In Finland, a WWII film epic spurs praise, introspection

'The Unknown Soldier' has been seen by more than 940,000 Finns. Some of that is due to its cinematic grandeur. But some is also due to the sober look it takes at Finland's bygone war with its powerful neighbor, even as Russia reasserts her military power today.

Tuntematon sotilas
A Finnish officer leads his men as they retreat under fire across a river in Finnish Karelia during the 1941-44 Continuation War with Russia, in a scene from 'The Unknown Soldier,' directed by Aku Louhimies.

In a Russian city overrun by Finnish forces, a beautiful Russian girl surprises her conquerors by bursting into dance, then proceeds to seduce one of the Finns.

A flotilla of Finnish assault boats, guns blazing, move in perfect unison across a Karelian river as Russian artillery bursts around them.

A Finnish sergeant, at the end of his tether after three years of combat, methodically mows down an entire company of Russian ski soldiers with his machine gun, eyes ablaze.

These are some of the scenes which have alternately beguiled, angered, and mesmerized the hundreds of thousands of Finns who have flocked to the latest film version of “The Unknown Soldier,” a classic 1954 novel by Väinö Linna about the experiences of a Finnish rifle company during World War II. Some say this version, written and directed by veteran Finnish director Aku Louhimies, is the best.

Whether or not that is the case, the new film, appearing at a moment when Russia is reasserting her military power, has clearly struck a nerve with Finns, both because of the film’s inherent artistic qualities, as well as its geopolitical currency.

“I tried to go a little deeper than the other versions,” says Mr. Louhimies, who says he got the idea for the film when he was in the army himself 30 years ago. Assisting him was his friend, actor Eero Aho, whose performance as the alternately possessed and sentimental Antero Rokka, the aforementioned sergeant and central character of the film has also drawn praise.

“I wanted to give a three-dimensional picture of war,” says Louhimies, “without glorifying it or condemning it, but showing it like it is, including the toll it takes on the men.”

War and introspection

Since “Tuntematon sotilas” opened in October, more than 940,000 Finns – over 17 percent of the population – have seen it, making it the most successful Finnish film in recent history. “A national sensation” is how Ilta-Sanomat, one of the main newspapers, describes it.

Undoubtedly one of the reasons for the popularity of the film – which is set during the so-called 1941-44 Continuation War, which Finland initiated in order to gain back the territory it had lost to the Soviet Union after the 1939-40 Winter War – is the sheer scale of the production. The three-hour film cost 7 million euros ($8.5 million) to make, a Finnish record. All told, Louhimies employed more than 3,000 extras in the movie, which is particularly clear in epic battle scenes that recall such classics of the war film genre as “Paths of Glory” and “Apocalypse Now.”

In one Helsinki theater showing the film, one could sense the sense the awe and pride of the viewers as they watched hundreds of their forefathers march into battle with “the hereditary enemy from the East,” as Field Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, the commander-in-chief of Finnish forces during World War II, described Russia – as well as their horror when their on-screen kinsmen were strafed and blown up by the Soviet Air Forces.

However, as gripping as the combat scenes in the film are, they are not the only reason for the film’s extraordinary appeal, or what differentiates it from the prior versions, observers suggest.

“Some of the most moving scenes in the film have nothing to do with combat,” says Michael Franck, a noted Finnish documentarian. “I was particularly struck by the scenes of Rokka, when he is on home leave on his farm, and I think audiences were too.”

Another aspect of the film which has drawn high marks was Louhimies’ decision to use a number of Russian actors to humanize the “hereditary enemy,” particularly Diana Pozharskaya, who plays the part of Vera, the girl from Petrozavodsk who seduces one of her conquerors.

“It was a great honor for me to participate in ‘Unknown Soldier,’ says Ms. Pozharskaya, who comes close to stealing the film. Pozharskaya, who is based in Moscow, says she read the original novel as part of her preparation for the role, which Louhimies created for her.

“I learned a lot I didn’t know before about the history of our two countries’ relations,” she says. “I knew that we had fought a long war with Finland,” she said, referring to the two back-to-back wars which the two countries fought during WWII. “But I didn’t know that Russia started the cycle.”

The fact that the film appears at a time when tensions in the Baltic region are on the rise may also explain its appeal.

“I saw the film with a friend,” says Alec Neihum, a student at Helsinki University who recently completed his compulsory military service. “Afterwards we found ourselves talking about the situation in Ukraine. I don’t think that was an accident.”

‘I want Finns to think about their history’

Another reason for the widespread interest in the film seems to be a new willingness on the part of Finns to confront the less pleasant aspects of their history. Unlike the Winter War, which most Finns consider their finest hour, they generally find little about the Continuation War, in which 75,000 Finns died, to be proud of.

For one, the Finns were the aggressors. Also, after achieving their original objective of regaining their lost territory, the rapacious Finns went on to annex part of Russia before ultimately being thrown back.

As Vera reminds her Finnish lover, “You invaded us.”

Also, the Finns entered the war as a co-belligerent with Nazi Germany, an uncomfortable truth which Louhimies does not gloss over. During the war, in June 1942, Adolf Hitler flew to Finland in arguably the most infamous moment in Finnish history to help celebrate Mannerheim’s 75th birthday. Louhimies includes a portion of the original newsreel of Hitler’s visit in the movie.

“I think that it is good and necessary for Finns, especially young Finns, to learn about their history, and the film indeed does that” says Lasse Laaksonen, a noted Finnish military historian.

“I want to make Finns think about their history,” says Louhimies. “But above all, I wanted to make a great film, and one that did complete justice to the novel.”

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