The White Reindeer/Valkoinen peura (1952)

The White Reindeer (1952)‘Some graveyard soil…the balls of ten bull moose…’

A free-spirited young woman marries a reindeer herder in their small, Lapland village. Frustrated and lonely due to his long absences from home, she goes to the local wise man, hoping that he can concoct a love potion that will make her irresistible to all men. However, the ceremony also awakens her own supernatural powers…

Unique and striking horror fable from Finland that combines elements of shape-shifting, vampirism and witchcraft into a highly unusual brew. Shot on location in Lapland, it was the first Finnish film to be shown at the Cannes film festival, winning a Special Jury Prize and belatedly picked up a Golden Globe award in 1956 for Best Foreign Film.

Wilful young orphan Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen) marries reindeer herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) after a short courtship and settles down to married life in their remote Lapland village. Unfortunately, his work with the animals means long episodes of separation, and it’s pretty clear she’s not satisfied with him anyway, exchanging flirtatious glances with another man while he’s still at home. When he leaves on another expedition, she’s straight off to the local wise man Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), asking for a love potion that will attract other men like bees to a honey pot. Lehman is happy to oblige but, during the spell-casting, he realises that Kuosmanen is a witch herself.

The White Reindeer (1952)


Undaunted by this revelation, Kuosmanen sets out to follow the wise man’s instructions; which involves killing the first living thing that she meets on the way home. This turns out to be the white fawn that Nissilä gave her as a present when they were newlyweds. But, no matter, she takes it with her to the ‘stone god’, a pillar of black rock crowned with a reindeer’s skull and makes the sacrifice. The spell is successful, but it turns her into a supernatural creature. Seemingly unchanged, she returns to the village to resume her everyday life but now she can shape-shift at will into a white reindeer. The fabulous animal lures men from their campsites into the snowy wastes, where she changes form again, this time into a vampire to finish off her prey.

This is probably the only film based around the beliefs of the Sámi people, often referred to as Laplanders in the English-speaking world, although some find this term offensive. They live in the Northern regions of the Scandinavian countries and the Kola Penisula, which is a part of Russia. The film opens with a prologue; a young mother (played by Kuosmanen, again) being found in the snow with a young baby. One old belief is that a vampire is a soul that reincarnates in a newborn when the original body dies young or violently. Spiritual significance is also given to unusual land formations, known as sieidis, which are often used as places of sacrifice. This finds realisation in the film as the ‘stone god’ which is surrounded by antlers, sticking out of the snow like small, broken trees.

The White Reindeer (1952)

 

 

 

Director Blomberg and star Kuosmanen were married at the time and wrote the film together. Aarne Tarkas was initially slated to direct, but cinematographer Blomberg replaced him. Whatever the reason for that, it proved to be a wise decision. Blomberg was primarily a documentary filmmaker and his approach to the everyday scenes of life in the village ground the film’s more fantastical elements in concrete reality. It’s even possible that some shots were taken from his previous short ‘With The Reindeer’ (1947). His matter of fact approach also scores with the settings, allowing the camera to linger on long takes of the bleak, snowy wastes, beautiful yet barren, almost like timeless postcards from another world.

Much of the film is dialogue-free, and there was probably no facility to record synchronised sound in certain locations as some of the action is accompanied only by the haunting score of Einar Englund. Rather than be a drawback, however, this emphasises a dream-like quality, which sits in stark contrast to the more realistic scenes of village life. Blomberg also tips his hat to FW Murnau with a shot of Kuosmanen’s shadow moving across her cabin floor. Framed by window bars in the shape of a cross, it brings back memories of Max Schreck’s dark form ascending the stairs in the final scenes of ‘Nosferatu’ (1922).

The White Reindeer (1952)

 


The film does have a few flaws, though, some probably caused by practical difficulties. The most notable is that Kuosmanen’s reindeer lures her victims repeatedly to the same location. Also, some moments of action are delivered via a quick cut to their consequences, so we don’t see what happened, just the aftermath. Kuosmanen’s transformations to the reindeer are also rendered similarly, although the absence of SFX is probably a good thing. Blomberg’s film is going for the subtle, rather than the explicit. Run time is only 68 minutes, which makes for a refreshingly lean presentation but a little effort to create significant supporting characters would have been nice.

But the success of an enterprise like this falls mainly on the shoulders of the leading actor. After all, she is rarely off-screen. This is Pirita’s story, from first to last. Thankfully, Kuosmanen is terrific, delivering a powerhouse performance as she deteriorates from a joyful, exuberant woman into a haunted, almost fragile, wraith, but one still driven by her overwhelming physical appetites. The correlation of sex and vampirism is an old as Bram Stoker’s original novel, and it had lost none of its potency in the half-century in between, Kuosmanen expertly suggesting the frustrations and needs that drive her character and decision making.

A very unusual setting, combined with some stunning visuals and an excellent central performance make this one well worth seeking out.

The Emperor and the Golem/Cisaruv Pekar A Peharuv Cisar (1952)

The Emperor and The Golem (1952)‘Nobody has yet thought to make gold with plums.’

Life in the imperial court has turned the ageing Holy Roman Emperor into a wilful, capricious old man-child, completely out of touch with the day to day lives of his subjects. An endless parade of lackeys and hangers-on indulge his every whim, the latest of which is the recovery of the mystical clay statue known as the Golem…

Remaking unsuccessful films is not a popular practice in the movie industry, particularly in Hollywood, where endless reboots and reimaginings of proven franchises hold far more appeal to studio executives. European film-makers are somewhat more creative and flexible, though, and this handsome Czechoslovak remake of Julien Duvuvier’s flawed ‘Le Golem’ (1936) clocks in at considerably over 2 hours, speaking to a serious intent and a considerable budget. The surprising length resulted in the film originally being presented in two parts to facilitate an intermission.

The action begins in the Prague ghetto with the palace guard breaking down doors in search of the legendary Golem. It’s acquisition is the latest obsession of pig-headed potentate Jan Werich, who has surrounded himself with a huge entourage of buxom ladies, sycophants and yes men, which include sly Chamberlain Lang (Bohuns Záhorský in a surprisingly modern looking pair of spectacles) and idiotic captain of the guard Russworm (Zdenek Stepànek). They are two members of a small group who are obviously the real power behind the throne, and their self-interested machinations and scheming make for some fine satire; all the more biting because its a recognisable reflection of the political manoeuvrings and glimpses behind the scenes that we get of every government of every nation and era.

The Emperor and The Golem (1952)

Sunbathing never agreed with the Golem.

Werich has also has a lively interest in the occult, hence his interest in the Golem, and has a whole army of alchemists, soothsayers and magicians. The latter group comes to include visiting conjurer Jirí Plachý and his alleged female homunculus Sireal (Natasa Gollová). The ‘Central Kitchen of Imperial Alchemists’ are completely hopeless as they try making gold from fruit, and creating an elixir of youth which turns out to be a very good floor polish and early superglue.

But what drives the film, particularly in the second half, is big-hearted local baker Matej (played by Werich again) who firstly finds himself imprisoned in the castle dungeon and, by a series of comic contrivances, then sitting on the throne in the Emperor’s place. Yes, we get all the usual comic tropes around ‘mistaken identity’ but they are delivered here with wit and elegance, and provide more fuel for the satirical fire. Of course, Werich the baker is a much better ruler than Werich the Emperor, immediately seeing right through all the toadies and lackeys, and throwing open the bursting grain houses so the starving population can have bread. He also has little time for the scheming Countess Strada (Marie Vásová), preferring to lavish his romantic intentions on magician Plachý’s reluctant stooge Gollová.

This really is how a remake should be done; concentrating on the strong points of the original and jettisoning the weaker aspects, of which there were many in Duvivier’s 1936 film. Sensibly, the dashing antique dealer and his affair with the Countess Strada is completely absent, and heroic duties are assumed by Werich’s baker in one half of his excellent performance. This allows for a far more comic tone with the romance, and, together with the satirical aspects, makes for a far more entertaining and well-paced package, which never loses its audience over the considerable running time.

The Emperor and The Golem (1952)

“God, I wish someone would hurry up and invent the TV.’

The technical aspects are also very good, with fluid direction from Martin Fric, sumptuous photography by Jan Stallich and impressive sets and costuming. But what about the Golem? Well, yes, again he is a little peripheral to the story, but he’s far better realised than in Duvivier’s original. This time he’s a 20-foot tall model with glowing eyes that breathes fire. His lack of mobility puts the mockers any kind of significant rampage, but I’d still venture the opinion that he’s more impressive than just putting a tall actor in a silly suit. 

The few commentators familiar with the film seem to regard it as a lost classic and, although I wouldn’t go that far, it’s certainly a highly enjoyable watch. Background information on the production isn’t easy to come by, but it’s a safe bet than Werich was the main creative force behind it, despite his lack of previous film credits. Not only does he play the dual roles of the emperor and the baker, he also had a hand in the script and replacing original director Jirí Krejcík. Apparently, the two clashed frequently in the first few days of the shoot, and Krejcík departed in haste, along with a couple of members of the original cast. 

Not easy to find, but well worth seeking out.