes out for a drive in his motor car, thereby revealing that this movie adaptation, by the playwright Artturi Järviluoma, has moved the action fifty years later than Canth’s original. Like a similar moment in The Wind in the Willows, when what could have easily been 19th century country life is disrupted by a passing 20th century vehicle, it conveys the sense that decades of unchanging rural existence are beset by immense changes. In the gap between 1883 and 1935, Finland has won its independence, and fought a civil war largely defined by the social divisions between town and countryside. And it’s the countryside that is the true star of this film, as Karu’s camera lingers for long reveries on the lakeland of Hollola, near Lahti. Much of the film is shot outdoors in the long days of a Finnish summer – remarkably few scenes are set indoors, and when they are, they seem drab and lifeless by comparison.

Most of the cast, sadly, are also quite dull. The male leads are characterless drones, while as the disinherited Elli, Laila Rihte seems permanently dumbfounded to find herself at the centre of action and attention, all too aware that a camera is watching her. Rauni Luoma, as Anna, is supposed to play second fiddle, but her features are so striking, and her screen presence so powerful, that she dominates any scene she is in. Not that she hasn’t got competition from the underlings, particularly Kaisu Puuska as the idiotic Sanna who, common to many supporting actresses in 1930s Finnish films, has seemingly been directed to play her every scene as if she is an over-acting pantomime dame.

Acting the rest of the cast off the screen is veteran stage performer Hemmo Kallio as Matti the old sailor, a remarkably thin role that he stretches with comedy business, songs, soft-shoe shuffles and his recurring English catchphrase: “All right! Yes!” A man of the world with two hipsterish stud earrings, Matti has a seemingly endless supply of novelty pipes to smoke, and travels in the course of the film’s two hours from grating comedy bumpkin to vital saviour of the day. His own flirtations, with the aging cook Leena (Kaija Suonio), form the last of the three couplings in this film, but are the only ones that come with any sense of realism or genuine humour.

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

Scapegoat (1935)

Boss-eyed wantwit Adalbert (Kaarlo Kartio) inherits nine thousand marks from his uncle. Deciding, for reasons unclear, that he really wants to open a milk shop, he finds a job at the swish Helsinki department store Sampo, in order to learn about sales. There, he is swiftly dragged into the schemes of the vivacious shop-girl Irja (Ester Toivonen), who persuades him to become the store’s in-house scapegoat. Whenever a customer has a complaint, Adalbert publicly takes the blame, thereby saving the more established staff from censure.

Adalbert soon tires of his role, but glumly agrees to work out two weeks’ mandatory notice, during which time Irja comes to realise the error of her ways, and that her suitor Mr Vaara (Jaakko Korhonen) is really the owner of the company, observing his wayward staff undercover.

Based on a 1930 stage play of the same name by Yrjö Soini (a.k.a. Agapetus), director Erkki Karu’s film displays an uncharacteristically ham-fisted grasp of the cinematic medium, alternating between locked-off shots of entire scenes from the stage version, occasionally invaded by sudden, poorly integrated close-ups. The contemporary Ilta Sanomat review pointedly noted its failure to utilise the potential of the movie camera. This looks and feels like what it is – an unimaginative restaging of the play, occasionally enlivened by location footage.However, Syntipukki (Scapegoat) is notable for its location shots, not only of what was then Heikinkadu in central Helsinki (thirteen years before the street was renamed Mannerheimintie), but also of the famous Stockmann department store, which itself was only completed in 1930, and doubles for the fictional Sampo. There are some touching moments of local colour, particularly a sequence of an army of cleaners, bashful before the camera, as they arrive to prepare the store for its morning opening, and a bunch of naturalistically irritating schoolboys in the street, who have plainly ignored the director’s exhortations to neither look at the camera nor get in the actors’ way. In a remarkably confident decision on product placement, Stockmann embraced the idea of a film that showcased its flagship store, seemingly shrugging off the depiction of the staff within as work-shy and corrupt. Compare this to the more modern sensibilities of the Reebok corporation, which sued TriStar Pictures for $10 million in 1996 after the Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire took money for product placement and then had its cast repeatedly shout “Fuck Reebok!” on camera.

No such worries appear to have bothered Stockmann, which is presented as a lavish paradise of consumption, complete with sequences of a catwalk model show where Adalbert is pursued by a female contortionist, and a café performance by the singer Mary Hannikainen. The cobbled streets outside have altered remarkably little; the fixtures within are similarly unchanged, except the famous Stockmann Clock, which was not installed until 1965. Considering the fetish that every guidebook and language textbook has for wittering about this supposedly iconic meeting spot, it is strange indeed to see shots of the outside of the store that do not include it. As the good-hearted innocent Adalbert, Kaarlo Kartio is a holy fool, his nose pressed literally against the glass of the shop windows in a scene that both allegorises his outsider status and milks it for comedy value. He represents the vast majority of Helsinki urbanites, only recently arrived from a “countryside” that suddenly finds itself on the outskirts of a modern city, baffled by the customs and mores of the metropolis, even though many of the people around him are likely to be only a generation or less removed from similar rural backgrounds.

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