Here’s a true rarity. It’s not available on DVD in the US; the only way to see it is probably the way we got it, as a gift from Jarmo, our friend in Finland. I get the impression it’s sort of like a Finnish Gone With the Wind, the definitive epic of a critical time in the history of the young republic, their greatest threat and their finest hour. (Don’t draw too many parallels, though. There’s no Rhett and Scarlet, no family saga, hardly any women, and covers only a few years.) It is always shown on Finnish Independence Day, December 6, and most Finns have seen it multiple times. It is based on a novel by Väinö Linna, and Jarmo says, “The book has been called the voice of the nation on the collective war experiences of our troops during 1941-1944.”
Finland has existed for a long time as a rather nervous barnacle on the back of the Russian leviathan. Before that, it was the Swedes who dominated them. From 1809 to 1917 it was a Grand Duchy of Russia. Finland saw its chance in the chaos following the Bolsheviks, and declared its independence. For 20 years Russia was too busy to do much about it, but continued to covet the place, chiefly for its mineral wealth, though they may have wanted its reindeer, ski slopes, saunas, and tango dancers, too. Russia invaded in 1939 and expected a walk-over, since their army was 4 times bigger. But the Finns fought the mighty Red Army to a standstill in what would come to be known as the Winter War, and for a short time there was an uneasy truce.
Then came Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s idiotic second front invasion of Russia. The Finns had little choice but to ally with the Germans against the Soviets, since nobody else would give them weapons and they were pretty much tapped out from the Winter War. They sent all the German troops far north to Lapland (where I presume and hope they were miserable). The Finns did not go along with the Nazi genocide against Jews and others. Tuntematon sotilas follows the experiences of a machine-gun platoon in the second phase of the very odd Finnish experience of WWII: The Continuation War. (There was a third phase, the Lapland War, to evict all those goddam Krauts from the north. Typically, the Nazis destroyed everything they could blow up on their way out.) Finland was the only country to fight on both sides of WWII, but I get the impression they didn’t give a fuck for the ideology of either side; they just wanted to be left alone and not be invaded, and would do what they had to do to achieve that goal. To this day, their policy toward Russia is something like “Be polite, and keep your powder dry.”
I suspect that, not being Finnish, this story not being part of my national heritage, I don’t get the full emotional charge from this 50-year-old film. It has the flaws of its time, like American war films from the ’40s and ’50s. The soldiers are a mixed bag, some veterans of the Winter War, others fairly raw recruits. In America, they’d be named Tex, and Brooklyn, and Peewee, and Dago, and Jose, and the little Jewish kid played by Sal Mineo. There is the cheerful one, the cynic, the socialist, the coward, the stiff-backed lieutenant known as “The Stork.” The idea of following one unit through the war was done countless times by Hollywood, my favorite being The Victors, a truly scathing anti-war picture that, oddly, is not available on video. A more recent example was Band of Brothers.
But there are big differences here. There is none of the Hollywood gloss and glamour that seems to go with even the grittiest American war film, even the B-picture grinders of the ’30s and ’40s. Maybe glamour isn’t the right word, maybe it’s slickness, high-tech cameras and meticulous lighting and all the things that go into that Hollywood look so prized around the world. The film is raw and stark in the European manner, and achieves its own beauty in a way that matches with the stock footage that is interposed here and there with staged scenes. It begins with harsh battles, and gets harsher as it goes along, until the violence is almost unbearable. There is a scene near the end of Russian shells landing in the forest, and with each explosion a tree goes down. You know it’s because there is dynamite wrapped around each tree, but it evokes what it must feel like to see that much raw power aimed at tearing you to pieces.
There is something else that marks this film as Finnish and not American. In our films, even those made during the war but especially those made in the ’50s, as here, there is the sense of our inevitable victory. As Americans we know we’re going to take Omaha Beach, plant the flag on Mount Suribachi, march into Berlin, pound the Japanese into surrender. We are winners, or we were until Vietnam, we had no fear of defeat, it was only a question of how long it would take. These Finnish young men have no such assurance; they are fighting for their country’s very survival as a political entity, and by golly, they’re losing. Only an armistice saves them from being annihilated, as the Soviets concentrate on the race to Berlin and Finland becomes irrelevant to them. And then they still had to root out their allies-of-necessity, the Nazis in the north … and after the truce they lost about a tenth of their country and had to spend the next decade cleaning out the mines in the forests and harbors left behind by the Germans.
So the film begins with the menacing opening chords of Finlandia, by Sibelius, one of the more dramatic pieces ever composed. The melancholy music continues as soldiers are buried on a bleak, blasted plain. Then at the end of the film, we hear the “hymn” part of the piece, which always moves to me to tears. In an American film, we would then move on to the triumphant final passage … but not here. There is only the hymn, for all those dead boys …
There has been much debate about the wisdom of allying with the Germans. I’m not a historian, but from what I can tell it was either do that, or be overrun by the Soviet Union, in which case they might be only now emerging from the blight of being a Soviet slave state, like their Baltic neighbors. But the Finns are still up there, still independent, still beating themselves with birch sticks, and still dancing the tango. That seems like an good outcome to me, except the bit about the birch sticks.