Category Archives: Finnish Cinema

The Fencer (Miekkailija, Finland-Estonia-Germany 2014)

Märt Avandi as Endel Nelis, the fencer with a secret

Märt Avandi as Endel Nelis, the fencer with a secret

The Fencer is a beautifully-produced film that is likely to please audiences with its central story. It works as what might be called a ‘national popular’ film which tells a story that resonates with local audiences who want to identify with the film’s heroes and with the overall message which supports an idea of national identity.

Such films are perhaps most noticeable when they come from small countries with limited resources for film production. In this context a local story stands out and can even out-perform Hollywood films because of its local cultural importance.

Finland and Estonia

This film is essentially a Finnish creation – a Finnish writer, Anna Heinämaa, and director Klaus Härö, with a mixed crew of Finns, Estonians and Germans. The story itself and the actors are Estonian – the lead actor Märt Avandi is a well-known local actor, singer and television host.

The film was ironically the Finnish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Academy Awards and competed with the Estonian film 1944, which told another, related ‘national story’. Why are these film cultures so closely linked?

Finnish and Estonian are the two main languages in the Uralic language group, distantly related to Hungarian but not to any major Indo-European languages. The two countries are separated by the Gulf of Finland and the Russian territory of the Karelian isthmus – ceded by Finland after the 1939-40 ‘Winter War’. Finns and Estonians are united by their historical battles with Russia as well as their shared language culture.

Estonia and Russia

Estonia has a history of occupation from the 17th century onwards, first under the Swedish and then the Russian Empire. The country became independent after the First World War and a War of Independence in 1920 but was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940 and then by the Germans in 1941. The Red Army returned in 1944 and Estonia was again declared a Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). Independence finally came in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

During the Second World War some Estonians were forced to fight for the Red Army and some for the Wehrmacht – some fought on both sides at different times. Other Estonians fought with the Finnish Army against the USSR in the Winter War and the Continuation War (1941-44). These various conflicts are not well known in the West but they feature in Russian, Finnish and Estonian films. 

When the Soviet Union re-occupied Estonia, Russians were encouraged to move to Estonia and at the same time Estonians were being deported (or themselves fled) or sent to Russian labour camps. This is the background to The Fencer. The number of ‘ethnic Estonians’ in the early 1950s actually living in Estonia was only around 1 million compared to the Russian population of over 100 million and the nearly 200 million in the whole Soviet Empire. Most of The Fencer takes place in the last year of Stalin’s control over the Soviet Union. He died in March 1953. The Fencer is based on a true story which has been fictionalised. 

The Fencer tells of people’s universal need to hold onto their freedom and the right of a small country to defend itself against a superior opponent. Due to the events in Ukraine, I feel our film is astonishingly current. Shivers went down my spine when the second Crimean War began on the same day as our filming.   (Kai Nordberg, Producer of The Fencer)

The genre basis of the story is familiar as a sports drama in which a former star athlete will find and train a small local team who will go to a national final and fight against the odds. This is then combined with the nationalist story.

The film looks very good in a CinemaScope ratio as photographed by Tuomo Hutri and I was impressed by the lead performance.

Le Havre (Finland/France/Germany 2011)

Marcel (Andre Wilms) and Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) in Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘Le Havre’. Photographer: Marja-Leena Hukkanen. ©Sputnik Oy

Le Havre is the third of a trio of top films at Cannes in 2011 to arrive in the UK over the last couple of months – or perhaps the fourth if you include This Is Not a Film alongside Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Kid with a Bike. It’s annoying that we have to wait so long – and that we have to sit through months of Hollywood ‘awards’ films before we get to the good stuff. Some of us would cheer a distributor who brought out films like these in January/February.

Aki Kaurismäki is an unusual filmmaker. A Finn now domiciled in Portugal, here he turns up with a film set in the major French port of Le Havre and funded by French and German film and TV companies plus Finnish public investment. Kaurismäki has made a film in French before but this one appears to be the first of a new trilogy he hopes to make in various European ports. I’m something of a newcomer to his films but the two I have seen have shared a number of elements that I understand are quite common across his work. His films tend to feature working-class communities and dockside is a familiar destination. These are genuine ‘communities’ in which people look out for each other and especially when some official policy initiative threatens someone in the community. Kaurismäki prefers to create an imaginary world that is presented as if it were in a 1950s/60s/70s movie. So, not only do the cars, clothes, music etc. signal ‘pastness’ but also the use of studio sets alongside selected locations – and the sets are photographed according to the lighting and camera conventions of that period. The music too must fit this time period. The overall effect is a warm humanism cut with dry wit. Kaurismäki is himself a cinephile and there are numerous references to other auteur filmmakers, some directly but others in more diffuse ways.

In Le Havre the central character is Marcel Marx who lives with his wife Arletty and his dog Laika. Max somehow survives as a shoeshine man (since in this world, men still have leather shoes). Max befriends a young boy from Gabon who is hanging around the docks after the immigration police raid the shipping container in which he and a large group of ‘illegals’ have made the trip to France. The narrative then involves the attempt to get the boy to London to join his mother. In this Max calls on the whole local community of shopkeepers, bar-owners and local workers. In the meantime, Arletty has been taken to hospital with stomach pains.

Laika and Idrissa (Blondin Miguel). Photographer: Marja-Leena Hukkanen. ©Sputnik Oy

The film looks wonderful (thanks to Kaurismäki’s long-time collaborator Timo Salminen). The look invokes several of my favourite directors. At one point it feels like a Truffaut film – and then up pops Jean-Pierre Léaud. There is also a beautiful shot of a tree in blossom that could be from Ozu. But the strongest connections are to the ‘poetic realist’ films of late 1930s French cinema, signified by the name Arletty and the location. Coincidentally, the BFI have just released a restored version of Le quai des brumes in which Jean Gabin is a soldier hoping to create a new life abroad after he migrates from Le Havre – but he becomes embroiled in a local dispute when he tries to save a young woman. Kaurismäki confirms the links to such films by playing various chansons on the soundtrack. One other reference that has been picked up is to the films noirs of Jean-Pierre Melville in which there are often distinct relationships between the dogged police detective and the romantic anti-hero. In Kaurismäki’s film Marcel has several crucial encounters with Inspector Monet.

Le Havre is the perfect length and if, as a viewer, you allow yourself to be taken into this imagined world you should spend a relaxing and heart-warming 93 mins. I’ve seen the complaint that the boy is too appealing and that the theme is somehow too ‘politically correct’, but I’m impressed by the director’s firm control over his material and I had no problems whatsoever with the film’s approach.

Here’s a trailer with the song ‘Matelot’ by The Renegades.

The Winter War (Talvisota, Finland 1989)

Exhausted Finnish soldiers in 'The Winter War'

This remarkable film is a good example of what some film theorists have called the ‘national popular’ film. By that I mean a film that explores an important national event, is made by a local production company and seen by a significant audience both in the cinema and subsequently on TV/DVD etc. ‘The Winter War’ was the relatively short and bloody war in which Finland managed to stave off a Russian invasion in late 1939. The war ended in March 1940 with some Finnish territory ceded to the Soviet Union. Technically this was a victory for the Soviet Union but Finland remained independent and the Finnish forces proved a match for a much larger Red Army that suffered casualties on a 4:1 basis, arguably because of poor leadership and misguided strategic and tactical decisions. (The ‘Continuation War’ started in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union when Finnish forces attempted to win back territory, this time with German support.)

The Winter War was the most expensive Finnish film production to date in 1989 and it isn’t hard to see where the money went with many extras and scenes of destruction. The PAL Region 2 DVD available in the UK from Scanbox Entertainment offers quite a poor transfer of what I assume was the original print in the European aspect ratio of 1.66:1 – which makes the film seem much older than 1989. The DVD runtime is just over 120 mins which means it offers only two-thirds of the original running time. The Finnish PAL Region 0 DVD runs to over three hours. I found my copy in my local library but if I’d known about the original version I’d have gone for that (it seems to be easily available in the UK). Because I’ve only seen the shortened version, I’ve got be wary in commenting on the narrative – which not surprisingly seemed to be somewhat elliptical!

Director and co-writer Pekka Parikka adapted a novel by Antti Tuuri focusing on a Finnish regiment that is quickly recruited and armed and sent to the front in the Karelian peninsula (strategically the most important target for the Russians as the original border was relatively close to Leningrad). Here the Finns are eventually forced to defend the rudimentary ‘Mannerheim Line’ of trenches against a large Soviet force. The Finnish forces comprise some grizzled veterans alongside a larger proportion of young recruits. They have makeshift uniforms and a motley array of light weapons. The Russians have all the tanks and aircraft and far more artillery. The Finns know what they are doing and they are at least camouflaged by their white capes and outer tunics. In the truncated version of the film, the major achievement is the representation of war as brutal and relentless. The Russian tactics were stupid with massed infantry walking towards the trenches alongside the tanks. Hundreds were shot and killed by the defenders but nevertheless we understand the terror of the defenders faced with successive waves of attackers. The film is remarkable for two absences. We have no access to the Russian perspective so they remain a faceless enemy apart from a few individuals killed or captured at close quarters. There is no representation of Finnish politicians or senior military figures and apart from one speech by a senior officer to his men there is relatively little jingoism. The Home Front focus is on the young wives and girlfriends and the mothers. Because the frontline was so close to home, some of the men get leave – but as one of them says the likelihood is they will go home in a box.

Perhaps because the narrative features an older brother looking after his sibling, several American commentators have compared the film favourably to Saving Private Ryan, suggesting that Spielberg might have seen it. I can’t comment on that except to say that the Finnish film is mercifully free of the sentimentality that too often overwhelms Spielberg’s films. For me the Hollywood films that this reminded me of were those combat films about WWII and Korea made by Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich – and of course, Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. But then the real comparison might be with Russian films about the ‘Great Patriotic War’.

So, despite the truncated narrative, I’m glad I’ve seen this – it helps to explain some of the background to those Nordic crime fiction and horror stories I’ve been reading in which Danes, Swedes and Norwegians are fighting as volunteers alongside the Finns and against the Russians in 1939.

24 Frames: The Cinema of Scandinavia (2005)

Could this be the first book I’ve bought that I can’t review? Perhaps you, the reader, should decide. We’ve reviewed two other entries from this Wallflower series, but this collection of essays on Scandinavian films presents me with an unusual problem – I haven’t seen any of the 24 films selected as case studies. Now I admit that my specific interest in ‘Nordic Cinema’ is fairly recent but my experience of Swedish and Danish Cinema over the years is not too bad. I don’t think that it is just me – the brave editor of this collection has decided to go for a much wider perspective on regional cinema than I have seen elsewhere in the series.

The selection of 24 titles spans 1905 to 2004 and begins with ‘actualité‘  footage of the arrival of the King of Norway at Christiania (Oslo) in 1905 at the moment of Norwegian independence and the founding of the nation state. Elsewhere in the selection we find three advertising films, two of them by leading filmmakers from Sweden, Ingmar Bergman and Roy Andersson, and two of the sex films made in the 1960s, one from Sweden and one from Denmark (intriguingly categorised as a ‘happy porn’ film). There are two documentaries (one of which is the extremely successful 2001 film about a Norwegian choir, known internationally as Cool and Crazy) and a children’s film Elvis, Elvis (Sweden 1977). And would you expect The Wake (Denmark 2000) to be 462 minutes of art installation work? The selections do span 100 years but it’s noticeable that seven of the films date from the period 1945-55, more than any other ten-year period – and there are some periods that are not represented at all (e.g. 1956-68). As for the five Nordic countries, Denmark, Finland and Norway are represented roughly equally but Sweden has nearly twice as many entries. There is no selection representing Iceland. And just in case you were wondering, besides Bergman and Andersson there are films from other internationally-known auteurs such as Carl Dreyer, Aki Kaurismaki and Lars Von Trier.

The reason I bought the book was because I needed a general introduction to Nordic Cinema and there is only this or the Routledge National Cinema series entry available at the moment. When I first realised that I hadn’t seen any of the films, my first reaction was very negative, but now that I think about it, there is still plenty to learn from the guide. All the authors except one are based at universities in Sweden, Finland, Norway or Denmark and this may partly explain the selections since presumably they have better access to the older films than most audiences outside the region. I’m not sure what to make of the exclusion of Iceland. In her introduction Tytti Soila explains that Iceland produced very few films before the late 1970s and that Icelandic film culture has had a tendency to look more towards Anglo-Saxon culture. It still seems a shame though that there isn’t one entry. (The introduction also points out that as well as the similarities which help the Nordic identity to be meaningful, there are also significant differences between each of the five countries.)

Soila’s introduction sets out the reasons for the approach to selection and the conscious attempt to avoid the “list of canonised feature films that the cultural industries, as well as literature abroad, usually present as ‘interesting’ or ‘culturally valuable’ or , even worse, ‘typical for Scandinavia'”. Thus the attempt to have a serious look at the porn films which helped several smaller companies stay in business at a time of crisis, at the folksy comedies and at the children’s films, advertising films and documentaries. The introduction is extremely useful and I hope that I can learn from the approach adopted in the chapters, even though I haven’t seen the film being discussed. It some cases I have seen other films by the same director or similar films by other directors. I should add that many of Roy Andersson’s other TV commercials are available on YouTube and very funny they are. I don’t think I can hold the editor of this collection responsible for the fact that most of these films are not available in the UK so having waited several months for Amazon to find me a copy I’m just going to read it and get the most from it that I can.