Romance, petty jealousy, moonshining, hucksterism and bribery lead to the title crime in this rural Finnish drama based on the popular play by Minna Canth.
Home Media Availability: Stream it here.
That old black magic
Minna Canth was a formidable intellectual who is sometimes described as Finland’s first feminist. Her popular writings were controversial during her lifetime and her influence can be compared to Charles Dickens. That is, she wrote about social issues that concerned her in a fictional setting and managed to influence real world legislation as a result.
The Burglary (Murtovarkaus) was her first play and it was an obvious choice to adapt to the screen. A rural romance complete with a love triangle, moonshining and a phony miracle worker? Where do we sign up?
The filmmakers, directors and screenwriters Harry Roeck Hansen and Erkki Kivijärvi, opted to open up Canth’s play by adding two prologues and numerous outdoor scenes showcasing the great Finnish outdoors.
The story focuses on Heleena (Kaisa Leppänen), whose father died soon after crossing local miracle worker Penttula (Yrjö Somersalmi). Heleena was raised by Aholan Antti (Waldemar Wohlström) and his wife Maria (Mimmi Lähteenoja). Many years pass and a now-grownup Heleena returns to the village after a period of earning money in the city. Her return coincides with wealthy Niilo (Joel Rinne) reaching marriageable age. His father wants him to marry the equally wealthy Loviisa (Ester Roeck Hansen) but Niilo has been in love with Heleena since they were children attending lessons together.
This doesn’t sit well with Loviisa, who does not love Niilo but refuses to be beaten in the game of love by some poor little farmer’s daughter. Unfortunately, all of her schemes and plans are useless because Niilo will not be swayed and insists that he will marry Heleena. So, Loviisa decides instead to turn to supernatural means. She offers to pay Penttula handsomely if he will turn Niilo’s heart from Heleena to her.
Antti, Heleena’s adopted father, is an alcoholic and he not only drinks it, he and town character Hoppulainen (Paavo Kostioja) are involved in moonshining and plan to go on a little liquor jaunt in the dead of night.
And this is where you might be interested to learn, as I was, that Finland had a sustained temperance movement during the nineteenth century, its own period of alcohol prohibition from 1919 to 1932 and alcohol shops were mostly limited to urban centers until 1969. So, of course, the moonshining plot makes perfect sense in the context of the time.
Considering Canth’s beliefs and writings, it is entirely appropriate to examine this film through a political lens. Canth advocated for temperance and alcohol is presented as the root of most of the film’s problems. (Women’s suffrage and temperance went hand-in-hand in many countries at the time with drink being blamed for spousal abuse and sapping the finances of families and leaving wives destitute. These beliefs were not without merit, though Prohibition obviously unleashed its own set of social woes.)
Anyway, Hoppulainen and Antti are off moonshining, Heleena is out of the house looking for them and that is exactly when a daring nighttime burglary occurs. I think we can all see the problems that are bound to arise from these alibi-free jaunts…
In fact, with everyone distracted by affairs of the heart and family peril, it’s up to silly Hoppulainen to untangle events and figure out just exactly what is going on in their little village.
Hoppulainen is usually listed as the most popular character in the story; he’s a merry, happy country eccentric who acts as the local court jester and truth teller and I did find him amusing. I really enjoyed Ester Roeck Hansen’s performance as the spoiled, entitled Loviisa. Hansen seemed to have a good time playing the villain—who doesn’t?—and the audience must have also had a good time watching her be “the woman you love to hate.”
Joel Rinne and Kaisa Leppänen are appealing romantic leads and I liked how Niilo utterly refuses to budge from his determination to marry Heleena. After watching several Hollywood romances in a row in which the leads are determined to think the worst of one another at the drop of a hat, this was pleasantly refreshing and much appreciated.
Yrjö Somersalmi does carry on a bit as Penttula but I suppose the role calls for a certain amount of enthusiasm. After all, you don’t play a huckster witch doctor with a penchant for grand theft with an eye toward being subtle.
I should mention that when I am watching films, I try to take into account who they were made for. For example, while Yizkor and The Ancient Law both focus on antisemitism and the question of assimilation, Yizkor was intended for Yiddish speaking audiences while The Ancient Law was made for a more general audience. So, while The Ancient Law carefully explains customs and beliefs, Yizkor just charges into the story.
Both approaches are perfectly fine but Yizkor requires considerably more research for a non-Jewish viewer to understand. The same is true of The Burglary. It was intended for a Finnish audience of 1926 (and other countries in the surrounding area) and since I am an American of 2020, a bit more research was involved and I am sure I am missing some nuance. That is not a flaw on the film’s part; it was widely praised in the Finnish press as a worthy adaptation of the play and it seems likely that the general public agreed.
I view this kind of thing as a kind of treasure hunt and I enjoy learning new things about other cultures. That’s half the pleasure of foreign cinema.
It’s always dangerous to generalize an era of filmmaking or an industry but having now watched a fair number of Finnish silent films, I feel confident enough to say that my favorite aspect has been the way they present Finland itself. It’s more than just the cinematography—which is very good, by the way—and more the general feel of the pictures.
I covered this a bit in my review of Before the Face of the Sea but many Finnish films hold the same appeal as American rural and southern pictures of the same era. Country living is shown in all its beauty and harshness and the results can be tragic or a warm piece of nostalgia but the main emphasis of the picture is setting the scene, establishing a mood.
When it’s done right (Tol’able David, for example) you feel as if you’ve spent a week in a small town and got to know everyone. This is definitely the case with The Burglary. It’s a very intimate film with the audience being introduced to the village characters and watching them in action.
So, I would say that to American viewers, The Burglary feels simultaneously Finnish and unexpectedly familiar. A love triangle in a small town with moonshiners in the background? Sounds like it could have been a popular picture made in Inceville and starring Charles Ray.
That’s not to suggest that this picture or its source play are derivative. Rather, the accidental cultural parallels were a delightful surprise and I have been enjoying the comparisons.
The Burglary is a fine example of a rural film and it’s elevated by attractive cinematography and an enthusiastic cast. While there may be a slight learning curve for non-Finnish audiences, it is still definitely worth the view.
Where can I see it?
The Burglary is available for free and legal streaming with optional English subtitles on Elonet.
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