In 1905, a young law student, Robert Hedman, belongs a group of Finnish activists striving for independence from the Russian Empire. He purchases weapons for the rebels from a shady businessman called Jonni. Jonni agrees to deliver a machine gun but also plans to blackmail the group. Jonni’s girlfriend Manja and Robert fall in love with each other and Manja volunteers to help the activists to steal the weapon. When Jonni finds out about the theft, he reports the rebels to the Tsarist militia. Robert is imprisoned but escapes and is chased by the military. During the chase, Manja is wounded and dies in Robert’s arms whereas he manages to sail out of the country.
When The Stolen Death/Varastettu kuolema was released in September 1938, it was perceived as confusing. The film that had been widely advertised as an experiment within the action genre, an ‘amazing example of innovative cinematic thinking’ and a star vehicle promoting the beautiful Tuulikki Paananen – an actress with experience filming in Hollywood – was pronounced a disappointment. The reviews were unfavourable in several ways, and the box office a serious setback. Therefore, the film was moved from the first-run theatres in Helsinki to the smaller cinemas at the fringes of the capital after only a week. The marketing strategy was changed as well, addressing now to a more limited group of audiences interested in foreign and avant-garde films.
The Stolen Death was an independent production by a younger generation of intellectuals in Helsinki. The director Nyrki Tapiovaara – a dropout law student – was a member of a leftist-oriented group of writers and artists called Kiila. 1 His first feature length film, Juha (1937), had been very successful, and he was offered to direct The Stolen Death by the photographer Erik Blomberg. Blomberg had written the script with another filmmaker, Eino Mäkinen, and planned to produce, shoot and edit the film as well. It seems he was quite eager to transfer the story into moving pictures but did not really trust his skills since, apart from a co-writer, he also engaged a dialogue writer and co-photographer. In fact, many other members of the cast and crew were recruited among friends of the producers.
The film is based on a novella from 1919, Köttkvarn, by a Swedish-speaking Finn, Runar Schldt.2 The novella depicts a story from the Finnish Civil War waged in the winter of 1917–18 between the revolutionary ‘Red’ socialist workers sympathising with the Russian Bolsheviks, and the conservative, patriotic ‘Whites’ striving for Finnish independence. In the novella, the young White rebels, among them Robert Hedman, plan an attack on the Finnish Red Army that governed Helsinki at one point. Robert obtains weapons from a shady businessman Jonni Claesson, who promises to deliver a machine gun but plans, too, to blackmail the young men’s rich parents: the Red Army would immediately execute Robert and his friends if they found out about the group. Jonni’s accomplice Manja, who has fallen in love with Robert, helps the young man steal the machine gun. Jonni finds out about the scheme and reports Robert who is arrested and killed. The novella ends with Manja fainting of grief and exhaustion next to his dead body abandoned on the street.
Upon completion of the film, both producers and critics felt that not much was left of the original story except for the names of the characters. The changes made are a multifaceted example of how the political situation in a country may affect a film’s content. The novella was published only two years after the Civil War, but after 20 years it was still considered much too delicate a topic for a film. Instead, the story was set in an earlier but equally precarious period in Finnish history, namely the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. In the late 30s it seemed politically ‘safer’ to depict the more clearcut conflict between the Russian imperial oppressor and the Finnish patriots. Likewise, it seemed less provocative in regard to the leaders of the Bolshevik Soviet Union who were closely monitoring Finnish sentiments.3
Indeed, not just the context but the plot was altered. The novella is mainly constructed from the point of view of the woman, Manja. Its ominous atmosphere is a result of a net of arbitrary coincidences that seem to have a clandestine logic with fatal consequences for the characters. The film version foregrounds Robert and the political conflict reflected in his family relations, while Manja’s situation, relations and motivations are pushed to the fringes of the story. Furthermore, in the film version Robert is imprisoned after a tip from Jonni to the Tsarist militia but he manages to escape, and the film includes a thrilling scene with Robert’s Mother and a prison guard examining her bag. During the flight in the last scene of the film – another ‘cinematic’ supplement to the story – Manja gets lethally wounded and dies in Robert’s arms.
On the whole, the film’s storyline stresses and expands on the scenes typical for the action genre – such as chases, the transport of the stolen machine gun, and preparations for Robert’s escape. However the editing and photographic work both differ from the shot/countershot mode of narrative technique typical for the period. This perhaps was an attempt to create the ‘atmosphere’ of the novella that many contemporary critics referred to, but it also pays a tribute to the Russian and European expressionist cinema in the 20s.
The criticism that followed the film premiere may be divided in rather clear-cut camps: the leftist and Swedish-speaking papers were favourable, while the right-wing and conservative papers criticised the film’s lack of a proper ideological standpoint. They were quite merciless while accusing the producers of lack of patriotism, judgement and good taste: ‘The lack of the Finnish spirit was obvious, as were the signs of love for the Fatherland and the claim for freedom felt by the Finnish people’, writes alias –T. in an extreme right-wing paper.4 However, almost every review, no matter how stern otherwise, considered the photographic work as genuinely excellent stating that the genre aspect of the film and the depiction of the city of Helsinki as a place of thrill and suspense were realised in a ‘masterly manner’. The French influence in the visual style was spotted, and if such an influence was not perceived as ‘unfinnish’, the film’s style was triumphantly declared ‘as good as’ in a French or, for that matter, British genre film.
An unusual aspect for the period is that in The Stolen Death the characters actually speak three different languages: Finnish, Swedish and Russian.5 Language thus becomes a significant element: Jonni who betrays the cause of the Finnish, strikes us as quite promiscuous language-wise as he freely blends German and English expressions with his Finnish and Swedish. The major language in the film, also spoken between Robert and Manja, is Finnish. However, Robert speaks Swedish with his Mother and aunt. Robert’s mother in her turn speaks all three languages, a feature indicative of the power position but also opportunism of the Finnish-born upper class. While the language issue was ignored by the Finns, Swedish-speaking journalists took offense: in their minds the hardcore conservatism and submissive politics represented by Robert’s family did not give a truthful image of the general sentiments among the Swedish-speaking Finns.6
Nyrki Tapiovaara completed two more films and left one unfinished when he died during the last days of the Winter War, at the age of 29. His uncompleted oeuvre, his reputation as a war hero and the general appraisal of his work as ambitious and formally innovative contributed to the myth surrounding his person, well in line with the expanding post-Second World War view of the film director as an auteur.
As elsewhere in Europe recovering after the Second World War, film archives were established in Helsinki for the showing of art-house cinema. The Stolen Death was screened in a cinematheque in 1952. It was now hailed as a true masterpiece of Finnish film history. Voices were raised that it should be shown publicly again, and a new premiere was arranged in the spring of 1954. Before the release, Erik Blomberg – the producer, editor and photographer – re-edited the film that now became roughly ten minutes shorter. Blomberg himself said that he had cut the ‘more blatant expressionist influences’. 7 The version of The Stolen Death that has been available for audiences since 1954 is the version re-edited by him.
When saying that he had cut the more blatant expressionist influences, Blomberg seems to have meant that he reduced the length of certain shots, mainly close-ups on faces expressing horror, surprise or excitement. A lengthy part in the beginning of the film was removed. It is a montage sequence on a newspaper mill accompanied by a suggestive music composed for the film by George de Godzinsky. The arrangement reminds us of the city symphonies of the 20s, but it also depicts a political situation, during which the Russian censorship authorities and the military closed down newspapers in Finland. Manually operated underground printing machines are being used, and the workers instruct the students to set up office in a scene that shows both intellectuals and workers working together against the Russian military. The dialogue begins at the moment when the activists decide to move from pamphlets to weapons.
Reviews of the 50s focused on the visual style and the contrasts of light and shadow; the critics suggested that Tapiovaara had chosen his camera angles ‘with a shocking audacity’. These were choices that ‘gave proof of his natural sense for cinema as an art form’. 8 This time the critics also reflected on the irony and sense of humour expressed in the film, whereas the pathos and solemnity of patriotic sentiments as well as the language issue were long gone. The reviews also paid attention to the early Russian and French influences in the film, especially those of René Clair. They referred to Tapiovaara’s travels in Europe and his interest in modern literature. Tapiovaara’s earlier film production was mentioned along with the heroic details surrounding his death. His unfinished film was called Miehen Tie/One Man’s Fate/The Man’s Way (1940), now seen as an omen of his fate in the service of the Fatherland. In 1954, Erik Blomberg had quite recently made an international success with his film Valkoinen peura/White reindeer (1953). He played a seminal role in the genesis of The Stolen Death – which nobody denied – and he got quite a lot of publicity in relation to the new premiere. But still, Nyrki Tapiovaara was hailed as the genius, the real artist and the instigator of the film. So mesmerising is the power of the myth.
The Stolen Death has since been screened at numerous film festivals, in cinematheques and of course on Finnish television. It has been valued as one of the county’s few real art films and a valuable document for the youthful enthusiasm and spirit among the pre-war intellectuals in Finland. Every film chronicle or historical overview worth the name mentions The Stolen Death and its director. However, it seems another re-evaluation is on its way. Sentiments of disappointment and overtly critical reviews may be found among critics of the younger generations who also criticise the mythology and ‘auteurism’ surrounding Nyrki Tapiovaara.
1. English: a wedge.
2. English: ‘meat grinder’ – in the story a code name for a machine gun.
3. Kari Uusitalo, Lavean tien sankarit, Suomalainen elokuva 1931–1939, Helsinki, Otava, 1975, p. 121.
4. Ajan Suunta, 6 September 1938.
5. Swedish is a minority tongue in Finland that (wrongly) has been considered as the language of the upper classes. Russian was the official language of the military and civil servants during the Tsarist occupation.
6. Åbo Underrättelser, 7 September 1938.
7. Uusitalo, Lavean tien sankarit, p. 122. 8. Nya Pressen, 3 May 1954.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: Finland. Production Company: Erik Blomberg. Director: Nyrki Tapiovaara. Producer: Erik Blomberg. Screenwriters: Eino Mäkinen, Erik Blomberg. Dialogue: Matti Kurjensaari. Cinematographers: Olavi Gunnari, Erik Blomberg. Music: George de Godzinsky. Editors: Erik Blomberg, Nyrki Tapiovaara. Cast: Tuulikki Paananen (Manja), Ilmari Mänty alias Ralph Enckell (Robert Hedman), Santeri Karilo (Jonni Claesson), Annie Mörk (Madam Johansson), Bertha Lindberg (Robert’s Mother).]
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.