The White Reindeer (1952) The White Reindeer / Valkoinen Peura / Den Vita Renen (1952/1957) ***

     I keep a mental map of the countries of origin for all the films I’ve reviewed over the years, and it always gives me a little thrill when I get to color in a new plot of territory. That’s especially true now as I review The White Reindeer, one of the few Finnish films to have attracted much notice from the outside world. You see, the former Señora El Santo was of Finnish extraction, and even eighteen years after we split up, I still feel a vicarious connection to that underdog nation of misunderstood oddballs, which tingles like a phantom limb whenever I come across some product of Finnish culture.

     That said, I must admit that the Finnish movie industry is an almost total mystery to me. For that matter, much of what little I think I know about it I’ve had to glean and/or extrapolate from various bits of promotional artwork that I’ve dug up online (there’s a surprising amount of that, if you know where to look), because very little information is available in English, and Finnish is totally unrelated to any language that I understand even slightly. So far as I can tell, the most important Finnish film studios during the 20th century were Suomi Filmi and Suomen Filmiteollisuus— the names of which translate to “Finland Films” and “Finland’s Film Industry” respectively. Those handles begin to seem slightly less arrogant when you look at the volume of the firms’ output; no other Finnish studio comes close. The White Reindeer, however, was produced by an extremely minor outfit called Junior Filmi, which folded almost immediately thereafter. (Junior Filmi’s sole other production was The Night Is Long, apparently some manner of juvenile delinquency melodrama.) None of the Finnish studios seem to have made very much that’s likely to show up here, and while that disappoints me some, it doesn’t surprise me one bit. Finns, in my experience, pride themselves on their practicality, so it’s only to be expected that they’d prefer the more prosaic escapism of war movies, romances, and slapstick comedies to that of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Those Finnish films that do enter my turf, however, tend to do so with subject matter borrowed from folk and fairy tales, as is the case with The White Reindeer.

     Specifically, The White Reindeer claims to be based on a traditional tale of witchcraft and lycanthropy from Lapland, a transnational territory encompassing roughly the northern halves of Norway and Sweden, the northernmost third of Finland, and most of northwest Russia’s Kola Peninsula. Some of the region’s inhabitants belong to the aforementioned nationalities, of course, but there is also a distinct Lapp ethnic group, for which the territory is named. If you want to be polite, though, don’t call them Lapps; call them Saami, which is what they call themselves. (Incidentally, notice the close resemblance between “Saami” and “Suomi,” the Finnish name for Finland. There are comparably similar words in most of the neighboring Baltic and Slavic languages as well, and the current best guess among linguists is that all these terms derive from the word for “land” in the forgotten tongue of some aboriginal Taiga people.) The Saami of the coasts have long lived more or less settled lives, supporting themselves and their communities by farming, fishing, and fur-trapping. The tribes further inland, however, developed the way of life for which the Saami best known to outsiders, existing in semi-nomadic symbiosis with the vast herds of migratory reindeer that roam the arctic highlands. So cut off are these herding Saami that no serious attempt to assimilate them was made until the 18th century, although they suffered as much as any minority ethnic group from the mania for nationalism that swept the Nordic countries in the 19th and early 20th. The White Reindeer is set among the herding Saami, whose history has a somewhat curious effect on the film. Whereas the typical fairy tale movie takes place in some vaguely defined, quasi-mythic past, the persistence of traditional Saami ways in the inland heights is such that this one can dispense with that affectation. Glazed windows and repeating rifles were practically the only manifestations of modernity to be seen, even in 1952.

     Pay attention to the song that plays over the main titles and opening credits. (Don’t worry— it has subtitles.) It contains crucial back-story information, and you’ll completely misunderstand the turning point of the movie if you miss it. The lyrics tell of a witch who left her infant daughter in the care of a couple whose lives were otherwise untouched by magic. The pair raised the girl as their own child, saying nothing to her or anyone else of her unusual origin. No, there’s no way that could come back to fuck anybody a decade or two down the line— nope, not at all!

     Twentyish years later, the witch’s child— dubbed “Pirita” by her foster parents— has grown into a comely and vivacious maiden (Mirjami Kuosmanen). Pirita is in love with a young herdsman called Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä), who is quite taken with her as well. Eventually, the day comes when Aslak and his father come before Pirita’s foster parents to ask for the girl’s hand in marriage. Pirita’s dad seems sullen about the whole thing at first, but my guess is that’s just the fabled Nordic solemnity talking. He not only agrees to the union, but blesses it with a dowry hugely disproportionate to the meager bride-price which Aslak’s family is able to put up. The wedding festivities are attended by everyone in the village, and continue until the very last drop of aquavit (or whatever that booze is) has been drunk.

     Aslak and Pirita are happy at first, but their marriage hits a snag when the time comes for him to follow the reindeer on the next leg of their annual trek in search of grass that’s still edible beneath the deepening winter snow. The specifics of how this works are somewhat opaque, but I think the men of the village accompany and protect the herd until it reaches the territory of a neighboring tribe, to whom they sell its management rights; the buyers presumably live off of the animals for as long as the local pasture land holds out, and then sell them in turn to the next tribe along their migration route and so on, until the herd comes full circle. In any case, Aslak and his fellows will be on the march for three months, while the women, children, and old folks remain in the village. That’s a long time for Pirita to be separated from her new husband, and she hates the idea. She hates it even more after it becomes her lived reality, and as the months of the migration march near their end, Pirita decides that she isn’t going to do this again next year.

     It’s one thing for a woman to say that, of course, but how does Pirita propose to bring it about? I mean, reindeer herding is the basis for the region’s whole economy! It isn’t as though Aslak can retrain as a software developer, and get a job with Nokia that allows him to telecommute, right? To be honest, I’m not convinced that Pirita has thought this through as far as all that. She does, however, have a plan. Far out in the wilderness lies the hermitage of Tsalkku-Nilla the shaman (Arvo Lekesmaa, from Sleeping Beauty and The Green Chamber of Linnais), whose magic ought to be able to make Pirita so irresistible that Aslak can no longer bear to be apart from her. Tsalkku-Nilla does indeed know such a spell, and it’s easy enough to cast. Just a potion to drink, a bit of chanting, some bouncing of a hare’s vertebra on the head of a sacred drum, and a pair of rituals for Pirita to perform herself. First, she must visit an altar even farther out in the depths of nowhere than the hermitage, and after that she must carry out the sacrificial slaughter of the first living thing she encounters on her way home.

     This is where Pirita’s extraordinary parentage comes into play. Tsalkku-Nilla’s spell is intended for use on Muggles only. If the recipient already has magic in her blood, it’s like mixing opioids with benzodiazepines. But as we’ve already established, Pirita never knew that her real mother was a witch, so she’s unable to pass that vital piece of information along to the shaman. And when Tsalkku-Nilla’s share of the conjuring goes awry, he’s too cowed by the presence of someone whose untapped magical power is greater than his own to warn her against performing the rituals to complete the spell. The result is that Pirita develops a different form of irresistibility than the one she wanted. On nights of the full moon, she henceforth transforms into a white reindeer, the quarry most coveted by the hunters among her people. But whenever she is caught in reindeer form, she transforms again into a fanged and feral version of her human guise, and drains the blood of the man who brought her to bay.

     Pirita’s first victim is a close friend of her husband’s, by the name of Niilo (Jouni Tapiola). At first, no one finds his death all that extraordinary, because charging off from your campsite in the middle of the long Arctic night without preparation or provisions of any kind is a profoundly stupid thing to do. Aslak, who was with Niilo at the time, but didn’t see the reindeer himself, can’t understand what got into him. But the picture changes once Niilo’s body is discovered. It’s a hostile wilderness out there, to be sure, but no natural thing living in it can kill a man like that. A forest ranger (Åke Lindman, of The Lady in Black and Pekka and Pätkä on the Trail of the Snowman) meets the same fate as Niilo a month later, verifying in the process the old folk adage that no bullet can harm a creature of witchcraft. To kill a witch (or a vampire, or a were-reindeer, or whatever the fuck Pirita is now), nothing but cold iron will do. Although Pirita doesn’t seem to be quite in control of her plenilunar activities, she is at least aware of them, and it consequently makes her very nervous to see all the neighbor men— and indeed even her own husband— suddenly take up spear-forging as a hobby.

     Although I understand why The White Reindeer is commonly described as a horror movie, it’s more than a little misleading to call it that. The subject matter tracks, to be sure. There’s witchcraft and a blood-drinking monster and a place suffused with dangerous numina, all of which normally spell “horror movie” so far as I’m concerned. But this picture employs barely any of the techniques that have defined the genre since at least 1920. Only Pirita’s pilgrimage to the shrine in the wilderness displays more than a few of the expected visual trappings, and even there the bleak and almost featureless Arctic landscape transforms them into something largely unfamiliar. Most of the film has rather the feel of an educational travelogue or an ethnographic documentary. In this particular case, however, I found that strangely appealing. At the very least, all the time spent demonstrating Saami traditions and folkways serves to place this story in its proper context— and that ends up helping The White Reindeer a lot on those occasions when it does go for a scare. After all, horror at bottom is about violation of the status quo. It’s therefore important that we understand what the status quo is in the first place, and few viewers of The White Reindeer— even, I suspect, in early-50’s Finland— will come to it with much prior grasp of life among the highland Saami.

     The fantastical elements of The White Reindeer are its selling point, though, so let’s talk about those now. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this movie is how powerfully it is able to convey a sense of magic and the supernatural without recourse to special effects as we usually understand the term today. Pirita’s reindeer form is a real animal. Her transformations happen between cuts, sometimes crudely and confusingly, but more often with some artistry behind them. (The best of the bunch starts with Mirjami Kuosmanen running at the camera and jumping. A split-second after her feet leave the ground, the shot cuts to the reindeer leaping over the campfire outside her tent.) The pagan shrine is just a stone obelisk in the middle of a snowfield, crowned with a rack of reindeer antlers, but the hundreds of snow-shrouded animal skeletons covering the ground all around it lend it spooky authority by implying generations’ worth of blood sacrifices carried out in honor or propitiation of whatever spirits dwell there. And although Tsalkku-Nilla is just a peculiar old man, Arvo Lekesmaa plays him with such twitchy intensity during the casting of the spell that the character’s otherworldly power becomes palpable. The White Reindeer also offers an interesting interpretation of Pirita’s witchy immunity to bullets. It isn’t that they bounce off of her skin or pass harmlessly through her as one might expect, but rather that a firearm pointed at her will always malfunction when the trigger is pulled. (The park ranger’s rifle literally blows up in his face!) I like that because it tracks with the way “real” magic is experienced by those who believe in it. There’s nothing overt and undeniable— just an ordinary event happening in a way that it normally shouldn’t, open to interpretation and inviting faith from those who have it. The treatment of Pirita’s magical invulnerability commendably isn’t an attempt to create ambiguity, either, as to whether or not her curse is real. Ambiguity is for moderns, whereas The White Reindeer is thoroughly, unabashedly pre-modern in its outlook.

 

 

Who doesn’t love a good werewolf movie? Certainly none of us B-Masters. The thing is, though, that eventually werewolves start to feel overly familiar. Maybe even a little mangy. So for this roundtable, we’re looking at some of the other things that even a man who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night may become when the wolfsbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright. Click the banner below to see the whole lycanthropic menagerie:

 

 

 

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