Close Up

18 - 30 January 2019: Drifting Shadows: Masterpieces of Finnish Cinema


Cinema in Finland got a flying start with a visit of the Lumière company in 1896, and in 1907 fiction film production was launched to great success, but for a long time Finnish cinema remained a treasure for domestic consumption only. Before the Kaurismäki phenomenon the best-known Finnish film was Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer, but there is much more to discover. This programme sheds light on one of the most overlooked Nordic national cinemas which is currently enjoying a boom in audience success, production volume, and versatility.

Curated by Antti Alanen and Ehsan Khoshbakht

The Village Shoemakers
Erkki Karu, 1923, 83 min, 35mm
Silent with live accompaniment by Stephen Horne

Based on a bittersweet, farcical play about unrequited love by Finland's first modern novelist and playwright, Aleksis Kivi, The Village Shoemakers captures the defiant lack of self-pity that distinguished Kivi's literary style. Axel Slangus, later to play the old man in Ingmar Bergman's Virgin Spring, gives an unsentimental performance as a brawny bachelor whose bungled attempts at winning the girl of his dreams leave him to the solitude of a whiskey bottle. read more

The Broad Way
Valentin Vaala, 1931, 96 min
Finnish with English subtitles

The third film by Valentin Vaala and his leading actor, budding director Teuvo Tulio: two young cosmopolitans with a great passion for cinema. Vaala loved Lubitsch, while Tulio was called the Finnish Valentino. The title of the film refers to the Sermon on the Mount: "The path is wide, which leads to damnation." Vaala designs a cinema of beautiful surfaces: fast cars, elegant costumes, neon lights and jazz. read more

Stolen Death
Nyrki Tapiovaara, 1938, 100 min
Finnish with English subtitles

A thriller set in turn-of-the-century Helsinki, Stolen Death uses elements of German expressionism to tell the story of Finnish resistance fighters smuggling arms to overthrow the Tsarist occupiers of Finland. Tapiovaara stresses the divided loyalties of the Finnish bourgeoisie, torn between preserving their privileged economic position and taking a risky stand for an independent Finland. read more

Women of Niskavuori
Valentin Vaala, 1938, 85 min
Finnish with English subtitles

Adapted from a play by novelist Hella Wuolijoki (who initially wrote under a male pseudonym) this is Vlantin Vaala's pivotal work of the 1930s and the first in a series of five films chronicling the life of a wealthy farm household across decades and generations. Compared to an equally successful series of "provincial comedy-dramas" made by Marcel Pagnol in France, Vaala's work proves to be visually more adventurous with its camera movements and faster pace. read more

People in the Summer Night
Valentin Vaala, 1948, 66 min
Finnish with English subtitles

A gorgeous film with all the drama of love, death and new life. This cinematic rural poem is a beautiful adaptation of a novel by F.E. Sillanpää, to date Finland's only Nobel Laureate in Literature, about a bright Finnish summer night. Directed by the masterful Valentin Vaala, the sheer beauty of this film is also in part due to Eino Heino's camerawork and Taneli Kuusisto's score. read more

The Way You Wanted Me
Teuvo Tulio, 1944, 102 min
Finnish with English subtitles

Teuvo Tulio, the master of Finnish melodrama, made all his films outside the major companies, including this one, which was filmed in 1943 while the war was ongoing. First presented in late 1944, when the war had ended, this powerful drama works as a metaphor for Finland: the leading female character, a prostitute, is defeated and crushed by life, a shadow of her former self – but she has preserved an ideal image of peace and happiness. read more

The White Reindeer
Erik Blomberg, 1952, 74 min
Finnish with English subtitles

Shot in the Arctic Circle’s snowy expanses, Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer is a marvel of film fantasy from Finland made in 1952. Pirita, played by the director’s wife, Mirjami Kuosmanen, is a bewitched young woman wed to an often-absent reindeer herder. Longing for affection, she carries out a sacrifice to empower a local shaman’s love potion and becomes cursed, transforming into a white reindeer by night and drinking the blood of local hunters. The White Reindeer blends documentary travelogue with avant-garde experimentation and produces an art house horror film without compare. read more

The Unknown Soldier
Edvin Laine, 1955, 177 min
Finnish with English subtitles

The most popular film in Finland by a wide margin, The Unknown Soldier is also a cult movie in the strict sense: its dialogue has entered Finnish folklore, although it is often difficult to distinguish whether this originated with the movie or the book by Väinö Linna, which formed the basis for two other adaptations. One of the greatest war films ever made, it is a demonstration of how far Finnish cinema could go when the inspiration was genuine and shared by all involved. read more

Inspector Palmu’s Error
Matti Kassila, 1960, 109 min
Finnish with English subtitles

An indisputable classic, and the first adaptation to feature the fictional detective created by the esteemed Finnish author Mika Waltari, best known for his historical books. The story revolves around the murder of a member of upper class, only to reveal a complicated web of blackmail and corruption. Known for its splendid documentary images of Helsinki, the film mixes "elements of comedy with scenes that would fit in more with the most intense of expressionist horror". read more

The Diary of a Worker
Risto Jarva, 1967, 92 min, 35mm
Finnish with English subtitles

Released in the midst of an extremely grey period in the Finnish cinema, The Diary of a Worker was considered a revelation: the film had discovered realism, living people and vital milieu, none of them packaged in the trappings of entertainment; and what is more, Risto Jarva's work seemed to approach the standard of the best new European cinema. And it still holds up: its realism is not merely grey naturalism but a multi-levelled depiction in which dream, imagination, memories and various levels of reality converge. read more

Alvar Aalto
Eino Ruutsalo, 1972, 19 min, 16mm

A portrait of the renowned Finnish architect and designer Alvar Aalto by the radical experimental filmmaker Eino Ruutsalo. Shot in the summer of 1972 at Aalto’s experimental house in Muuratsalo the film briefly and accurately covers the growth, development and creativity of the master architect, presenting his most important work. read more

The Worthless
Mika Kaurismäki, 1982, 110 min
Finnish with English subtitles

This story of three down and out characters in search of some kind of freedom, all the while being pursued by a bunch of gangsters, this is the first feature directed by the eldest of the Kaurismäki brothers. Full of Finnish deadpan humour, and at the same time a tender, humane depiction of marginalised wanderers, it features Matti Pellonpää in the leading role, as well as Aki Kaurismäki, who co-scripted the film, playing the cool and troubled Ville Alfa (an homage to Godard's Alphaville). A playful mishmash of different genres, The Worthless (and its imaginary Finland) is a joy from beginning to end. read more

Shadows in Paradise
Aki Kaurismäki, 1986, 76 min
Finnish with English subtitles

Aki Kaurismäki regulars Matti Pellonpää and Katja Outinen star in this offbeat yet remarkably touching romantic comedy. Pellonpää plays Nikander, a rubbish collector and would-be entrepreneur who finds his plans for success dashed when his business associate commits suicide. Whilst searching for a job, he meets Ilona, a down-on-her luck cashier in a local supermarket – and, falteringly, a bond begins to develop between them. read more

Midnight Sun Film Festival
Heikki Ortamo, 1987, 9 min, 35mm

The greatest film festival (anti)promotional short ever made which explains why Midnight Sun is a unique event for both film buffs in Finland and some of the stellar international talents who attend it and also appear in this hilarious guide to a very Finnish way of showing films. read more

Helsinki, Forever
Peter von Bagh, 2008, 74 min
Finnish with English subtitles

Peter von Bagh's international break-through: a portrait of Finland's capital made with material taken from all eras and sources, with newsreel footage finding a place as easily as scenes from feature films. Certain locales are contemplated throughout the years, if not always in chronological order – as every so often, Von Bagh's montage follows an emotional logic that questions real historical developments. read more

Kaisa's Enchanted Forest
Katja Gauriloff, 2016, 86 min
French, Skolt Sámi, English, German & Finnish with English subtitles

After a life of ill health, the young Swiss author Robert Crottet feels a calling to go to the Arctic and meet the people of the North. He is welcomed by the Skolt Sámi – and is mesmerized by the richness of their oral traditions, especially the unique storytelling gift of the lively matriarch Kaisa Gauriloff. After being acknowledged by the forest, he is permitted to record the stories and legends as told by Kaisa. These hypnotizing tales are illustrated with delightful storybook-style animation that intertwine with Robert’s biographical impressions as well as grim historical events around them. read more

The Eternal Road
Antti-Jussi Annila, 2017, 103 min
Finnish, English & Russian with English subtitles

Based on Antti Tuuri’s bestselling novel, The Eternal Road tells the untold story of the many thousands of Communist Americans who answered Stalin’s call in the 1930s to build a new society in the USSR based on justice, equality, and freedom. They include Jussi Ketola, an idealistic American with Finnish origins. However, the dream of a paradise is quickly shattered by efforts of control by both fascists and Soviet secret police. Foreigners become seen as undesirable elements, and in time people start disappearing. read more

With thanks to Ehsan Khoshbakht, Antti Alanen, The Finnish Finnish Institute London and KAVI for making this programme possible.

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