Finnish Films I'd Recommend for a Foreigner
I start with documentaries because I tend to think that Finns are very capable of making brilliant documentaries - a lot more brilliant than most of the fictional films.
81 8.4 7.11. 3 Rooms of Melancholia (2004)
23 6.4 7.12. Fuck Off! - Images of Finland (1971)
Fuck Off! or Perkele! was a significant and, for its time, a pretty anarchistic documentary in cinéma verite style. It was meant to be a mirror of a Finnish society in the beginning of 70s and is pretty fragmented in nature. The film crew travels around the country, interviewing different people and asking them opinions about politics, immigration and their daily lives.
The crew interviews people from the countryside who are witnessing the young people moving away and the death of the Finnish agriculture (a state which is still going on). In other segments the crew tease famous theater actor Tapani Perttu about the state of the theater as an art. Couple of guys from the crew hang out with young people and have sex with a girl on camera.
The director was Jörn Donner - a Finn-Swede film director, critic, writer and a former politician and a diplomat who is mostly remembered as the producer of Ingmar Bergman's Fanny och Alexander. He is also a noted Bergman scholar and one of the founders of Finnish national film archive. Donner is a very provocative artist, not afraid to criticize anyone and anything. Since the making of Perkele!, Donner has won the most respected literature prize in Finland, Finlandia Prize of Literature, and has written fictional and historical books both in Finnish and Swedish and directed and produced both documentary and fictional films to this day. His special interests lie in the Finnish politics and history.
11 8.3 7.53. The Future Is Not What It Used to Be (2002)
45 7.7 7.24. Helsinki, Forever (2008)
I will talk about the director of this film, Peter von Bagh, more a bit later, when I'm describing his only full-length fictional film, The Count.
Helsinki, Forever, depicting the history of our capital through newsreels, documentary snippets, fictional films and other stuff with collage techniques, may be von Bagh's most critically acclaimed documentary. For example Jonathan Rosenbaum considered it to be one of the most remarkable cinematic achievements in the 2000s.
This is the film's opening scene, it shows the ice breaker Tarmo arriving to Helsinki harbor in the 20s.
The voice heard during the clip is a quote from our national poet Eino Leino:
"We don't only live in the present. The past, with all its memories, promises and experiences live in us. It's not uncommon for the past to be a much more stronger presence than the present."
42 7.6 7.35. The Living Room of the Nation (2009)
98 7.9 7.96. The Punk Syndrome (2012)
Directed by the same guy who did The Living Room of the Nation, Jukka Kärkkäinen, together with Jani-Petteri Passi.
Four mentally handi-capped guys form a band called Pertti Kurikan nimipäivät. They start playing punk rock, tour Finland and Germany and become national celebrities. Their music has a message but they know their punk - the message is not soft and bland but real, rough and edgy.
This film was very anticipated long before it came out. It's a documentary full of life, Finnish frankness and emotions. It also does a fine job showing a bit of Finnish punk culture - punk rockers are a fine, tolerant bunch of people.
Especially notable is the honesty of these guys speaking about themselves. The guitarist Pertti speaks about his loneliness and the time he pondered about making a suicide. We follow the bassist Sami through his political activism in the centre-conservative Keskusta. The singer Kari tells about his past with women and we see him getting engaged with his true love. The drummer Toni is taking his first steps toward independence - moving away from his parents' home. We also meet the band's manager Kalle and follow his journey with these guys.
Here's the most well-known song by the bunch, Kallioon.
225 7.6 7.47. Reindeerspotting - Escape from Santaland (2010)
Jani is a normal 19-year old guy living in Rovaniemi, Lapland. Rovaniemi is far away from other big towns and the so-called civilization, even in Finland's standards. This film's director, Joonas Neuvonen, was Jani's friend. He was also an aspiring film maker, always recording his own life, Jani's life and the lives of their friends on video tapes. This film is the story of Jani during the years 2003-2004, made from these tapes.
For years now Jani has been using drugs, mainly Subutex (Buprenorphine). He also drinks and most of the times he is wasted on drugs or planning about being wasted.
Jani would also like to travel abroad. Get the hell out of Rovaniemi which is a cold, emotional desert. He has the cliched dream of having a small house, a wife, maybe a couple of kids... if only he could get rid of his addiction. But before he can do that, he must, for once, live and experience new things. He robs 5000 euros from a shop and decides to travel through Europe and to Morocco. When he comes back to Finland, he has to go to jail.
When this film was first shown in Finland it was very controversial. Some concerned parents thought the film is glorifying drug use (which just goes to show that you can't show the realistic view of these kind of problems without someone getting his or hers panties in a twist) and it was forbidden from movie theater goers under 18 years old - which is very rare for a documentary in Finland. It was such a shame because this film should be shown to teenagers especially. Luckily it can be found on youtube in full - it had been circulating in web for years before opening in theatres.
This is the best film I've seen about drug use. It shows how it can ruin your life but it's not trying to preach. It also shows why drugs are used and the momentary euphoria they bring and also how the society feels about drug users.
A short time after publishing the film, Jani was found dead in Cambodia. Unofficially it was told that he hung himself.
6 8 7.28. Siuruan Rubens (2011)
Kari Tykkyläinen, or (as he is more widely known in Youtube) Tykylevits, is a sort of a village loonie living in the backwoods of Finland. He is a big and bear-like, bearded guy. He works as a politician, drives motorcycles and has been for years happily married with his wife who is mostly amused about her husband's antics.
On his freetime he makes hugely popular, humorous and surrealist Youtube videos and plays blues with improvised lyrics. He has a sexual obsession for women's clothes, especially stay-up stockings and in his films he includes lots of different and beautiful women from the neighboring villages wearing fetishistic clothes - of course all is done in good taste. In his world men are fools for love - and women the queens of men's lives.
This documentary uses a lot of Tykkyläinen's own material as its basis. It explains how letting your demons go through art and being a bit crazy can really make your life worthwhile. Although Tykkyläinen is compared in this documentary to the painter Rubens, I'm thinking more about Fellini and Buñuel. A great guy and a nice documentary short film.
Here is Tykylevits performing.
178 8 89. Steam of Life (2010)
Steam of Life's premise is simple. A bunch of naked Finnish men are interviewed in different saunas over all Finland. Sauna is traditionally in Finland a steaming, hot bathing room where the usually silent and grim Finnish men can openly talk with each other.
These men talk about every major aspect in their life. They talk about women and falling in love. One guy speaks about the death of his child, one about getting beaten up by his step-father. We see a homeless man bathing and enjoying the warmth of sauna. We hear a man suddenly confessing that he once killed someone and even though he served the time in jail, the guilt has never let him alone since. And these are just few examples.
Some of these men are interviewed alone, some have their friend or friends with them, not to share their thoughts with them but to listen, to be there. No ladies allowed this time. The Finnish name Miesten vuoro - "Men's Turn" - is a pun - it means both the habit of men and women bathing separately in sauna, but also to the fact that Finnish men being this open and honest is a very rare occurrence indeed compared to the women. A lot of tears are shed, not just by the men but also by the viewer. These are ordinary guys telling the stories of their lives - it's not difficult to feel empathy for them.
As an emotional ride this film made also me cry when I saw it in theaters with my friends - who were equally touched also. It was a huge hit for a documentary film and it's a shame that it hasn't got more attention world wide. This kind of openness what these men are doing here is rare in world cinéma too. You can just tell it's real stuff here, real emotions. Not just some American show-act babbling.
Also recommended for all you lovely ladies who think they don't have a clue what men are thinking about. You will be surprised when you notice that we think the same stuff that you do, with much of the same emotions and depth.
This is the film's closing scene. Don't watch it, if you don't want to be spoiled. The song Oravan laulu (The Song of the Squirrel) is a poem by Aleksis Kivi, who is considered to be the first real Finnish writer. The poem is sung by the men interviewed in the film.
The voice in the beginning says: "Only later I've understood... that being alone is the worst thing possible. Just the knowledge that you don't have to go through everything by yourself... it made things so much easier."
I try translating this very famous song (which I, like many kids, learned very early in school), though it will be very clumsy compared to the beautiful use of our language.
sleeps in his mossy room.
The dog's tooth
or the hunter's traps
never got there.
From his chamber up high
he watches the world,
under him the numerous battles,
over him the peaceful pennon
of the forest waving.
What a joyful life
in the waving cradle castle.
There swings the squirrel
in the lap of the mother spruce.
The forest Kantele sings.
There sleeps the squirrel
beside the small window,
birds singing under the heavens
carrying him in the night
to the golden village of dreams.
22 7.7 7.410. Suckers (1993)
145 7.9 7.312. Calamari Union (1985)
15 Franks and 1 Pekka travel from Kallio to Eira (both are districts in Helsinki) in the hopes of achieving a better life. Franks are a weird mix of noir characters, bohemians, rock stars, art students, drifters from French new wave films, working-class dudes, and something totally dadaistic which only exists in Aki Kaurismäki's head - all at the same time!
With this film Kaurismäki tried to do as bad as film as he could. He failed miserably - Calamari Union is one of his best efforts and one of the all-time best Finnish films.
This pic has been remade by a Canadian filmmaker a couple of years ago. This thought kind of cracks me up, because, well, no offence, but if you don't understand the relevance of the casting or don't recognize the actors and think these are just some random dudes wandering around and that's funny in itself you will be missing at least half of the fun of the film.
The actors in Calamari Union are almost all extremely popular Finnish rock musicians - and those who aren't are otherwise very popular actors. The joke is that this is a sort of a dream cast, something which couldn't usually be done - and when Kaurismäki has got them all, he casts them in a movie which is basically totally absurd and idiotic fooling around. All the cast was drunk during the filming and some of them are actually quite shitty actors. But that just adds to the general feeling of the movie. This is just something fun, something a group of friends would improvise with each other to pass time.
And it's GREAT because the visuals are inspired and the soundtrack is superb. Helsinki looks beautifully and weirdly noirish in black and white. All the lines are, in their absurd minimalism, mixing straight-faced busterkeatonism and realism, quotable and memorable. Definitely the funniest Kaurismäki film and a spiritual precursor for Leningrad Cowboys movies.
9 4.4 5.813. The Count (1971)
The Count is not a very good film but it's included here because it's the only fictional feature film of Peter von Bagh. It tells a half-fictionalized story of a real life conman, Pentti Ylermi Lindgren, "The Count". Lindgren was a schlager singer and a conman, a sort of a Casanova who lured dozens of women into a relationship with him just to steal their money.
Why is von Bagh so important then? First of all he is a very prominent documentary filmmaker whose documentaries and books were an integral part of the Finns starting to appreciate the popular culture of our country (music and especially film) more. He is also a screenwriter who worked with new wave film directors Risto Jarva (who is mentioned couple of times later in this list) and Jaakko Pakkasvirta.
What's even more important, von Bagh is the most important film scholar Finland has. He has been, for years, a champion of film culture since his first days as a film critic to these days as a professor, filmmaker and a teacher.
Since the beginning of his career he has published at least one book a year (mostly about movies) and his History of Cinéma (unfortunately not available in English) is a gigantic and thorough piece, one of the best film books I've ever read. He has his flaws (like shameless sentimentality) as a writer but no one can deny his importance. He is especially a professional of collage technique.
Von Bagh leads as an artistic director two film festivals. One in Italy (Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna) and one in Finland - The Midnight Sun Film Festival whose impressive array of main guests during the years you can look up here) and he has been once, in 2004, a part of the jury at Cannes Film Festival, alongside, for example, Quentin Tarantino. He has also been awarded a Finlandia literature prize for his book Sininen laulu - Suomen taiteiden tarina (The Blue Song - The History of Finnish Arts).
Here's an interview of Peter von Bagh by another interesting film critic, German Olaf Möller, about his career in documentary film:
167 8 7.714. Drifting Clouds (1996)
26 8.1 7.215. The Diary of a Worker (1967)
Directed by a former film critic, Risto Jarva. I will talk about Jarva a bit later, in the last film of this list.
This film is considered one of the pioneering works of Finnish new wave which was very much influenced by its French equivalent - as always we Finns come a bit late in foreign trends, so French new wave was already pretty much over when we started our own (though, to our consolidation, USA was also pretty late with its own so-called new wave, new Hollywood).
A young couple gets married. The girl is from a conservative upper-class family, and the boy is a regular working-class guy. The marriage suffers from the characters' different backgrounds and their physical distance - the man has to work in a different city so he is away on weekdays. Can a marriage of two people with so little in common last?
The film is experimental and episodic in nature, half documentary, half fiction and it was one of the only three Finnish feature films released in 1967 (one of the remaining two, Pähkähullu Suomi, is also a masterpiece and included in this list). The Diary of a Worker was born in a situation where the old way of making Finnish cinéma was dead. New, artistic voices were needed. This film, Spede Pasanen's comedies and Mikko Niskanen's Under Your Skin in 1966 paved a way for other future successes. A new kind of movie-making began.
The Diary of a Worker received much praise in Finland. It got the state award for a superb artpiece and was even recommended in Cahiers du Cinéma. Since that it's been called many times the best Finnish film of the 1960s.
48 8.9 8.116. Eight Deadly Shots (1972)
I think the consensus among most film critics is that without a doubt Eight Deadly Shots is the best film made in Finland, ever. I also think that it could very well be true.
It was directed by Mikko Niskanen and two cuts exist. The other is a shorter, 2 and a half hour film version which is usually not recommended for viewing. Niskanen meant the film to be viewed as a longer miniseries cut, as a continuous and devastating 5-hour experience.
It tells the story of a small farmer having difficulties which go back to the economical changes and societal problems Finland was experiencing in 1970s. It's based on a true story of a police-killer Tauno Pasanen. The outcome is known: a man shoots four policemen with eight shots when they come to arrest him and then surrenders willingly.
What interests Niskanen instead of the outcome is that how does an ordinary citizen arrive to such conclusions, how can an ordinary man do so horrible things? He traces the reasons to society: How it's not so idyllic and easy to live in the Finnish countryside. Part of the reason is in Finnish alcohol culture where the only joy in a miserable life is to get drunk. This leads to a deteriorating family life and general unhappiness.
It's a powerful, unrelenting, almost documentary-like film. Niskanen himself stars in the film and does a remarkable job. Like in his other films, the rest of the actors are a mix of remarkable amateur talents and professionals.
This next song plays an important part in the film. It's Nälkämaan laulu, a song of the Kainuu region (originally a poem by Ilmari Kianto, composed by Oskar Merikanto). Kainuu could be called the forgotten part of Finland. It's way too far away from big cities, in the countryside, to stay alive and wealthy. All the businesses there have been slowly dying the past decades. Factories are closing down and people are left unemployed. Young people move away and soon there won't be living any other people than older folk and some lonely drunkards. It's very sad really. Nälkämaan laulu tells about the beauty of Kainuu nature and the toughness and the sisu of the Finnish people living in the country. A fitting and an ironic choice from Niskanen, considering the events of the film, though the events in Eight Deadly Shots are not happening in Kainuu but in Central Finland.
20 7 6.617. Harmagedon - Erään maailman loppu (1986)
Jussi Parviainen was and is one of the most well-known theater writers and actors in Finland. His hey-day was in the 80s when is emotionally bare, partly surrealistic trilogy of plays (Diletantti, Jumalan rakastaja, Valtakunta) received much attention in the press, not least because they contained a lot of autobiographic and disputed content.
Harmagedon is a film sequel for these plays. Here Jussi Parviainen is playing his alter ego "Juska Paarma". Paarma is a murderer who gets killed in the last part of the plays. In Harmagedon God (or perhaps Satan in disguise?) resurrects him and gives him an opportunity for revenge. This he will do, with the aid of a shining white shotgun.
Nowadays Parviainen mostly receives attention in the yellow press. He has made an art piece of himself, a sort of a walking parody of himself and all the self-centered artists in Finland. It's a shame because these early works are really interesting.
And even if you are not interested in Parviainen, the cinematography is by Slawomir Idziak. His works include, for example: The Scar, Year of the Quiet Sun, Short Film About Killing, Three Colours: Blue, Black Hawk Down, Harry Potter and the Guild of Phoenix.
47 7.7 7.418. The Harvest Month (1956)
Based on Nobel-prize winning author F.E. "Taata" Sillanpää's novel, The Harvest Month (or Elokuu - August) describes one day in the life of an alcoholic channel guard and a playwriter Viktor Sundvall, played by the great Toivo Mäkelä.
The film follows few of the characters in the life of Sundvall: his bitter wife, their two children, his former love interest who is visiting them during the weekend and a couple of others. It also has flashback sequences showing the youth of the protagonist.
The book was very personal for Sillanpää because of its partly autobiographical content and like-wise the film was very personal for the director Matti Kassila who also suffered from a drinking problem. If there is a Finnish film I hope Criterion Collection or some other well known and classy DVD & blu-ray company like Masters of Cinema would publish, it's this, also because it's pretty bergmanesque in its style, especially with the dream sequence near the end of the film.
31 7.8 7.120. Ihmiset suviyössä (1948)
Based on a book by F.E. Sillanpää, our only Nobel laureate of literature, this short and lyrical film shows us the power and magic of Finnish summer night (the nightless night as we Finns call it because the sun never seems to set) during couple of days. It follows few of the people living or visiting a small village built around a small lake: young and hotheaded vagabond Nokia, a young couple falling in love, gentle and simple farmer trying to find a doctor to deliver the baby his wife is giving birth to and a doctor who has to visit three different places during the restless summer night and never quite gets there in time.
The power is not in the story itself, than in the general atmosphere. Here's the soul of Finnish people, laid bare during the extra-ordinarily beautiful, hot summer. Cinematography is top-notch. It accurately captures the poetic feelings which the nightless night builds in everyone's hearts.
This is also an example of Valentin Vaala's remarkable handling of his trade. Vaala was a Michael Curtiz type director in Finnish film industry whose importance for Finnish cinéma has only recently been understood fully. He made city screwballs and country dramas and many of his themes like different sexuality (he was a homosexual himself) and taking care of the enviroment were very much ahead of their time. He was especially championed by Tulenkantajat literature group (including Mika Waltari) as one of the first real geniuses in Finnish cinéma, and deservedly so.
"Do what you want, I only have one advice for you: Remember... the main character is the summer night!"
- F.E. Sillanpää to Vaala
124 8.2 8.121. Inspector Palmu's Error (1960)
Mika Waltari is probably the most internationally known Finnish writer ever. His novel Sinuhe egyptiläinen (The Egyptian) is considered often the most beloved Finnish book.
The Hollywood version of that film is unfortunately quite bland. It's the text-book example of an American, bloated epic which completely loses the meaning of the book: even though it's situated in ancient Egypt, it's meant to be an allegory of Finland after the world wars.
Waltari was filmed quite a lot in the 50s and 60s, though in later years his popularity in movie circles has vaned, which is very unfortunate. He was a well-known cinéma lover and knew the art form very well. The Komisario Palmu (Inspector Palmu) series is a comedic detective series. The films are considered well-loved classics, especially the two first ones, this and Gas, Inspector Palmu!. (The third part is also pretty good but the fourth one can be passed without hesitation.)
The premise is simple and it's the same from film to film. Someone (usually someone wealthy) has been murdered and the eccentric inspector Palmu has to find out who's the killer from an odd cast of characters (like for example, in this case, a butler whose name is... Butler).
It's the style and the humor which have made Palmus such beloved films. Director Matti Kassila combines expressionism, noir cliches, Sherlock Holmes and absurdist humor very much based on the superb acting of the three leads: the magnificent Joel Rinne as the mumbling, Columbo like genius Palmu, the comedian Leo Jokela and handsome Matti Ranin as his assistants Kokki and Virta.
Here's a well-known scene from Inspector Palmu's Error, which is situated between the two world wars (the other parts of the series happen in present time). The three policemen are having a drink with two suspects (!) in a famous hotel and restaurant Kämp in Helsinki. Detective Kokki is drunk and decides to perform a schlager song by Usko Kemppi, Silmät tummat kuin yö (Eyes Like a Dark Night, made in 1932), for his friends. After the drinks policemen arrive very, very drunk to work.
The films are also noted for their iconic depiction of Helsinki in the 60s.
9 8.8 7.622. The Iron Age (1982)
There's surprisingly not quite many films based on our national epic Kalevala. The reason is probably that most of the Finnish films (which reflects typically Finnish taste in films) have a so-called realistic style and Kalevala is very high-fantasy and mystical. The Finnish-Soviet film from the 1950s was a huge flop and a disastrously bad and idiotic rambling. The version made for the American markets is especially horrifying.
But this, this is a whole different thing. The screenplay is not lifted straight from the Kalevala but is based on the Kalevala-inspired writings of Paavo Haavikko, who was possibly the most respected Finnish modernist poet of all time, second perhaps only to Pentti Saarikoski. The director was the noted TV director Kalle Holmberg and the actors are top-class, especially Vesa-Matti Loiri in what could be his greatest role. This four episode miniseries was and probably still is the most expensive tv program made in Finland and it was done in great detail. It is possibly the most closest thing Finnish film making has gotten to Tarkovsky.
In this scene, the herdsman shoots Väinö (Väinämöinen) with a crossbow. Väinö falls to a river and glides to Tuonela (Netherworld in Finnish mythology).
This clip is in 1.33:1 which was the format when the piece was shown in TV for the first time. The series was shot in open matte, so the DVD version is presented in 1.85:1.
Translation of the words the lady says:
"I'm not afraid. I'm not afraid. The dead do not have to be afraid of anything. You can continue your journey now."
34 7.1 7.824. Katsastus (1988)
Katsastus (The Vehicle Inspection) is a definitive Finnish cult comedy film. It's a made for TV film, which lasts just under an hour. Two middle-aged guys, Öövini and Viltteri, spend their time driving around small town (usually a pastime reserved for 20-year olds), refusing to grow up.
Then Viltteri gets married and Öövini feels the pressure of finally admitting the reality of aging to himself. The guys decide to make a short trip to Sweden, to make a vehicle inspection of Öövini's car. Strong performances by the lead actors and recognizable characters (almost all the small towns in Finland have these kind of guys driving around trying to be younger than they really are) make this a favorite and a well-known film. It has been chosen, for example, in Finnish national television as the most beloved tv show shown in Finnish TV in the 90s.
Katsastus has a strong fan base who have memorized almost all the lines and the scenes from the film. I'm not personally that much into the movie, but if you like subtle, a bit absurd humor based on characters or road movies, I recommend this film and also the other works by the director Matti Ijäs who is one of the most original and interesting film directors, though nevertheless always left in the marginals when great Finnish film directors are talked about.
50 7.3 6.625. Kuutamosonaatti (1988)
Well, this movie is fucking mental. Hill-billy exploitation horror comedy from northern Finland! A young model, Anni, goes to spend time with her brother and her dog in a cottage in a weird village far away from civilization. There they encounter a strange family.
The mother is half demented and witch-like ultra-conservative who doesn't like strangers. She also has two sons. The disgusting and filthy hill-billy Arvo drives a tractor and is obsessed with Kata Kärkkäinen, who was the first Finnish model who showed her tits in Playboy (later she became a respected writer and a feminist). The other son, Sulo, is a monstrous being, kept in shackles in the basement of their house... Arvo starts terrorizing Anni and her brother. Will they survive?
The film critics, especially Helena Ylänen of the biggest newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, didn't understand what the director Olli Soinio was trying to do here (a humorous genre film) and bashed the film.
This of course resulted in Soinio making a sequel to the film where a film critic who looks suspiciously like Ylänen gets brutally murdered (her stomach is slit open and out of it drops sausages and whole cans of beans...).
Most of the critics appreciated Kari Sorvali's acting as the monstrous Arvo though and it's true - Sorvali is magnificent. Also the film's cinematography is surprisingly beautiful.
In this piece Anni encounters Arvo and his mother for the first time. The last sentence can't be translated... but it's an obscene joke.
"What's up love?"
No fiancés came... but I did... hehehe...
If you want to have a ride, you can push this...
Shall we make mittens out of this cat?
On hyvät kelit... meinaten kikkelit! HÖHÖHÖ."
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