Friday, February 15, 2013

Peter von Bagh: How My Films Were Made (a lecture)

Peter von Bagh: Miten elokuvani ovat syntyneet? Lecture in the series organized by the HYY:n Elokuvaryhmä / The Film Society of The Student Union of the University of Helsinki. Cinema Orion, Helsinki, 15 Feb 2013.

As a film-maker Peter von Bagh is a master of the collage, the compilation film, the essay film, the art of the interview, and giant surveys of Finnish history, cultural history and film history, including series of major production companies and film artists. He has been highly acclaimed in Finland since the 1960s, but his international breakthrough is a recent phenomenon. It started with the warm welcome of Helsinki Forever (2008) in festivals, and recently his retrospectives have been circulating internationally, especially prominently since the International Film Festival Rotterdam (2012).

Peter started by defining himself as belonging to the category of "from critic to film-maker", like it was customary in the 1960s, although such a road to film-making had, in fact, existed already for a long time, examples including Michelangelo Antonioni and Marcel Carné.

My elämänlanka ["life thread": thread, clue, central concept] has been the collage, pointing the camera towards the past. A turning-point of mine in fine-tuning this and finding the right balance was Vuosi 1952 [1980].

The cinema is a marvellous art. From a mediocre film one can find a moment which conveys in a flash for what Proust needed twenty pages. This has been my lifelong conviction.

When I recently viewed again my early short Pockpicket (made in 1967-1968, and starring Sulevi Peltola in his first film role) I discovered that my ohjelmanjulistus (manifesto, programme declaration) is already expressed in its first words, which are something like "the past is with us all the time, and figures of the past turn into history". ["Menneisyys on osa meitä... ja me olemme matkalla kohti menneisyyttä" = "The past is a part of us... and we are on our way towards the past".]

As a film-maker I promptly ajoin itseni seinään [hit the brick wall] with a movie called Kreivi / The Count, backed by Risto Jarva, which Jörn Donner urged me to do.

My first portrait film was a short of 30 minutes about Olavi Virta [the Finnish tango king] [1972]. Then there was a hiatus of seven-eight years. None of my proposals were accepted by Yle [The Finnish Broadcasting Company].

Suddenly everything changed, and I started to do films at full speed, in a fury, with an almost unnatural force, in fear that it may come to an end. Somehow I still feel that way. Paavo Nurmi [1978] and Sinitaivas [Blue Sky, 1978] were made simultaneously.

While I made them Risto Jarva died suddenly and shockingly [in a car accident in a taxi, on 16 December, 1977], which is why Sinitaivas is dedicated to him, and which explains a certain haikeus [wistfulness], a taivas putoaa atmosphere [an atmosphere of heavens falling - a reference to the movie Kun taivas putoaa / When the Heavens Fall, directed by Jarva, with Bagh as a co-screenwriter].

Sinitaivas was a declaration of a programme, a declaration of materials: Finnish entertainment, with a motto that became rather well-known: "the iskelmä [der Schlager = a hit song] is the secret memory of the nation".

In all what I have done there is a Utopian element: life as it could be (not as what it is). Elements that I tied together in Sinitaivas were essential for my entire oeuvre: - wartime Finland, and - certain key characters.

EXCERPT: SINITAIVAS. The ruins of an old outdoor dance hall. "It feels like the nature is crying." "This is the meeting-place of lost dreams, of a nation that experienced a big move from the countryside to the city." "Newsreels of the heart were heard here." ♪ "Sinitaivas", ♪ "Väliaikainen". "Hit songs are the secret history of a nation's emotions, its hidden memory."

Sometimes one can learn more from adversity than from success. We were requested to do a ten minutes preview of Helsinki Forever. That long film itself is my most complicated work, yet we did it with dream-like assurance. But in the ten minutes cut everything went wrong.

SCREENED: A DAY IN HELSINKI, a digest of ten minutes of Helsinki Forever. AA: It is a job of work, sur commande. There is nothing wrong, yet the magic is missing.

In Helsinki Forever, itself, I was after the pitkät kaaret = the big picture, covering long stretches of time, a century or a half-century. Such a big picture has always been lucrative for me. In the Sininen laulu [The Blue Song] series I was able to mobilize the ilmaisuvoima = expressive qualities of all the arts.

Chris Marker, who was there, has said that the Helsinki Olympics of 1952 were the last true Olympics. In the following excerpts there are homages to three artists: Armand Lohikoski, Jörn Donner, and Aki Kaurismäki. Jörn Donner has made the best Helsinki film, Yhdeksän tapaa lähestyä Helsinkiä [Nine Ways to Approach Helsinki]. From Aki Kaurismäki there is an excerpt from the conclusion of Ariel with music sung by Olavi Virta, a song the cost of whose music rights had meanwhile jumped into ten thousand Euro, but we found a substitute which Aki accepted.

EXCERPT: HELSINKI FOREVER. The Olavi Virta selection in the Ariel excerpt is "Estrellita". Jörn Donner's voice is heard as a narrator in his excerpt. Sacy Sand: "Hippaa ja hoppaa" in Pekka ja Pätkä sammakkomiehinä [Pekka and Pätkä as Scuba Divers].

The cast of the protagonists of my oeuvre includes figures such as Olavi Virta, Tapio Rautavaara, Tauno Palo, Mikko Niskanen, and Edvin Laine. Of Rauli "Badding" Somerjoki I managed to record the practically sole good interview on film. The starting point was often a commissioned film.

At the Yle they had for a year attempted to put together a film on Reino Helismaa (Repe). When they mentioned it to me I found the concept immediately. Repe is one of the few of my protagonists whom I did not get to interview. He was absent, having died fifteen years earlier. We had his records, his thousands of lyrics for songs, his circa fifteen film appearances. We had his contemporaries. I have never used experts. But we had Toivo Kärki, Esa Pakarinen, and Tapio Rautavaara.

All my life I have regretted that I did not contact Eemeli. He started the stand-up comedy in Finland, he was the only one. In Repe I was approaching the Lähikuvassa [In Close-Up] territory.

In Repe there is not a word about his childhood or youth.

Many quotes from Repe have become winged words. Timo Koivusalo took dozens of lines of dialogue from Repe to his film Kulkuri ja Joutsen [The Vagabond and the Swan] [a reference to a Tapio Rautavaara song, also a reference to Repe and Tapsa]. 

In this film I developed my interview technique. I have come to realize that in such an interview technique there is an affinity with the direction of actors. It is about creating the proper conditions. The questions need to be good. One has to be humble, and with a not too knowledgeable appearance.

I met Rautavaara only ten times. As a consequence of our work together Tapsa called me: "Haluan kiittää, että teit minusta jälleen ihmisen" ["I want to thank you that you have made a man out of me again"].

They warned me that Tapsa is a burnt-out case.

For me Tapsa is comparable to F.E. Sillanpää: who else can speak so eloquently to the Finnish people.

EXCERPT: REPE. Tapio Rautavaara's account about Repe's last year. The doctor's advice to Repe: eat, drink, make love, there is one year more to go. I kept meeting him: ten months to go... seven months to go... four months to go. Before Christmas Repe called me: could you please replace me, there is a harjannostajaiset = a topping out ceremony at a construction site. I feel so damn tired. Then there was a call from the Töölö Hospital, the internal medicine ward. It was three o'clock in the morning. I went every night between one and three o'clock. At times he was drowsy, at times he gained strength. He asked me to talk with him while he was preparing a radiohupailu = a radio comedy show called "Olihan joulu Jooniassa" [It Was Quite a Christmas in Ionia]. He had a sheet of paper beside him. I was asking myself whether Christmas was coming any closer. Not a single line emerged on that paper. That sheet of paper remained blank. - Excerpt from Hei rillumarei!: going to Lapland, away from culture and civilization. "Scarecrows like that are born in culture". ♪ "Lapin jenkka". With Repe, Esa Pakarinen, and Jorma Ikävalko. - ♪ "Rumarillumarei". - ♪ "Kulkuri ja joutsen".

Whenever a portrait film of mine is extended there needs to be a theme. In Repe the theme is friendship.

In my film about Edvin Laine the theme, the key was that whatever he did was autobiographical, and it had the dimension of a confession. I was making my portrait twenty years after the death of Edvin Laine. But in 1987 I had been making a film about the civil war and interviewed also Edvin Laine about the years 1917-1918. Thus I had filmed Edvin, but the material was not used at the time.

Then I was commissioned to make a film about Edvin, and his family were the ones who commissioned it. - The film on Tauno Palo I had made as three of his closest family members visited me and asked me to do it. - Edvin Laine had seen it, and in a way he commissioned me to do the film about him, via his heirs.

Edvin's films are uneven, but almost always there is more in them. As a person everybody testified that he was adorable, cordial, and supportive. - Once Edvin even called me out of the blue and asked me to become his assistant director on a film about Sibelius.

EXCERPT: EDVIN LAINE. - Home movie footage. - I: Veikko Sinisalo. - I: Helge Herala. - Excerpt: Seitsemän veljestä [Seven Brothers]. - I: Edvin Laine (1987). - I: Kaija Upton. - I: Jarna Laine. - I: Ensio Suominen. - Footage from the Pyynikki Summer Theatre performance of The Unknown Soldier. - Excerpt: Niskavuoren Heta [Heta from Niskavuori]. - Excerpt: Kirkastuva sävel [The Tune That Gets Brighter]. - Three sources: the play, the realism, and the imagination. - Excerpt: Sleeping Beauty. - Everybody in the cast and the crew was well fed. That came from Edvin's heritage in the 1918 war.

Those excerpts give an idealized view about Edvin Laine as a director. The film was a compilation of existing footage except the interviews with his two daughters. - Gradually I had created a personal bank of images of key people.

Sininen laulu [The Blue Song] was launched in 2000, and it took three to four years to make. It was a series the kind of which could no more be done. It consists of a thousand little bits, and the challenge with the copyrights to all of them was huge. It was thanks to Astrid Gartz that it could be made without big problems. It is based on the todistusvoima = cogency, the power of testimony of all the arts.

For it I returned to commentary. Before it, Sinitaivas was my only film with commentary, and for 25 years I had managed without. It is much more difficult to manage without commentary. In Sininen laulu commentary is important. After forty years I went after the elements of all the arts in order to study them with the means of television. The first interviewees, Juice Leskinen, Veikko Sinisalo, and Jouko Tyyri, were all gone after a few years.


What I never became was a maker of fiction films. Kreivi [The Count] is the most terribly battered film in the history of Finnish film criticism. What I did was to take a subject appropriate to the scandal press. Kreivi and Kun taivas putoaa, in both of which I was involved, were shunned by Yle at a time when television saw itself as a cultural institution.

Kreivi is like a work from the primitive period of the cinema, it is ärsykkeiden elokuvaa = it belongs to the cinema of attractions. It is non-linear. It is about a man who was 76 times engaged to women and sat in prison for embezzling them. The bait came from Donner, and the project was almost frozen when I tried to figure out who could play the leading role. Until I discovered he could only be played by The Count, Pertti Ylermi Lindgren, himself.

It is a rarity in its mix of documentary and fiction. The excerpt we are about to see was shot in half a day. The reels in the camera of Lasse Naukkarinen were four minutes, and there was only that one single reel left.

The direction of actors was planned so that they would surprise each other constantly. This scene between Elina Salo and the count is all provocation. It is a rather documentary account about the relationship of a man and a woman.

EXCERPT: KREIVI. ♪ "Elämää juoksuhaudoissa" [Life in the Trenches]. - The count, posing as an archeologist, has planted bones in the landscape in order to impress the woman with his discoveries. - ♪ "Liljankukka" [Lily Flower] as a duet. - The woman confesses that she has not believed a word of the count's tales, but she wants to have some fun with the situation.

The shooting of this scene was perilous even to the sound engineer Paul Jyrälä.

Kooste-elokuva on henkilökohtaisinta. = Compilation film is the most personal way of film-making for me.

In the shadow of Sininen laulu remained my eight part documentary series on the history of Finland, Oi kallis Suomenmaa [the name of the series is taken from the title a patriotic wartime song, the name in translation is roughly My Beloved Finland], edited by Elina Katainen. It was never reviewed in the leading newspaper.

EXCERPT: OI KALLIS SUOMENMAA. The events in Kemi in 1948.

Although I'm a conscientious objector, in many of my films I have discussed the war, and many are entirely dedicated to it, like The Year 1939. Suomi-pop was my first extended series, made in the early 1980s. Five years later none of the key interviewees were alive.

EXCERPT: SUOMI-POP - the war. I: Ragni Malmsten. The original masters that were destroyed in the war, the records that survived in the sturdy desk in the house that was demolished in the bombing. - ♪ "ethän armaani konsanaan". - Veikko Lavi: the unity of emotion was unique. - Esa Pakarinen: aikansa kutakin [there's a time for everything]. - ♪ Harmony Sisters: "Kodin kynttilät" ("When It's Lamp Lighting Time In The Valley").

Q: INFLUENCES? A: Emile de Antonio was a good friend, and from him I got the model of not using commentary. - Humphrey Jennings: how a great wave of emotion can rise from old pieces of film. Listen to Britain is the film I have seen the most often.

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