Friday, March 01, 2013

Maunu Kurkvaara: How My Films Were Made (a lecture)

Maunu Kurkvaara: 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, 1 March 2013.

Onnen saari [Lucky Island] (1955), Ei enää eilispäivää [No More Yesterday] (another version of Onnen saari, 1956), Tirlittan (1958), Patarouva [Queen of Spades] (1959), Autotytöt [Car Girls] (1960), Rakas... [My Dear...] (1961), Yksityisalue [Private Area] (1962), Meren juhlat [A Banquet by the Sea] (1963), Lauantaileikit [Saturday Games] (1963), Naiset [Women] (1964), Raportti eli balladi laivatytöistä [The Report, or, a Ballad about Ship Girls] (1964), episode Pourquoi? for 4 X 4 (1965), Kielletty kirja [A Forbidden Book] (1965), Tänään olet täällä [Today You Are Here] (1966), Rottasota [Rat War] (1968), Miljoonaliiga [The League of Millions] (1968), Punatukka [Redhead] (1969), Kujanjuoksu [The Gauntlet] (1971), Menestyksen maku [A Taste of Success] (1983), Perhosen uni [The Dream of a Butterfly] (1986).

Maunu Kurkvaara (Mauno Sakari Heikkonen, *18.7.1926 Viipuri) is a Finnish film director, screenwriter, producer, cinematographer, art director, editor, manager of a film company and a film laboratory, and a painter. Kurkvaara was the first pathbreaker - or one of the very first - in the Finnish new wave. He found his own way simultaneously and independently of what was going on in France and Italy. As an independent producer he mastered many crafts of his profession. With an education in arts Kurkvaara approached the cinema as a visual expression - which via its temporal structure is close to the music. Kurkvaara's debut feature Onnen saari [Lucky Island] / updated as Ei enää eilispäivää [No More Yesterday] was constructed as the stream of consciousness of a wounded soldier. Tirlittan, a vision of a little girl's world, and Patarouva [Queen of Spades], a study of the deck of cards of a ladies' man, were based on the novels of Oiva Paloheimo. Autotytöt [Car Girls] and Raportti eli balladi laivatytöistä [The Report, or, a Ballad of Ship Girls] had sensational titles but they offered fresh and original views of their times. The versatile Kurkvaara even contributed to the pop music genre of "hit carousels" with Lauantaileikit [Saturday Games]. Rakas... [My Dear...], Yksityisalue [Private Area], and Meren juhlat [A Banquet by the Sea] grew into Kurkvaara's "trilogy of solitude" in which the director found a personal and vivid approach to European Modernism, influenced by Antonioni. In Meren juhlat Kurkvaara switched into colour, and as an owner of a colour film laboratory he became one of the finest and most experimental artists in Finnish colour film. Kurkvaara was interested in social satire with themes such as consumer society (Naiset [Women]) and censorship (Kielletty kirja [A Forbidden Book]). He was also interested in the rootless young generation which was curious to search for new things. Tänään olet täällä [Today You Are Here], the story of an unhappy love, was shot at Ibiza. Radicalism was among the themes of Rottasota [Rat War]. In Miljoonaliiga [The League of Millions] a country boy meets the organized crime of Helsinki. Punatukka [Redhead] is the story of a girl (Tarja Markus) who has committed suicide. Black satire expanded into many directions in the crime story Kujanjuoksu [The Gauntlet]. Kurkvaara stopped film-making for 12 years and switched into the sailing-boat business. In Menestyksen maku [A Taste for Success] Kurkvaara was ahead of his time in an account of what we in Finland called "the casino economy" of the 1980s. In Perhosen uni [The Dream of a Butterfly] Kurkvaara returned to his original approach of a stream of consciousness - with material he had shot in 1955 in Spitzbergen in colour for a film project aborted at the time. Kurkvaara's twenty films are a remarkable corpus with an original visual approach and colour concept, fresh realistic observations, social satire, surprising characters and unconventional female portraits, often portrayed by Sinikka Hannula (Kurkvaara). (Antti Alanen: Elokuvantekijät [Guide to Film-Makers]. Helsinki: Otava, 2012).


Here I am from the front - and from behind. When I bow in one direction I stick out my behind in another. At turns I serve art - or I serve commerce. Such is the situation of a "self-financed" film-maker.

Today everybody can do anything. Digitalization makes it possible. But SES [The Finnish Film Foundation] still remains in that era, in 1969, in which it was founded. The bow is very deep, indeed.

I, myself, was among the driving forces behind the founding of the SES. Together with Risto Jarva. Together with Erik Blomberg. Against the will of the established producers and distributors. We wanted to further the cause of film as an art form.

I was born in Vyborg [then the second largest city of Finland; in 1944 it remained in Soviet Karelia]. I had to leave it twice - getting out of the way of our Eastern neighbour.

I fell ill with TB. I coughed up blood in the sauna and had to spend a year at a sanatorium. In those days one died of TB. But the Americans had developed a new medicine, and the first shipments had just arrived in Finland.

My parents were poor. At the sanatorium I was surrounded by war invalids. I was a schoolboy in 1943 when I spent a year at a labour camp, participating in fortification work. That's when I fell ill, partially due to the hard circumstances there. Those war invalid mates of mine at the sanatorium reminded me that I was eligible to war invalid compensation, as well. Officially I was a schoolboy. I was at the Ahvenisto Sanatorium near Hämeenlinna. A familiar doctor who had diagnozed me in 1943 for bronchitis treated me in Ahvenisto.

He came with a really huge syringe. "Hold his shoulders tight". "I cannot do anything".

That was the time when the Eastern front broke down. I was sixteen. There came nutcases from the front, thoroughly shocked. They had threatened to kill their officer. XXXselkä was the place which broke down first.

I did receive the war invalid settlement from the state. Normally I would have had two or three months to live, but the American medicine was so good that I survived. And I still receive 200 Euro a month as a war invalid.

With that money I started to make films.

I enrolled at the Kuvataideakatemia / The Academy of Fine Arts [in Helsinki]. Rafael Wardi [one of the most highly regarded painters in Finland] was a fellow student. We were the poorest students of all at the Academy of Fine Arts. I had become very thin. Every six hours I took the medicine.

During the summer holiday I went to SF to meet Särkkä [SF = Suomen Filmiteollisuus was the biggest film company in the country, making a film a month, and the CEO was T.J. Särkkä]. "I would like to get acquainted with the movies". "Oh, you study art. So you want to work in the art department. Why not, start on Monday".

But there was a team of us of thirteen students, and we had managed to arrange the first post-war study tour abroad, destination: Paris. So I got to start at SF over a month later. I worked as an assistent, a helper's helper, doing tiny little bits for art direction.

The first film in which I participated was Orpopojan valssi [the title of the film is the title of a popular song by J. Alfr. Tanner, "The Waltz of an Orphan Boy", and the film is a J. Alfr. Tanner biopic, released in 1950]. My first contribution is a piece of koiranputki / cow parsley / wild chervil in the forefront of an image.

Then I was a little assistent for Matti Kassila in Maija löytää sävelen [Maija Finds a Tune, 1950] and for Ville Salminen in Kaunis Veera [Lovely Vera, 1950]. So I got started.

With Särkkä I got along well, but then he stalled. I went to Suomi-Filmi [the most serious competitor, where the CEO was Risto Orko]. "You are just the right kind of man". I got to examine three screenplays for their first planned colour film on the topic of Catherine the Great. I took it really seriously. Orko took his vacation at Hanko. "I cannot make sense of a historical dimension in any of these scripts... " I had read dozens of screenplays. I got to participate in Kesäillan valssi [The Summer Night Waltz, the title of a popular tune by Oskar Merikanto, the entire film being inspired by songs of Merikanto, released in 1951]. No wonder that I did Lauantaileikit [a "hit parade" movie] later.

Then I was supposed to participate in a SF film, Pitkäjärveläiset [The People of Pitkäjärvi, released in 1951], directed by Wilho Ilmari, a theatre veteran who had no sense of film direction.

But when Särkkä heard that I had worked for Suomi-Filmi meanwhile, he barked: "Get out!" And his two German Shepherd dogs chased me out.

At Suomi-Filmi I got to work as the deputy for the studio manager. "That cart that is on loan at SF we need to get back".

Later when I made Autotytöt = The Car Girls I got Särkkä to distribute it, and the prints had the SF distributor's label. Särkkä screened the workprint. "Not bad". But the working title was just Tytöt = The Girls. "What kind of a name is that? Call it Autotytöt". He laughed out loud. Thanks to the success of that movie, guaranteed by the SF label, I earned the chance to make my subsequent good movies.

Back to the early 1950s: I happened to meet a schoolmate from Vyborg who had some money. He promised to finance my first film, Onnen saari [Lucky Island] which we made on location at Bornholm [an island in the Baltic Sea which belongs to Denmark].

We had made an attempt to sail around the world. Yet we got only as far as Southern Sweden. The mast burst. The motor was not running. We had to return via Bornholm. Two mates lost their way and sailed to Saaremaa [the biggest island of Estonia, then Soviet Estonia]. That was just when Stalin had died. They were escorted by battleships back to Finland. The boat was transferred to me.

The cast and crew got to Bornholm by sea. Only Aino-Maija Tikkanen [the female lead] and Olavi Gunnari [the cinematographer] flew. Olavi Gunnari had modern views. He had already worked with Nyrki Tapiovaara [in three of his films in the 1930s]. He brought reflecting lights. I was reactionary in comparison with him. At the time I had not seen modern films.

Sam Vanni [a leading Modernist painter] had been among my teachers at The Academy of Fine Arts, and he was really good.

We made Onnen saari, and it was released, too, but then I wanted to re-edit it. I took one quarter of it away and added one quarter of new material. I shot that material myself and got good instructions how to shoot. The censorship did not accept the original title for the new version, and that is why the new version was named Ei enää eilispäivää. It was a pacifist film. The war was now a theme. It did not succeed commercially.

A female model who had gone to America had a girlfriend involved with an Indian prince who was interested in collaborating in a film project. That's how I got into Spitzbergen, in the northernmost part of Norway. Unto Salminen, Pehr-Olof Sirén, and Vappu Jurkka belonged to the cast. After several weeks of filming we discovered that there was a lighting error in much of the footage, and it was unusable.

I was still living on my war invalid's pension, as a subtenant, and in those circumstances I made my first three films.

Thirty years later I returned to my Spitzbergen footage and with the same actors I shot my last film, Perhosen uni [The Dream of a Butterfly]. It was a case of the Russian Babushka dolls: was there anything inside anymore?

Typical for me is that my way of thinking is different from the usual. When I made Tirlittan [from a popular children's book by Oiva Paloheimo] I was living with two old women. A big fire effect was created by burning a curtain by the fireplace. My film-making then was a Don Quixote story. I continued by filming Paloheimo's Patarouva [Queen of Spades].

Autotytöt [The Car Girls] was a decisive turn. I moved into a rented room. When I made Rakas I lived in a rented two-room apartment. When I started my lab I was still a tenant.

While making Rakas [My Dear] my own goals were getting clearer. It was a watershed film. Part of the critics liked it. I garnered four Jussi awards. The association who organized the awards was split. Paula Talaskivi [the most prominent critic, writing for Helsingin Sanomat] established a new association. The technical professionals got nervous.

Rakas was being sent abroad. "What kind of an image does this picture give of our country?" It was screened unofficially in Venice, and officially in London Film Festival. - One of the Finnish critics who had been negative towards Rakas was abroad and told he is from Finland. "Oh, that country in which Rakas was made". It was released in Sweden, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.

Yksityisalue [Private Area] was screened in Berlin. Kyllikki Forssell went there. I don't participate in festivals.

Aito Mäkinen helped us. I cannot praise him enough. He educated critics, he gave lectures about films he released. We got acquainted while I was making Onnen saari. He toured the festivals. He knew the people, starting with the Chaplin family. He founded film societies. He founded the Finnish Film Archive. Jörn Donner was there in name mostly, but Aito did everything, spent his weekends there, and workforce was needed.

Sometimes the truly important people remain in the shadow.

When I saw Yksityisalue in a small screening room I was disappointed, but Aito requested a screening on a big screen. In an instant one could see that it works.

Meren juhlat [A Party by the Sea] was my first colour movie. It was shot in the summer. Jaakko Pakkasvirta was the male lead. The team was small, and even Aito Mäkinen participated as an assistent.

That's when I dediced to build my own laboratory. Suomi-Filmi was already making colour films. I went to Särkkä. He said: "You are crazy". Fennada was planning six films. It seemed that I can do what I want. But that was the time when the actors' strike started. Nothing worked. The machines came from abroad, both for black and white and for colour film. Spede Pasanen and Risto Jarva were working. Anneli Sauli had been in Germany and returned with her then boyfriend Toni Sailer [the Alpine legend, an Austrian Olympic champion and actor]. We made Raportti [The Report] which was a commercial success and saved the lab. The film was released also in Sweden and in German-speaking countries.

Yksityisalue was also telecast in Germany, in SFB.

During my film career I made 20 feature films. The 1960s were a tight decade. Finally I had had enough of the atmosphere. Mauno Mäkelä was active, but Särkkä closed his company. There were Risto Jarva and Jaakko Pakkasvirta. Suddenly there were three feature films in production. We could pay the salaries, but as a rule that was a time when we kept living on vekselit [bills of exchange] [short-term loans with a high interest].

The atmosphere was turning into leftism, the playground of the cinema was getting coloured. It was getting mixed up to but it nicely.

I sold by lab to Suomi-Filmi. I had opposed the selling of theatrical films to television [which Särkkä did as he closed down his company but Orko and Mäkelä did not].

Again I bumped into a former schoolmate from Vyborg, literally, on Fredrikinkatu on my way to the Bulevardi. He was an engineer specializing in shipbuilding. I got into the sailboat business. Then the oil crisis happened. The prices of fiberglass went up. I had already built the molds. Ten years I spent in that business.

When I made Menestyksen maku [The Taste of Success] Paavo Haavikko [a leading Modernist poet, prolific author and businessman] and Mauno Saari [author, screenwriter, writer of several biographies, also a controversial one about Paavo Haavikko] participated.

I also made short films.

The title of Perhosen uni [The Dream of a Butterfly] comes from a Chinese poem as translated into Finnish by Pertti Nieminen.

I made a documentary feature on sailboats, almost one hour long. Benedict Zilliacus has a story about an island of the lost. It was a kind of a return. But I am not a nostalgic person. This is a fitting place to bring my story to conclusion.

Q & A

Q: DIGITAL. A: Digital means are easier. But easier does not mean better. It is not like painting. Digital is too clean, too glossy, too clear.

I have always fought manipulation: - by the church - by the powers-that-be.

There is a higher education now for understanding images - which surround us everywhere - in the internet - on television.

One might expect a higher ability of judgement now. But the cinema is an endlessly fine object of interest.

Q: THE ONE-MAN PRODUCTION COMPANY. A: It was the only way. It is difficult to make a film without money. The production system had gone too far. Mikko Niskanen was the first chairman in the film directors' union. But I am not a union man.

I don't even accept honorary memberships. Honour has lost its meaning as a concept when one thinks what kinds of people get medals.

I was schooled as a painter like Eino Ruutsalo. Risto Jarva and Jaakko Pakkasvirta had teams of their own. These are teams based on affinities of temperament.

My way is thorough preparation. I make meticulous screenplays. Each line of dialogue and each shot are there.

Antti Peippo, who was my cinematographer in Menestyksen maku, and who had worked with Jarva and Pakkasvirta, was amazed when it was ten o'clock in the morning and everything had already been shot.

I shot precisely because I was the editor, too.

In colour stock one needed three frames for colour definition for the negative cutter. "What do we do now. There are no extra three frames in the shot!"

I pretended to be that determined.

The cost-effectiveness was enormous.

I was very critical towards the activities of the SES. With the system being such as it is the SES can never get it right. Projects get developed for the SES. They all tend to be the same.

Q: ACTORS. A: I did not hire popular actors. Rather I employed actors proper for the roles.

Acting in theatre is so different. In the film you are not acting for others.

You are in a frame which I have defined.

Sinikka Hannula (Mrs. Kurkvaara) walks in a certain way. I examine how it works.

Tänään olet täällä [Today You Are Here] was shot in Spain, at the Ibiza. Sinikka Hannula learns about the death of her husband. This is conveyed via her expressions and the shot of the letter in her hand.

I got a call from a projectionist that there is something wrong in the print, as the same shot is repeated three times. "I cut away two shots".

Q: 1950'S, MODELS ABROAD. A: Aito Mäkinen was doing similar things at the same time. Antonioni, Godard, and Resnais made new kinds of films. I liked to think that I was being original. If I had had the chance to continue I would have liked to go further. But also Antonioni, Godard, and Resnais had their difficulties. We all reach a certain point. Each man in his time.

Q: YOUR FAVOURITE FILM OF YOURS? A: Ei oo semmoisia = There is no such film.

Maunu Kurkvaara retired from the film business over 25 years ago, and he always refuses public appearances, but the young bright activists of the HYY Film Society had managed to invite him to speak at length, non stop without breaks for film excerpts. Two of the previous lecturers - Peter von Bagh, and Anssi Mänttäri - joined him for coffee afterwards at the Corona Baari. We were all amazed and grateful for the delightful presence of Maunu Kurkvaara, in such great spirits at the age of 86. 

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