“Welcome to Finland, see our lakes and streams and particularly our thriving industrial production and winter sports!” A government-sanctioned documentary designed to showcase the wonders of this newly-independent nation.
Thanks to Antti for helping me get hold of this film for review!
In the early 1920s, the newly-independent Finnish government decided that the best way to introduce themselves to the world was to create a documentary accompanied by good Finnish music. The Suomi-Filmi company and directors Erkki Karu and Eero Leväluoma took up the commission and Finlandia was born. A government-sanctioned documentary may not sound like the most promising night at the movies but bear with me here.
A quick note before beginning. This review is based on the restoration released in 2017. The original 1922 film does not survive, having been snipped to pieces for shortened release and other uses. The restoration uses vintage documents to approximate the original title cards and while the film was tinted orange and yellow during its initial release, the entire picture is tinted orange since the original tinting scheme is lost. (I suspect it was yellow for outdoor and orange for indoor but I may be totally off.) While the film may not be entirely complete, its non-narrative structure and current length (nearly two hours) means that we can enjoy it even with a few pieces missing.
The film itself is similar to most “see pretty things!” documentaries. That is to say, there is no effort to create an overall narrative arc beyond showcasing what it was designed to showcase. As a result, there isn’t really much of a synopsis to write. We see logging in Finland and how the wood is processed with modern machinery. We see landmarks, Finnish athletes, the Finnish army, icebreakers and sailboats, winter sports and more forest.
One thing I wondered about was if Finlandia could be seen as a precursor to the city symphonies, visual celebrations of place, that were popular later in the 1920s. After viewing it, I don’t believe this is the case. While Finlandia features fine cinematography and beautifully framed shots, it doesn’t have the visual fireworks and the witty visual juxtaposition that we associate with the city symphony genre.
That’s not a slam against Finlandia, of course, since it never billed itself as some kind of technical marvel. The whole tone of the film is one of smoothness and order with nothing fancier than some closeups and pans in the way of flourishes. The film is paced well and goes down easy, it’s a nice glass of sherry as opposed to the kicky, exotic cocktails that city symphonies mix up. Sometimes you just want a sherry.
While definitely intended as a showcase, we are never given a really hard sell, at least from the point of view of this American. As a result, the film has a gentle flow, no sharp edges, just a selection of what the Finnish government thought was the best of Finland circa 1922.
With all movies, looking at the context of the period is important if we hope to truly understand them. With Finlandia, it is essential.
Often described as a propaganda film, I suppose that Finlandia is one in the absolute dictionary sense of “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person.” Finlandia does indeed spread ideas and information in order to help the country of Finland. That being said, “propaganda film” tends to have a negative connotation and I have yet to see “ra ra, hurray for us” documentaries like South or The Great White Silence commonly described as propaganda.
In general, Finlandia has the kind of innocence that we see in the actuality films of early cinema. It showcases Finland much the same way that a French camera crew showcased the city of Moscow in Moscow Clad in Snow. That is to say, it creates a general feeling of interest and good will. “Come and see the noteworthy place and noteworthy things done there.” There are a few scenes of the Finnish military but nothing inordinately militaristic for a film of this kind and, frankly, we spend more time on sawmills and lakes than soldiers and tanks.
The goal of Finlandia was to present Finland as an appealing and modern country and I think it succeeds. Propaganda? Yeah, I guess but of a harmless kind. Does it make me more inclined to visit Finland than I would have been otherwise? Yes, if nothing else than to see how the many locations have changed or stayed the same over the years. (And to sample all the kinds of salmiakki because salmiakki is superb. Super Salmiakki with menthol is my favorite so far but I suspect I may really like Tervaleijona once I get a chance to taste it. Finns don’t mess around with wimpy candy flavors and I respect that.)
The film was apparently successful during its initial release and it is certainly a treasure for Finns as a souvenir of a distinct era. Who doesn’t like to see their local area’s past showcased on the screen? Music also helps carry the film along and the interaction between notes and images is particularly harmonious. The combination of Finnish classical music (which is WONDERFUL, by the way) and movies was reused by Suomi-Filmi throughout the 1920s.
I won’t go into the complete history of Finland but suffice to say, just looking at a map will tell you that it occupies a rough neighborhood and dealt with invasion and occupation, attack and proxy battles courtesy of both Sweden and Russia and adjacent powers. In 1809, during the Napoleonic Wars, Finland came under Russian rule, ostensibly as an autonomous Grand Duchy. (The Napoleonic Wars altered the world map in more ways than we might realize.) However, the offer of autonomy proved to be temporary and relations between the nations soured as Finland’s culture was threatened and censorship increased.
I was aware that Finnish culture was suppressed during this period thanks to the fact that my family is full of classical music nerds who are particularly partial to Jean Sibelius. (Classical announcers regularly share anecdotes on the topic when presenting his work.) Sibelius composed the 1899 tone poem also titled Finlandia and in addition to being gorgeous, it was meant to stir national pride in Finns, which led to it being censored. It was still performed under fake titles because you can’t keep a good composer down.
Under Tsar Nicholas II, undisputed master of fixing what ain’t broke and general all-purpose stinker, Russia began a pair of campaigns known in English as the Russification of Finland. There’s not a ton of information about this period in history available in English, by the way, and almost all of it related to suppressing the music of Sibelius. Outside of classical music circles, it seems to have fallen through the cracks like the dirty deals related to the Panama Canal. (Sips tea.)
In fact, one of the most popular English language videos on the history of Finland completely passes over Russification and treats the period of the Grand Duchy as some kind of swell bargain. The Finns threw off Russian rule when the latter nation was undergoing revolution and, after a brief civil war, emerged as an independent nation and stayed that way through a combination of tenacity and snipers.
It should be noted that the suppression of culture in the pursuit of enforced “harmony” was also being undertaken in Korea by the Japanese occupation forces (speak to any elderly Korean and it is pretty much guaranteed they will remember quite a bit of the Japanese they were taught in school as children) and Native Americans were being taken from their families, punished for speaking their own language and practicing their customs in the United States. And then there are the Sami people… This is hardly an exhaustive listing of the attempts to extinguish cultures but I hope it will help set the stage.
So, with all of these factors in mind, it is quite understandable that the people of Finland would want to show off their country a bit.
Finlandia sets out with a very simple goal: market Finland to non-Finns. It succeeds in this with simple but effective cinematography and interesting scenery. I like documentaries so this really works for me. Don’t expect a narrative beyond “Beautiful Finland” and just sit back, relax and enjoy looking at this very attractive country via equally attractive footage. This is a soothing, pleasant experience.
Where can I see it?
Finlandia was screened on Finnish television with a very fine orchestral score based on Finnish classical music. Unfortunately, I do not believe it has been made available outside its general region or on home video. Given the quality of the music and the restoration, I do hope that it makes its way back out to the rest of the world soon.
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