Director: Erik Blomberg
Screenplay: Erik Blomberg, Mirjami Kuosmanen
Starring: Mirjami Kuosmanen, Kalervo Nissilä, Åke Lindman, Jouni Tapiola, Arvo Lehesmaa
Running Time: 68 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
Finnish cinema has rarely made much impact around the world, other than the work of Aki Kaurismäki and a couple of recent genre-movies like Rare Exports. Early Finnish cinema is particularly little seen and known around the world, with most silent era work now lost. Back in 1952 though, a rare Finnish horror film made waves. Winning a special award for the best ‘Fairy Tale Film’ at Cannes, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film on top of several homegrown statuettes at the Jussi Awards, The White Reindeer (a.k.a. Valkoinen peura) was a revelation for audiences unfamiliar with Finnish cinema and the Sami people of Lapland represented in the film. Unfortunately, its director, Erik Blomberg, never managed to replicate the success of this, his directorial feature debut. He made only 5 more non-fiction films following The White Reindeer and none captured the attention of a worldwide audience, so Blomberg disappeared into obscurity once his breakthrough film became a distant memory.
Thankfully, The White Reindeer hasn’t been completely forgotten though. Due to its initial strong reception it’s lingered around as a minor cult favourite. I’d heard of it and, being interested in Finnish cinema due to my wife being from the country, I’d been keen to see it for a while. Thankfully, Eureka chose to give the film its first UK home release on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD, so I finally got a chance to check it out. Being on my watch-list for a long time, my expectations were high, so it had a lot to live up to.
The White Reindeer is set among a community of Sami reindeer-herders in Finnish Lapland. In an introduction narrated by a haunting song, we witness the birth of Pirita (later to be played by Mirjami Kuosmanen) and subsequent death of her mother (also played by Kuosmanen). The lyrics and a dramatic rising of flames in the tent where the scene ends tell us that the child will grow up to be a witch.
We then flash forward to Pirita as an adult as she joyfully courts Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) during an exciting reindeer race. They’re very much in love and get married, but Pirita soon discovers that marriage to a reindeer-herder who spends much of his time away is a lonely existence. Desperate, she visits a local shaman (Arvo Lehesmaa) for a love potion to make her irresistible to all reindeer-herders (whether meant to keep her husband from leaving or to attract neighbouring men isn’t clear). To activate this spell, Pirita must sacrifice the first living thing she comes across, which happens to be a white reindeer given to her by Aslak to keep her company while he’s away. She dutifully kills the animal but, due to her own magic powers (that she is possibly not aware of at this point), the potion becomes a curse. Pirita finds herself turning into a white reindeer at certain cycles of the moon, hunting down reindeer-herders and killing them after she turns into a vampiric human.
Pirita flits between being horrified about and seemingly enjoying this new power. As the villagers and her husband hear of the cursed reindeer-witch though, they plan to hunt it down and kill it, putting Pirita’s life in jeopardy.
On paper it sounds very much like a typical werewolf or vampire story and yes, much seems familiar from the basic story tropes. However, the setting out in the desolate snowy landscape of Lapland among the Sami people gives the film a unique and otherworldly quality that sets it apart from most horror films of the era and beyond.
Blomberg makes exceptionally good use of the authentic locations too, avoiding fake soundstage shooting (probably due to budget constraints more than anything else). He began his career in filmmaking as a cinematographer and shot this too (as well as edited, co-wrote and co-produced it) so the film looks fantastic. Mixing his skills as a documentarian as well as taking inspiration from German expressionism and other gothic horror films, his use of framing is strong and the wide landscapes look equally beautiful and frightening.
Similarly, Kuosmanen, who was Blomberg’s wife and co-wrote the film (supposedly coming up with the initial idea), treads a delicate line between free-spirited heroine and sexualised aggressor. It’s a big performance that feels of its time, alongside most of the other performances. This and a couple of other dated elements of the presentation (such as the dubbing and some over-egged sequences) let the film down slightly, but can be forgiven due to the age of the film and its low budget.
It’s not all dated though. The film can be clearly read as an allegory for the demonisation of female sexuality and there are some strong feminist aspects to it, depending on how you view it. Pirita is strong and spirited and doesn’t let men push her around. She’s comfortable in a male environment too – the introduction to her as adult, racing reindeer alongside men for instance. When she unleashes her ‘animal instincts’ and ‘preys’ on the men around her though, she is deemed cursed and the townsfolk, led by the patriarchal males, hunt her down as she must be stopped. It’s quite a clear metaphor and one that makes the film interesting to view, even from a contemporary perspective.
On the surface, however, the film is very sparse and simple, with little dialogue and no superfluous scenes tacked on. It’s incredibly short, running at only 68 minutes, so everything is kept short and sweet. As much as I love economic filmmaking like this, the film did seem a little slight for this reason. I appreciated the fact the minimalist style kept much of the film ambiguous, but it did occasionally feel like things were getting skimmed over.
Overall though, I liked the film quite a lot, even if it didn’t totally live up to my high expectations. A rewatch without the baggage of hype might well raise my opinion of it further (I was very tired so almost nodded off once or twice, which didn’t help), but as a uniquely Nordic spin on the gothic folk-horror genre it’s well worth a watch. With some gorgeous cinematography and a lean, stripped-back approach, it’s a haunting (if never outright scary) and poetic chiller that deserves to be better known.
The White Reindeer is out on 8th April on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The transfer looks very good. There are some flecks on transitions and an occasionally recurring little line at the top, but otherwise it’s a fine looking remaster. The sound seems slightly distorted at times, but this is likely from the source and not the transfer.
You get a decent selection of special features too:
– Limited Edition O Card Slipcase [2000 copies ONLY]
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration completed in 2017 by the National Audio-visual Institute of Finland
– LPCM audio (original mono presentation)
– Optional English subtitles
– Feature Length Audio Commentary by critic and film historian Kat Ellinger
– Religion, Pleasure, and Punishment: The Portrayal of Witches in Nordic Cinema a new and exclusive video essay by film journalist and writer Amy Simmons
– With The Reindeer Erik Blomberg’s 1947 documentary short
– Colour Test Footage
– 1952 Jussi Awards Ceremony featurette
– Reversible Sleeve
– PLUS: A collector’s booklet featuring new writing by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and journalist Philip Kemp
Kat Ellinger is fast becoming one of my favourite contributors to special features. As ever, she provides a fascinating and thoroughly researched commentary that offers some thoughtful readings into the film as well as plenty of background information as to its production and reception. Amy Simmons’ piece is also interesting, although only a small amount of time is spent discussing The White Reindeer, with more attention paid to Haxan and Antichrist, among others. The colour test footage and Jussi Awards featurette are very brief so nothing special, but it’s nice to have them included. With the Reindeer is a straight forward documentary short from Blomberg, although it’s handsomely shot and provides a lighter, more natural look at the lives of Sami reindeer-herders.
The booklet is essential reading as always with two excellent essays on the film offering further insights.