Friday, September 18, 2009

Valkoinen Peura – review

posterDirector: Erik Blomberg

Release date: 1952

Contains spoilers

This 1952 film is an absolute rarity, a Finnish film whose title translates to White Reindeer. It was directed by Erik Blomberg and, despite winning a golden globe and an award at Cannes, it was one of only five films he directed. It is also a curious mix of the vampire film, the witch film and a lycanthrope film – of course traditionally such lore was interchangeable. The story itself is simple – whilst the details are unusual – and thus I will heavily spoil the story.

The film begins with the snowy landscapes and I have to say that he forlorn, snow covered land is as much a character in the film as anything else. A song starts over the landscape, of a witch, and we see a woman (Mirjami Kuosmanen) struggling through the snow until she falls near a tent. A baby is brought into the tent though for the fallen mother it is too late. We have witnessed the birth of Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen).

Aslak and Pirita in loveWe see her as an adult and there is a reindeer sled race, which she joins in with. The camera lingers over another of the racers, Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä). Pirita and Aslak seem to go off the beaten path and, after a while, he lassos Pirita and they go tumbling down a snow embankment. We know we are witness to the start of their courtship. Indeed we then see Aslak ask for permission to marry Pirita and her (adopted, I assume) father (Evald Terho) agrees.

trouble in the bedroomWe see the wedding and then see Pirita, and her dog Kosha, herding a single reindeer. She stops when she see a giant herd – think the reindeer version of a cattle drive – and Aslak, who is one of the herders. In bed that night she appears forlorn, she puts her hand to his chest but he roles over in his sleep. She goes to the fire (and we note that she was being a little optimistic – or shameless – with her romantic intent as all the other reindeer herders are sleeping on the floor). One of them, Niilo, wakes and gives her a look – she returns to her husband.

Arvo Lehesmaa as Tsalkko-NillaAslak goes back on the trail, he’ll be a few weeks, and leaves her the present of a white reindeer calf. Pirita treks across the snow to the house of Tsalkko-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), a shaman. He knew she would come, he says, and takes payment of bread, cheese and spirits, which he drinks greedily. He tells her he can create a love potion (and when he boasts of his prowess he actually mentions bringing the dead back from the grave). She must sacrifice the first living thing she sees, when she returns home, to the great altar, and then no-one will be able to resist her. He stops beating his drum but a malevolent look has come into her eye, she places her hand over the drum and it continues to beat and he looks on in fear as it breaks.

Kalervo Nissilä as AslakPirita returns home and the first living things she sees are the reindeer calf and Aslak (home for a fleeting visit), playing together. Which did she see first? This pact was called the law of surprise in the works of Andrzej Sapkowski and was a folklore favourite. The film does not tell us which she really saw first of the two – though she decides it was the calf. Do the following events occur because she sacrificed the wrong thing, was she inherently evil due to her mother (the implication being she was a witch) or none of the above? The film leaves us guessing. She takes the calf to the altar and sacrifices it, a great wind rises, she falls and we see fleeting images but, most importantly, we see the spirit of the reindeer.

transformingPirita travels the snows to find Aslak with the reindeer. She meets with Niilo and he tells her that Aslak is at the resting point. When she reaches there, the men at the tent tell her that he is hunting and she should stay there for the night and wait. They sleep but, in the night, we hear the shaman’s drums. Pirita stands and leaps over the fire – a white reindeer lands on the other side. The reindeer goes to where Nillo is and he decides to try and catch it. He treks after it into the mountains until it stops and he lassos it. He wrestles the creature down and it turns into a fanged Pirita. We hear the scream and then see the reindeer walk away. Later his body is found and returned to the village. We never actually see an attack, we only see that she has fangs and hear a comment that no reindeer could cause wounds like those found on the victims.

rifles are uselessPirita is speaking to a man on his way to cut lichen, and he flirts with her gently. He is the next victim. The men folk speak of a white witch reindeer and they need cold iron (in the form of a spear) to kill the witch. A visiting forest ranger (Åke Lindman) says he will kill the reindeer by gun. The reindeer passes by and he tracks it. He manages to corner it and tries to shoot, the gun explodes in his face and we see Pirita cackling in the snows. He is found stumbling in the snows and at a village event he hears Pirita laugh and attacks her. Aslak saves her.

fangs in the daytimeAt home Pirita looks in the mirror and sees she has fangs, a fact she is most distressed about and she begins to become paranoid when Aslak looks at her – though they are simply looks of love. He falls asleep by the fire and the moonlight streams into their home. She rises and creeps – we see a shadow in the moonlight reminiscent of the use of shadows in Nosferatu - she moves above Aslak who awakens with a start. He says he has had a bad dream and carries her back to bed, assuming she is poorly. She mentions the glare of the moon.

as the reindeerNow the glare of the moon brings the werewolf stories to mind and the animal transformation suggests lycanthropy. To me the moon aspect here would actually more be a tie to womanly cycles. Indeed her transformations are not tied (exclusively, at least) to the moon, she mostly changes when near men who come on to her and yet she has also become, due to the spell, irresistible. Finally we also she that she can transform when danger is near, the ranger was a danger to her (he hunted her) but had not come on to her (and he survived). We see her uncomfortable in a church, whilst attending a wedding, but it is more due to the longing looks the groom (Aarne Tarkas) gives her during a hymn and – though it is day – outside the church she transforms again.

forging an iron spearShe is at home and sees that Aslak is forging an iron spear, when she asks why he says it is to kill the witch. She runs from their home but all around the village men forge spears. Panicked she transforms and runs through the village as the reindeer, an old woman throws a knife into her shoulder. We see her in a snow bank, in human form, licking at the blood from the wound and hunkering down as the men folk pass by. She goes to Tsalkko-Nilla’s home but he is dead, next to his broken drum. She goes to the altar and begs for the witchcraft to be lifted but she simply transforms again.

Pirita is killedThe finale sees Aslak stalking the deer. It turns to look at him and he prepares his lasso but it walks towards him and so he throws the spear. There, on the floor, is Pirita, speared. It is reminiscent of a stake, and of course the use of iron fits in with witchcraft. The actual 'kill and transform into the love' is atypical werewolf fare. This is, of course, due to the wonderful amalgam of lore into this film. A beautiful and yet sparse and desolate film that is almost silent, dialogue wise, in places and is carried by Mirjami Kuosmanen’s performance. The framing of her in shot is often reminiscent of Bava and his work with Barbara Steele.

The shame is that you will struggle to find this, it is a sad state that (at the time of review) films such as this are not commonly available. 8 out of 10. The imdb page is here.


Zahir Blue said...

Sounds fascinating!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

It is, it has a starkness that is peculiar to Scandanavian films and yet a beauty within that

Amateur Vampirologist said...

This is quite interesting, because, if this is indeed a vampire flick...then its depiction of fangs predates even those shown in Drakula İstanbul'da (1953).

Of course, this fills the gap between Max Schreck donning them in Nosferatu (1922).

Taliesin_ttlg said...

AV - it isn't a pure vampire flick, but it certainly has elements - clearly the attacks are by her and with fangs though we don't see them (a reindeer couldn't injure a man like that is mentioned), there is the witchcraft element and the shapeshifter element that seems (on the surface) slightly lycanthropic.

I'm classing it in as an unusual vamp story. Interestingly I have just discovered that a Finnish remake is on the cards, scant details here.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for making me aware of this film by listing it in your top 100. Frankly, I probably would have never heard of it otherwise.

Not only does Valkoinen Peura look wonderful as cinema it also preserves a sense of mystery, which is the real basis of the supernatural. (Speaking as an atheist fan of supernatural fiction.)

Aside: DVD regions are an utter travesty. I obtained a copy of Valkoinen Peura through Amazon, and it cost me a bit more (still worth it) because it's region 2. Even the American film The Addiction is region 2! Of course, over on the other side of the Atlantic movie viewers have irrationally constrained access to region 1-only movies. Oh well.


Taliesin_ttlg said...

Halek, no problem - glad you discovered it and enjoyed it.

I agree re the regions. I have my players region free and - on PC - VLC ignores region codes as many of the films I want to see are region 1 and region 3 (asia, bar Japan which is region 2)often has interesting films available before 1&2