Before WW1 Finland was a Grand Duchy in Russian Imperium. Film production and distribution rights were largely monopolized by a Swedish speaking minority, mainly based in Helsinki. After gaining the independence in December 1917 a national production company Suomen Filmikuvaamo, later in 1921 Suomi-Filmi was established. After the Civil War in 1918 national identity was not based on film, but mainly other arts and it was Athletes that gave Finland international reputation – maybe name of world best long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi is known even today. He won among others 9 Olympic gold medals.
Finnish film was undeniable provincial, especially if you compare it to the golden age of Danish or Swedish film. Few names must be mentioned: first drama films were directed by Teuvo Puro, who had earlier worked in National Theater: the very first film was The Moonshiners (1907) and most appreciated Sylvi (1913), which based on pioneer of Finnish feminist writer's Minna Canth’s play (1893). Secondly, the general director of Suomi-Filmi, Erkki Karu, directed The Village Showmakers in 1923. Like Puro’s Sylvi, it was based on play: Finnish national author Aleksis Kivi wrote his play in 1864.
In Karu’s film two recurring themes of Finnish Cinema, the forest and alcohol, received their first notable cinematic expression. Finnish film either stepped back in the past in literary history or set their films to the still timeless milieu of country side. From the latter grew up truly Finnish genre: logroller films, best example The Logroller’s Bride (1931) by new general director of Suomi-Filmi Risto Orko. Earlier general director Karu ha d left the company and created a new company Suomen Filmiteollisuus. It’s name is literally Finnish Film Industry. Even the names of the companies showed interest to national themes and commercial and industrial visions. Film wanted to be a one industry among the others.
The Logroller’s Bride (1931) by Orko was actually the firs big commercial success, but rural love story The Steward of Siltala (1934) was the first to get more than million viewers, in other words about a quarter of countrys’ population. Rivalry between Orko’s Suomi-Filmi and from 1935 on Toivo Särkkä’s Suomen Filmiteollisuus was fact. Suomi-Filmi introduced wide production of commercial short films, but Suomen Filmiteollisuus stayed mostly out of short film or documentary production. In 1930’s Suomi-Filmi produced more than 1000 short films. Third big company Fennada-Filmi was created only in the end of 1940’s as a result of merging of two smaller companies. These three concerns were the core of Finnish Film production until 1960’s.
In 1939, as the Winter War broke out, both Orko and Särkkä directed and produced their major spectacles. Both films, Orko’s The Activists and Särkkä’s The February Manifesto, based on nationalistic view of history with a strong anti-Russian ethos. At the end of 1930’s, these films aimed to unite the people against the common enemy from the east. Propagandistic portrayal of the Finnish Army were directed already in the serie of three films by Erkki Karu in 1933-1934.
In 1944, after the Continuation War against Russia, four pre-war drama films were banned for more than forty years. In the same group were also Orko’s WW1-film The Grenadier’s Bride (1939), which depicted Finnish grenadiers joining the German troops in WW1 to fight against Russia. The fourth banned film after the Second World War was Kurt Jäger’s historical drama about Greater Wrath in which the Russians occupied Finland – the part of Sweden – in the beginning of 18th Century. The core of the political censorship of films after the second world war concentrated on protection of Soviet Union against anti-Russian or anti-bolshevist sentiments.
During the second world war, Finnish the mentioned producing companies joined the German idea of blocking the American films from film markets in Europe. This was never fulfilled because of strong support for American films that were popular among movie goers. However, Finnish Film Chamber was divided into two groups, German-oriented and American oriented, and there were hundreds of cinema’s, especially at rural areas, where American films were not seen during the war time.
Valentin Vaala started his career as film director already in the 1920’s and became famous for Suomi-Filmi’s new style where the City portrayed a major attraction. As Peter von Bagh has said: “The Metropolis lives around the clock: neon lights flash, big-band music blares from restaurants, black cars speed through the nocturnal darkness, the sets offer glimpses of precisely the décors and Functionalism that will continue to impress admiration” even today. “The modern era must be invented”. Of course, European comedies of manners were an example for him, but today we must emphasize that as a director, Valentin Vaala gave room for a female perspective as he liked to employ women as screenwriters.
One of the strongest feminist statement is to be found in Hulda of Juurakko (1937), which was filmed second time in Hollywood with a name A Farmer’s Daugter. Film serie about strong women in Niskavuori is part of most significant history of Finnish Films: several top directors have taken the task to film about novels of Estonian-born author Hella Wuolijoki. Among urban comedies, Vaala also directed fluently rural drama and melodrama. Vaala is a fine example of the Suomi-Filmi’s strategy by Risto Orko: he recruited a small crew of top-flight directors and give them great creative rein.
Part of Orko’s strategy was to hire foreign professionals: Albert Rudling of Sweden, Charlie Bauer and Mariu Raich from France. Important was also Orko’s part as producer in Suomi-Filmi: “Throughout my entire production period”, Orko said, “there wasn’t a single script or issue that I didn’t go through fairly exhaustively with the director.” The same applies most probably to Toivo Särkkä in Suomen Filmiteollisuus, a company of 240 films in 30 years.
Särkkä, originally bank manager, had a fondness for the theater, but anyway he directed more than 50 films. The Vagabond’s Waltz (1941) is one of the most successful films ever made in Finland. He had his dream team: author Mika Waltari, set designer Hannu Leminen, cinematographer Felix Forsman and the actors Tauno Palo, Ansa Ikonen and Regina Linnanheimo. In Särkkä’s command Suomen Filmiteollisuus was the strongest film company in Finland in 1950’s. Especially The Unknown Soldier (1954) has stayed as a landmark of Finnish film history: even today it is shown on TV almost every Independence Day.
Today we are screening Ihmiset suviyössä (1948), People in the Summer Night :
Director Valentin Vaala wanted to create a film about a single summer night, during which destinies of several individuals are tied up while nature continues its steady cycle. Based on the novel by F.E. Sillanpää, a Finnish Nobel Prize winner, People in the Summer Night is also a tribute to the beauty of Finnish rural landscape. Fields, lakes and forests are shot with the poetic vision of cinematographer Eino Heino, and the mysticism of nature that was the essence of Sillanpää's prose is successfully captured on film. The unity of man with nature appears almost as a religious experience.
"Remember that there is only one main character, the summer night." This was the writer Sillanpää's advice to the filmmakers of People in the Summer Night. Despite minor changes, Vaala's adaptation is faithful to the novel's structure and spirit. The film tells several intersecting stories about various individuals, and even if single characters are left somewhat hollow due to the nature of narration, what lacks in character development is gained in the completeness of atmosphere. The film is like an instant of eternity, a unique moment brought to a standstill in a timeless state. It has life, death, love, hate, all intersecting in a way that one cannot exist without the other. The streams of simultaneous events flow with accelerating speed, forming a consistent current of life with Finnish nature constantly vibrating in the background.
Vaala was not the only Finnish director to be intrigued by Sillanpää's prose and the writer's narration was generally regarded as cinematic. His themes flow freely in space and time and he shifts effortlessly from public to private, from long shot to close-up and from universality to microcosm. His character depictions are usually strong, his dramatic climaxes are few but even more effective and most importantly, his narration is firmly rooted in Finnish nature.
Sources: text Sakari Toiviainen/KAVA, Markku Varjola, Peter von Bagh