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Carte Blanche for the Ferroni Brigade: Six Bets on the Treasure Vaults of Finnish Cinema

The Ferronis program six classic films _they've never seen_. Here's why.

Above: a publicity still from Avoveteen (1938), the absent inspiration behind this retrospective.

When Simon Popek of the Ljubljana International Film Festival invited us to present a carte blanche at these year's edition (November 9th - 20th), our first thoughts went into totally different directions from the one we finally followed. Problem was: Once we got going, the going... To cut a long story short: We either ended up with programs that were too complex and huge to do inside Simon's parameters (six slots; majority of films should be from Europe) or long lists of titles that didn't add up to anything varied, inspiring and fun.

Then, it hit us: Let's do a carte blanche like probably nobody ever did before. Normally, it works like this: The honoree shows a bunch of generally well-known and -respected films, plus maybe—maybe—one slightly less-known item. Now, what would be the opposite of that?—Showing ultra-rare or just off-the-common-charts works we don't know ourselves and simply want to see! First we'll describe why a film interests us, how we found out about it etc., and then, after the screening, we'll discuss the experience with the audience, try to make sense of it with the people there and then. Read: This program is about what we want, our desires and hopes.

For us, film criticism and programming is more than just dealing with the stuff Conglomo considers fit for general consumption—it's at least as much about offering alternatives to that, contemplating ways of how the world could, maybe even should be. Now, can we expect to find the notions and tools for that amidst Conglomo's rubble? Not really (although, occasionally, here and there, depending on the time and place...). So, we have to go further, look around, a lot, in many different, often unexpected, sometimes seemingly impossible to access spaces, corners, niches, cracks; and we have to keep our minds open all the time—for you do find the most amazing works in the least likeliest places, if...

Now that we decided on the way to go, a few parameters of our own were needed. Rule no.1: Only film prints, only original formats. Over the last few years we had to learn that others consider this kind of attention to the art's "material reality" as plainly eccentric, pedantic or unduly fetishistic. For us, it makes all the difference: Firstly, it's a matter of respect for the craft, intelligence, sheer labour that went into the making of a film; secondly, because we know from experience that you truly know a film only once you've seen it screened in its original format on a proper screen, there it breaths, and you can study—or get lost—in all its details, finesses, idiosyncrasies. Rule no.2... for that, we had to decide on a genre or country or period or...whatever, some framework. Passion, as so often, lead the way: TO1, comrade Huber and TO1, comrade Möller have been obsessing for years about Orvo Saarikivi's Urho Karhumäki-adaptation Avoveteen (1939) which is, as far as we know, the sole screen version of a literary work that won a Gold Medal at the Summer Olympics' art competitions (quite likely the most arcane aspect of the game's history). We simply had to see Avoveteen! And suddenly it clicked—Finland!!!, 30s to 50s, i.e. the kind of productions almost never shown outside the country! Why on earth did it take a bunch of Finnophiles so long to decide on the most obvious choice around? Rule no. 3: Only one film per auteur.

As we knew precious little about Finnish cinema's busiest days, we first read everything we could find on the subject, which isn't much. Then, we asked all our Finnish friends and acquaintances for their opinions, of which but a few had any. Turns out that even back home, the 30s, 40s and 50s are terra incognita, or get treated as a dead zone. Kava's Tommi Partanen suggested that most Finns simply don't care about these films as they remember them from Sunday afternoons with Mom and Dad in front of the telly. Which is exactly the same attitude folks in Austria and the FRG have vis-à-vis their own film cultures from said period. Yet: Once you get (at least the more open-minded among) them to really look at the films, they're more often than not intrigued, fascinated, enchanted—it's a wilfully forgotten world begging to be charted, discussed and appraised anew.

Still, a decision had to be made, a list of titles drawn up. Which we left to our mestari Peter von Bagh whose "Nuvole in paradiso. Una guida al cinema finlandese" became the Brigade's compass: If Peter said, Excellent!, we took it. As for the particularities of each choice: Check the notes on the films.

One last thing: Some will wonder, "Where's Avoveteen?" Well, Kava holds only a nitrate print which doesn't leave the premises. Harumph. Sniff. But: Peter consoled us with an Avoveteen-DVD, so now we can say: This rough diamond deserves to be much better known; and we can't wait for the day we'll see it in all its B&W-35mm-glory.

SF Parade

SF Parade (SF-paraati), Yrjö Norta, 1940

We wanted a straight-forward studio production through which the era speaks, and SF-paraati was the title that got mentioned most often for that—its pictures of a bright and cheerful Helsinki only months before the Winter War seem to touch a raw nerve... We have no idea what SF-paraati is actually about as nobody could give us a plot summary beyond, Boy-Meets-Girl, like. Whatever, the story doesn't seem to matter anyway; it's the movie's many songs that do. And folks certainly remember them: More than once, someone started to hum, others fell in with the tune, and in seconds music was in the air. Kava's Jari Sedergren told us about the night they showed SF-paraati as a karaoke screening in Sodankylä, with some 700 cinephiles giving it their all—and that bliss-filled smile of his was all we needed to know for choosing this piece of assembly-line art.

White Roses

White Roses (Valkoiset ruusut), Hannu Leminen, 1943

An uncredited adaptation of Stefan Zweig's Brief einer Unbekannte (1922) done five years before Max Ophüls' Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), which, some say, was influenced by Leminen's work—certain similarities are, you know, just too particular, almost uncanny...Whatever, that's not our reason for showing Valkoiset ruusut: It's Peter von Bagh's claim that Leminen was one of the few virtuoso stylists Finnish cinema brought forth, a master of expressive décors and suggestive shadows, or that's what we understood. To get a first impression, the Brigade bought Kimmo Laine & Juha Seitajärvi's "Valkoiset ruusut. Hannu Lemisen & Helena Karan elämä ja elokuvat", a duography about the master and his muse/wife/actrice fetishe; the stills in this brick of a book suggest that Leminen might turn out to be a formalist romantic who'd lost all illusions long before being born—think Roberto Gavaldón or Mauro Bolognini. Let's find out about that.

Transfigured Heart

Transfigured Heart (Kirkastettu sydän), Ilmari Unho, 1943

Originally we wanted to show another film by Ilmari Unho: Härmästä poikia kymmenen (1950), a Northern, if there ever was such a beast. But then, TO1..., comrade Huber said, "What about that death melodrama Peter describes in such enticing words?" "You mean the one about the pastor who's convinced that he absolutely has to die for the fatherland?" TO1..., comrade Möller answered. "The film from an era when funerals of war heroes often displayed strange moments of collective ecstasy?" TO1..., comrade Wurm added—YES! Which just shows that the Brigade does tend to be of one mind, especially when it comes to strong, even violent melodrama. We're deeply fascinated by a cinema of absolutes, as its rabid single-mindedness tends to bring out life's more uncomfortable, troublesome contradictions—it's an art for the unconsoled. By the way: That's the sole case where we decided to compromise copy-wise: Kava was only able to provide us with a 16mm reduction print, which we accepted as 35mm -> 16mm, to us, is still cinema...but we're on shaking grounds here, and know it.

The Way You Wanted Me

The Way You Wanted Me (Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit), Teuvo Tulio, 1944

Teuvo Tulio's reputation as a master of high-strung-going-delirious melodrama stands tall—think Raffaello Matarazzo shortly before his style turned from viscerally determined to obsessively driven. Based on what little TO1..., comrade Möller has seen by the master so far, he whole-heartedly supports the Finns' claim for Tulio's canonisation as a world-class auteur of Expressive Esoterica. And yet, per Peter, we haven't seen anything yet: He claims that Tulio's greatest is Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit, an essay about the spiritual costs of war. A woman waits for her man to return. The world around has turned seedy and bleak, purgatory on earth, yet in her memories—or are they but dreams?—she keeps that shining vision of her quintessentially Finnish rural past—or pastoral utopia?—quietly alive. At least that's how we imagine Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit based on Peter's invocations. And maybe we'll find that film during the screening.

Loviisa, Niskavuoren nuori emäntä

Loviisa, Niskavuoren nuori emäntä, Valentin Vaala, 1947

Now, here's an auteur whose œuvre we should know better—Vaala looks like classic Finnish cinema's giant. So far, we've seen precious little, which made the decision for The One mighty difficult, not to mention painful. Should we show one of his 30s comedies whose style and wit seem on par with that of, say, Gregory La Cava, or better one of his pantheist essays in pastoral beauty, or maybe... In the end, we went by numbers: Loviisa, Niskavuoren nuori emäntä was the work recommended most often. Let's see how this is going to play as Loviisa, Niskavuoren nuori emäntä is but a part of Finland's most famous movie cycle, the Niskavuoren-saga, which follows a family of factory owners through the decades, therewith the nation's development through all its detours and dead-ends. People say that one doesn't need to know the other Niskavuoren-installments to understand and appreciate this one, so let's hope for the best. 

Girl from Moon Bridge

Girl from Moon Bridge (Tyttö kuunsillalta), Matti Kassila, 1953

First things first: What a title! Who wouldn't want to know what that's all about? Then: The stills we found look amazing—an invitation to drown in a wistful dream of whites. Peter describes Tyttö kuunsillalta as a love story consumed solely through the telephone. The couple, it seems, never meets, they only talk; life goes on, passes by, yet whenever they are on the phone together, time stops, for they're back, nay: still in that moment of their first calls. Sounds super. Also, we wanted to feature one film by a director whose work we know at least a bit: Like Aki Kaurismäki, we're great fans of Kassila's Komisario Palmu-crime comedies; Sininen viikko (1954) stood the test of time as a prime piece of summer love-maudit-cinema; while Radio tekee murron (1951) deserves to be known more widely—the way Kassila here weaves the moods and tones and tempi is quite astonishing. For all that, we expect nothing less than true greatness from Tyttö kuunsillalta.

I am in complete solidarity with this program and your methods in curating it. Last month I curated a series called ‘Non-Aligned Cinema’ at the Yugoslav Cinematheque, in celebration of the 50-year anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement. My program was made up of films lost in the cracks of history and directors who have not entered the canon in any sort of way. Not only that, I had not seen a single film I programmed before the actual screenings. Because of my schedule I wasn’t even able to attend the final two days of the program, so maybe I’ll never get around to seeing some of those films! Anyway, it was a very interesting curating experience for me. Good luck with your program. I really wish I could be there. If there is any way we can bring it (and you) to the Yugoslav Cinematheque here in Belgrade, let’s talk!
Great choices, but many even greater Finnish films were not included. In 1950’s, Kassila directed nothing but great films (well, except for Lakeuksien lukko) and all of them are worth seeing, of course. One that can be recommended to foreigners also is "Hilmanpäivät (1954), a comedy about a quiet, small Finnish village which comes to life one evening – the reason is too long to explain, you have to see the movie. But basicly every Finnish country side comedy film is highly influenced by this film. Unho’s “Härmästä poikia kymmenen” – which you mentioned – is not a good movie and replacing it with “Kirkastettu sydän” is a smart decision. Because of it’s story, “Syntipukki” (in 1935 directed by Erkki Karu and in 1957 by Matti Kassila) is also something to look for. It’s a comedy about people working at a department store in Helsinki. One young man, far from home, is hired and his job is to be scapegoat (=syntipukki): if customers are happy with the service they are getting, staff sents their scapegoat to get all the nasty feedback from the customers. Too bad that he is such a happy person that he cannot take that much negative feedback. From Tulio, you have to see also at least “Hornankoski”, “Levoton veri” and “Laulu tulipunaisesta kukasta”. The latter one was screened in Italy earlier this year.

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