by Allan Fish
(Finland 1938 87m) not on DVD
Aka. Varestettu kuolema
They don’t stay long
p Erik Blomberg d Nyrki Tapiovaara w Erik Blomberg, Matti Kurjensaari, Eino Makinen, Runar Schildt ph Erik Blomberg, Olavi Gannari ed Erik Blomberg, Nyrki Tapiovaara m George de Godzinsky art Kaarlo Oksanen
Tuulikki Parnaanen (Manja), Ilmari Mänty (Robert Hedman), Santeri Karilo (Jonni Claesson), Annie Mörk (Madame Johansson), Bertha Lindberg (Mrs Hedman), Hertta Leistén (aunt), Aku Peltonen (morgue guard),
His is a name that should be mentioned in the same breath as Sadao Yamanaka, Michael Reeves, Pen Tennyson and Arthur Woods, names taken ahead of their time. The latter two Brits died in action in World War II, Yamanaka in the Japanese war with China, and Tapiovaara died in action against the Soviets in 1940, a fate tinged with irony when one considers this, his finest of only five films. It was a film I’d never even heard of until when looking at various best films lists a few years ago it was listed in the BFI list of best 360 films in the early 1980s in between Alexander Nevsky and The Wizard of Oz.
The setting is Helsinki at the turn of the century when the country was under Tsarist rule and resentment was simmering beneath the surface. Robert Hedman comes from a well-to-do family but spends his time printing subversive pamphlets on an underground printing press. One of his comrades observes “isn’t it time the people had more in their hands than mere paper?” So they need guns and bombs and, as one character amusingly says, “they don’t fall out of the sky.” They have a meeting arranged with one such illegal operator, Claesson, only to find his price is astronomical. They refuse it, but then the dealer says if they don’t buy he’ll alert the authorities to their little group’s actions. They received help from Claesson’s long-suffering young mistress who joins their cause and they undertake a coup to steal the guns from Claesson.
What makes Stolen Death so unusual is that it’s virtually impossible to pin down; it exists almost in the wind. His previous film, Juha, had been a remake of a story once filmed by Mauritz Stiller and had been like a Scandinavian silent with stilted dialogue but gorgeous panoramas of the Finnish countryside. Stolen Death also has the feel of a silent film, but the influences and styles are far reaching. Nods to the old Scandinavian school are dwarfed by influences from elsewhere. The authorities look like extras from October, the editing recalls Soviet montage and even D.W.Griffith, and there’s just the faintest whiff of Kuleshov’s The Adventures of Mr West. Throw in camera angles that match those of German expressionism, with rooftop chases out of Caligari and whole sequences worthy of Fritz Lang (including an opening that not only evoked M but even Hitchcock’s British films). Topping all, however, is a scene that is amongst the most remarkable in thirties cinema, evoking not just the French avant garde work of Dulac and Kirsanoff, but another Gallic classic by a Scandinavian, Dreyer’s Vampyr. The rebels hide guns in a coffin and parade their arsenal in a funeral parade through town which the Tsarist guards stop and salute before going about their business. They eventually make their way to the morgue where, in a truly surreal sequence, the old guard talks of having room for more and that his ‘guests’ never stay long. We cut to the rebels finally opening the coffin when the authorities barge in, but it turns out it’s the wrong coffin and there is a corpse inside.
If that all makes Stolen Death sound like a black social comedy, then you’re quite right. It is, and the performances are a joy. Mörk’s old passport forger is like a refugee from Dostoyevsky, Karilo’s Jonni Claesson should be mentioned in the same breath as Jules Berry’s Batala and Zachary Scott’s Dimitrios, and Peltonen is unforgettable in his one scene. Then there’s Parnaanen as the heroine, with a face reminiscent of fellow Finn Mirja Mane (she of The Witch) and good enough to make one wish that Hollywood had casting scouts in Finland as well as Sweden (she did later appear in The Leopard Man). When she dies, it’s on a boat taking them to freedom. Sweden? Or Avalon…