The Women of Niskavuori (1938)

Suomi-Filmi’s reliable director Valentin Vaala helms another script based on a play by Hella Wuolijoki, after the success of his earlier Hulda Juurakko (1937). Niskavuoren naiset is a fire-cracker of a story about another of Wuolijoki’s independent, disruptive female characters. The year is 1931 (so says Wikipedia, although people are seen drinking cognac, in contravention of that period’s Prohibition, still in force until 1932). Aging lady of the manor Loviisa Niskavuori (Olga Tainio) is trying to hold her village together in changing times, enduring with implacable stoicism the petty dramas of her heirs, particularly her performatively consumptive grand-daughter-in-law Martta (Irja Lauttia).

Farm life is presented not as a happy idyll, but as a complex, modern industry; the womenfolk discuss fat percentages and crop yields on their way to the store. This is no clueless place in the sticks –  the council is quarrelling over the appointment of a teacher qualified to keep up with the times, and the menfolk have settled on Ilona Ahlgren (Sirkka Sari), a city girl who has “studied more than knitting patterns,” who arrives on the train with her fashionable hat at a jaunty angle.

The locals are relying on Ilona for more than schooling; the priest wants her to help out at Sunday school, the craft circle wants her helping out with the home economics, and even the drama club expects her to take a turn on the stage. They expect her to be a Jill of all trades, a vital contributor to all aspects of village life. She is excited to be in town, not the least because with Woolfian connotation, she has been yearning all her life for “a room of my own.”

Martta’s husband Aarne Niskavuori (Tauno Palo) falls for Ilona, obviously and hard, in a stirring dance sequence in which the camera intercuts extreme close-ups on the band’s musical instruments with the whirling faces of the would-be lovers. But the script keeps us guessing, cutting immediately from breathless flirtations at a summer ball, to a midwinter card game six months later, leaving us to guess what has transpired in the interim.

“Telephone” Sandra (Aino Lohikoski) is the local operator, constantly complaining that the schoolboys have damaged the overhead wires, but also sneakily eavesdropping on everybody’s conversations. It’s she who first suspects that Aarne and Ilona are having an affair, and spearheads the gossip. By the time their trysts are the talk of the town, Ilona is already carrying Aarne’s child. Aarne’s wife, Martta rages against That Woman, refusing to let her in “her house”, a house that as Loviisa dolefully reminds her, is not yet fully hers to rule.

Over a tense coffee conversation loaded with agricultural allusions, Ilona breathlessly talks of spring storms blowing down trees with giddy disregard, while Loviisa sternly reminds her that the men of Niskavuori have deep roots, and that she is a new transplant. Money, in terms of Martta’s wealth, is going to talk much louder than whatever feelings Aarne and Ilona have for each other, but even as the two women glare at each other over their cups and saucers, Aarne arrives with his friend Simola, and the foursome are forced to play along in a forcibly light-hearted conversation about the joys of marriage.

Loviisa has a plan, to marry Ilona to the less well-to-do Simola, avoiding a scandal, or at least squaring off a lesser one by suggesting that Mr Simola and Ilona are facing a shotgun wedding. Ilona’s own vague plan, to run away with her lover, seems thwarted by Aarne’s tardy realisation of his duty to his home manor.

The Women of Niskavuori was the debut role for Sirkka Sari, a young actress with a tragically short career ahead of her. However, ungallant though it may sound, on the basis of this performance, I assume that the ink spilled elsewhere as if she was some great lost talent was a commemoration error, as obituarists struggled to find nice things to say about a frankly unremarkable teenage ingénue, who met with a grisly end while completing her third film, Rich Girl (1939). Naturalism in dialogue is still uncommon in Finnish films of the period, but Sari comes across as an actress out of her depth, too busy trying to remember her lines to really put much effort into delivering them. If she were a star in the making, she seems miscast, here. She was barely eighteen years old when this film was shot, even though the character she is playing must surely be at least five years older, if not ten.

The script is open to multiple interpretations – depending on the way that Ilona’s actress delivers her lines, she could come across either as a fiercely progressive modern woman, or a home-wrecking hussy unheeding of the damage she has done, or a deluded innocent, humped and dumped by a local scoundrel. But Sari persists in staring into the middle distance and softly speaking to nothing, as if she is in a dialogue with the voice of angels and not anyone around her. Meanwhile, Olga Tainio, as the no-nonsense matriarch, runs rings around her with a truly nuanced performance, empathetic with her condition, but steely in her prioritisation of the life and future of the manor.

Loviisa looks down at the old tome we have seen her reading in the opening scenes. It is the Bible, open to the Song of Solomon: “Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned.”

The film ends with a tense parlour trial, in which Ilona refuses to name the man whose skis were seen outside her bedroom, while the townsfolk line up a parade of witnesses in order to force her confession. Martta and Loviisa already know who it was, of course, as do we, imparting an element of suspense as we wait not to find out who it was, but what will happen…

“Perhaps,” says Martta hopefully, “we can blame the women for this.” But it was the men of Niskavuori, at the beginning of the film, who were seen guffawing over the prospect that the new teacher might be a bit of hot stuff, deftly illustrating a systemic assumption that makes this film’s concerns ardently up-to-date, even 81 years after its release. As for what happens next, you will have to wait for the belated sequel, Aarne of Niskavuori (1954), although there would be several more films in the Niskavuori series, including the prequel Loviisa: Young Mistress of Niskavuori (1946), in which Palo would return to play his own grandfather. We’ll get to them eventually, although it might take years…

[Note – uncharacteristically, this film came with English subtitles on the DVD.]

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