Director Aku Louhimies, 49, with one of the great Finnish novels in hand, tries to bring Väniö Linna’s masterful story of the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union Tuntematon sotilas (1954) (The Unknown Soldier) on the silver screen with the biggest budget in the Finnish movie history in his back pocket: seven million euros.
While this kind of budget is about under 20 percent of Hollywood war movies of late, such as Hacksaw Ridge (2016), and about one million euros less than Oliver Stone’s classic Platoon over three decades ago, Louhimies manages to emulate the realism of war with beautiful cinematography and hard-hitting special effects. Unfortunately, the beauty wraps the actors in its blanket, too. And that’s not a good thing.
In Linna’s novel, the suffering of the characters is heartfelt. They crawl in the woods with pieces of crispbread in their pocket; they are dirty, unshaven, hungrier than wolves, cursing with their ass crack shining between their torn pants. In Louhimies’ creation, the battalion looks like poster boys from a teen girl’s wall.
It’s clear from the beginning that the director doesn’t intend to follow Linna’s novel literally. Instead, Louhimies, who co-wrote the script with Jari Olavi Rantala, tries to pick up the best pieces of the novel, resulting in characters as hollow as a Suomi machine gun shell on the Russian border.
Linna’s novel shines in characterization. It brings together the dialects and personalities from across Finland. It throws them into the melting pot, and the men, despite their differences, work as a single unit against their common enemy.
Like an auteur, Louhimies fingers the story, bringing in more background details to the lives of some of the characters. One of his victims is Rokka, played by Eero Aho. In one of the most intimate scenes, Rokka sits quietly in a dark sauna with his wife (Paula Vesala) while the light is directed to Vesala’s tits.
While Aho masterfully portrays the eastern Finnish dialect of Rokka and his personality, the great symbol of self-respect, the screenwriters turn him into a half-breed from the pages of the novel, leaving him looking like a cold-hearted maniac who likes to joke at the expense of his superiors.
At the invitational premiere of the film, the war veterans hoped that the film would truly portray the horrors and madness of the war. This was also Linna’s intention.
In some ways it does. The millions are burnt on the bangs – “ratatat“ and “uuraaa” sounds: machine guns and flying missiles.
Sadly, the genius of the book is lost in the process.
‘Tuntematon sotilas’ premiere in cinemas October 27. The film runs for 180 minutes.
Cover picture: Tommi Hynynen © Elokuvaosakeyhtiö Suomi 2017