Hoping to make time with a pretty young farmer, a student decides to spend his holiday on a remote island but soon finds himself trying to unravel a mystery. A ghostly, eerie drama that skates on the edge of horror.
Take a vacation, they said. It will relax you, they said.
I feel that some modern filmgoers consume movies and television with a focus on plot to the exclusion of everything else. Spoilers, and you would be amazed at what is considered to be a spoiler, are an unforgiveable sin and sequences designed to flesh out characters are dismissed as filler.
That’s why I find entertainment that focuses on atmosphere above all else to be a fascinating breath of fresh air and that’s exactly the kind of movie we are going to be looking at today.
Before the Face of the Sea (Meren kasvojen edessä) starts out innocently enough. Three students, Kristoffer (Urho Seppälä), Pentti (Kaarlo Kytö) and Lassi (Ilmari Unho) are on a boating holiday during Summer Solstice when they spot a mysterious old man (Waldemar Wohlström) rowing along. Something doesn’t seem quite right and upon investigation, the students discover that the boat contains a coffin. (As well as an apparition of a dead woman that may or may not be entirely in the old man’s head.)
The young men make their way to Shipwreck Island, which earned its name because of, well, you know. The residents are not friendly to visitors and someone tries to shoot them as they approach but they land anyway and soon meet the only young woman on the island, Henrika (Heidi Blåfield-Korhonen). Kristoffer is so smitten with her that he immediately invites himself to spend the rest of the holiday with his new crush and her sinister father, Pauli (Axel Slangus).
(Now, it strikes me that Pauli and Henrika have every right to be a bit wary of the random twenty-something kid who has announced he is staying for the summer. I certainly hope he was paying room and board.)
Island life is full of ritual and tradition. Henrika insists on throwing the first sheaf of grain into the barn in order to bring prosperity. Meanwhile, Jaan (Eero Vepsälä) the farmhand is jealous of Kristoffer and reacts by alternately attacking him and eating grass. (A strange servant obsessed with the daughter of the house is a longstanding tradition in films of this kind but this particular plot element reminded me of the equally unnerving Hollywood film Wild Oranges.)
While Kristoffer falls more deeply in love with Henrika, he cannot shake a feeling of foreboding and the mysterious apparition continues to appear to him. Evidence suggests that Henrika is not the only young woman on the island but nobody will mention another. And, finally, it seems that Pauli pads his income by salvaging from wrecked ships and that he may be engaging in ancient dark arts in order to assure as many nautical disasters as possible.
Kristoffer has a mystery on his hands but he has no idea what he’s looking for or if he should even be looking at all. But the residents of Shipwreck Island have their secrets and are willing to kill in order to keep them hidden.
Now, if the synopsis made it sound like this movie is about plot, let me correct that misconception right away. This film has what I like to call a European pace. Characters wander aimlessly with their thoughts and there is no heart-pounding suspense or urgency. And that’s not a bad thing. The slow burn has been woefully neglected by Hollywood and there are times when the best decision is to allow a film to reveal itself slowly while the audience absorbs the atmosphere and characters.
This isn’t a slasher film or even a murder mystery in the classic sense but it does reflect the silent era’s international fixation with the macabre and morbid. And the questions posed in the film do not have easy answers even when we are presented with the solution, which runs completely counter to the usual “one more thing” or “here’s what happened” sum-up found in mysteries. Finding the truth only leads to more questions and peace of mind is difficult to come by. (I adore Dorothy Sayers and Dashiell Hammett, so this is obviously very much my thing.)
This is a movie that stays with you and haunts you for days after viewing it. The eerie imagery, the stark cinematography, the vestiges of pagan rites on the island all combine to create something macabre and fascinating. I hesitate to directly compare a foreign picture to something American but Before the Face of the Sea is very much the spiritual cousin of American Southern Gothic. (Think Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Night of the Hunter.) There is a feeling of decay, of crimes ancient and modern, of something not quite human. It’s striking.
I mention all this because I believe there is a right way and a wrong way to view this film. If you go in expecting specific events and a Hollywood pace, you’re going to be disappointed and possibly bored. But if you go in expecting to be transported to a sinister place and given a leisurely tour of the darkness of human nature, you have come to the right place and you will appreciate this film more.
Before the Face of the Sea was based on a novel by acclaimed Finnish author Arvid Mörne (nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize in Literature) and I would have been interested in reading it but, unfortunately, it does not seem that his works have been translated into English. Do let me know if you have read his writing and if you feel that the spirit of his artistry was captured in this picture.
Director Teuvo Puro and cinematographer Kurt Jäger (who were also in charge of the studio Komedia-Filmi) are to be praised for creating this languid, menacing picture. As for the performances, they get the job done, though they do tend to fall a bit into the melodramatic. Then again, if the tone of the film is meant to be strange and off-putting, more stylized performances are acceptable in such a context.
By the way, the restoration of the film by the National Adiovisual Archive includes the original tints based on those found in release prints and used the original novel for guidance when the thrust of the original plot was not clear. This is an example of the fine work archives are accomplishing worldwide.
Before the Face of the Sea is a creepy and deeply disturbing film that deserves some more attention. It’s a real hidden gem of European silent cinema.
Where can I see it?
Available for free and legal streaming with Finnish/English bilingual intertitles. It is accompanied by a suitably unsettling 2015 score performed by Jussi Lampela, Verneri Pohjola and their orchestra. If you want a physical copy, it has also been released as a region 0 PAL DVD.
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