Finnish cinema is a tough racket. Its scope is limited by the country’s minuscule market of 5.4 million inhabitants who speak an unusual language. Even big, mainstream movie productions rely on grants to be feasible. Unlike say, their Swedish colleagues, Finnish filmmakers don’t get a boost from a potential audience of neighbouring countries, who sort of understand the language.
Despite this, there’s a bunch of modern Finnish movies that deliver in terms of being widely understandable art. Many of those reflect very particular, recurring themes of struggles, melancholy and nature.
So, let’s get to the movies.
Rare Exports (2010)
Here’s the thing: Santa Claus is a type of monster, found in Lapland. Based on a previous short film in which wild Santas are captured and sold, Rare Exports gives the genre of X-mas themed comedy horrors a much-needed boost. In the words of the late beloved film critic Roger Ebert: “It’s an idea from “The Thing,” where an alien was found in Antarctica and brought frozen into a hut, where drip … drip … drip … it began to thaw.”
What it says about Finland: Its people are slowly waking up to the full potential of harvesting all natural resources.
Frozen Land (Paha maa, 2005)
Based loosely on Leo Tolstoy’s “The Forged Coupon”, a series of events is triggered by a teacher losing his job and his stray son spending some counterfeit money. Sickness and bad karma spread like wildfire during an alienating, cold winter trip through Helsinki, revolving around alcoholism, violence and deadly mistakes. “Frozen Land” isn’t a particularly uplifting movie to watch, but it remains among the best Finnish drama movies of the past decade.
What it says about Finland: Winter is coming. And it doesn’t bring out the best in people.
The Man Without a Past (Mies vailla menneisyyttä, 2002)
If there’s an internationally renowned Finnish avant-garde filmmaker, it’s director Aki Kaurismäki. The Man Without a Past may be his best-known movie, but it operates within a well established low-key style. In the movie, a working class man, newly arrived in Helsinki, loses his memory after a violent mugging. The film follows the protagonist as he reestablishes himself on the outskirts of society among other marginalised characters. Kaurismäki displays a certain kind of longing for simpler times and pulls off a stunningly relaxed pacing and settings that feel sort of ageless.
What it says about Finland: You’ll feel more at home if you learn to appreciate the empty space between conversations.
Iron Sky (2012)
Here’s what you need to know: Iron Sky is a comedy. Plot: Nazis fled to the moon at the end of WWII and they’re making a huge, armed comeback in 2018. Also, a Sarah Palin lookalike is the president of the United States of America. And Udo Kier does a super-creepy bad guy. Boom. Stylistically speaking, Iron Sky isn’t for everyone. It flies, like a Nazi saucer, way past your regular slapstick humour and any Austin Powers sequel straight into camp territory. What makes Iron Sky noteworthy is director Timo Vuorensola’s lifehack approach to film making: Stuck in a small country with a limited market? Turn to the internet for crowdsourced funding and production assistance. That’s simply beautiful engineering.
What it says about Finland: At the Russian border, you’ll lose your mind to anxiety if you don’t poke some occasional fun at geopolitics.
Mother of Mine (Äideistä parhain, 2006)
During WWII, tens of thousands of Finnish children were sent off to neutral Sweden to avoid the horrors of war. Mother of Mine follows the fate of one of them, Eero, as he struggles with feelings of being abandoned by his biological mother as he’s shipped off to Sweden at the age of nine. Matters are complicated further by Eero’s tumultuous relationship with his surrogate mum.
What it says about Finland: It takes over half a century to really open up about war trauma.
Black Ice (Musta jää, 2007)
A middle-aged woman realises her husband is having an affair with a younger woman. She goes to extreme lengths to protect her marriage in this triangle drama of Hitchcockian or even Kubrickesque proportions. As noted in a review by Finland’s biggest daily newspaper, Black Ice might be worth mentioning solely on the merit of being co-produced by a German company without striving for clichéd, exotic depictions of the north. Rather, it shows how universally metropolitan Finnish life can look on the silver screen.
What it says about Finland: Our country may seem like a big magical forest when you approach by plane, but on the ground it’s a big circus of highways, suburban living rooms and bourgeois first world problems.