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An animated Finnish police show - fascinating!
It was only supposed to be a short animated series, but it became a small phenomenon...

The only previous example of long-running animated series for grown-ups in Finland was Itse valtiaat, a popular weekly show that depicted members of Finnish political establishment as cartoon characters in a kind of second-rate attempt at Splitting Image-style satire of contemporary politics. Script writer Atte Järvinen was one of the main writers of Itsevaltiaat, and he brought to Pasila the same satirical take highly amplified and served it through his trademark rapid-fire dialogue.

Ostensibly dealing with the exploits of a group of police officers in a fictionalised version of Helsinki's police headquarters, Pasila actually excelled in taking the mickey out of all things from popular culture to topical issues in Finnish society. As the show points out, the crimes the Finnish police mostly encounter on daily basis are drunks brawling, domestic violence or petty theft by the marginalised. Pasila's coppers hence had to dig deeper to find the true nefarious criminal masterminds such as parents' councils, choreographers willing for others to die for their art, business consultants running sweatshops with pensioners and football clubs desperate to generate world-class talent (not an easy task in one of the few countries in the world where hockey rules the roost). Along the way, they took on subjects like prostitution, terrorism, net rage, dietary wars (after low-carb it's time for all-crap) and that eternal bone of contention (alternatively, the corner stone) of Finnish culture, alcohol. Pasila explored these themes with greater wit and verve than most Finnish cinema and television, where handling tends to be heavy-handed or wishy-washy. It also tackled head on subjects like religion that are generally tip-toed around.

And it managed to be consistently funny in the process! Some subjects, such as Birtherism or illegal downloading, will undoubtedly appear dated in a few years time, but their handling remains clever and hilarious. Only in a Finnish show could the doomsday scenario of Internet music piracy actualise as a hall full of sad senior citizens dancing only to the maudlin vocalisations of an even sadder crooner, because illegal downloading among the seniors has forced the musicians' union to lay off all instrumentalists from dance bands – and actually seem plausible! A modest cast of four voice actors handled the show's absurdities and delicious dialogue with aplomb, mostly transcending the limitations of such a small ensemble. The episodes worked almost as audio plays, and the simple but distinctive animation gave the stories appropriately expressive and absurd look. The dissonance between surface and content actually worked for the show.

For example, the main character, Inspector Kyösti Pöysti, a thirty-something cynical wanna-be intellectual, is portrayed as a big-headed midget with a piping voice, a dummy in his mouth and a wardrobe borrowed from The Pink Panther's Inspector. With his confrontational sardonic wit, his clumsy snobbery, his chronic inability to commit, his frequent attempts to bugger off to Goa and his bizarre hangovers (including the one which makes him see everyone as Phil Collins), Pöysti serves both as a delicious parody of and a sincere mouthpiece for the urbane, liberal and slightly lost segment of the Finns.

Many other Finns, especially of the older generations, frequently complain that the likes of Pöysti and their world-view are overrepresented in the media. Among the first ones to do so would be Pasila's station chief, the half-senile, wildly irrational and massively moustached Chief Inspector Rauno Repomies who summed up most episodes with jaw-dropping stream-of-consciousness monologues that somehow always managed to ramble their way into The Sound of Music territory of Nazis, nuns and singing children. His antics generally stole the show, which seems fitting in more ways than one. Media itself got what it had coming to in the shape of the hypernarcissistic television show host Juhani Kontiovaara, who is visually, though not personality-wise, an analogue of a certain real-life television personality.

For once quality and public taste agreed, and the short animated series ran for six seasons, something few Finnish shows manage. With that, one could only echo the catchphrase of Pasila's most sympathetic character Pekka Routalempi, the man who could become endlessly engrossed by even the most mundane things: "Fascinating!" Järvinen also had the sense to end the series when it was still on high, with an appropriately self-reflective and sentimentalist closing episode.

The brand was too popular to be left alone, however, and the sequel Pasila 2.5 - The Spin-Off soon followed. Some of the cast was changed and a team of writers replaced Järvinen. Surprisingly, the new show has been a bit more straightforward and predictable but has yet to succumb to banality. Its main contribution has been to flesh out the rather underused character of the macho policewoman Helga. What else Pasila's legacy may be, it has at least opened doors for animation in Finnish television. We would not have the likes of Hullu – hullumpi – yläaste without it. Whether one considers that good or bad is another thing all together.

Kätevä emäntä

Handy hostess handles hearty humour hilariously
Kätevä emäntä was the longest running and most popular of the slew of female-fronted sketch shows that populated the Finnish screens in the early 2000s. Not as raunchy as Ranuan kummit nor as bland as Epilaattori, it simply presented a good set of running sketches, like women acting out rock macho clichés, female rally drivers getting distracted by things like mail order catalogues or three tired housewives nonchalantly trying to outdo each other in who goes to most absurd lengths for her family. PMS, ridiculous makeover shows, trendy bimbos and doomed marriage guidance counseling were other familiar themes handled quite deliciously.

The show's best invention was to update national folklore to modern usage. Hence Kalevala-metre spells could be used to clean dirty dishes, unscramble a computer operating system or resuscitate the family mutt that you had accidentally run over. Similarly, a chorus line of modern-day wailing women, cheeks streaked with running mascara, slow-marched through the rain (in disposable rain coats, of course), lamenting their failures to become supermodels or to secure that Gucci handbag from the department store sale. The show was never too out there or risky, but usually appealing and sometimes poignant.

A show like this lives or dies with its actors. Kätevä emäntä had great performances from all involved. The most memorable of the brood were provided by Valonen as a creaky-voiced "come on" fusspot forever trying to balance the scales in her relationship and Kivelä (one of the best Finnish comedians of her generation) as an irresistibly chirpy but irrepressibly fair-minded shop clerk Seija who played the everyday moral conscience to the sulky Finnish shoppers.

The fourth season replaced the familiar title sequence with a parody of the classic Finnish rock band Hurriganes, ditched most of the earlier routines and assumed a darker tone. Themes such as the breakdown of communication between mother and daughter, politicians passing the buck or the insanity of the be-positive-or-perish corporate culture had already been explored, but now they were presented as pitch-black comedy. Laughter did not come as easy as before, but then perhaps the show was better attuned to the times, and reality's absurd humour is always the hardest kind to take.

No surprise then that the fifth season backed up a bit and reintroduced a few more lighter elements back into the mix. Each of its episodes centred on some festival (Christmas, New Year, Midsummer) or celebration (wedding, graduation). Some worked better than others, some would have benefited from having leeway to cast a wider net for their material. Unsurprisingly for a Finnish series, it was the funeral episode, with ideas like people snapping graveside "deadlies" for social media, that had the highest hit ratio. As good as this season was, the second season remains the show's peak.


Dark, derivative and delightful
Volanen and Korpela were part of the team that made Studio Julmahuvi, one of the all time greatest sketch shows in Finnish television history, and its equally brilliant spin-off Mennen tullen. Nearly ten years later, they challenged the expectations again, but now the roots of their inspiration were more obvious. Ihmebantu is modelled on Jam, as a surreal stream of absurd or disturbing scenes linked by a hugely effective dark ambient score. It is derivative, but not slavishly so. Unlike Jam, Ihmebantu does also make good use of the traditional sketch form with many inventive "mockumentary" style stabs that even manage to kick-start the carcass of toilet humour.

The unsettling undercurrent still runs through these as well, as an animal handler trains winos to act in a children's film, a man relays relatives' messages to the dead by shouting into graves and a creepy Father Christmas and his lady (of the night) assistant come to offer a more disturbing yet probably more authentically Finnish alternative to the all-pervading Coca Cola Santa. It's all straight acting and sincere, often tragic characterisation in a preposterous situation, and most of the time the combination produces baffling and hilarious results. The same approach with much tamer ideas was used later in the sketch sections of the more mainstream and popular Putous, the show that also made stars out of Ihmebantu's bit players Hirviniemi, Kuustonen and Toivanen.

When it goes deeper into the dark, the show gets more hit and miss. There is something genuinely disturbing and creative about radio chatter between an airline hijacker, a terrified Finnish passenger and a disinterested American ground controller playing against a totally unrelated montage of eerie night vision city scenes, for example. The comfortable, deadpan callousness gets a perfect swipe here, but elsewhere the affectation sometimes shows. Korpela's provocatively smug monologues as a narcissistic neoliberal twit tend to ramble too much to really work as outrageously as they should. Also the use of filters to distort the image in the middle of scenes doesn't always look so much like reality breaking down as a director trying to be experimental.

As the controversial final sketch summarised, the show wanted to challenge the easy escapism offered by the canned-laughter, catchphrase-driven comedy with the disturbing invasion of the unpredictable and the surreal. Most of the time it would surprise the audience and make them think as much as laugh, sometimes it would just leave them perplexed and frowning. Many were absorbed, many changed channel. That is the risk inherent in sticking one's neck out and trying something different and unexpected. In the five years of shrinking budgets and proliferating reality twaddle since Ihmebantu, few have attempted anything as ambitious as this in Finnish comedy.

Transvestijan tarinoita

A brief encounter with comic horror
A film school shortie, Transvestjan tarinoita pays homage to classic horror cinema in a parodic way – which was about the only way the genre could even be broached in Finland at the time. The two-level plot deals with a minister reading about a drunken monster slayer's attempt to rid a small Eastern European village of a (very unconvincing) monster, unaware that he is himself stalked by a vampire. It really serves only as scaffolding for a covey of lovingly created and spoofed Gothic set pieces in a suitably convincing period setting (itself a rarity in Finnish cinema). Horror is thus mild but the laughs tend to be subdued, too. Actually, the humour comes through best in subtle details that undermine the mock-heroic narration ("the fairest, unspoilt" maiden fighting a zit, vampire skulking to a window and stepping into a pile of horse dung).

Nicely photographed and acted, the film is still just a curiosity and as a horror parody comes second to television's Lepakkolinna. Director Sainio would later mine this same territory in feature length with the thriller Kuutamosonaatti and its more comically horror-like sequel Kadunlakaisijat.

Varjostettua valoa

Where's William Castle when you need him?
With the good doctors Kildare and Ben Casey capturing the hearts and ratings of Finnish television audience, it was logical for someone in the film industry to realise there would be a market for domestic medical drama on the big screen too. Actor Yrjö Tähtelä set up his own company to make the pioneering move with this (originally uncredited) adaptation of German author Stefan Olivier's novel Ich schwöre und gelöbe (I Swear and Vow). Olivier's once popular but rather melodramatic story has a surgeon (Ketonen) suspect that his high-flying colleague (Tähtelä) cannot handle the pressure of high-risk operations. The running time is padded with a side plot about Herala's womanising doctor that is the most dated part of the whole film with its tittering "naughtiness". In fact, the whole film is quite respectably executed, yet its rather demure drama and somewhat old-fashioned acting are unlikely to hold much appeal today.

Like most filmmakers at the time, the authors of Varjostettua valoa realised they would need something that television could not provide to draw in the punters. Hence they inserted a couple of gory close-ups of surgery being performed on patients. The advertising campaign trumpeted that medical assistance would be available at cinemas should these shocking scenes prove too much to audience members. In retrospect, the film's shock effects are quite mild. A random episode of ER will likely display more blood and guts. The gag proved to be a damp squib even in its day, as the film did poorly and set back the fledgling fortunes of its makers. They should have consulted William Castle!

Howard - verinen iltapäivä

Heavy on gore, light on laughs
Splatter comedy in Finland has been the sole and minuscule reserve of amateur filmmakers, but Howard tried for some cross over with professional actors and money from the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation. In what is essentially a thirty-minute amok run, Peltonen's harmless deaf-mute florist Howard Cucumber (!) is branded a serial killer by the police and the media and flees across the city, causing more accidental deaths as he is chased by the real thing, Lietola's gun-toting and grinning psycho sicced on him by the police. Between synthesizer-driven vignettes of people running, falling from high buildings, getting shot to pieces or giving CPR to a squashed cat, we get some dialogue in short parodic sketches, the best of which are the television news flashes serving as info dumps and taking the mickey out of a few contemporaneous celebrities. The mandatory (for the 1990s) Silence of the Lambs parody manages a few hits as well, but director Neil Hardwick's cameo as a jiving gangster is just as unfunny as the Tarantino soliloquies it parodies.

Visually, the film is impressive in creating scene after scene of bloodbath and stunts with breathless pacing. Like Lietola's performance, its splatter ballet exudes a delirious relish of kids loosed from all shackles and given the means to wallow in their wildest fantasies. Nice for them, but the jokes may be lost on the viewer.

Meno paluu

A small experiment on tape
A VCR with a mind of its own shows a grief-stricken woman ways of getting back at her ex with a knife in this short, quirky film-school project. Shot on tape, the virtually dialogue-free film plays on the old fancy of being able to work reality back and forth like a videotape. This trickery is visualised quite effectively and not with little effort in staging and performance, but in the end it only seems like a show of technical prowess than a fully-fledged dark fantasy comedy. Well, it does look nice and you may feel slightly less comfortable about what comes out of your television set after watching this.

Lazy Company

French Americans, Nazi zombies and the full Reich
This series does begin as a parody of Band of Brothers and its descendants, with similar visual style, as the eponymous U.S. Army company – actually closer to a squad – bumble their way through the invasion of Normandy and liberation of France, grappling with dumb but polite German troopers, treading on creatively placed mines and often snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

However, very soon any pretence of a straight parody of a "realistic" war narrative gets swept away into a broader and more anarchistic mash-up of B-movie scenarios, as we come across a Nazi dominatrix with a bomb in her womb, a Japanese kamikaze pilot slightly off his course to Pearl Harbor, Hitler's sister's black lover brainwashed into an SS killing machine, a grumpy Albert Einstein reluctantly building a nuke called "Big Baby" in a mad German doctor's cellar and even the classic comic book Hitler complete with a driver called Schumi. Anachronisms abound, as various film and popular culture tropes are parodied or alluded to. The obviously modest budget restricts most of the action to a few sets and some explosions and fights in open fields. While all this is well executed, the series makes most of its resources by concentrating on characters who are played over the top but with a suitable sense of the fourth wall. They are caricatures but mostly likable, the most clichéd red-faced, I'll-have-your-ass-for-breakfast general not withstanding.

Humour itself tends to towards loud, broad, painful, even infantile. When you have Hitler dressed as a nun shouting "Your girlfriend is ugly" to an enraged G.I. chasing him, one starts getting flashbacks of schoolboys mucking about with camcorders. On the other hand, it's not often you see a female G.I. gunning down German soldiers like ninepins while giving birth and then coolly cutting the cord with a bullet. There is a lot of hit and miss, especially during the early episodes, but when they get a suitably absurd barrage going, the series can pack quite a wallop.

The best thing about the series is its imaginative flexibility. Individual half-hour episodes contribute to larger story arcs, but allow episode-long genre leaps into musical (with characters breaking into bad chanson and silly rock songs without warning), prison break film or black-and-white zombie horror. Towards the end of the second season the story actually seems to become more and more a grade C Nazi horror story cross-bred with a raunchier version of 'Allo 'Allo, the classic British parody of their own war-time France narratives. The same silliness, cross-dressing and the egalitarian parody of all war-going nationalities are evident here as well. The home front is not spared, as the Resistance is represented by feisty, two-fisted peasant broads and even a wooden General De Gaulle wanders in to be kidnapped, dopily stuttering his famous lines. Still, as 'Allo's French are clearly the British idea of the French, so do Lazy Company's Americans act quite French (especially around women) despite their uniforms.

A fascinating concoction, Lazy Company really does work better as a two-season package, as it takes some time to really start firing for effect. I would say that campaign is worth fighting through.

Joonatanin evankeliumi

Thoughtful, stylish, stilted
This ambitious though not entirely successful amateur drama gives a rather metaphysical spin on the usual story of four young adults dealing with the big questions of serious relationships, honesty and fidelity. It uses the characters' different views on religious faith – agnostic, cautiously sceptical and Newtonian Christian – as a metaphor for trust and commitment, and, more interestingly, the device of a misdirected telephone call as one for loss and forgiveness. The treatment is not very profound or subtle, as all this is mostly worked out through a lot of rather obvious dialogue, but the amateur cast perform it surprisingly smoothly and professionally, keeping the characters believable and the sedate narrative from grinding to a halt.

More than the plot, the film stands out for its self-consciously stylised and polished visuals. It comes across as a series of carefully thought out, static tableaux with some pointedly elegant close-ups and pans and one nice visual metaphor that works more effectively than lot of the entry-level philosophy of the dialogue. This imbues the film with solemn beauty that can keep the interest up even after the plot has exhausted itself. There is real skill and potential for better things behind this earnest attempt.

Taking the Flak

Good fun but not exceptional
Around here, this series was advertised as a political comedy with BBC insiders laughing at themselves. After all, it follows a group of BBC television reporters chasing stories in a fictional African state where US forces are conducting operations. The political dimensions pretty much dwindle away after the pilot, however, and the episodes concentrate on the group's internal rivalry and desperate quests for big scoops, with some standard asides, like a bit of the old vying between British smugness and American arrogance.

The group's composition is pretty conventional: an egotistical star reporter past his prime; a stressed producer; a put upon rookie desperate for a chance; and a comically emotional chubby veteran. The locals are portrayed largely by the textbook, as more emotionally honest, sensible or just clever compared to the silly Westerners running around their country with little clue and too much currency, though the writers also cannot quite resist exploiting the old clichés about African mysticism. Some of their jokes are surprisingly old-fashioned, too, or perhaps they were too inside for an outsider like me. There is still a lot to enjoy here, particularly the macabre jokes like the minefield scenario in the pilot, and the cast are impeccable.

Perhaps series two might have improved upon things, but it seems that not enough people laughed with the writers. I wonder if they had to face their characters' worst nightmare, getting demoted to radio...

Ground Zero

Nice thriller about the long shadow of the big flash
Ground Zero is the Australian addition to that sub-genre of conspiracy thrillers that do not so much use some real-life national issue as the background for action as construct an action narrative to draw attention to that issue. The main issue here is the legacy of the British nuclear testing in the desert of Maralinga in the 1950s and 60s, the damage to the population and the environment left by the explosions. It allows the filmmakers to dramatise the work of the Royal Commission investigating the effects of the fallout and have the Aussies at least here give the British hard time about it (the actual settlement was only reached years later).

The British also get to represent Them, the shadowy establishment chasing Friels's lone everyman who is trying to find out the truth about what his father caught on film in Maralinga. Not only haunted by the mystery of his father, Friels is also forced to be an absent father to his own son and comes across as a very Australian take on the lone conspiracy hero: for all his masculine bravado and apparent individualism he is essentially adrift and ultimately helpless to do anything except run from the overwhelming forces stacked against him.

This highlights the film's second big issue, Australia's anxiety about its sovereignty, having seemingly passed from the nuclear test site of the British Empire into the southern military base and cultural satellite of the United States. Perhaps it is even the filmmakers' own anxiety about trying to make a successful Australian film fit for international consumption. "Only accents and uniforms change", Pleasance's half-crazed veteran not very subtly hammers home the film's cynical moral.

It is Pleasance's performance, typically balanced just right between gripping and campy, and the mythical power of the locale, Australia's ever-present and definition-defying inland, that elevate the film into a kind of mystic and mythical quest for some unspeakable hidden knowledge about the unthinkable horror of the nuclear fire. While the setting is not used with such visual intensity as in, say, Razorback, it gives a haunting aura of grandeur to what is, in a more rational analysis, just a modest but well-executed paranoia thriller narrative (which includes even that staple of both left- and right-wing conspiracy narratives, the menacing black helicopter). It fulfilled both of its briefs by bringing its national issue into attention and capturing its audience even here, a world away from Maralinga, the former very much thanks to the latter. At least the film's final images remain burned into my memory twenty years after the first viewing.


The long journey of the daughters of Zimbabwe
Flame was apparently the first Zimbabwean feature film directed by a woman. Hence it tells the story of two young women, Florence and Nyasha, who in 1975 join the ranks of the African nationalist ZANU fighting against Rhodesia's white minority government in the country's civil war. Through their experiences, it seeks to describe (roughly) the course of the war and the role women played in it, especially as combatants. Beautifully photographed and proficiently staged, the film is a bit hampered by rather pedestrian dialogue, uncertain pacing and somewhat obvious use of voice-over when describing the women's progress through training and war. The war itself is visualised modestly in brief flashes of ambush, sniper fire or strafing aircraft, probably faithfully to such a "bush war". The film illustrates the reasons for the war and its toll on the individual, but it can be awkward at times.

Rather than the story of a war, the film is stronger as a drama about the different life choices of two women, which lead them along different paths, yet ultimately leave them similarly disenfranchised. Neither the traditional village way of life nor the material affluence brought on by a city career seem to offer the women a chance to full autonomy or place in the society they fought for. Wars and revolutions change things, but especially women often find that surprisingly many things do not change for them at all. There could be room for more thorough exploration of the failures of revolution, but the film sidesteps this by praising the comradeship of former fighters as a bandage and a model community, perhaps to the whole nation as well.

So ultimately the film's success rides on the backs of its young protagonists, and Kunonga and Mahaka bring to their roles the necessary combination of youthful determination, insecurity, anger, loss and joy to make it all work. The final image may in fact encapsulate well the life-affirming basic message of the film: a young African woman smiling hopefully at the uncertain future after all the grief, struggle and loss, finally among her friends again. Her journey is worth seeing.


The best horror we have, for now.
I can remember there was true excitement in the air on those four nights in 1988 that Painajainen first aired. Horror, that most rejected of all film genres in Finland, seemed to finally have its big day on the small screen. While censorship and lack of finance had kept cinema practically horror-free for over thirty years and just as panicked cinema owners and calculating politicians were riding the hysteria wave to curtail the video market with one of the most restrictive home video laws in Western Europe, television offered an unlikely oasis for domestic horror to make an occasional appearance. Painajainen stood out in its day, got good viewing figures and was even awarded by the industry.

So how does Painajainen come across quarter of a century later on DVD? It certainly seems mostly like a taut and effectively made little chiller on a not-so-original template. Melasniemi's alcoholic artist wakes up from a seven-month coma with no memory of the months before the car crash that sent him there. He retraces his move to an isolated cottage in the country, and is soon confronted with nightmarish visions – or are they flashbacks? – of a young woman. She of course turns out to be a local tycoon's wayward daughter, who has been missing since the previous summer. Other usual suspects in the search for the truth about her disappearance include a sleazy teacher, a hulking voyeuristic simpleton protected by his long-suffering mother, a hot-headed young copper and a gregarious but authoritarian rural police chief. Even a psychic and a mother complex turn up to spice up the soup.

However, director-writer Sajakorpi vamps his familiar riffs with skill and sustains the suspense through the necessary twists and turns of the story. Though the use of 1980s videotape technology does impose certain visual flatness, he stages a few very atmospheric sequences and uses colour creatively. Also Penderecki's swirling masses of sound on the soundtrack come occasionally across as heavy-handed in their underlining assault, but they do help to infuse some of the scenes with true menace. Plundering modern art records for a score is just one of the many of the tricks and motifs that Sajakorpi first test-drove with 1984's one-off Merkitty. And of course he does deliver the necessary meat, though more as rather exploitative eroticism than as gore – on-screen nudity being far smaller a deal than graphic violence in Finnish television.

The cast are a bit uneven, but fortunately Melasniemi conveys perfectly and often with little dialogue the wide-eyed astonishment and fear of a man who is truly a stranger to himself and all the more tragic because he tries to understand and do the right thing. Also actress-author Härkönen creates one of the most memorable portraits of a spoiled, manipulative harridan in television history. Her character may be more archetypal than remarkable, but she plays it to the maximum effect.

I suppose the same can be said of Painajainen itself. Not the new dawn of Finnish horror it may have seemed like back then, it just makes the best of its resources and offers a reasonably gripping ride into darkness. It also became something like the culmination of Finnish television horror, as it has had few followers. Cinematic horror has persisted in the amateurs' delirious dreams and gory video fantasies, but only in the last few years has it started making tentative probes into the mainstream in films like Sauna and Rare Exports. Not dead but dormant and darkly dreaming, Finnish horror is yet to have its day.

Yöjuttu: Merkitty

The horror that came to Finnish television.
It's funny that while Finnish filmmakers would not touch supernatural horror with a proverbial six-foot pole for decades after the brief overture in 1952, writer-director Ismo Sajakorpi would at least flirt with it in television throughout the 70s and 80s. As part of the immensely popular musical entertainment group Kivikasvot, Sajakorpi would stage many parodic yet also genuinely atmospheric takes on iconic horror tales for the group's television shows and specials, culminating in the "vampire operetta" Lepakkolinna, which had at least many younger viewers shaking in their boots.

Merkitty was an experiment in straight-ahead horror, a standalone television theatre play about Silvo's former prostitute, who seemingly survives a suicide attempt but is haunted by increasingly infernal visions where a looming Baron Samedi figure stalks her. The unremarkable but effective story would have needed a longer running time and perhaps a bit more even acting to effectively work out all its ideas, including the role of Melasniemi's adulterous doctor, who tries to solve Silvo's hysterical condition with regressive hypnosis. But the programme does accomplish its main mission by staging a few archetypal, yet all the more effectively macabre shock sequences with just a few tricks of lighting, staging, make-up and a blaring score needle-dropped from works by various avant-garde composers.

There is nothing in Merkitty that had not been done before and often better in the history of audiovisual culture, but not so in the history Finnish television. Sajakorpi would improve on it four years later with the more elaborate and mature Painajainen.

Ski Patrol

The Winter War, Hollywood style
The Winter War of 1939 – 1940, the Soviet Union's invasion of Finland under the banner of security demands and the silent mandate of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, stands as a mythical landmark in Finnish history, the epic national struggle against seemingly insurmountable military odds that resulted in loss of territory but saved the country's independence, a "miracle" born of stubborn perseverance and heart-breaking sacrifice. The war garnered Finland a lot of publicity and sympathy abroad, including this cheap Hollywood cash-in war film that tried, very badly, to champion Finland's cause in its struggle for life against the larger aggressor. The war was two months over by the time the film premiered, and the picture quickly faded into obscurity, as the ever-expanding conflict brought in fresh calamity to compete for attention.

Might be just as well that this was not shown in Finland before the 21st century, because the film's grasp of historical reality is ludicrously thin, and not just in details like when the war began. For one thing, Finland is famously the land of a thousand lakes but few mountains. Yet the Finns here are shown herding sheep in generic Middle European village sets with Alpine backdrops and dancing very jarring dances dressed in studio-standard Tyrolean gear that bears little resemblance to anything that might have been worn in a Finnish village at the time. Even the plot centres on a Finnish unit defending a huge mountain against the Soviet push. This may be because a lot of the combat footage was lifted from elsewhere, particularly from Luis Trenker's First World War epic The Doomed Battalion. Hence we get further historical inaccuracies, such as a Soviet airborne assault – with the paratroopers deploying out of Junkers transports! Skiing was actually an important element in Finnish tactics, allowing the defenders mobility to outmanoeuvre and box in numerically superior but more lumbering Soviet formations that were ill prepared for winter warfare. The film struggles even with its depiction of cross-country skiing in the 1936 Winter Olympics, which opens the film and includes fictional participation by the Soviet Union for plot reasons.

Of course, this is Hollywood entertainment, and you can't expect its makers to treat history as anything more than raw material or not to use the famous artistic licence whenever convenient. But the film buckles on the artistic and entertainment fronts too. We get a cookie-cutter war story with the obligatory romantic strand and a side plot about friendly sports rivals ending up on different sides in the war, all capped with a ridiculous ending. We have a platoon of stock characters (a kill-happy sniper, a reluctant pacifist, a hate-filled avenger etc.) with amusing names, and the actors are mostly going through the motions. The one surprising element is the film's heavy pacifist sentiment, possible because the United States was still just a spectator in the European war (here represented by Arledge's chirpy American volunteer). That tenor would change radically later. However, the pacifism feels quite sanctimonious, when the thrust of the film is to titillate the audience with traditional militarist action. Again, the best action sequences, the downhill racing scenes, seem to have been largely culled from other sources.

It's funny how little both geopolitics and Hollywood formulae have changed since Ski Patrol's days. Now we have even Finnish-born directors in Hollywood milking same kinds of wars and suffering for a bit of similar entertainment with similar methods.

Kuollut mies rakastuu

Finnish noir with extra sniggers
Every nation must have its aristocratic film heroes. Even Finland, though spared from too much aristocratism by a combination of poverty, necessity, egalitarianism and sheer dumb luck, had Colonel (ret.) Rainer Sarmo alias Dettmann (hence the "dead man" of the title), a charismatic and sophisticated adventurer who grappled with "baddies and broads" in three popular films.

This first one was intentionally designed as a compelling and trendy thriller of the kind that Finland had not yet produced, with narrative complexities and low-key lighting borrowed from contemporaneous film noir. To a 21st century viewer, some of these attempts may now come across more as unintentionally elliptical story-telling and poor lighting. The actual story with its old scores, fake identities and villains with a barrage of code names is not terrible compelling or suspenseful to modern viewers either, no matter how pioneering it might have been in the 1940s.

They might get more joy out of the film's intentional, light-hearted comedy parts, and especially its unintentionally comic bits. The latter is mostly to do with the picture of the period the film tries to evoke, of cheerfully stuffy upper-class people with their servants and adherence to titles, and of Helsinki as a cosmopolitan centre of international intrigue. None of it feels exactly real, and not just because such crassly class-bound image of society is as alien as a visitor from another galaxy would be to Finns born in the last fifty years. The filmmakers were clearly trying to be on the bleeding edge of coolness and such attempts rarely transcend their own time without a few sniggers. For example, when the hero gets a drop on the crooks who have captured his friend, his first action is not to untie the ropes that bind the poor chap to a chair, but to give the man a cigarette, thus rescuing him from dangerous nicotine depletion! That's the way the alpha male operated in the 40s, or so the film would have you believe. The comic effect tends to get amplified by the actors' theatrical delivery, a style that was already dated back in the day. Everything seems just a bit off and unconvincing, an attempt to push the limits and create something new, with not quite enough resources or insight to pull it off. At least they gave it a good shot.

The film certainly did well in the box office, and the sequel, Kuollut mies vihastuu, followed in 1944. It was actually a tighter and more effective thriller, and, unlike the first film, which was made during the time of temporary peace, it reflected the real world situation of its day by pitting Sarmo against Soviet proxies. The final instalment, Kuollut mies kummittelee, appeared as late as 1952, but by then the world and the audience had moved on and no one really cared about the adventures of an aristocratic "dead man". However, Joel Rinne would go on to portray another memorable, though more down-to-earth crime fighter as the leading man in the classic series of much loved Komisario Palmu films.

Valkoinen kääpiö

Beautiful but dead inside
Valkoinen kääpiö began as an adaptation of Rösterna i den sena timmen, Bo Carpelan's darkly philosophical novel about a self-centred middle-class community trying to maintain normality in the face of imminent nuclear war. What ended up on the screen, however, was another muddled example of 1980s Finnish art cinema reaching high and falling flat on its face, which only borrowed a few ideas from the book.

The film's first half an hour is actually quite interesting and suspenseful a gambit, as Heiskanen's engineer gets trapped in a mine when the EMP from nuclear explosions near Murmansk plunges Northern Finland into an electrical blackout. He struggles to escape before the radioactive fallout arrives. This section proved chillingly prescient when the Chernobyl nuclear disaster took place, just two months after Valkoinen kääpiö premiered.

But the rest of the film completely switches gears and becomes a confused study of Heiskanen's attempt to cope with his alienation and radiation-induced leukaemia. The forced and false idyll of his family community and a lot of the dialogue here come from Carpelan, but removed from the original context of nuclear doomsday they carry little emotional weight and make little sense with the film's original material. The ecological theme of the planet's future withers away and never really knits together with the thin plot of personal quest for some emotional connection and meaning in the face of sickness and death.

The film tries to compensate with its polished and striking visual style. It piles on heavy symbolic imagery – water dripping and rippling ethereally underground; snake slithering across the debris-littered floor and consumed in an anthill; the constant contrast of darkness and blinding white light; the white-clad image of a blond woman, Heiskanen's idealised, unattainable love that keeps haunting him - and Michaels' colourfully expressionistic music (all brooding 80s synthesizer strings and drones splashed against a couple of romantic acoustic episodes) to suggest meaning and depth that is not really there. To no avail. Underneath the surface's supernova brilliance, the narrative becomes just as lifeless and bereft of meaning as the white dwarf star the protagonist is compared with. Even the vivid closing image, a matching cut from a bloody gash on Heiskanen's arm to a close-up of a crack in the stone, the final, tortured simile between a ravaged planet and the emotionally petrified "man of stone", somehow ends up just a desperate gesture, a paltry imitation of Kubrick's millennia-spanning transition from 2001.

There may in fact be a good film buried somewhere in the half-formed effigy that is Valkoinen kääpiö, but it, unlike Heiskanen's character, never reaches the light.

The Investigator

Grim piece of another kind of military history
The Investigator is the story of the former British Army sergeant Caroline Meagher. She joined a military police unit tasked with hunting down and exposing lesbian women within the ranks, as the Army still barred sexual minorities from serving in the 1980s (and still did when the film was made). Only she later found out that she was lesbian herself. The film dramatises her double life in and eventual dismissal from the Army.

There is an obvious reason why the film advertises the fact that it was made without MoD co-operation. While it allows the military to argue for its own rules and their enforcement, no matter how senseless or discriminatory they may appear from a contemporary civilian viewpoint, it holds no punches in drawing a harrowing picture of the methodology used in that enforcement. The work of the investigator is shown as endless witch hunts for sexual deviancy and interminable archiving of every little hint, rumour or suggestion born from "crew cut, doesn't fancy me, ergo lesbian" style logic, of grossly invasive personal searches and degrading interrogations about sexual histories and personal associations. The pitiless system reduces skilled women eager to serve their country into vile criminals and chews them up.

The view is all Meagher's and the viewer is directed to sympathise with her, even if her own actions sometimes appear ambiguous. In fact, after the drama ends, Caroline Meagher herself appears on the screen to sum up the story and to describe the Army's secretive policy about its personnel databases. This may be heavy-handed and personal, but it does not diminish the wider implications of the story.

Independent of its agenda, The Investigator is an effective piece of modestly budgeted television drama. The film keeps up a good tension by juggling between different periods, at the same time showing the innocent Meagher's descent into the sordid reality of investigative machinery and her more world-hardened version fighting the full brunt of that same machinery, showing how dealing with the former realities forced her to slowly spun a web of deception that threatens to trap her in the end. There is little excess fat in the narrative, just a relentlessly bleak procession of fear, uncertainty, humiliating interrogations and paranoid double existence, relieved only by fleeting moments of intimate warmth or flash scenes of terrorism in Northern Ireland. The last may well be meant to underline the ridiculousness of a situation where sexual minorities are targeted with similar ardency and methods as terrorists, as pointed out by Meagher at one point. A good point to remember in an era where terrorism has been used to justify ever increasing control and surveillance in all spheres of society and the methods of invasion have grown far more sophisticated than the index cards and 1980s computers in The Investigator.

This is truly a women's film, and Baxendale holds it up supremely in the lead role, as another competent but emotionally vulnerable woman in a harshly masculine world, in line with her contemporaneous roles in Truth Or Dare and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. Levon also gives a strong performance as a more experienced and savvy staff sergeant who initiates Meagher into the closeted reality of the armed forces. The men don't get much chance for sympathy. They are portrayed as wife-beating misogynists, ice-cold bureaucrats behind tight lips and steely gazes or just cheerfully laddish bastards with prominent regional accents.

Tuntematon ystävä

Unknown for a reason
Tuntematon ystävä was the third attempt to film the works of popular and populist Finnish detective novelist Mauri Sariola. Based loosely on the 1970 novel Susikoski virittää ansan, the film also features his most famous protagonist, the no-nonsense, conservative Detective Inspector (later Superintendent) Susikoski. It was also probably the worst of the three.

Sariola's strong points usually lay more with his characters and typically acerbic observations about society and people than his often mechanistic and haphazard plots. Unfortunately, what Tuntematon ystävä takes from its source is mostly the heavily reworked basic plot, which in the film concerns an American-Finnish couple who murder various "society's parasites" for their insurance money.

The film does try. At the time, it was for Finnish cinema an exceptionally brazen attempt to make a mainstream commercial thriller with international cast and a climax shot in Morocco. The end result, however, is on par with a mediocre television film, which totally wastes its elite cast, including Lindholm in the title role. Staging, dialogue and attempts at suspense in fact now seem more fitting for a comedy than a thriller. Even a record-breaking marketing campaign couldn't turn the film into the hit it aspired to be.

Women get to provide the few bright spots in the overall gloom: the ex-Miss Finland Pohtamo may be hilariously incapable of acting, but Westerlund shines as a dotty would-be victim, and the long-suffering O'Mara - who was immensely popular in Finland at the time thanks to The Brothers - actually manages to work some depth into her role as a reluctant femme fatale.


No future, only old futility
Inspired by his involvement in Risto Jarva's science-fiction film Ruusujen aika, producer and screenwriter Kullervo Kukkasjärvi dreamed up his own "sleeper awakes" vision of the future in his first and only novel Aurinkotuuli (The Solar Wind). It is the story of an alienated scientist who dies in 1970 and is revived from cryogenic suspension thirty years later, only to find his groundbreaking research on gravity obsolete and himself even more alienated than before.

While the actual story mostly concerns his search for meaning and belonging through love, the novel also manages to economically sketch an outline of a socially and economically changed world. Little of this speculation, and hence no sense of the future, comes across in the film. Ironically, the film's pedestrian depiction of the Millennium's edge also appears more accurate to today's audience than the richly imagined but more time-bound vision offered by Ruusujen aika. Meanwhile, the novel's literary but slyly playful first-person narration and musings on the ambiguous history of scientific progress are dumped on the hapless audience through horribly stilted dialogue by the stunningly lifeless cast of otherwise solid professionals. The few touches of genuine cinematic inspiration only serve to further confuse the hobbling narrative.

Despite its putative science-fiction premise, the film is largely a conventional and undistinguished 1970s Finnish drama about estrangement and death wish, complete with melodramatic clichés like maudlin drunkenness in a sauna. The film gains little extra depth or perspective from its premise, which generally is the whole point of such futuristic speculation. The fragile protagonist may court sympathy, but his lifelessly told story cannot hold attention. Like his life, the film ultimately becomes an exercise in futility. For all its faults, Ruusujen aika is far the superior example of Finnish filmmakers breaking free, if only for a moment, from the shackles of overdrawn literalism and realist tradition and speculating on what might be.

Pakanamaan kartta

Flawed, scrambled and gripping
This eccentric thriller was director Hardwick's last major television drama project and far removed from the witty and warm comedies with which he first made his name. It was heavily inspired by the ecological themes of Edge of Darkness, the cynical political vision of Wipe Out and the narrative innovations of The Singing Detective. The series' decentralised narrative, which flicks back and forth in time, guided more by visual motives and emotional states than linear story-telling, drew the most attention and criticism at the time, and has not been attempted again in Finnish television twenty years later. In some ways it is an overplayed device, but it does transform the essentially rather simple story into a more kaleidoscopic narrative, by delaying key information and allowing multiple viewpoints to same events. Above all, it forces the audience to engage their frontal lobes and work for their entertainment.

It also serves as a metaphor for the main characters, who are realistically flawed and multifaceted human beings: the passionate and dangerously driven Helena is affected by Korsakoff's syndrome that scrambles her short-term memory, while the naively infatuated everyman Tapani grasps ineffectually for understanding of the web of machinations around him and is dragged along passively into the fatal of heart of knowledge. As television people, they both struggle for meaning and control in the same way as they direct and conduct the multi-camera studio environment, neither recognising soon enough that their vision is limited and that things are out of their control. Truth will not set anyone free and actions spiral out of hand.

Hence Pakanamaan kartta is not only a dark political thriller but an ultra-cynical commentary on the western industrial culture at the tail-end of the yuppie period and the comforting stories it produces for consumption. The series replays the standard narrative devices, like the dissolution and re-consolidation of the nuclear family, yet at the same time shows they cannot redeem the situation once all the actors have been locked into their trajectories. It is this loss of comforting conventions, moral clarity and easy identification that becomes just as upsetting as the violent and suspenseful surface action as the series progresses towards its climax. Violence itself is sparse, but surprisingly unpleasant when it does turn up. The series was shot on tape instead of film, which only serves to enhance the sleaziness and the narcissistic emptiness behind the gloss of the late-80s culture. Finland itself was at the grips of a punishing recession by the time the series aired, and its attitudes did resonate with the popular indignation over the excesses of the past decade. Still the ending could be seen as a cop-out, but then any conclusion would likely seem unsatisfactory (as was the case with Edge of Darkness).

While parts of it inevitably seem dated, particularly the deceptively superfluous-seeming subplot about a runaway Estonian rock band, the series still stands as a formidable achievement in Finnish television history. It is one of the still too few productions to challenge the uncomplicated black and white world-view and safe conventions typical of most television drama but very alien to reality.

Kylmä muuri

Cold war against global warming
Finnish television has some tradition of small, matter-of-fact dramas dealing with political decisions and processes during the key moments of the nation's history. Kylmä muuri interestingly uses the same quasi-documentary approach on a purely science-fictional storyline. With global warming running out of control in near future, the United States and Russia secretly plan to divert the Gulf Stream with nuclear detonations in order to cool the Northern Hemisphere. The central idea is improbable, but like most science-fiction future visions, it serves as a nightmare scenario and springboard for discussion on the morality of today's actions.

The problem is that the narrative setting – the Finnish government and academia – restricts the dramatic potential of the work. The first part has some tension, as Hämäläinen's character probes for the truth behind the superpowers' naval preparations. The second part is simply a massive info-dump from a stereotypically geeky scientist, which works thanks to the sympathetically down-to-earth performance from the always reliable Peltola. The rest is helpless moral pondering about issues over which the characters have no real control. This is of course something that small nations feel, when forced to adjust to the world-changing or world-smashing whims and ambitions of "sovereign powers". Finland's own precarious balancing act on the fault line of power blocks during the Cold War is certainly reflected in the play, including its multi-connotative title (literally "a Cold Wall"). So as a drama it is something of a missed opportunity, but as a thought experiment in a genre as rare as poultry's dentures in Finnish television, it is most welcome.

The same team later also tackled the subject of human cloning with the similar production Klooni, but there the leadenly turgid dialogue, overbearing moralising and the whole clichéd artificiality of the setting squeezed the life out of the piece.

Entscheidung in den Wolken

Lost in the clouds
Supercell thunderstorms form the thin McGuffin that catapults this rather lightweight aviation adventure into flight, as airline pilot Niehaus is grounded after making an emergency landing to avoid a supposed supercell and sets out to vindicate herself by trying to enlist the help of two daredevil fly-boy brothers (Hutter and Witting). The inevitable flight into a supercell is only the climax, however, and the narrative crams in brotherly disputes, financial trouble, an obligatory romance, a strained father-daughter relationship and even a subplot about the brothers' mother resisting a greedy developer's attempts to buy off the family estate. The whole thing sets itself up as a kind of old-fashioned and violence-free adventure where the only real enemy is the blind force of nature. Unfortunately it achieves none of the required innocence or tension, instead floundering on the shallowness of the whole scenario and the contrived motivations needed to sustain it (including Hutter's laughably overblown antipathy to airline pilots).

The CGI flying and storm sequences are rendered reasonably well, but ultimately let down by the same directional flatness that permeates the whole enterprise, including Niehaus' performance. The film really comes across like a glossy car advert speckled with Heimat sentimentalism, with beautiful people flying aeroplanes and driving fancy cars in gorgeous Alpine landscapes. It forms an interesting counterpoint to that other German aviation drama of 2009, the much tenser but infinitely sillier Crashpoint.

Crashpoint - 90 Minuten bis zum Absturz

I say... let 'em crash!
Airliner disaster films were a particularly popular but dire form of the 1970s disaster film. The brilliant Airplane! made sure you could never watch these films with a straight face again, but the sub-genre had already degenerated to such self-parody that only the better gags really distinguish the film from the contemporaneous "straight" effort The Concorde. With new effects technologies and a new dearth of ideas ushering the return of the disaster film in the 2000s, this German film inexplicably tries to play the airborne disaster scenario without any hint of irony, as if all its laughed-out clichés were shiny and new innovations.

Hence ten minutes into the film, we have an airliner without controls climbing towards a fatal stall, while the ground control, an anxious airline suit and a greasy government minister debate whether to shoot the plane down, before it crashes in the middle of Berlin. On board are all the requisite stereotypes: a stern but solid captain haunted by a past incident; a cocky young co-pilot and a failed medical student who have to rise to the challenge; an insecure engineer with vital technical know-how; a stupid and cowardly bully; and a cute kid who helps save the day. Fatalities and survivors are telegraphed early on, so the ride itself becomes the focus.

And the film does pull out all the stops, quickly jettisoning any unwieldy ballast like sense of reality, laws of physics and finally even internal consistency in order to keep the ill-fated plane and its long-suffering passengers constantly building up to an immediate disaster, only to defuse it again at the last moment. It is crassly manipulative, shamelessly sentimental and cynically exploitative. And yet it is well made and can offer a single engaging ride, as long as the audience don't engage their frontal lobes too much. I'm actually amazed that someone had the bottle to even make this film.

Ein Fall für zwei

Matula & Co to the rescue
This is the classic German "buddy" crime series, which brings together two opposite personalities, the Lawyer and the Detective, to solve murders and acquit falsely accused suspects. The Lawyer was originally Strack's Dieter Rentz, a corpulent, cultured, highly professional and dedicated advocate and bon viveur, who dreaded only two things: steep stairways and having to drink cheap plonk out of a paper cup. The Detective was Gärtner's Josef Matula, a diminutive, jovial, leather jacket-wearing ex-cop who liked to have a beer and a pool cue at hand, when not sniffing around in the underworld, charming the ladies and smooth-talking himself into and out of tricky situations. Lawyers have since come and gone, but Matula has remained the show's constant, still charming, streetwise and mostly leather-jacketed at over sixty. At the same time, the original dynamic between protagonists has degraded, as successive Lawyers have become noticeably younger than Matula and almost as capable of physical action as he is. Still, a nice rapport has been established between Matula and the latest Lawyer, Frielinghaus' quietly charismatic Lessing.

The show's charm has lot to do with its comfortable sameness. While its look has had a few cosmetic (and rather unnecessary) updates in the 2000s, it still runs according to a familiar pattern. There is a crime, almost inevitably a murder. The Lawyer ends up representing the prime suspects who swear their innocence but are so miserly with truth that the Lawyer has to drag it out of them and fight to keep his clients from getting banged up without further ado. Matula does most of the legwork, often gets to hang around strip clubs or brothels (this is a German crime series, after all), sometimes gets roughed up a bit but eventually helps to uncover the truth. There has been an occasional downbeat ending, but generally the innocent client is saved and all turns out well.

When it began, the series brought a breath of fresh air, humour and vigour to the more civil-servant like matter-of-factness of many previous Krimis (as did Tatort's lovable lout detective Schimanski around the same time). Quarter of a century later it is quite mild and cosy a thing to watch, the television equivalent of comfortable old shoes. Its most iconic part is Klaus Doldinger's original theme music, an irresistibly jaunty synthesizer instrumental that was sacrilegiously remixed for the opening credits during the series' face-lift in the 2000s.

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