Thirty Years: A tale of two movies and the country that gave birth to them

This post is about Finland, it's history, and how it has been reflected throught the times.

After the Second World War (which for Finns means Winter War and Continuation War against the Soviet Union, and Lapland War against the Germans), in 1954, Väinö Linna wrote a book called "Tuntematon Sotilas" ("The Unknown Soldier" in English). In 1955 it was turned in to a movie by Edwin Laine, and it was filmed again in 1985 by Rauni Mollberg. So the two movies are exactly thirty years apart.

Regarding the book.... In 1954, the trauma of the war(s) still ran deep in Finland. During WW2, Finland lost about 90.000 men dead, and over 280.000 were injured. That's quite a lot for nation of 3.5 million. Besides casualties, the country lost it's cultural heartland (Karelia) and about 140.000 people had to leave their homes. In the fifties, the nation was still in shock. Linnas book, while controversial in it's time, was an important tool in healing those wounds.

Even more important in healing those wounds was the original movie adaptation of the book. It didn't glorify the war, but it helped the survivors of the war feel that "what we did was good. What we did was right". Of course, back in those days movies tended to be a bit megalomaniac, with thundering monologues and overpowering music. It was like that everywhere, and Finland was no exception. But the movie is still very good, and they show it every year during the Independence Day. The movie acts as a medicine for the people. Even after 60 years, the memories of the war are still there. Even for the people who didn't take part in it.

The new version of the movie has received a lot less attention. I saw it just once, and I was just a kid back then. So my memories of it were a bit hazy. few days ago I finally bought it on DVD, and started watching it. Let's cover the basics first:

The new version is based on the same script that was used in the old version. So large parts of the dialogue are same. But there are considerable differences between the two versions, so it makes sense to see them both. As a war-movie, the new version is very good. It used techniques that were made popular over a decade later by "Saving Private Ryan" and "Band of Brothers". Things like shooting the film by hand right in the middle of the action. In many ways, the movie was ahead of it's time.

But what's not interesting is comparing the technical merits of the two movies. What's interesting is to compare the message of the two. In fifties, the war was still remembered by everyone. The nation was at a state of shock, and it needed a sense of purpose and sense of direction. And the old version helped there. It told people that the soldiers did what had to be done, and they did not do it in vain.

What about the new version? Well, this is where it gets interesting. The seventies and early eighties were a time when Soviet Union was looming over Finland. There were many people in Finland who openly admired Soviet Union and communism, and criticizing the SU was more or less banned. During that time, there was an element of self-loathing when it comes to the history of Finland. Continuation War was discussed, and since that war contains controversial elements as far as Finland is considered (Fighting alongside Nazi-Germany, war of conquest in Eastern Karelia), it was mostly talked about in negative manner. I don't think it was easy being a veteran of the Continuation War back then. Winter War was a different matter. It's very difficult to blame anyone else but Soviet Union for that one, so it wasn't discussed that much. There were people in Finland that wanted to "whip the Nation" as far as its history was concerned. Continuation War was a good tool for that, whereas Winter War was not (justification of the Continuation War is a whole different topic, which I wont discuss here). It was self-inflicted censorship. Things that contained controversial elements (like Continuation War) were discussed, whereas acts of pure self-defence (Winter War) were not.

In to this era, the new version of "The Unknown Soldier" was born. And it clearly a child of it's times. While it is very similar to the old version, as far as characters and dialogue is concerned, there are lots of subtle differences. In the new version, the soldiers are seen to like the killing more. They are portrayed more as savages. In the old version they are shown as soldiers doing their job (well, they are not robots in the old version either), in the new version they are shown to be more cruel. Besides having scenes of killing surrendered Russians, we have scenes of the soldiers plundering and burning parts of the town of Petrozavodsk in a drunken rage. The movie constantly tries to underline that Finns were the aggressors, whereas Russians were victims. Lotta Svärd are shown as "comfort women" (more or less) of the soldiers. The list goes on.

After a while, it becomes a bit tedious to watch the movie, since it's constantly pushing an agenda. It's not overtly obvious, but it's always there, just beneath the surface. Some might say that the old version does the same, just from the opposite direction. But I don't think so. There's plenty of critique of the war in the old movie, and it doesn't glorify the war, nor the soldiers. It shows them as normal human beings. What the new version has, is that element of self-hatred that was prevalent in the seventies and the eighties. And there's the element of self-censorship that makes it next to impossible to critique the Soviet Union. And that is why Finns are seen as brutal aggressors, when in fact the truth of the matter is a bit more complex than that (it always is).

These two movies give us an excellent possibility to see how mentality of a nation can change over the course of the years. The two movies are closely connected to each other, yet the message of the two is very different. The two movies act as a mini-Finland, which we can observe from the outside. Who know, maybe ten years from now, we will make another version of "The Unknown Soldier"?

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