So, you might have noticed that Finland turned 100 this Wednesday (December 6th). Now, there’s a lot of reasons to like Finland, especially as a Finn, but I also feel that the country has devolved into something I don’t quite like recently.
I did want to celebrate the 100th in my own way here on the blog, but for various reasons I didn’t get this done until now, so here goes: My favorite Finnish movies.
This is a tough subject. There’s been a lot of poor movies from Finland over the years. And I mean a lot. Comedies aren’t funny, dramas go too deep into melodrama when they shouldn’t and those few independent productions I would really want to love, like Star Wreck and Iron Sky, are more about goodwill than actual quality. This doesn’t leave us with much, but at the same time, there has been some good movies in our history.
Of course, as a country of five and a half million, dispersed over pretty wide area, we will never have the resources available to others, but that’s not a real reason we suck at this. Sweden isn’t that much bigger, but they’ve produced great movies, even if you somehow forget about Ingmar Bergman. Norway is smaller than Finland, but still has a better movie industry.
In some cases we just haven’t been able to reach the same kind of audience as our neighbors, but it isn’t only that. Anyhow, here’s ten Finnish movies I enjoy, including two shorts, in chronological order.
Note that I didn’t check the English names, so some of them are my own translations.
Tuntematon sotilas (1955) (The Unknown Soldier)
This is the iconic Finnish movie for us Finns. It has been remade twice, once this year. It’s based on a book by the same name.
We follow a company of soldiers through the Continuation War. For us, the WWII is actually three separate wars. First, there was the well-known Winter War, in which Soviet attacked us and we held them back enough to keep our independence. After that, we were coaxed into joining the Germans in attacking back, which didn’t go as well. Finally, the Soviets demanded that we push the Germans out of our territory and that resulted in the War of Lapland. Yes, we were on the side of Germans for a while. It’s no wonder we mostly talk about the Winter War.
For us, Winter War is one of the defining moments of our history. Our small nation united to face the evil giant of Russia and won. Sort of. We did lose some territory, but we didn’t lose our independence. Of course, with any kind of introspection, we can see that we weren’t exactly pure in that situation, but for the reasons of national pride, we tend to stay quiet about those days.
Anyhow, Continuation War wasn’t exactly a good idea. We were optimistic about being able to beat the Soviet back and thought the Germans could help us, but the Germans weren’t that effective in fighting in the Finnish conditions (a lot forests and very cold winters), so they ended up being more of a stumbling block than an ally (except materially). The war didn’t go well. For some reason, this is still seen through the lens of national pride, even though the whole ordeal was pretty stupid and the book or the movie doesn’t try to hide that.
As a movie, it was a great achievement in 50s Finland. We were in a strange situation back then. The world was behind us in many ways. The Olympics of ’52 were held in Helsinki and Armi Kuusela won Miss Universe during the same year. At the same time, we were still under the heel of the Soviets, who forced us to pay them war reparations. On the other hand, we did use that more as an opportunity than anythng else. We were basically forced to modernize our country in order to be able to pay and that lead us into a whole new era for our previously heavily rural country.
I guess I’ve rambled on for way too long, but this movie is one of those things we seem to be very proud of. I’m not sure we are proud of it for the right reasons, as it is a good movie. I just feel we mostly fall into the wrong side of the anti-war/pro-war divide on this. It is definitely anti. There should be no question about that, but there just seems to be.
Katsastus (1988) (Inspection)
Viltteri is newly wed and also just became a father. In order to escape his responsibilities, he uses the excuse of having his old car fixed and inspected.
This was actually a TV movie. It has a weird cult status. We used to watch this with my student association back in the day. It’s probably more about attachment than quality, as I can’t really explain why I like this.
Kummeli Stories (1995) (Kummeli is just the name of a comedy troupe)
Another comedy by a Finnish comedy troupe Kummelit. It’s an episodic movie with a frame of Finnish going into war against Luxemburg for an insult. It’s mostly awkward and clumsy, and not really in an endearing way either. But it does have more actually funny bits than any other Finnish comedy movie I know.
Sauna (2008) (apparently Sauna wasn’t evocative enough, so this was released as Filth in some markets)
Okay, now onto the movies that don’t need you to be attached to them to like them.
Sauna is a horror movie that happens on the newly redrawn border between Sweden and Russia (in Finland). There is a commission who are actually doing right that. The Finnish/Swedish representatives are two brothers, one of whom is new to this and one who has killed a lot of people as a soldier. They end up in a village, that wasn’t on any maps and holds a strange secret.
The commentary on this movie pretty much states that the director wants to re-edit the movie to make some parts clearer, but I believe that would be a mistake. The strength of the movie is that you sort of have an idea about what’s going on, but not really. This is a reckoning for the older brother, but it is not straight-forward. People around him suffer as well his deeds bleed out in to the world with the village being a sort of representation of that.
Kaveri (2008) (Pal)
A short movie… which has become a cult classic. Pera just wants to know what it feels like to take it up the ass and his friend is very happy to oblige.
It’s a weird one in the sense that it has fun with the idea that our sexuality is fluid and can change.
Rare Exports (2010)
Someone is trying to dig up Santa Claus, but Santa isn’t exactly what you’d expect. A young kid and his small community of reindeer herdsmen must figure out what’s happening to the other children and why there are naked elderly men sneaking in the shadows.
As everyone should know by now, Santa lives in Finland, so this weird take on the myth is appropriate to us. It also includes pre-Coke version of Finnish Santa as the someone who not only gives presents, but also keeps children in line. A sort of Krampus, if you will.
Hiljainen viikko (2012) (literally Silent Week, but it’s also the week before Easter)
I haven’t seen this in five years and then I only saw this once at a movie festival midst about a dozen other short movies, but this is a beautifully understated story about what happens after a shooting incident.
Finnish dramas tend to go dark. Very dark. This has a very dark subject, but it doesn’t underline it. We just see these people trying to cope. You know what they are feeling, so you don’t have to make much noise about it.
Hymyilevä mies (2016) (literally Smiling man, released internationally as The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki)
Olli Mäki is about to fight for the world title in boxing (I don’t remember the weight class, but something low). He has just happened to fall in love as well, so he isn’t quite as motivated to fight as he might otherwise have been.
This is just a good old-fashioned love story that has Finnish written all over it. There’s a certain awkwardness and need to keep to ourselves. Olli doesn’t really care about the fame or even the money (he was actually a communist and wasn’t able to box again in international fights). He just wants to be left alone and marry his new love. I like how this movie subverts a Finnish trope, where we need to prove ourselves in an international theater (even I’ve fallen into that trap in this very article), but Olli is fine with losing. This was in the 50s (again) and this was a huge event for our country, even though it’s now mostly forgotten. For Olli, it’s all secondary.
Samurai Rauni Reposaarelainen (2016) (Samurai Rauni)
Rauni is a trained samurai living in a small island community in western Finland (Reposaari or Fox Island). He finds that there has been a bounty set on his head, so he heads out to hunt down whoever is responsible.
There are some people, who believe that in order to make it big internationally, we need to emulate big international movies. Well, we’ll never have the resources to do that and when we try, we fall flat quickly. Did Bergman try to copy international movies? No. Of course not. Did Trolljegeren attempt that? No. They took advantage of the peculiarities of their culture. How about von Trier? No. Then why should we?
This does channel an international star of sorts. Jodorowsky, to be exact. At the same time, it is very much a Finnish movie made on a microbudget with a bunch of volunteers. It’s a fun movie, but also juxtaposes the Japanese culture of the movie with the Finnish culture of it’s surroundings. And it never tries to escape this Finnish mentality.
Sadly, it hasn’t been able to gain wider recognition. It has been released in select European countries, but that is not much.
Tom of Finland (2017)
Well, here is a movie that did get a release in quite a few countries. Not surprising, because Tom of Finland is a widely recognized international cultural icon. He was basically the guy responsible for the ultra-machismo that was and often still is linked to the gay culture.
Touko Laaksonen, a decorated soldier, has a pretty dark secret. What else can I say about the plot? It’s a pretty straight-forward biopic. What does bring this closer to home, even though I’m not gay, is that being gay was illegal in Finland right up to late 70s, which is kind of a horrible thing in a supposedly forward-thinking country like ours.
It doesn’t really stray away from the formula, but it doesn’t really need to. Instead it relies heavily on the subject matter in an honest way. I mean, Touko’s sister, his only family, thinks of his inclinations as childish and doesn’t want to discuss his tendencies in any way. Touko needs to move to the US for a while to find acceptance.