Friday 7 November 2014

Valkoinen Peura /
‘The White Reindeer’

(Erik Blomberg, 1952)

Although the roots of Finland’s film industry date back to the silent era, relatively few features made in the Finnish language have travelled beyond the country’s borders over the years, and its perceived contribution to commercial/genre filmmaking remains negligible. As such, it’s safe to say that ‘Valkoinen Peura’ (‘The White Reindeer’), a full strength supernatural horror film that concentrates entirely upon the oldest and most isolated aspects of the nation’s culture, must have been quite a novelty for international viewers back in 1952. (All the more so, given that it appeared right in the middle of the horror genre’s “dead zone” that stretched roughly from the tail end of the Universal/RKO horror cycles in the mid ‘40s to ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ in 1957.)

With this in mind, you can appreciate that we’re looking today at a pretty unique motion picture, and indeed, perhaps it was this very sense of geographical novelty that led to the inclusion of a great deal of what seems almost like straight documentary footage in ‘The White Reindeer’, as director Erik Blomberg sets out to document (or at least, purports to document) the almost entirely reindeer-based culture of the Sámi people in the mountainous region of the country’s far North (more colloquially known as Lapland).

Due to the sheer unfamiliarity of the setting, modern viewers will likely be uncertain whether or not the film is meant to be taken as a period piece. The elaborate folk costumes and complete lack of references to modernity certainly suggest as much, but then, can we really say with any great authority that folk in rural Lapland didn't live like this at around the mid-point of the 20th century?

Certainly, many of the film’s early scenes carry a strong feeling of realism, and much of the footage – including rousing scenes of reindeer-racing on purpose-built snow slaloms and people travelling from place to place via the use of small, intricately carved ‘snowboats’ – is absolutely fascinating, culminating in one extraordinary moment in which we see a young woman on skis casually grasping a wild reindeer by the antlers and wrestling it to the ground.

Even if their garb and behavior may be to some extent contrived by the filmmakers, incidents like this are difficult to fake, and it is certainly easy to believe that the people on-screen did more or less live the life assigned to them in the film, just as it is no surprise to discover that director/cinematographer Blomberg actually spent the majority of his career working on documentaries for Scandinavian TV.

Alongside this documentary-style approach though, Blomberg also draws deep from the well of classic Hollywood romanticism, as witnessed by the stunning, high contrast b&w photography used to frame the snow-covered landscapes, alongside frequent close ups of leading lady Mirjami Kuosmanen that see her lit like Lauren Bacalle, and an exploration of community vs. wilderness themes and scenes of domestic bonhomie that could have pulled straight from a John Ford western.

To complete this triangle of potential influences, it is worth noting that ‘The White Reindeer’ has a strong “silent movie” feel to it too, perhaps necessitated by the technical limitations of a film industry still in the early stages of its development. Action is notably under-cranked for most of the running time, bringing a welcome feel of frantic momentum to sections of the story that might otherwise have drifted off into beautifully-shot dullness, and all of the film’s sound is obviously post-synced - sometimes quite awkwardly - with on-screen dialogue wisely kept to a minimum as a result.

Whether by accident or design, the combination of pre-sound methodology and bold, expressionistic visuals can’t help but suggest the influence of Murnau, Dreyer et al upon proceedings (one shot in particular is a blatant nod to ‘Nosferatu’), and it is this element that very much comes to the fore when, it’s social context sufficiently established, ‘The White Reindeer’ kicks things up a gear and heads for significantly darker and more fantastical realms.

As the cheery Disney documentary tones that soundtracked the domestic and communal scenes (cue the piccolos, etc) are once again swallowed by the more chilling folk refrains that accompanied the film’s blurry and baleful opening, the horror aspect begins to make its presence felt, as Pirita, our newly married protagonist, pays a visit to a snow-covered cabin straight out of a fairytale, where she consults with an intensely creepy, sing-song-voiced shaman.

As the flames of an open fire flicker in the wind, he begins to brew her a potion, including such choice ingredients as “a little bit of death mold” and “the testicles of ten reindeers”. Banging a drum-skin marked up with various primitive symbols as a counter carved from a reindeer vertebrae dances across the surface by way of divination, the shaman speaks enigmatically of the necessity of Pirita performing a sacrifice at “the altar of the first living thing”. (1)

He soon changes his tune however once Pirita, her inner witch apparently invoked by these sinister goings on, suddenly takes on a dramatic, Barbara Steele-like aspect, staring with bulging, blank eyes as she utilizes previously unguessed at supernatural powers to move the counter across the drum-skin. “Witch!” shrieks the shaman, cowering in terror, and thus their encounter ends with tormented flames and a super-imposed blizzard.

Mirjami Kuosmanen – who also co-wrote the film’s script – is, it must be said, an astonishingly beautiful woman, and the performance she give here is equally remarkable, turning on a dime from newlywed innocence to snarling, cackling evil. As mentioned, European horror fans will instantly be reminded of Barbara Steele in ‘Black Sunday’, but, coming almost a full decade before that particular redefinition of gothic feminine evil-ness, I suppose we might distantly suppose that the filmmakers are going all the way back to the likes of Theda Bara or Irma Vep for their model.

Oh, and as it turns out, that “altar of the first living thing” is actually be real place within this movie – a terrifying reindeer graveyard surrounding a skull-topped 2001-esque obelisk towering above an isolated hilltop. The macabre garden of antlers rising from the snow around the monument implies that many other sacrifices have already been made here, and not too long ago either, cementing ‘The White Reindeer’s portrait of an entirely pagan world, existing wholly beyond the reach of Christianity.(2)

It is here that Pirita raises her pocket-knife and spills the blood of her pet deer, consummating her possession by what I suppose we might read as some kind of malign nature spirit, and finalizing her transformation into a card-carrying were-creature, as, a few solarized, proto-psychedelic shots later, she gallops off through the show in the form of a proud, pure white reindeer.

Hereafter, Pirita’s supernatural affliction follows a pattern that seems to merge elements of werewolf, witch and vampire, as she undergoes involuntary transformations into the white reindeer, during which she is driven to tempt the area’s hunters and herders with her striking coloration, luring them toward a deep ravine referred to in the English subs as “the valley of demons”, wherein they meet their doom as she approaches them in the form of a cackling, spectral witch, fangs at the ready.

An acknowledgement of Christianity does briefly intrude upon proceedings in the film’s final twenty minutes, during a wedding scene in a small Lutheran chapel, where, brilliantly, close ups of Pirita standing alienated amid the crowd are accompanied by composer Einar Englund’s sinister folk laments, which crash in over the top of the timid sound of the community's hesitant hymn-singing, reflecting the turmoil (or else mere other-ness) of the witch’s internal world, and perhaps, at a push, the conflicted identity of the Sámi culture as a whole.

Shortly after this, as the white reindeer’s unprovoked attacks upon the region’s menfolk continue and unease amongst the local people grows, we see Pirita’s husband enthusiastically forging an iron spear with which to join his comrades in hunting the supernatural foe. Behind him, his beloved wife looks on with scarcely concealed terror, and it is clear that there is only one way this story can end.

The question that will be burdening viewers of a more logical persuasion through much of this is of course, WHY has this previously happy young woman become subject to this sorry fate, and how and why has she found herself embarking upon all these evil deeds?

None of this is ever very clearly explained to be honest. The film’s rather oblique opening sequence appears to show Pirita’s mother being bothered by some wild wolves as she goes into labour with her daughter during a hike through the snow, but what that’s supposed to imply is largely left to our imagination. Is Pirita doomed to her fate merely due to the circumstances of her ill-stared birth? If so, that’s a bit of a grim message for us to take away, although it does at least convey a notion of brutal medievalism that fits the film’s antiquated feel quite nicely, I suppose.

Actually, another way in which ‘The White Reindeer’ prefigures the European horror films of subsequent decades comes via the fact that, like so many of the genre’s landmark classics, it makes no damn sense whatsoever once you stop to think about it for five minutes. Why does Pirita go to the shaman in first place, and what did she intend to achieve through the sacrifice she performed? Why, after transforming into a reindeer, does she gain fangs of all things? And come to that, who ever heard of a werewolf-like creature feasting on human blood via transformation into an animal that is actually entirely herbivorous?

All of these questions remain unresolved, but of course anyone who lets such petty concerns affect their enjoyment of such an eminently irrational form of entertainment as this is a fool from the outset. I draw your attention to these structural lapses out merely for the sake of completeness, because they are fairly unavoidable in this particular instance, but nonetheless, I refer you back to the argument I usually feel like yelling at fellow viewers who insist on interrogating the events of loopy supernatural horror films as if they were wrestling with an Agatha Christie mystery: Of course it doesn’t make sense! We’re dealing with MAGIC here, and magic by its very nature is beyond the ken of human logic and understanding. That’s why it’s magic, you idiot. Now collect your ticket from the director at the door, shut up, and go where s/he wants to take you. Jeez, and you wonder why I prefer to watch these films on my own.

As an old man remarks at one point during ‘The White Reindeer’, “a lot happens here that you can’t understand elsewhere”, and, whilst the basic outline of the doomed were-woman story  has been recounted numerous times throughout world cinema, from Val Lewton’s ‘Cat People’ to Koreyoshi Kurahara’s The Woman From The Sea, by the time you’ve finished watching ‘The White Reindeer’, you will know exactly what he means.

At the risk of crude national stereotyping, I’ve always thought that Lapland and far Northern Europe in general is one of those places uniquely suited to horror films, and have been surprised that more such works haven’t plundered the area and it’s ample folklore for inspiration. A sparsely populated, icy wilderness with its own strong, inward-looking culture, whose embrace of Christianity has always seemed rather like a frail blanket draped over a set of rather different, rather stranger beliefs, complete with bleak, phantasmagorical landscapes, long shadows and the uniquely eerie power of the midnight sun, as so brilliantly captured here by Blomberg’s remarkable photography - it seems a no-brainer, really.

All of these elements are utilised to powerful (if arguably somewhat exploitative) effect by ‘The White Reindeer’, making it perhaps the definitive example of what we might glibly call ‘Lapland gothic’. The film’s modest 64 minutes comprise both an extraordinary and unique addition to Europe’s legacy of fantastique cinema, and an indelible hymn to the area in which it was shot, combining an invaluable record of the landscape and culture with a mammoth dose of the kind of unhinged pagan atavism and visual surrealism that only the darkest corners of popular culture seem able to provide. A perfect movie to seek out as the temperature drops and the evenings close in this winter, it is a viewing experience like no other.

(1) According to my usual in-depth research (ahem), the Sámi people practiced a form of indigenous shamanic polytheism that formed their main belief system right up until the 18th century, when they were eventually brought into the Christian mainstream. Quoth Wikipedia: “The old beliefs are closely connected to the land, animism, and the supernatural. Sami spirituality is often characterized by pantheism, a strong emphasis on the importance of personal spirituality and its interconnectivity with one's own daily life, and a deep connection between the natural and spiritual "worlds". Among other roles, the Sami Shaman, or noaidi, enabled ritual communication with the supernatural through the use of tools such as drums, chants, and sacred objects. Some practices within the Old Sami religion included natural sacred sites such as mountains, springs, land formations, as well as man-made ones such as petroglyphs and labyrinths.” All of this, I think, can be very clearly seen in the practices portrayed in ‘The White Reindeer’, even if their malign character has presumably been greatly exaggerated to help shoehorn things into a horror narrative.

(2)Wikipedia further notes that: “In the landscape throughout Northern Scandinavia, one can find sieidis, places that have unusual land forms different from the surrounding countryside. Sami shamanism considers these spiritual 'focal points' and worships them as gateways to the spirit world. At these sieidis, sacrifices were made, of animals and objects, […] The Storjunkare are described sometimes as stones, having some likeness to a man or an animal, that were set up on a mountain top, or in a cave, or near rivers and lakes. […] The Storjunkare had power over all animals, fish, and birds, and gave luck to those that hunted or fished for them. Reindeer were offered up to them, and every clan and family had its own hill of sacrifice.”

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