Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Unknown Soldier: The Finnish Red Badge of Courage

If Russian wants to claim the Crimea than it should relinquish its hold on the Republic of Karelia to be consistent—like that would ever happen. It inspired Sibelius’s Karelia Suite, so you can’t get much more Finnish than that. Finland had reclaimed the Finnish speaking area during the Continuation War, but alas, it ended in a less satisfying manner than the previous Winter War. The fog of that ill-fated follow-up war is vividly captured in Aku Louhimies’s Unknown Soldier, reportedly the most expensive Finnish film ever produced, which releases today on DVD.

Most of the soldiers we meet in the early days of the Continuation War are kids, but not Rokka, a crusty old veteran of the Winter War. The middle-aged farmer was less than thrilled to be drafted, but he will do his duty—just do not expect him to act like he is happy about it. Immediately, Rokka clashes with his officers, even the grounded Second Lieutenant Koskela. Nevertheless, he has a knack for killing Russians and keeping his comrades alive, particularly his crony, Susi.

Initially, the Finnish forces score several victories, but the tide will turn against them. Louihimies & Jari Olavi Rantala’s adaptation of Väinö Linna’s classic autobiographical novel unambiguously blames the Finnish officer class, with the sole exception of Koskela. Unfortunately, that necessarily includes the dashing young platoon commander Kariluoto. He does not have the gumption to challenge his superior officers, but he has the integrity to face every danger shoulder-to-shoulder with his men.

Louhimies’s Unknown Soldier is a three-hour epic (there were three prior adaptations), but the scenes of muddy, mucky warfighting definitely start to blend together. There are dozens of name characters jostling for the viewer’s attention, but only four really stand out: Rokka, Koskela, Kariluoto, and the doughy joker, Vanhala.

Nevertheless, nobody can deny Louhimies has staged some dashed dramatic battle sequences. He definitely conveys a visceral sense of the violent, confused, and random nature of war. Eero Aho and Jussi Vatanen effectively anchor the film, at opposite poles, as Rokka and Koskela, respectively.

Mika Orasmaa’s cinematography encompasses both the macro sweep and micro grit of war, while Lasse Enersen’s score has a vintage Maurice Jarre vibe. It is an impressive technical package, especially when it comes to the blood and guts and bullets whizzing and bombs exploding.

Apparently, Louhimies’s Unknown Soldier is considered somewhat revisionist in Finland, because it openly addresses the country’s alliance with National Socialist Germany. However, nobody in the film seems too happy about it. It is easy to criticize in retrospect, but when a small country like Finland is invaded by a large, rapacious nation like the Soviet Union, it is hard to blame the scrappy defenders for accepting whatever help they could get. In all honesty, the Continuation War was a war against fascist imperialism and the fascists won. As revisionist as the film may or may not be, it is always clear the Soviets were marauders, bent on conquest, who do indeed commit war crimes at one point—so the film is accurate in that respect.

Problematically impersonal at times, Unknown Soldier is still an impressively immersive work of war cinema. Recommended for the spectacle and scale of the action, Unknown Soldier releases today (3/12) on DVD and BluRay.