Sinister dealings are afoot in the decaying home of Magnus Drakenhjelm. His creepy housekeeper and brutish son are conspiring to steal his fortune. Meanwhile, two noblewomen arrive at the house with a few secrets of their own… Classic gothic stuff and very good, too.
Home Media Availability: Released for free and legal streaming with English subtitles.
A dark and snowy night
There’s nothing quite like a classic gothic story. You have your atmosphere, your creepy old building, your secret passages, your sinister housekeeper, madness, murder, stolen fortunes, maybe a bit of romance… It’s heady stuff and great fun. Gothic stories were building blocks for horror and they share many common elements but it’s all about mystery and ambiance rather than overt violence, though that can certainly take place.
I’d hardly call myself an expert on Finnish cinema but I enjoy it quite a bit and one thing I have noticed is that Finnish films excel at creating atmosphere. Before the Face of the Sea (1926), one of the most popular silent titles made in Finland, has its sinister mood down pat and the talkie White Reindeer (1952) is a little masterpiece of horror. So, a national cinema that shines at building atmosphere meets a genre that relies heavily on its atmosphere. This film had my full attention.
The Old Baron of Rautakylä is based on a story by Zacharias Topelius, a nineteenth century Finnish novelist. The introduction to the lovely tinted restoration of the film states that the only surviving print lacks intertitles and they were reconstructed based on the story’s text.
The picture opens with a small band of travelers making their way through snow and hungry wolves. The only shelter for miles is the decaying family manor of the Drakenhjelms. Baron Magnus Drakenhjelm (Adolf Lindfors) is old and ill, entirely dependent on Lisette (Naimi Kari), his housekeeper and mistress. Lisette wants the baron to marry her before he dies and acknowledge their son, Sebastian (Axel Slangus), as his heir.
After they finally threaten the baron into submission, Sebastian heads out to fetch the local clergyman. Meanwhile, the elderly Lady Ebba Hjelm (Ida Brander), her granddaughter Lotten (Arna Högdahl) and their coachman, Tuomas (Emil Lindh), arrive at the manor just ahead of the hungry wolves. Lady Hjelm is blind but Lotten recognizes their location. It is clear that there is history between them all.
As Lisette conspires to add some sinister potion to the guests’ tea, Lady Hjelm shares her past with her granddaughter. She was courted by both Baron Magnus Drakenhjelm, a scheming courtier in those days, and his brother, Gustav (Einar Rinne, eldest Rinne brother), a gallant soldier. She preferred Gustav and they secretly wed before he was sent to fight in the Russo-Swedish War of 1788. The witness to their union was Lisette.
The baron conspired against his brother’s wife, concealing proof of her marriage with the help of Lisette, the only surviving witness, and destroying her reputation. Lady Hjelm was pregnant and had no evidence that her child was legitimate. Her husband had the only copy of the marriage certificate, became embroiled in the Anjala Conspiracy and died in Finland.
(The Anjala Conspiracy involved a group of Swedish officers trying to negotiate with Catherine the Great directly. One of them verbally stated that Finland, then under the rule of Sweden, wished to secede under the protection of Russia, which damaged the credibility of the group in Swedish eyes and the whole matter fizzled. Finland ended up under Russian rule in any case and had only declared independence in December of 1917.)
Baron Magnus Drakenhjelm has now reaped what he sowed and bitterly regrets his cruelty toward his brother’s wife but is too ill to help her. Lisette schemes to remove Tuomas from his mistresses and then orders Sebastian to kill the women and sink their bodies into the frozen lake. Once the newly-arrived Pastor Richard von Dahlen (Joel Rinne, youngest Rinne brother) gets the marriage ball rolling, the whole estate will belong to her… Evil laugh! Evil laugh!
Well, that was fun. I was promised a gothic story with conspiracies and hidden panels and secret passages and a sinister housekeeper and that is exactly what this picture delivers. In short, The Old Baron of Rautakylä hits that old gothic spot.
There are some distinctly nineteenth century literary elements to the story. (Spoilers) Sebastian hesitates to murder but then tries to go through with it, only to be caught off guard by Lotten’s willingness to forgive and accept him. The day is saved in any case because Pastor von Dahlen was Lotten’s fiancé the whole time. Such coincidences were beloved by our forebears but we now fancy ourselves to be more sophisticated (plot twist: we’re not) and prefer them to be wrapped in sequels (“Luke, I am your father”) and prequels (“Luke, I owned your robots first”) with eventual backfilling to make them retroactively less coincidental (“You need to watch the tie-in show”).
I think these elements are perfectly fine in the context of the film. Gothic stories are rooted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a little old-school storytelling is not only acceptable, it is preferred. By the same token, Naimi Kari plays things a bit broad as Lisette but it works in the context of the genre.
However, Adolf Lindfors gives the film’s standout performance as the old baron. Despite the cruelty of his character’s youth, he still manages to build sympathy for Magnus as he is reduced to stealing jarred raspberries from the pantry like a wayward child. While Lady Hjelm’s dignity is intact despite all the humiliations heaped on her, the baron’s end is small and miserable. He is trying to retain his grandeur but all he can do is claw at the rags of his former importance. Lindfors establishes this with sorrowful gazes and small fussy movements, playing things small and close while still opening up his performance as needed for the more dramatic scenes.
I also enjoyed the character of Lotten, who doesn’t have a bit of time for fainting and swooning and simply sets to work solving the mystery, locating the secrets if the manor and generally getting things done with maximum efficiency. Would that all gothic heroines displayed so much common sense.
Director Karl Fager was more noted for his art direction and design, a duty he also assumed in The Old Baron of Rautakylä. One contemporary review compared his work unfavorably to Swedish directors Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström. Fager’s designs are quite exquisite but it seems that he was loath to hide them behind too much moody lighting. It is certainly present but not taken to the extremes exhibited, say, by Paul Leni in Waxworks or Arthur Robison in Warning Shadows. I do not consider this to be a dealbreaker and the film certainly is moody but I would not have objected to more experimentation with light and shadow.
Still there are compensations. I particularly enjoyed the attention to detail in the historical costuming, particularly the fine laces and furs worn by the noble characters. I am a sucker for historical films that commit to their period and this film has two, the 1780s and 1830s.
The Old Baron of Rautakylä is sometimes listed as the first Finnish horror film and you certainly could make an argument in that direction but however you classify it, it makes for an enjoyable movie experience. If you go in for sinister doings in old manors in the style of Jane Eyre, Rebecca and The Old Dark House, you will find a lot to like about this film. Personally, I had a blast.
Where can I see it?
Available for free and legal streaming courtesy of Elonet. The English subtitle button is found at the bottom of the player.
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