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.

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.

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.

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.


The Way You Wanted Me (Finland 1944): Pretty little angel eyes

The Way You Wanted Me (1944)

“Sellaisena kuin sinä minut halusit” (original title)


A dark frenzied tale of a fallen woman, The Way You Wanted Me careens across roads of melodrama at the speed of light. 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.

We know Maija’s destiny from the first. An ageing peroxide hooker ravaged by booze and by hurt treads the rotten wharves of Helsinki for tricks. Layering rouge on her lips she drops lipstick and compact, and peers down into the fetid hole of her existence. Cut to a young girl picking petals off a daisy – the game of young love. Her seaman lover returns to ecstatic gambols in the fields and sweet love-making in her bed.  A family feud intervenes and the boy betrays her love.  Her sin in the village cannot be borne. Now a maid in a wealthy household in the city. Seduced and abandoned in the next frame. On the streets with no money and a baby to feed. Crying on a park bench a gentle procurer takes her in. Cheap booze, cigarettes, and lecherous old men her new domain. A gentle customer saves her, takes her in, loves and cares for mother and child. This redemptive ménage is soon destroyed also. Back to the booze and cigarettes.  And the terrible twists continue. All telegraphed by a grotesquely emotional score of sweeping highs and dramatic lows.  The girl’s own mother a dark angel in village garb who by her appearances and admonitions heralds more darkness to come.  The heroine cries a lonely lament in a resplendent church in awe of the fenestred gaze of Jesus. His compassion is for others and she collapses  at the alter of her own sinfulness. The final scene. The flashback is over. She leans down to retrieve her tools of trade, and completes her make-up. One last attempt at deliverance when she admonishes a beginner to quit the trade. Kicking away horse droppings on the ground she wearily trudges up a gang-plank for another sordid assignation below deck.

A film noir? Decidedly. Hyper-expressionism and a tragedy played out in dark nights of the soul.  Flashback and a down-beat ending. But not just these elements, more the parasitic fatalism that feeds on each new betrayal and degradation.

High melodrama from one of the masters. Director and writer Teuvo Tulio produced a string of melodramas in the 30s and 40s. Former Village Voice film writer J.Doberman beautifully encapsulates the Tulio ethos of movie-making in this extract from a piece on a retrospective of four Tulio films in New York in 2009 – this excellent article should be read in its entirety:

“At once arty and artless, stark and fulsome, Cine Tulio is characterized by an exaggerated emotional intensity and an equally primal lack of self-consciousness. Here is a filmmaker indifferent to mismatches, shamelessly dependent on musical cues, and hopelessly addicted to blunt metaphors. Robust open-air photography alternates with morbid studio expressionism. Healthy eroticism merges with punitive Puritanism—both are equally natural in Tulio’s stormy universe. His movies are desperate and insistent, sometimes clumsy but never less than forceful. Tulio’s strenuous lyricism allows the objective correlative to run wild: Verdant fields in super-abundant close-up segue to shots of raging rivers or low-angle figures framed against buttermilk skies.”

So it is in the gestalt that Tulio captures your attention. In an almost hallucinatory jump universe akin to wild dreams. What the surrealists were doing 20 years before in fashioning narratives by stringing disparate scenes into dreams of oneiric fantasy.

Yet, what makes The Way You Wanted Me so compelling is the depth and sincerity of the central performance by Marie-Louise Fock as Maija. She is in almost every scene and all other scenes are about her. An actress who, from what I have been able to garner, only ever appeared in this film.  She inhabits the role with a veracity and intensity that overcomes the scenario’s tendency to bathos. Her eyes are deeply expressive of all her inner turmoil and the angst of her struggle for survival. Survival and no more.