Finland has a rich and varied cinematic history. Unfortunately little is know or shown, and one man with undeniable genius has become a flag-bearer for this nation’s cinematic output. This man is Aki Kaurismaki who for over thirty years has worked with considerable success earning him awards at Cannes and the like. His particular brand of hip, dry, downbeat humour has become synonymous with Finnish culture. But what else has Finland got to offer. Well for a start Finland had a strong cinematic tradition well before Kaurismaki started directing. Teuvo Puro was one of the first pioneers of Finnish cinema and Anna-Liisa in 1927 was one of the first feature films produced in the country. Directors such as Valentin Vaala, and Nyrki Tapiovaara burst through in the thirties. Unfortunately Tapiovaara’s life was cut short during World War II. If he had continued making films he surely would have become one of the great directors of his times. In the 1940’s Finnish cinema reached its’ golden age with the great director Teuvo Tulio and his decidedly overdramtic melodramas.The 1960’s arrived and like many European countries a new wave of directors emerged young, vibrant with new ideas and philosophies. Filmmakers such as Mikko Niskanen, Jorn Donner and Risto Jarva broke through. The sixties and seventies were a great period for Finnish cinema, but by the late seventies, early eighties things started to decline. Kaurismaki and his brother Mika Kaurismaki rose to the fore during the eighties and really dominated the scene for the next twenty years. Recently new exciting directors such as Klaus Haro and Pirjo Honksalo have emerged and Finnish cinema still exhibits great if little known diversity.
1. The Gypsy Charmer, Valentin Vaala, 1929
In 1929 Valentin Vaala directed the Gypsy Charmer one of the great Finnish silent movies. This wonderful film has stood the test of time thanks partly to a fantastic cast and Vaala’s playful direction.
The film stars the future great director Teuvo Tulio as the handsome gypsy charmer Manjardo. He has two women vying for his attention, but he turns them both down as he is betrothed to another woman from a neighbouring camp. She is love with childhood sweetheart and spurns Manjardo . This complicated tale of love involving five key characters, with revenge, sneaky plots and treachery thrown is fantastically written by Vaala and the star of the film Tulio.
The Gypsy Charmer is pure escapism set far away from Finland in an exotic land where gypsies roam the land. The pacing, the cast and the camerawork are all excellent and I found myself absorbed in the story which many silent fail to do.
Vaala went on to direct many, many films, but this must be one of his most successful works. With an increased interest in Teuvo Tulio as a director this early writing and acting credit film might find a new audience. Certainly it deserves to.
2. Stolen Death, Nyrki Tapiovaara, 1937
Stolen Death, Nyrki Tapiovaara’s landmark film is one of the best film noirs of its era. Mixed with superb visuals and some great acting this film would surely have been hailed as a cinematic masterpiece if made by someone like Lang or Hitchcock.
The complicated plot revolves around revolutionary Robert who is trying to depose the Russian tsarist rule, a conman Manja, who is happy to double cross for any amount of money and the doll Jonni who is placed in the middle. Tragedy ensues when Jonni murders Manja and runs away with Robert just escaped from prison from the Finnish police. Erik Blomberg does a terrific job with the script and creates many small subplots and intricacies which help make this film so effective.
Nyrki Tapiovaara tragically died in the World War II at just age thirty having only directed five films. He certainly would have become a distinctive voice in European cinema. His style very much influenced by German expressionists such as Lang and the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock. Stolen Death is an amazing visual feast. A great example of this is when the coffin full of arms is brought to the carriage. The framing is just perfect and then the coffin is placed into the car in full close-up. Not only writing the film Blomberg was also the cinematographer and with Stolen Death he created one of the most visually interesting films from the decade.
Stolen Death is a near perfect masterpiece, from the shadowy Finnish streets, to the humorous supporting cast such as Madame Johanson the greedy forger. Who knows what heights Tapiovaara would have reached had he remained alive. But it heartening that in his short span as a filmmaker he managed five films. Stolen Death might be the pinnacle of a career cut sadly short.
3. The White Reindeer, Erik Blomberg, 1952
Erik Blomberg’s 1952 film White Reindeer is a strange mix of classic European horror and traditional Lapland mythology. This beautifully filmed eerie fairy tale went on to win awards at Cannes and Karlovy Vary film festivals.
Mirjami Kuosmanen plays a traditional Lapp girl Pirita, newly married to the good looking herdsman Kalervo Nissilä, (Aslak). Unfortunately Aslak always seems tired and grumpy and shows his new wife little affection. Desperate she turns to the local shaman who grants her wish but who also turns her into a deadly werewolf / reindeer, who attacks the community in revenge against those who mistreatand hunt reindeer.
The premise of this film seems rather silly, but Blomberg’s subtle script and haunting black and white cinematography turn this into one of the classics of Finnish cinema. Sensibly any bloodthirsty violence is kept to a minimum, often off camera. Instead Blomberg builds on the atmosphere of the snowy mysterious plains in this barren land.
Mirjami Kuosmanen gives an outstanding performance as the increasingly deranged woman as she metamorphoses between loyal wife and savage reindeer. Blomberg’s parable blends traditional Finnish mythology and a modern take on animal conservation. The reindeer only attacks those who hunt her and other reindeers and in doing so the audience’s sympathy is placed squarely with the animals. An unforgettable experience and quite unlike any film you may have seen before.
4. The Girl of Finland, Mikko Niskanen, 1967
Girl of Finland directed By Mikko Niskanen is a great example of the Finnish new wave which came to fore like many similar movements around Europe in the mid-sixties to early seventies. Openly inspired by the works of the French new wave this film is an ode to a time and generation long gone, but whose spirit lives in through the romanticism of the silver screen.
Niskanen’s film follows a group of theatre university students as they amble through their lives discussing teenage pregnancy, the Vietnam War and free love and relationships. The premise of this film may seem outdated and cliché, but this could not be further from the truth. There is a vibrance and magic about this film that transcends Girl of Finland from a formulaic “new wave” film into a great character study of Finnish youth in the late sixties.
Niskanen is one of the greats of Finnish cinema and his gentle style and tone make Girl of Finland a remarkable watch. The stunning use of black and white cinematography is memorable in scenes such as when the two unlucky teens leave the house party and wander across the harbour in the early misty hours. Although politics is always present in the background in a Girl From Finland, it never overbears the film and Niskanen’s portrayal of his characters are fully rounded and often humourous.
The films laconic laid back style, is reminiscent of filmmakers such as Truffaut or Rohmer and I fail to understand why this film has been neglected and forgotten over the years whilst French and Czech films from the same era have been hailed as masterpieces. A re-evaluation of European cinema from the “new waves” period is solely needed to explore those works that appear outside Western and Eastern European conventions.
5. A Time of Roses, Risto Jarva, 1969
Risto Jarva’s 1969 film effortlessly blends science fiction and film noir to great effect in much the same way as Jean Godard’s Alphaviile and Fassbinder’s World on A Wire. In similar fashion here Jarva’s main interest lies in political structures and he expresses his ideology through the genre of science fiction.
The convoluted tale centres round a young filmmaker Raimo Lappalainen who lives in the future (2012) and becomes obsessed with a woman who resembles another woman called Saara, (a woman who died 25 years earlier who is the subject of Raimo’s latest documentary). The film with its many loose ends is often confusing and incoherent, but Jarva’s introspective style keeps the audience involved and eventually somewhat frustrated.
A Time for Roses, was written by successful filmmaker Peter von Bagh and his main source of inspiration was allegedly Hitchcocks Vertigo, with Von bagh’s script featuring doppelganger femme fatale characters and a strange blend between reality and fiction. This dated and borderline kitsch film offers some interesting insights into the future with transparent inflatable sofas, strange sports that are a cross between lovemaking and basketball and communicative machines the size of ovens. Despite this Jarva’s interests obviously lie in politics and sociology rather than gadgets.
Jarva’s Earth is very much the opposite of George Orwell’s 1984 vision. Here liberalism and scientific research have eradicated social class, poverty and war. Unfortunately what is left is a bland disinterested world where people are less knowledgeable, where emotions are muted and any subversive action is deemed highly damaging. Jarva succeeds in critiquing Finnish society where extremism in any forms is seen as dangerous. A Time for Roses is an interesting historical artefact and one of the more inventive films from the Finnish New Wave.
6. Fuck Off: Images of Finland, Jorn Donner, 1971
Jorn Donner’s 1971 documentary film Fuck Off Images of Finland! is perhaps the most revolutionary, film to emerge from Scandinavia. Forget Lars Von Trier, Donner was perfecting his extreme visions of contemporary society thirty years earlier and to better effect.
Fuck Off follows Donner playing an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker as he roams around Finland interviewing people on the edge of society, hippies, drop outs and politically involved students. What results is an acerbic take on Finland during the early seventies, with Donner holding no prisoners. His brutal honest vision of a country in denial and lethargy is wholly refreshing and is quite unlike any documentary to come before or afterwards from anywhere around the world.
Donner has a playful, anti-authoritarian approach to directing. He often teases and entertains the viewer with snappy editing or musical interludes. The interviewees reveal a social class and generation disenfranchised with local and world politics, but still somehow optimistic that change might be around the corner. Ironically much seems the same now as then and even though generations have passed the lack of connection between the common man and the ruling elite is still very noticeable.
Donner had a long and successful career in producing, fiction film and documentary, but this film must be his towering achievement. Visually innovative, a hand held montage this film documents a Europe undergoing mass upheaval. Very rarely have marginal, uneducated voices seem so distinct and dignified.
7. The Count, Peter Von Bagh, 1971
The Count, Peter Von Bagh’s 1971 feature debut is typical of the many landmark Finnish films during the 1960’s and 70’s which has vanished without trace.
Von bagh’s film follows the exploits of Pertti Ylermi Lindgren, a dance band singer who takes up multiple amorous relationships, promising marriage to all of them. This strange comedy drama, almost documentary like, stars the real life Pertti whose charm and wit entrances these women and also the audience.
While there are many laughs on the way as Pertti ambles through life from woman to woman I could help but notice a sadness to the film. A peter pan man, who could never grow up and, who was constantly running from love and commitment. Through his various disguises as a priest, or as a high powered business he seems uneasy with what may be the true him. This is even more fascinating considering Pertti plays himself.
Von Bagh’s direction is laid back and distanced from the central character. Rather than being prt of the action we observePertti’s antics from afar. The crisp black and white photography and sharp snappy editing create a polished well balanced film. The Count is a film full of small touches and gentle laughs, a fascinating character study into one of cinema’s most cheeky rogues.
8. A Shot In the Factory, Erkko Kivikoski, 1973
A Shot in the Factory, directed by Erkko Kivikoski in 1973 is a fine example of Finnish New wave at its most political. This rough raw looking documentary style film like many new wave films explores the disintegration of Finnish culture and society. Kivikoski offers no easy answers, with an almost nihilist approach to his subject we witness the breakdown of the lead character whose final response to the establishment is murder.
Henrikkson is a hardworking factory worker who has been in the company many years. He is respected and seems fair minded and moderate. He and his colleagues are made redundant when the factory owners decide to downsize. They form a committee, toy with industrial action and attempt to involve the media in their plight. Unfortunately nothing works and the fate of the men is sealed. Henrikkson walks into the factory with a sawn off shot gun and shoots his former employer.
A Shot in the Factory is a fascinating film. Kivikoski creates a familiar scenario where company big bosses cause conflict with their workers, but here the real failure is the lack of co-operation between the workers. Instead of showing union solidarity they scrap like rats to save their jobs and readily admit defeat realising that the system is too strong and accept their fate of unemployment. Kivikoski seems to imply that the inhabitants of Finland are as much to blame as the system that is ruining it.
The random act of violence which begins and ends the film seems the only alternative or solution. As the film ends the voiceover continues fading into oblivion. This is just another news story which will be forgotten in a few weeks, with another similar story replacing it over and over again. Kivikoski’s distinct vision is a dark and brutal tale where no winners are involved. A Shot in the dark adds to the impressive collection of faux documentaries such as the Count, and Fuck Off Images of Finland to emerge from Finland from the seventies, each outlining their own vision of the disintegration of this fine country.
9. The Earth Is A Sinful Song, Rauni Mollberg, 1973
Rauni Mollberg’s The Earth Is A Sinful Song is a true work of pure honesty and integrity and his stark barren vision is never softened or neutralised. This story, originally a novel by Timo K Mukka, of a 1940’s Lapp community in northern Finland creates one of the most vivid portrayls of a community in Scandanavian cinema.
The film centres around Martta a plump, dowdy, but strangely beautiful eighteen year old who’s sexual desires are about to be awakened by several pursuers including the young attractive Kurki – Petti. Martta’s strict father does not approve of the relationship and when Martta falls pregnant the father seeks brutal revenge ending in tragedy.
The Earth is a Sinful Song unlike any other Finnish film recreates history with brutal naturalism. The rough worn bodies of the actors surviving in extreme conditions, with their pained expressions drilled into their faces makes for uncomfortable viewing. The image of happy herdsman chasing reindeer with bells a ringing is rejected. The peasants we see on screen seem lost in time, we really could be watching people from the middle ages.
This film portrays a brutal sexuality where rape, incest and consensual loving sex are often hard to distinguish. Martta is not a young innocent girl thrown from one man to another she often instigates the encounter like when she (already pregnant) invites her half- brother to join her in bed and lose his virginity. Throughout the film thanks to the wonderful acting of Maritta Viitamäki, Martta remains dignified, a product of this harsh land, where the only entertainment to be found is in alcohol, sex and religion.
Mollberg has created a vivid film full of hard edged emotion and is quite unlike many Scandinavian films before. Certainly Bergman was never this naturalistic and a film like Nykvist’s the Ox which is similar in themes of poverty and despair doesn’t capture the “truth” like The Earth Is A Sinful Song. This film when available to watch is well worth the see, an insight into a world, which has become extinct and replaced by consumerism and corporate greed.
10. Sensuela, Teuvo Tulio, 1973
Sensuela, Teuvo Tulio’s farewell to cinema might just be his greatest achievement. This over the top camp, lurid film on paper should be a catastrophe, but under Tulio’s direction this kitsch soft porno reaches heights that only the likes of Russ Meyer and Jesus Franco have scaled.
The story tells of an innocent young Lapp girl who lives with her father during the war time. She helps save a Nazi soldier and falls in love. Many years later he returns and takes her to Helsinki. Their relationship does not work out. Sensuela refuses to go back home resorting to prostitution as a way of life. So ashamed she refuses to tell her father of her split with her boyfriend, but eventually he finds out with disastrous consequences.
Tulio re-treads his usually themes of fallen women and his overly melodramatic is very much present here. Unlike Jorn Donner whose sex based themes seem more gritty and realistic, Sensuela is a soft porn sex romp so deliciously garish and flamboyant a written synopsis doesn’t do it justice. The film’s peak is when the furious father realizes his daughter is not in fact married. He approaches the presumed husband and bites his testicles off spitting them out onto the ground just as he neuters his reindeer. Sensuela never really shocks or titillates, one is just amazed at scene after scene of just plain out strangeness almost akin to Guy Maddin.
Sensuela is a true bizarre gem. The editing and camera at times are so bad and illogical you wonder whether Tulio meant for film to be so camp. The production design is the seventies in all its garish glory. The colour tone is so bright and clashes that it makes the viewer physically feel nauseous. Despite the many flaws the story is pure entertainment, the actors are fantastic and the themes of Finland losing its identity and the cultural clash between the city and countryside are much the same as many more serious films from the era. Ironically enough Sensuela in many ways conveys these themes in a more realistic style than those films which try harder.
11. Calamari Union, Aki Kaurismaki, 1985
Aki Kaurismaki is Finland’s most celebrated filmmaker for nearly three years he has been at the forefront of European cinema with an incredibly consistent turnout. His own particular brand of humour has become synonymous with Finnish culture. To choose one film from his career proved a rather difficult task, but I opted for an earlier lesser known film which in many ways is Kaurismaki’s most adventurous and idiosyncratic film to date.
Calamari Union made in 1985, was Kaurismaki’s second feature film. It is the story of seventeen men called Frank who wander around Helsinki searching for a utopia called Eira. The various Frank’s including iconic actor Matti Pellonpaa get up to madcap quirky adventures many ending in death and disaster. The film is really a collection of excellent skits moulded together around a loose storyline. The “coolest” director to ever walk the planet creates a truly individual film and quite unlike his other works which tend to centre around on or two main characters.
Calamari Union boasts some wonderful black and white cinematography turning Helsinki into a surreal, shadowy, anonymous neo-noir city. The influences are there for all to see, Godard’s Alphaville, Carol Reed’s The Third Man and a whole selection of Hollywood Film noir. The humour is unmistakably Kaurismaki, deadpan, droll, ultra-hip. My favourite character is the Frank who speaks English with a nasal tone similar to Sylvester Stallone. His Taxi Driver impression is definitely a highlight in the movie.
Calamari Union feels less polished than Kaurismaki’s later films and is all the better for this. There is a sense of Kaurismaki experimenting with his style, perfecting his art. His later films often show a lack of ambition, Kaurismaki knows what he succeeds in but has rarely ventured from his tried and tested formula to push himself as a filmmaker.
12. Fire-Eater, Pirjo Honkasalo, 1998
Fire-Eater is Pirjo Honkasalo’s 1998 debut fiction film. This incredibly stylized film is one of the most interesting films to come from Finland in the last twenty years. Honkasalo’s eye for detail and her understanding of mother and daughter relationships make this well worth watching.
Irene and Helena are twins abandoned by their mother during World War II and left with their grandmother. After her death they are transported to an orphanage. Eventually the mother arrives with her new lover and introduces them to circus life. Helena becomes a successful trapeze artist, but soon things start to fall apart and the relationship between the two sisters and the mother breaks down.
Fire-Eater is a beautifully designed film. Through a series of flashbacks and tableaux we follow the complex relationship of our three main protaganists. Their motives often remain obscure and open to interpretation. Honkasalo wonderfully re-creates Helsinki during the Second World War and the circus with its mystery and excitement. Despite the visual excess the audience can still emotionally relate to the characters due to the great acting. Tiina Weckström is astonishing as the ageing mother who cannot come to terms with her failing beauty.
Honkaslo’s style is reminiscent of Sally Potter, Wim Wenders and Terence Davies. Fire-Eater theatrical in design is a feast for the eyes. The b/w and colour cinematography is magnificent and a definite nod to Wings of Desire which in many ways covers similar themes. The set design again is superb with tiny minute details added. This film remains Honkasalo’s sole fiction film, although in 2013 she started filming Betoniyö which will be much anticpated.
13. Pavlov’s Dogs, Arto Halonen, 2006
Arto Halonen’s 2005 documentary is one of many great surprises from Finnish cinema. This modest film set in Russia proves to be a sensitive, thought provoking examination on human existence, and a reflection of Russian society that has shifted into capitalist society.
Halonen’s documentary follows Sergei Knyatzev a Russian entrepreneur who arranges weird and wonderful events, such as public cockroach races and the chance for the rich and wealthy to become beggars. On the face of it this man seems obnoxious, greedy and arrogant, but Pavlov’s Dogs paints a more complex picture and the shots of him holding his newborn baby at the end of film, reveal a man without the gusto and bravura that accompany him when he is faced into the camera.
Knayatzev’s events border from the bizarre to the disturbed. His clients are always searching for their next kick. Some dress as homeless beggars wandering the streets hustling for money while a minder stands in the distance making sure nothing too terrible will happen to them. Fake duels are also organised with rubber bullets. The psychological state of his clients seems to fuel Knayatzev’s passion for his job. For the viewer these shallow vapid people seem uninteresting. It is Knayatzev himself which remains the most intriguing character in Pavlov’s Dogs.
Halonen has managed to create a quite outstanding documentary, a portrait of a man who plays to the camera. Knayatzev is a circus performer, a self-promoter who delights in his madcap ideas, but underneath lies an essentially simple man providing a future for his wife and child. Through this film we catch glimpses of humanity rarely seen in cinema today.
14. The Visitor, J.P Valkeapää, 2008
The Visitor made in 2007 by J.P Valkeapaa might be the most underestimated film to appear this century. Borrowing heavily from greats such as Bresson and Tarkovsky, this film is certainly the most visually exciting film to come from Finland. Why most people will have not heard of or seen this film is a mystery to me. What is even more remarkable is that this film was a student project and is surely one of the best feature film debuts in the history of filmmaking.
The story is simple, a mute boy lives with his mother. His father is in prison for an unknown crime. His friend leaves prison and visits the mother and the boy who hide him. The prisoner embarks on affair with the mother which leads to tragic consequences. The film leaves many open ended questions for which the audience have to find answers. An air of mystery surrounds the Visitor adding to the brooding, melancholy atmosphere.
The cinematography is simply outstanding. Finland’s landscape has never been filmed with such brutality. The seasons are perfectly portrayed from the torrid, icy winter to summer basking in its glory. One of the most harrowing moments in the film is when the boy’s beautiful white horse escapes. It falls down a ravine and we see the horror in the boy’s eyes as his beloved horses lies dying smashed to pieces. This film is very much indebted to those great filmmakers from the early sixties and seventies such as Bergman, Tarkovsky, Vlacil and the Visitor is every bit the equal of any film made by these directors.
The simple story of a mute boy, who unable to communicate screams from inside might seem a cliché, but Valkeapaa with his delicate direction creates an other worldly atmosphere. The actors are superb especially the child and the world weary mother whose fate seems destined to end in tragedy. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. A perfect film for those who wish some of those great masters were still alive making films today.
15. Letters To Father Jacob, Klaus Härö, 2009
Klaus Haro’s intimate subtle 2009 film may seem unspectacular on first viewing, but this quiet, modest drama is well worth the watch. The film moves slowly to a quite devastating climax that is both poignant and moving.
Kaarina Hazard plays Leila a woman pardoned from prison for a crime that is not revealed until the very end. She is placed by the state working for Father Jakub played by Heikki Nousiainen. Leila at first is cynical about Father Jakub, his relationship with God and the people he tries to help. A revelation towards the end of the film radically changes her view, but is it too late?
Letters to Father Jakub allows these two characters all the screen time apart from the postman who comes with mail everyday. The acting here is excellent and Hazard and Nousiainen give such nuanced performances through their expression and tone. Both characters are totally believable and Haro’s script is impressive omitting many details until the final scene.The audience are left guessing what the strange connection between Leila and Jakub really is. There are no huge revelations in this film, just a realisation that we are not alone in the world and random acts of kindness and forgiveness do exist.
Haro’s gentle uncomplicated direction is very different from many Finnish directors whose overt style makes them easily recognisable. The camera drifts across the barren landscape, the empty church and each composition is carefully constructed to enhance the bare emotions of the two main characters. When watching this film Bergman’s Winter Light came to mind, two films searching for spirituality and inner human strength. Ultimately Haro’s vision ends more positively, affirmation that human kindness and a personal belief in what is good can change the lives the lost people.
Other key films in the Finnish Cinema
Noidan kirot, 1927
One Man’s Fate, 1940
Song of the Scarlet Flower, 1938
Fields of Dreams, 1940
The Way You Wanted Me, 1944
Cross of Love, 1946
Restless Blood, 1946
Radio tekee murron, 1951
Inspector Palmu’s Error, 1960
The Scarlet Dove, 1961
The Boys, 1962
Skin, Skin 1966
Eight Deadly Shots, 1972
Unknown Soldier, 1955
Diary of a Worker, 1967
One Man’s War, 1973
Olympian Holiday, 1976
Year of the Hare, 1977
Black on White, 1968
Portraits of Women, 1970
Men Can’t Be Raped, 1978
Nine Ways To Approach Helsinki, 1982
Hot Cat?, 1968
Little Red Riding Hood, 1968
The Liar, 1981
The Worthless, 1982
Helsinki-Naples All Night Long, 1987
Zombie and the Ghost Train, 1991
Crime and Punishment, 1983
Hamlet Goes Business, 1987
Shadows In Paradise, 1987
Leningrad Cowboys Go America, 1989
I Hired A Contract Killer, 1990
The Match Factory Girl, 1990
Take Care of Your Scarf Tatiana, 1994
Drifting Clouds, 1996
The Man Without A Past, 2002
Lights in the Dusk, 2006
People Are Not As Bad As They Seem, 1977
Unknown Soldier, 1985
The Wedding Waltz, 1988
Kiss Me in the Rain, 1999
Shadow of the Holy Book, 2007
Magnetic Man, 2009
A Man’s Job, 2007
Bad Family, 2010
Three Rooms of Melancholia, 2004
Frozen Land, 2005
Frozen City, 2006
Mother of Mine, 2005
Beauty and the Bastard, 2005
Home of the Dark Butterflies, 2008
Antti Jussa Annila
Jade Warrior, 2006
Peter Von Bagh
Helsinki Forever, 2008
Where Once We Walked, 2011