Friday, April 05, 2013

Jörn Donner: How My Films Were Made (a lecture)

Jörn Donner: 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, 5 April 2013.

Jörn Johan Donner (*5.2.1933 Helsinki) is a Finnish author, film director, producer, screenwriter, and former CEO of the Swedish Film Institute, chairman of the board of the Finnish Film Foundation, MP, MEP, diplomat, member of the Helsinki city council, chairman of the Helsinki city cultural committee, and film critic.

Short films: Aamua kaupungissa [Morning in the City] (doc, 1954), Näinä päivinä [These Days] (doc, 1955), Vettä [Water] (doc, 1956), Porkkala (Porkala, doc, 1957), Todistus hänestä [A Testimony on Her] (Vittnesbörd om henne, doc, SE 1963).

Feature films in Sweden: Syyskuinen sunnuntai [A Sunday in September] (En söndag i september, 1963), Rakastaa [To Love] (Att älska, 1964), Täällä alkaa seikkailu [The Adventure Begins Here] (Här börjar äventyret, FI/SE 1965), Poikkiparru / Rooftree (Tvärbalk, 1966), episode Han-hon [He-She] in Stimulantia (1967).

Feature films in Finland: Mustaa valkoisella [Black on White] (1968), Sixtynine 69 (1969), Naisenkuvia [Pictures of Women] (1970), Anna (1970), Perkele! Kuvia Suomesta [Perkele! Pictures from Finland] (doc, 1971), Hellyys [Tenderness] (1972), Krapula [Hangover] (Baksmälla, 1973), Ingmar Bergmanin maailma [The World of Ingmar Bergman] (Tre scener med Ingmar Bergman, doc, 1976), Miestä ei voi raiskata. Men Can't Be Raped (Män kan inte våldtas, SE/FI 1978), Sexier Than Sex / Lovelier Than Love (1978), The Bergman File (doc, 1978), Yhdeksän tapaa lähestyä Helsinkiä [Nine Ways to Approach Helsinki] (doc, 1982), Dirty Story (1984), Kirjeitä Ruotsista [Letters from Sweden] (doc, FI/SE 1987), Reagan Suomessa [Reagan in Finland] (short, doc, 1988), Diktonius – sanat elävät! [Diktonius – the Words Are Alive!] (Diktonius – ord lever!, tv, short, doc, 1995), Ingmar Bergman – elämää ja työtä [Ingmar Bergman - About His Life and Work] (Ingmar Bergman: Om liv och arbete, tv, doc, 1998), Presidentti [The President] (tvm, 2000), Jörn Donnerin kuusi elämää 1–6 [The Six Lives of Jörn Donner 1–6] (tv, doc, 2003), Isäni jalanjäljillä [In the Footsteps of My Father] (tv, doc, 2006), Kuulustelu [The Interrogation] (2009), Mannerheim – Jörn Donnerin kertomana 1–5 [Mannerheim – As Told by Jörn Donner 1–5] (doc, tv series, 2011).

Jörn Donner has had a presence in Finnish and Swedish culture since the 1950s, and he became a representative of the New Wave in Nordic cinema. A personal voice and signature was evident already in his early shorts. Together with Aito Mäkinen D. founded Suomen Elokuva-Arkisto r.y. [The Finnish Film Archive] in 1957, got acquainted with Ingmar Bergman and wrote the first serious book-length study on him, Djävulens ansikte [The Devil's Face] (1962) and was active as a film critic in Finland and in Sweden (BLM, Dagens Nyheter). D's essay "The Finnish Cinema in Year Zero" has become a lasting point of reference.

Michelangelo Antonioni was a central inspiration in D's modernistic vision as is evident in his ambitious Swedish productions A Sunday in September, To Love, The Adventure Starts Here (shot in Helsinki), and Rooftree. Harriet Andersson was D's muse in the same way as Monica Vitti was for Antonioni.

Back in Finland, D. broke down the sex wall with Black on White, Sixtynine 69, and Pictures of Women whose parodic style, antirealistic dialogue, carefree tabulessness and unobtrusive satire on an alienated way of life were something new. Tenderness (other versions of which are  Hangover and Sexier Than Sex / Lovelier Than Love) was in the same vein.

Anna, shot on a Baltic sea island, was a return to the serious Antonionian vein, once again starring Harriet Andersson. Men Can't Be Raped, based on a novel by Märta Tikkanen and starring Anna Godenius and Gösta Bredefeldt, had a Chabrolian incisive force.

D. returned to non-fiction. Perkele! Pictures from Finland was a work of engaged journalism, with affinities with gonzo and Vilgot Sjöman's I Am Curious movies. D's three feature-length documentaries on Ingmar Bergman are precious records made by an old friend and supporter. Nine Ways to Approach Helsinki, shot by Pirjo Honkasalo and Eero Salmenhaara, is one of the finest documentaries on the capital of Finland.

As the CEO of the Swedish Film Institute D. produced Bergman's final theatrical film Fanny and Alexander (1982) and received the Academy Award for the best foreign picture as its producer.

Three films have been made of the writer D's 11-part novel series The Family of Anders. Eija-Elina Bergholm directed Angela's War (1984), and D., himself, during the same year Dirty Story, starring Erland Josephson and Charlotta Larsson. In addition D. directed a tv movie on The President, also belonging to the series.

D. had a 25 year break as a director of a theatrical film. He was continuously active on television and as a producer. The Border 1918 (2007), directed by Lauri Törhönen, with fascinating insight in a turning-point in world history, is based on D's father's experiences as a co-founder of the border between independent Finland and Soviet Russia.

There was a sense of urgency also in The Interrogation, the tragedy of the Soviet spy Kerttu Nuorteva (Minna Haapkylä). A chamber film in execution, its vision had an elevated perspective in world history. Many agreed that the film is D's best. The tv series Mannerheim – as told by Jörn Donner was a conciliatory essay on the great cosmopolitan leader.

Books of film criticism: Jörn Donner: Viettelysten aika [The Time of Temptations] (1985) ja Houkutusten aamu [The Morning of Seductions] (1990). Helsinki: Valtion painatuskeskus.
Dvd collection: Finnkino, both as single disks and boxes: Ohjaaja Jörn Donnerin elokuvat [The Movies of the Director Jörn Donner] 1–2 (3-dvd + 4-dvd), 2009.
Web: www.elonet.fi

(From my guide Elokuvantekijät, Otava, 2012).

My life is divided into many parts, and I intend to discuss three of them.

The first is political. Now ura on katkolla, there is a cooling period in my political career, and I am not a member of any network, except the Sauna Society and the Eino Leino Society [a cultural club]. It started in the 1960s or perhaps even earlier. I have been at the city councils of Helsinki and Tammisaari, and twice I have been a MP, twice I have lost in the elections; last time, in 2011, I lost by a margin of 100 votes. I have even been a Finnish consul in Los Angeles, with an idea to promote Finland in Hollywood. It made no sense. I had to leave L.A. when I had to take my seat as a MEP. I have discussed these experiences in The Six Lives of Jörn Donner.

The second is literary. I published my first book in 1951, and the latest is The Mammoth [of over a thousand pages, in 2013]. I have worked as a journalist, and three weeks ago I returned from the Middle East. I have visited Lebanon, Israel, and Gaza. Since the 1950s I have written travel books, travel reports. The first one, The Berlin Report (1958), is the most important. I also wrote about the countries on the Danube. Since 30 years I have been interested in the Middle East and entertained an illusion about a book on the Middle East. Now there is a civil war in Syria, and Israel is a mess, but I will not make a speech about it today. The occupation is quite incredible. The Palestinians are in chains. Read in today's Helsingin Sanomat Noora Jussila's report on Hebron.

My interest in the cinema started relatively late. During the war it was not easy to see films. In 1943-1944 the jatkosota war was still going on. If there was an air raid alarm we were ordered to evaquate into a bomb shelter. I rather tried to avoid cinemas, and even right after the war I was not that interested. My interest woke up at the age of 15-16 years. [From the year 1948.]

Ideologically I saw cinema as the art of the future, which comes above or below everything, with a mission to change the world. There was a sense of revolutionary romanticism, like with Dziga Vertov.

At 16 I was for the first time abroad. My youngest son made his first trip abroad at the age of one. I spent a week in Stockholm and saw Fängelse [The Prison, by Ingmar Bergman]. It made a profound impression. The film was new. I remember it well. Otherwise my memory is weak. I don't even remember my own films that well. The year was 1949, and I tulin ylioppilaaksi [made my abitur, matriculation examination from the secondary school, qualifying for the university].

I got a job at Vapaa Sana [The Free Word, a newspaper of the radical Left] although I was green, without experience. The editor-in-chief was Raoul Palmgren, and I became a film critic. Those reviews are not immortal pieces. I also wrote for Elokuva-Aitta [a film magazine for the general audience].

My first film, a poor job of work, was Morning in the City. The cinematographer, Carl Gustav Roos, killed himself later. Not, however, because of this film. It's not a film I enjoy seeing again.

In the history of mankind, there is the iron age and the bronze age. In the history of the Finnish cinema that was the veronalennusaika [tax reduction age]. With a tiny budget it was possible to make a non-fiction educational short to acquire a tax reduction for the screening. We were given 300 meters of film, some 11 minutes, and from it we made a short film of 7-8 minutes.

I got no career in film, and I never received an education. In contrast to those who now study professional film-making for five years. I lack that knowledge.

I am not going to tell about all my elämiä, eläimiä lives, animals, because privacy is a part of human life.

We youngsters contacted the moguls, [T.J.] Särkkä, and [Mauno] Mäkelä, and approached them with script proposals. They were never even discussed. There was no kind of a chance except for a few short films and a commissioned film about Porkkala [the USSR gave up its base at the Porkkala peninsula in 1956].

I did not entertain illusions about further work in the cinema. I travelled quite a bit.

In 1959 I came to the General Hospital in Pori to perform my non-military service. I was a conscientious objector. In those days we were posted callously to wherever there was a readiness to receive us. The mates were religious fundamentalists, Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses, who refused service on their holidays. I felt they were less religious than myself [D. is not known to be religious].

In those days I started to write in Swedish papers. At BLM [Bonniers Litterära Magasin, 1932-2004, probably the best-ever cultural publication in the Nordic countries] there was a vacancy as its film critic Harry Schein left the magazine to found the Swedish Film Institute. BLM was looking for a successor.

From Pori [on the west coast of Finland] I went salakavalasti, stealthily to Stockholm to see movies and wrote at length, in essay form, on Antonioni and Truffaut, and kept on with that during my entire Pori period.

After Pori my passion for film-making was rekindled. In 1961 I divorced my wife, and there was an offer to move to Stockholm. Dagens Nyheter, then the biggest newspaper in the Nordic countries, made an offer for me to become its film critic. A coincidence played a role, because I happened to know the cultural editor [and Olof Lagercrantz had recently become the editor-in-chief of the paper].

At that time in Sweden it became possible also for others than film professionals to become directors. Bo Widerberg and Vilgot Sjöman were both writers. Neither had a background in the cinema.

In 1962 I published the first serious Nordic book on Ingmar Bergman's films.

Then I made a new attempt to embark into film-making.

A propos the title of this lecture: films are not born. They are given birth to.

At Svensk Filmindustri at the time Ingmar Bergman was the capo di tutti capi. I got a chance to make a short film about Monica Zetterlund. Much I did not know. I was green. The movie was made at the old SF studio where already [Victor] Sjöström and [Mauritz] Stiller had worked, and the cinematographer was Gunnar Fischer. That Råsunda studio was big, and staff there was kuin meren mutaa, in huge numbers.

The result was a movie of a half an hour which convinced Bergman and SF that there was no reason to hire me. This was the end of my career.

From my old papers, while collecting materials for The Mammoth, I discovered that at the time I had an illusion that my career would be in the movies. In 1963-1966 I did not publish a single book. Usually I have published a book a year at least. In 1967 Uusi maammekirja [The New Book on Our Land] appeared. These career developments were contrasted and overlapping.

Besides SF there were other production companies. For Europa Film I made a film whose working title was Näkemiin, hyvästi [Goodbye, Farewell], which [Anssi] Mänttäri [present in the audience] luvallani kähvelsi, stole on my permission. My film was to be called A Sunday in September.

My sole capital asset was my then girlfriend Harriet Andersson whom I learned to know in 1962. The movie was rather focusedly written for her. She had made quite a few films for SF but was not bound by contract with the company

One can say that the result was naive in a liikuttava [touching / affecting / pathetic] way. The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm restored it a few years ago. I was invited to the screening and could not escape from watching it because I was obliged to talk about it. The approach is that of an amateur. It has its good sides.

The score was by Bo Nilsson, an experimental composer. His music is rather special and required a big orchestra.

Ei ole paljon niitä, jotka voivat jatkaa omalla linjallaan: There are not many of those who are able to go on doing it their way. Woody Allen is ready to go to wherever there is a proposition to film. Helsinki should make a proposal. It would be cheaper than Guggenheim.

In To Love Harriet was still the draw. For the male lead I got Zbigniew Cybulski. He did not speak a word of Swedish. After a bottle of vodka he talked German. French he spoke, too. But in front of the camera he only talked Polish. He was post-synchronized by Sven-Bertil Taube. To everybody's surprise it was a success.

At La Cinémathèque française I had a friendship with the great man who weighed 130 kg, Henri Langlois. He always showed my films. In terms of French connections I had the opportunity to proceed. French film magazines wrote about me.

The Adventure Starts Here was shot in scope with a Hungarian cinematographer. It was an ascetic film and somehow half-baked. Michelangelo Antonioni commented that it had a promising approach but toteutus jäi puolitiehen, the execution remained on the track. As has been the case with certain other projects of mine.

Rooftree is a film behind which I still stand, but few others do. At that time there were no subsidies for quality films. Afterwards, thanks to television etc. the film has broken even.

I started to think whether Finland, after all, might be an alternative. I had moved from country to country and had acquaintances in Finland.

I came to produce Käpy selän alla [A Cone Under My Back] which was a huge hit. That evoked the illusion of commercial success. It was made cheaply and made a lot of profit. I ended up being the owner of the production company. We had the illusionary belief that we might make commercially successful films.

Black on White (1967) bolstered that illusion since it was successful, as well.

Lapualaismorsian [The Lapua Bride] was made without any subsidies. There were but tiny state prizes. There were no production subsidies. The participation of the television was minimal. Those movies were made at private risk. Nowadays none of those films would be made on such terms. Or perhaps with the current video technology, in small bits and pieces.

Kaikki meni pieleen uudestaan, everything went wrong again. Commercially it went as wrong as can be.

Perkele! Pictures from Finland: it was madness, of course, to envisage that such fare would succeed commercially. But it was a precursor for the contemporary Finnish documentary cinema. There was a narrator - there were interviews - there was music - there were songs. Arja Saijonmaa sang a few gross songs whose worth she now denies. Another talent was Rauli "Badding" Somerjoki. I wrote the text in prose, and it was then edited to song lyrics. Kaikki meni pieleen, it all went wrong.

Some enemies, or are they my friends, have said that I always have the option to escape into another reality.

Followed a long silence in film-making. With difficulty I kept my company afloat. That was made possible by directing royalties from my books to the film company. There were some sales of tv rights at ridiculous prices to Yle [The Finnish Broadcasting Company]. Tuula Söderberg was taking care of my film business.

In those days I hit financially rock bottom. I contacted Harry Schein who had founded the Swedish Film Institute: "Could I get a job?" He appointed me to lead the film museum and the international department. I was also on the run from a relationship. But the main reason was: there was no money.

There was also a failed little film made in three days. I am not ashamed of anything.

In Sweden I went on as a producer. I switched from the position of a museum director to a producer.

Men Can't Be Raped was a professional middle of the road movie based on the novel by Märta Tikkanen. It remained a solitary effort.

After Schein left I became the CEO of the Swedish Film Institute.

Simultaneously it was not possible to make movies. There was also a new relationship in Sweden.

The salaries were little in comparison with the contemporary salaries of executives. There was a company car.

About Ingmar Bergman I made a few documentaries. He was in his Munich exile and I had access to his apartment. When I met him in Munich he told about a lengthy screenplay [Fanny and Alexander] he had written for a British producer. It would amount to a movie of 2 hours and 15 minutes. It would be shot in Munich where they had fine studios.

To put it briefly, I promised we would produce it on the condition that it would be made at the SFI studios and on the condition that Bergman would move back to Sweden.

As a producer I have never interfered in what others do except in budget matters. When Punahilkka [The Little Red Riding Hood] was recently telecast Timo Bergholm [the director] himself confessed it was so [in his interview for Helsingin Sanomat].

Ingmar Bergman I did not entirely leave in peace. When he presented his 312 minutes version I said that this won't do. He flew to the roof six times. Thereafter it was the 188 minutes version [for theatrical release]. Afterwards he kaivoi verta nenästä, asked for trouble. He claimed that the tv version is the only version.

I quit the bureaucrat's job for many reasons. I had never viihtynyt, felt well in Sweden on a permanent basis. Presently I have been viihtyvinäni, pretended to be feeling better there. I got a gross reputation as a talk show host. If I write The Mammoth Part Two I'll tell about it. I left. I quit.

I became chairman of the board at the Finnish Film Foundation. Only trouble ensued. I quit.

Fanny and Alexander was an incredible success. It made a hell of a lot of money. Except for me.

I made a new film. Dirty Story is one of the films that are dearest for me, but nobody else understands them.

Erland Josephson starred. It was a clean-cut film. But something was apparently missing. It was about stock market speculation. I have made that movie and written novels on something that has been often advertised for - the various drawbacks of capitalism.

It's running too late.

Loppu on lyhyesti kerrottu, the rest can be put briefly.

I made a successful tv movie in 2000, The President. The enthusiasm remained.

I read a strong story about treachery, about the Soviet spy Kerttu Nuorteva. The result was The Interrogation. Some have called it minimalistic. It was entirely because of a lack of money. I don't get anything from the veräjän vartijoilta, the gate watchmen. It was shot in 11 days and edited in 13 days. Pedro Hietanen [present in the audience] composed the score. The actors were brilliant. Commercially it was niin ja näin, so-so.

A word about the jakopeli, the game of distribution of film production subsidies. I would advertise for a chance to make small-scale films. The world of the moving images has entirely changed. The cinema säilynee, will probably survive. Hollywood. The cinema map of Helsinki and Finland has changed, and there are few alternatives. Whereas in Sweden Folkets Bio has 150 cinemas with different programming. The internet changes everything, and it must switch into a source of financing for production. There might be small-scale works directly for the web and video-on-demand.

I have been trying to launch a screenplay about Armi Ratia. The initial enthusiasm still remains. But I do not intend to waste two years of my life to licking the asses of the gatekeepers of the Finnish Film Foundation or the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation. To have to sit there and listen to their opinions.

The fourth return to Sweden may be forthcoming.

The fingers are moving and the brain is working. I can go on.

The whole situation is completely different.

We hear the praise how brilliant Finnish cinema is. It is a commercial success. The films find audiences.

I beg to differ.

We have one original film-maker: Aki Kaurismäki. And that is great for a small country.

Documentaries etc. get made. But a personal vision you hardly ever see.

Professional it is. But can-do is not all. Some input of spirit is needed. Substance.

Q & A

Q: What has been the most inspiring decade for you? A: The 1960s. The year 1968. But even more important has been the year 1989, and the years from that to the fall of the Soviet Union. It has been the most important event in my lifetime.

Q: How do you find Black and White today? A: Kyllä se kestää, it holds it's own.

Q: How do you find the class society? A: How it is related to the present? The Finnish society is increasingly separated for the rich and the poor. The Finnish class society is in a hell of a bad way.

Q: Bergman's notion of drama and tragedy? A: I cannot comment more but the genius of Bergman is in his talent to convey simple conflicts in a shattering way, for example in his tv series about marriage, in his ability to develop the dramatic tension.

Q: What has Denmark done right? A: I do not really know. But actually the answer is money. They have the resources to do things. The financial investment is much more prominent. That is a background for the phenomena of Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. The so-called Finnish market cannot be sufficient to fund a film. There is no transparency in Finnish television funding. Television does have money at its disposal. Those countries have production subsidies without comparison elsewhere.

Q: Perkele! is my favourite movie. Was it influenced by Sjöman? A: That was not intended, and I had not seen Sjöman's films by then. It was a matter of coincidence. There are many contributing factors. It was a strange process. Many film-makers were involved. Even Pedro was there. We were influenced by many books. The result was not entirely successful.

Q: The meaning of the screenplay? Do you have readers? A: Yes, I have readers, and sometimes too many. Yet, Festen  / The Celebration was improvised. Ju flera kockar desto sämre soppa = too many cooks spoil the broth. The Ratia dream is quite a collaboration. While the screenplay is important, the final result is the most important thing. Black on White: there was hardly any screenplay. A good screenplay provides an opportunity. But anyone can destroy a movie. It is difficult to make a film. I go to the cinema relatively seldom.

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