Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Herr Puntila och hans dräng Matti / Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti

Herra Puntila ja hänen renkinsä Matti [the title on the film is in Finnish]. SE / FI 1979. PC: Reppufilmi Oy, Svenska Film Institutet. P: Anssi Mänttäri. D: Ralf Långbacka. Ass. D: Ilkka Vanne. SC: Ralf Långbacka - based on the play Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matt (1940 / 1948) by Bertolt Brecht and Hella Wuolijoki. DP: Heikki Katajisto - negative: Kodak 35 mm. ED: Irma Taina. AD: Ensio Suominen. Cost: Liisi Tandefelt. Make-up: Eva Ekman. M: Kaj Chydenius. S: Jouko Lumme. Narrator: Ralf Långbacka. Cast: Lasse Pöysti (Mr. Johannes Puntila). Pekka Laiho (Matti Aaltonen), Arja Saijonmaa (Eeva Puntila), Martin Kurtén (Attaché Eino Silakka), May Pihlgren (ruustinna: Dean's wife), Tauno Lehtihalmes (rovasti: Dean), Sven Ehrnström (Fredrik), Elina Salo (apteekkineiti: chemistry clerk), Ritva Valkama (Trokari-Emma: Emma Takinainen, bootlegger), Soli Labbart (telefooni-Santra: Telephone Sandra), Sulevi Peltola (Surkkala, "Red Surkkala"), Pirkko Nurmi (Liisu), Maria Aro (Laina), Karin Pacius (Fiina), Yngve Lampenius (Butler), Asser Fagerström (pianist), Atso Fagerström (violinist), Martti Palasti (cellist), Paavo Piskonen (worker), Pehr-Olof Sirén (Secretary of State, Minister of Foreign Affairs). 112 min. Original in Swedish. A vintage Adams-Filmi distribution print with Finnish subtitles. Viewed at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Hella Wuolijoki), 17 Aug 2011.

Revisited the only Finnish Bertolt Brecht film adaptation.

Since the mid-1930s the industrialist and playwright Hella Wuolijoki developed several versions of her play and story called Sahanpuruprinsessa [Sawdust Princess].

After Hitler's invasion of Denmark and Norway Bertolt Brecht applied for a visa to the United States and was forced in 1940 to leave Sweden for Finland where he stayed as a guest of Hella Wuolijoki until 3 May 1941. Based on Hella Wuolijoki's subject they developed together the play Mr. Puntila and His Man Matti. Wuolijoki's version was a well-made play; Brecht developed a Brechtian version with instructions to perform it in commedia dell'arte style, perhaps even with masks.

Ralf Långbacka is one of Finland's top theatre directors, also an experienced Brecht expert. In his only cinema feature film he follows Bertolt Brecht's version of the play but realizes it in the way of social and psychological realism.

Mr. Puntila was written consciously as a popular comedy. The concept of Mr. Puntila being a warm human being when stone drunk and a callous patriarch when sober was inspired by Chaplin's City Lights. The spineless, ingratiating suitor, the attaché Silakka, resembles his counterpart in the most popular Finnish movie of the 1930s, Siltalan pehtoori [The Caretaker at Siltala].

The difference to Chaplin is that in the Wuolijoki-Brecht story the tycoon is the clown, and the servant is the straight man.

Mr. Puntila the movie is a well-made comedy, but it is not a Brechtian film in the sense in which we call Godard and Oshima Brechtian. (But maybe in the sense in which we can detect a Brechtian approach in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.)

The main reason for Mr. Puntila's status in film history is Lasse Pöysti's magnificent performance in the title role. Lasse Pöysti's long and still continuing film career started in 1941, but this performance is my absolute favourite. A double role is an actor's dream, and here Lasse Pöysti has the opportunity to perform two completely different aspects of a single personality. His Puntila is a man we love to hate.

The other actors have a hard time trying to keep up with Pöysti. Pekka Laiho is masculine and dignified as the chauffeur Matti who refuses to be insulted. Arja Saijonmaa is controlled as the daughter Eeva, the sawdust princess, unable to pretend excitement towards her suitor, the attaché Silakka. Finally she has had enough with her father's antics and explodes memorably in a way that puts an end to Puntila's efforts to arrange her marriage.

The film is an example of the Finnish culture's obsession with alcoholism. Puntila, who has declared war against temperance, becomes a poet and a dreamer when drunk. At night, on his way to obtain legal alcohol, he engages four women with large holder rings of curtain rods. In the story's final reverie he lets build from his furniture the legendary Hattelmala Ridge in his pool room and starts to sing on top of it. (Qf. Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

It is Finland in 1935. Puntila is not too drunk to fire the red worker and family man Surkkala, although he is his best worker. This is the last straw for Matti, who leaves Puntila for good, while admitting that Puntila is not the worst of masters.

The film adaptations of the Puntila play are also instances of the cinema's obsession with the cancelled wedding, or here, cancelled betrothal. The Secretary of State, no less, is present at the scandal when Puntila gets stone drunk and banishes the suitor, the attaché Silakka, from the premises ("no wonder our foreign policy is going to the dogs").

The print has been heavily used. The colour has started slightly to redden, and the film looks like it might have been shot in 16 mm although it was shot on 35 mm. Nevertheless, it is still nice to watch.

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