Noir Beat: The Finnish Connection

Film Noir had antecedents in the German Expressionist cinema of the 20s and French Poetic Realism in the 30s, but there are movies from other national cinemas that also explored the corrosive aspects of modernity.

Three films that have recently come my way are in this vein. One is a German silent and the other two are later films from Finland. All feature little known actresses with a stunning cinematic presence.

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Asphalt (1929 Germany)

While Asphalt (1928), a late silent film from German director Joe May, is perhaps not in the same class as the UFA films of Fritz Lang and other Expressionist luminaries, this modest effort is firmly grounded in the bustling and bohemian life of 20s Berlin. The opening title sequence is a rhythmic documentary survey of the bustle of the modern city punctuated by pneumatic drills breaking up roads. Even tar and cement have a limited life in this burgeoning metropolis. The camera then focuses on a young traffic cop following his banal occupation. But not for much longer. On his way home he gets mixed up with a glamorous gamin who has tried to lift some jewellery from a jeweller. Seduction and circumstance soon envelope the protagonists in a dark web of passion and tragedy. The luminous ex-pat American actress Betty Amann plays the erotic femme fatale with a panache that is sensual yet hesitant, and totally sincere. A gritty melodrama that strives to greatness.

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Stolen Death (1938 Finland)

In 1938 Finnish director Nyrki Tapiovaara made Stolen Death (aka Varastettu kuolema), an elliptical thriller about a revolutionary political cell in Helsinki. Impatient for action the protagonists embark on an ultimately futile and tragic attempt to buy weapons from an arms dealer. A dark erotic triangle frustrates the actions of the fervent group of naïve young radicals. Romance, subterfuge, and betrayal are played out on urban streets and in deep focus, and mostly as a silent film, with many enigmatic scenes serving to enhance the intrigue. The moody expressionist cinematography and the tragic scenario pulsate with poetic realism. The doomed heroine played by Finnish actress Tuulikki Paananen has a presence as disarming as Garbo. A great film.

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Cross of Love (1946 Finland)

Director and writer Teuvo Tulio produced a string of Finnish melodramas in the 30s and 40s. Last year I reviewed The Way You Wanted Me (1944 aka Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit), a dark frenzied tale of a fallen woman, hurtling along roads of melodrama from an idyllic first love on a rural island to the hell of Helsinki bars and bordellos. From youthful abandon in the sun to a night of decrepit darkness, a young woman’s journey to perdition is one of relentless betrayal by men and by fate. Tulio’s Cross of Love (1946 Rakkauden risti) is yet another torrid melodrama of rural idyll and innocence destroyed by metropolitan decadence. What distinguishes this film is the sublime performance of Regina Linnanheimo as the tragic victim, and a tour-de-force opening sequence around a tempest at sea. The chaotic expressionism of wild scenes featuring a madman in an isolated lighthouse on a stretch of treacherous reef, jumps off the screen with a violence that has you mesmerised. A must-see.

 

6 thoughts on “Noir Beat: The Finnish Connection”

  1. I have actually seen both ASPHALT and CROSS OF LOVE, and commend you once again for your superb word economy in sizing up the artistic merit of these comparatively obscure films, which absolutely quality to sit under the film noir umbrella by most barometers of measurement. The German film (I own the Masters of Cinema region 2 DVD of it) does indeed have a resonating documentary feel and it is stark and gritty, a real work of distinction during the silent era. The expressionistic CROSS OF LOVE with that unforgettable and turbulent opening scene is probably Tulio’s most popular work, and as you note Regina Linnanheimo is utterly magnificent.

    So thrilling to see you back here reviewing Tony! And some very fine specimens at that! great concise and succinct writing here!

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  2. I’m sorry I haven’t been here in such a very long time, Tony. My server, OPTONLINE.NET, has begun blocking everything from blogger/blogspot.com and everything that issues via Feedburner. When I complain, I’m just laughed off; every now and then someone more powerful than I am complains, and then for a week or two OPTONLINE.NET subscribers get the relevant emails. I’ve been resubscribing to the relevant sites using a gmail account (pathetic, or what?), but it takes a while.

    Anyway, great stuff for posting this piece on Finnish noir. Not long after I started Noirish a Finnish reader contacted me on the issue of his country’s film noir (I thought I’d done good having any Finnish films noirs/neonoirs in my book, but apparently there are lots of others out there of which I knew nothing. I’m trying to fill in a few of them on the site every now and then. Your description of these three is really useful in this context.

    All my best.

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    1. No worries John. I haven’t been posting that often. Glad that you found this piece of interest. I have some other Scandinavian films in my queue and if I overcome my inertia, will feature them here. Tony

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  3. I love this stuff!!!! It’s so dynamic and entertaining!!!

    Mike D., Brooklyn, NY

    P.S. I wish we had Film Noir marathon celebrations in NYC.

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