|Axel Slangus, Martti Tuukka, Kaarlo Kari, Antero Suonio, Juha Puls. Click to enlarge.|
Finnish and Swedish intertitles. Swedish intertitles by Per Åke Lauren.
The 1982 restoration by The Finnish Film Archive: a silent version and a version with music. 2023 m /24 fps/ 74 min, /22 fps/ 80 min, /20 fps/ 92 min
A KAVI print of the 1982 restoration at Cinema Orion, Helsinki (Erkki Karu), at 20 fps, 92 min, piano: Joonas Raninen, 5 Feb 2013
My programme notes for Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (1999, Sacile, Nordic Explorations): A bucolic comedy based on the play by Aleksis Kivi, founder of Finnish-language drama in the mid-19th century. The play has been popular ever since it was written and has been filmed three times; the two sound versions were made in 1938 and in 1957. Interestingly, it is this silent version which is remembered with the most affection. The surprise is related to the fact that Kivi’s effect is very much based on language – his rich humor is very verbal, and he reveals the nature of his characters more by words than by actions. The screenwriter Artturi Järviluoma was highly successful as the author of the play Pohjalaisia (Plainsmen), and he made his adaptation respecting Kivi’s vision but also with the aim to produce a real audience-pleaser.
Long in gestation, the 1923 film interpretation of The Village Shoemakers was produced paying careful attention to the success of the Swedes with rural themes. Authentic locations, vehicles, clothes, and objects were sought with care. The photographers made an effort to capture most of the action in natural surroundings. Best of all, the film-makers managed to create a sense of lived life instead of a museal display. We feel witnessing a centuries-old way of life which has vanished since.
The time of the action is the 1840s, and the village closely resembles Kivi’s home in Nurmijärvi. Nurmijärvi was not a typical Finnish municipality but an especially quiet, backward place in a lonely valley in Southern Finland off the main roads between the cities Hämeenlinna, Turku, and Helsinki. The 1840s were a stagnant decade in Finnish history, when seeds of misery were sown. Those were the decades of the terror of the badmen in the province of Pohjanmaa and of desperate alcoholism in places like Nurmijärvi. Kivi, himself, was a periodical drinker, following his father’s footsteps in that habit. The great famine years that followed a couple of decades later at last shattered the Finns from their sleepy paths to the fast lane of modernity. Kivi does not idealize the petty, narrow, and trivial concerns of his characters. He laughs at their pursuits, but as a true humorist, he loves them all the same. There is always a dimension of generosity and dignity in his portrayal. Even the dimension of the divine may be near even when the action is at its most trivial.
The Village Shoemakers is an exception to the rule of Finnish silent cinema that the actors are either wooden or exaggerated. Somehow the natural settings and authentic gear put them at ease, and they seem to be enjoying performing the well-known characters and situations from the beloved play. The actors are top talent of the contemporary Finnish stage. Axel Slangus from The Swedish Theatre of Helsinki got to portray two legendary simpletons during the silent era. Besides Esko he was Sven Dufva in the lavish Swedish historical spectacle The Tales of Lieutenant Stål based on the Finnish national epic by J. L. Runeberg. Adolf Lindfors, the interpreter of the parish clerk, was a prominent director and actor at the National Theatre, best known as a Molière specialist. Konrad Tallroth, who plays the generous host at the house of Karri, was also a well-known film director both in Sweden and in Finland.
Besides affable characters and a lyrical feeling for nature The Village Shoemakers has something unique in the Finnish silent cinema: a rich variety of states of consciousness – memories, reveries, delirium, parables, and fantasies. The fluid use of the flashback and the flash-forward sets us in vain to study Erkki Karu’s oeuvre to find something in the same level. His energies were to be more focused in production. The Village Shoemakers, his second feature film, remained his best.
Its basic joy of life and its feeling for the interconnectedness of nature and society are the sources of its lasting charm.
ALEKSIS KIVI, A GENIUS OF LANGUAGE
Järviluoma and Karu did also a good job in conveying Kivi’s verbal genius to silent cinema. The selection and timing of Kivi’s witty lines is so excellent that The Village Shoemakers is a candidate for one of the best-intertitled films in the whole silent cinema. That, however, remains a secret shared only by those who know Finnish. Aleksis Kivi would be a recognized master of world literature if good translations would exist. The difficulty is of the same order as in translating Shakespeare, or, to pick a contemporary, Mark Twain. Kivi had a phenomenally large vocabulary and a sharp wit. His language is a unique combination of the holy and the profane: he had a deep understanding of the Bible and, often in the same sentence, an original touch of the vernacular. Kivi was totally bilingual and planned first to start writing in Swedish like J. L. Runeberg, the greatest contemporary Finnish author in his youth. Also The Village Shoemakers was started in Swedish (the first version was called Bröllopsdansen, The Wedding Dance). But instead he went on to write a play in Finnish, although no Finnish-language stage existed. Often he thought in Swedish, and when no Finnish words existed, he created them. Kivi invented hundreds of words, many of which have taken root and become part of the common vocabulary. Kivi’s main influences in world literature were the Bible, Cervantes, Shakespeare, and Holberg. The last three he read in Swedish, only the Bible he studied in Finnish. There has been an excellent line of Finnish-language Bible translations since Mikael Agricola, a student of Luther and Melanchton, provided the first one during the Reformation. Fortunately, Agricola was a poet and a humanist with a sense of humour, and ever since the Finnish Bible translations have been entrusted the greatest writers and poets of the age. “In the beginning was the Word”: in the language of Kivi there is always a dimension of the divine. An element of dignity juxtaposes even the most ridiculous goings-on.
Just to mention one example of Kivi translation: the title of the play Nummisuutarit. There is no problem with “suutari”, which means “shoemaker”, a skilled handicraftsman producing leather boots etc. But the word “nummi” has several meanings, the most common of which is “moor” or “heath”. That, however, is not the meaning here. Instead, the “nummi” here is a sand-based pine forest, a sandy plain, in the South of the United States also called “pine barren”. The name of the play refers to the zone between nature and civilization: the village shoemakers live in the crossing point between the forest and the village.
Kivi reveals the meaning of “nummi” in the fifth act of his play. The shoemaker Topias and the parish clerk Sepeteus are waiting for Esko to return home with his bride. Topias boasts that he has a splendid wife and two brave sons and that he lives as a free man on his “kaikuva honkanummi” (“a resounding pine forest”). At least the last claim is true. Having tempted the parish clerk to a glass of hard liquor he urges him to test the echo. This scene has been left out of the silent film for obvious reasons. Instead, Artturi Järviluoma mentions the “resounding pine forest” at the beginning, in the intertitle introducing the shoemakers’ home. And, of course, the magnificent forest surrounding them can be seen all through the film. The forest for Kivi is divine: the Finnish word for that is Tapiola, meaning the Kingdom of Tapio, and Tapio is the God of the Forest. The forest is benevolent and protective, but also an infantile retreat from the challenges of civilization and modernity – and matrimony. This sense of the forest Erkki Karu conveyed very well in his film adaptation. Antti Alanen (12 October 1999, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto)
Revisited Erkki Karu's masterpiece, the pinnacle of his creativity as a film director. Somehow everything fell into place in this film: - the funny characters - the comic performances - the interplay with nature - the adaptation of the play. This is a story of erratic journeys, of utterly mistaken intentions. King Alcohol plays a leading role. It is yet another story of a cancelled wedding (for Esko, but two other couples find each other). A tale of stupidity, yet with a basic sense of humanity, dignity, and life-force. A key story about matriarchy: Martta wielding her tar baton, evoking a healthy fear both in husband and sons, who hide under tables and in the uuninpankko, the cavity over the oven. Beautifully shot by Kurt Jäger, with a rich array of cinematic devices. The intentions of the characters are partly mean and petty, yet the final prevailing spirit is that of generosity. The world depicted is narrow and provincial, but the viewpoint and the perspective opens to a wide and universal understanding. The final laugher is that of a true humorist, and in this above all Erkki Karu is faithful to the profound Aleksis Kivi spirit.
Beloved by Finns, unintelligible for foreigners. In Finland everybody knows elements of the play, which helps very much to make sense of the wonderful adaptation which includes everything in a highly compressed version which miraculously never feels rushed and even includes a lot of extra material not in the play.