Finland 1944 ~ A Non-Spoiler Review

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Photo montage of scenes from Finland 1944 aka The Midwife. The central image is the theatrical poster for the film.

🇫🇮 FINLAND 1944 🇫🇮
(by Gina Meardon)

Finland 1944 (also known as The Midwife and Kätilö) is a Finnish feature film. Available on IMDb UK for free (through Prime); Amazon Prime, Vudu, Apple TV to rent/buy in the US; Apple TV Can; Fetch, Apple TV Aus. 1 hr 59 mins. It is a drama war-romance in Finnish and German with English subtitles.

Premise:

A Finnish midwife falls in love with a German-Finnish SS-officer during the Lapland War, in the middle of WW11

Cast:

Krista Kosonen as Helena Alatalo
Lauri Tilkanen as Johannes Angelhurst
Pirkka-Pekka Petelius as Jouni
Tommi Korpela as Gödel
Leea Klemola as Aune
Seppo Pääkkönen as Björne
Johannes Brotherus as Aleksei
Elina Knihtilä as Heta
Tiina Weckström as Haataja
Jade Rajada as Jaakkima
Armi Toivanen as Kristiina Alatalo
Kaarina Hazard as Keskimölsän akka

Theatrical poster (DVD cover) for Finland 1944. Image shows a soldier with his back to us running towards a line with barbed wire and other soldiers standing and crouching down. All in sepia.

Crew:

Director: Antti Jokinen

Writers: Antti Jokinen (Screenplay) Katja Kettu (The Midwife, 2011 novel)

Original Music: Pessi Levanto

Cinematography: Rauno Ronkainen

Editing: Benjamin Mercer

Costume: Anna Vilppunen

Notes:

The Winter War and The Lapland War:

Russia invaded Finland on the 30th of November 1939 (The first Soviet-Finnish War). Finland had close ties with Germany but no formal alliance, however, as part of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa in 1944 200,000 German troops were stationed in Finnish Northern Lapland, fighting the Russians alongside the Finns (this was known as the Continuation War 1941-1944).

During these three years of fighting Finland entered into (intermittent) peace negotiations with the Western Allies and the USSR, without reaching an agreement. However, on the 19th of September 1944, they agreed to, and signed, The Moscow Armistice. It demanded that Finland break diplomatic ties with Germany and expel and disarm any German soldiers remaining in Finland after the 15th of September 1944.

The film begins on the 26th of September 1944 before flashing back 6 months to March 1944.

Titovka (Prison Camp) is a rural locality in the Pechengsky district of Murmansk Oblast, Russia. It is located beyond the Arctic Circle, near the Finnish border.

Babi Yar (Babyn Yar, Babiy Yar):
This is a ravine in Kyiv, Ukraine, where massacres were carried out by German soldiers. The first was 29th-30th September 1941 when 33,771 Jews were killed. The shootings were carried out by Sonderkommando 4a (SS) and the 45th Battalion of the German Order Police.

In total it is believed that between 100,00-150,000 people were killed at Babi Yar during the German Occupation (Wikipedia).

Finnish-language theatrical poster for the film Finland 1944 aka The Midwife. A woman with a scarf around her head stands in front of water with a fire raging to the left. Above her are the faces of a woman (left) and a man (right) facing each other

Review:

I have watched this film twice now, and I am glad I did. The first time was without any background knowledge of the Winter War and the Lapland War and therefore the understanding of why the Germans and Finns were first fighting together and then with each other. It definitely helps to have that knowledge, hence the notes above and also to understand and emphasise who the two main characters, Helena and Johannes, are.

Both are very damaged from 3 years of war, and indeed from birth, she an orphan whilst his mother died giving birth to him, something his father never forgave him for. Indeed this film is full of damaged people, products of living in a harsh, cruel poverty-stricken environment high above the Arctic Circle, the roof of the world. The war is another element of that miserable existence.

The film opens with Helena in a precarious situation facing certain death before flashing back to her life as a midwife within her community, and what a community! Her life is busy, well after three years, the local girls have got to know the 200,000 German soldiers camped out in the surrounding fields rather too well. As Helena observes, everyone around her “appears to be on heat”. However, when she delivers a local girl of a “negro baby” (Afro-Finns have lived in Finland since the 19th century) it is ‘a bridge too far’ for the bigoted and superstitious people – her step-sister and brother, amongst them.

A young German filmmaker asks to photograph the family, including Helena who is known as ‘Wildeye’. This is the second time she meets Johannes (the first earlier in the day when he arranged help to move her step-brother’s truck which was stuck) and he is equally taken with the young woman who feels unloved and undesired by those around her. Her hair is hidden by a tight black scarf, her poor eye-sight relies on spectacles, she feels awkward around him yet drawn to him.

Krista Kosonen as Helena Alatalo In Finland 1944

When she is woken that night by the screams of the baby she delivered earlier that day, the events that follow (and I will not tell you) lead her to make a decision… When the life you lead is so awful, the alternative of following your heart and a young Finno-German filmmaker who has shown you kindness and attention – but who also just happens to be an SS soldier – to a labour camp, is actually, preferable.

She persuades her step-brother, who frequently delivers bootleg alcohol to the camp, to get her a job there as a nurse by pretending she has worked at other labour camps, and this is how she ends up over the border, in Ukraine, at the Titovka Labour Camp where Johannes has just been stationed. It is immediately obvious to her what Titovka is, with executions visible the moment she arrives and rumours of a ward called “The Cowshed”. Her work, however, is to administer medical care, including surgery, to the soldiers and to that end, at first, she can blot out rumours of what goes on there and focus instead her attention on Johannes who clearly has his own problems.

This may not sound like a bundle of laughs, however, this is a life lived amid a war between three nations, Finland, Germany and Russia, where bombs raining down inside the camp (a spectacular sequence by the way) is something you have to get used to. Helena adapts because she is strong and she grows closer and closer to Johannes, who is anything but strong. He has nightmares, tremors, self-medicates with amphetamines, has memory loss and classic symptoms of PTSD.

Johannes tells her what he can remember happening in 1941 at Babi Yar. He knows he was there to film the massacre and he put down the camera when his commanding officer Gödel went to shoot a survivor trying to escape (a child). Johannes hit him so hard with the butt of his pistol he broke Gödel’s jaw and Gödel shot him. Three years on they are still in the same unit, Johannes hating every second and tormented by what he saw and Gödel becoming more unbalanced and alcohol-dependent by the day.

When Helena befriends a young Russian violinist who begs her to help him to escape because he knows the Germans will soon move him to The Cowshed, and certain death, she helps him and this is really when you see that whilst she is in love with Johannes she is certainly not on the side of the Germans.

The middle part of the film is where the love story of Helena and Johannes develops. They are sent out to find an escaped young Russian prisoner but the unit they are with comes under air attack and they end up finding shelter in an abandoned cabin, called Dead Man’s Cabin, which is not on any map. They hide out there for a week and you get to know the people they really are, the people they could really be if there was no war.

Tommi Korpela as Gödel in a scene from Finland 1944

It was at this point, the first time around, that I realised I did want them to be a couple and I stopped being judgemental about her choices, and his, and began to watch the film for what it was, a love story set amidst the horrors of war.

However they could not stay away from Titovka indefinitely and once radio contact was made, they had to return.

If life before the signing of the Armistice was fraught with danger, life after became a terrifying fight for survival in a world where it became every man for himself. Johannes was relocated out of Titovka but before he went he made arrangements for Helena to escape and they made a pact to meet back at Dead Man’s Cabin, no matter what, and whoever got there first would wait for the other.

Helena remained at the camp, risking her life to save a female Finnish prisoner and refused to be part of the German death machine any longer by not destroying evidence of experiments carried out in The Cowshed. The Germans were ruthless and bounty hunters roamed the terrain killing off those who evaded the German units as they left.

I will not give away the last part of the film. I do not normally ‘do’ romantic films but I do like a good war film. I do not think I have ever watched a film that combined both elements but I must admit I had more than one lump in my throat and a not so dry eye during the final half-hour or so.

Krista Kosonen as Helena Alatalo and
Lauri Tilkanen as Johannes Angelhurst in a scene from Finland 1944

The choice of colour palette for the film is outstanding. Sepia, greys, browns and greens together with the black of Helena’s midwifery clothes. This is war in the Arctic Circle and the only colours you see are the orange and pink flashes and glows from explosions and burning fires, the red of blood. The only time that changes is when Johannes and Helena are hiding out at the cabin, with a backdrop of warm green grass, sunlight and the blue of a pond.

The original musical score by Pessi Levanto is also a powerful accompaniment as is the use of slow-motion for the war sequences. Those slow-mo sequences, the music and the increasingly unpredictable behaviour of Gödel kept reminding me of the insanity of Apocalypse Now – when human beings lose all sense of humanity and descend into Dante’s Inferno.

I will say there are some seriously ‘weird’ people in this film, not least Helena’s step-siblings, who were easily old enough to be her parents (that took some head-scratching actually); Helena is a young girl in her early twenties whilst her brother Jouni looked 40 years older! The culture of the times does take some understanding, Johannes describes his Finnish mother to Helena as a “woman who gave travellers ant baths and ate raw fish and birds”.

I felt that the subtitles at times were possibly a bit ‘out’ insofar as the translation. Sentence structure and word choices in dialogue were sometimes ‘unusual’. I am thinking certainly of one or two intimate conversations between the lovers.

Krista Kosonen as Helena Alatalo and 
Lauri Tilkanen as Johannes Angelhurst in a scene from Finland 1944

That said what I really struggled with the first time around was the question, “did I think Johannes was culpable by being at Babi Yar,?” because if he was, and did not show true remorse or understanding for what happened there, then I could not feel any empathy for him, no matter how good looking Lauri Tilkanen is.

Watching Finland 1944 a second time I understand why the author of the novel the film is based on, Katja Kettu, cast him as a filmmaker and you never see him take up arms, except when he strikes Gödel. He chronicles the horrors, the murders, dead soldiers, ordinary people and he keeps it all in his camera case as a constant reminder of what happened, despite the nightmares. The only time you see Johannes angry is when Helena finds the photographs and destroys them. I think when he rages “What have you done? That’s my work,” he is really saying “That’s who I am, that’s what I did” and taking responsibility“.

Towards the end of the film, Johannes asks “You want to love a man like me?” And Helena replies “I’m sure I don’t. But I do love you so.”

I thought Lauri played Johannes with sympathy and understanding, a man brutalised by war with the saddest eyes and deep melancholia only brought to life when he was with Helena. Krista Kosonen was magnificent as Helena, portraying her from the meek and mild, downtrodden and unloved ‘Wildeye’ to a woman the Kommandant called “The bravest woman I know,” for daring to reject him and defy his orders.

Did I enjoy Finland 1944? Yes. Would I recommend it? Yes. I would though say, as I said in the beginning, it does help to understand the historical context of the film and the social conditions of the time. When the final credits roll it is an idea to sit and read about what happened at the end of the war.

Awards:

5 Wins and 3 Nominations:

Wins:

Jussi Awards 2016, Best Leading Actress ~ Krista Kosonen

Jussi Awards 2016, Best Supporting Actor ~ Pirkka-Pekka-Pekka Petelius

Subtitle European Film Festival 2016, Angela Award Outstanding Achievement: Acting ~ Krista Kosonen

Shanghai International Film Festival 2015, Golden Goblet Best Actress ~ Krista Kosonen

Waterloo Historical Film Festival 2015, Clion Winner ~ Krista Kosonen

Nominations:

Camerimage, 2015 Golden Frog, Main Competition ~ Rauno Ronkainen

Jussi 2016, Best Cinematography ~ Rauno Ronkainen

Shanghai International Film Festival 2015, Golden Goblet Best Film ~ Antti Jokinen

Finland 1944 OfficialTrailer with English Subtitles:

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