Saturday, May 04, 2019

Ihmiset suviyössä / People in the Summer Night (The Nitrate Picture Show)

Ihmiset suviyössä / People in the Summer Night. Eila Pehkonen, Matti Oravisto.

Människor i sommarnatten.
Valentin Vaala, Finland 1948
Print source: KAVI, Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti (National Audiovisual Institute), Helsinki
Running time: 67 minutes
Translation into English: Maarit Tulkki, live e-subtitling operated by AA.
The Nitrate Picture Show (NPS), George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, Rochester, 4 May 2019.

NPS: About the print
This release print shows some wear and tear on the edges, but overall the quality of the image is good and any scratches do not detract from the exquisite Finnish landscape and people of the film. Shrinkage: 0.85%

About the film
“We have never before seen such a wonderful and delicate representation of Finnish nature. For that we can thank Eino Heino, who in this film has also depicted the people excellently and with great sensibility, and thus proved to be first among our cinematographers.”
— Toini Aaltonen, Suomen Sosialidemokraatti (Finnish Social Democrat), October 17, 1948 (translated by Taina Meller)

“Vaala has sensitively and warm-heartedly conveyed the novel, which is epically narrated but at the same time marked with intense empathy, tocelluloid. . . . This kind of inspired narration, steeped in the artistically poised personality of the director, we have been entreatingly and for long praying for. Valentin Vaala has now given us a movie that shows such artistic maturity, and after seeing it, one feels happy.”
— Raoul af Hällström, Uuden Suomen (New Finland), October 17, 1948 (translated by Taina Meller) (NPS)

AA: People in the Summer Night is based on an impressionistic novel by F. E. Sillanpää, a winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1939. Sillanpää was usually lucky with film adaptations, and never more so than in this one.

People in the Summer Night belongs to an international category of the cinema known as the multi-character study, launched in Weimar Germany as the Querschnittfilm. Prominent directors in this mode include Duvivier, Preminger, Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alejandro G. Iñarritú.

The excuse for the multi-character story may be an object such as a forged banknote passing from hand to hand in Tolstoy adaptations including L'Argent or a dance card with a list of partners in Un carnet de bal. It may be a Don Juan or roundelay story like Reigen (La Ronde). Or a search for an unknown mother like Broken Flowers.

The excuse may also be a location such as a hotel (Grand Hotel), ship, train, airplane or any vehicle on a perilous journey (Stagecoach). War and catastrophe films are often multi-character studies. In this film the excuse is the summer night, or, in fact two nights during a summer weekend.

Four storylines and some twelve characters intertwine, but Sillanpää's advice to the director Valentin Vaala was: "Remember that there is but one protagonist – the summer night!"

Aarne Laurila has observed that nuances of light are of the essence already in the source novel. "The narrative follows the movements of light. People in the Summer Night is the most musical of Sillanpää's texts".


Two years ago at the Nitrate Picture Show another Finnish film was shown: Restless Blood directed by Teuvo Tulio. Tulio and Vaala were schoolmates and lifelong friends who made their first four films together.

Their careers evolved in opposite directions. Tulio, "the wild bird of Finnish cinema", was an independent film-maker, no stranger to controversy. Some of his solutions may be seen as "exercises in poor taste" in the sense of John Waters.

Vaala became the house director of the venerable Suomi-Filmi company, the oldest film company in Finland, celebrating its centenary this year. It was the house of good taste, and Vaala became the paragon of good taste.

Vaala was a total film-maker. He had an assured sense of the mise-en-scène, paying close attention to locations and sets. He was a fine director of actors. He was Finland's starmaker number one. From the start he worked with top cinematographers. During 1941–1958 his trusted DP was Eino Heino whose wife, Emma Väänänen, was Vaala's actrice-fétiche, here in the role of the mother giving birth. 

Vaala's devotion did not stop when principal photography finished. He supervised the grading and the definition of light. He edited his films personally.

Already before his contract with Suomi-Filmi Vaala became the founder of an original style of Finnish urban comedy. He was a great women's director who liked to work with women screenwriters such as Lea Joutseno here. Joutseno was a bright actress who became a screenwriter and later a translator – like Regina Linnanheimo, the partner of Tulio.


Vaala was an ardent film buff and a lifelong cinephile. He loved René Clair, Preston Sturges and Frank Capra. I would compare him with George Cukor because he was equally good in comedy and drama.

Vaala's favourite director was Ernst Lubitsch. Affinities include a love of music and dance, a wit and spirit of expression, sparkling dialogue, a sense of humour and tender irony. People in the Summer Night is a rural story so there is little room for Lubitsch-style urban wit.

But great affinities remain: a fundamental sympathetic understanding of ambiguity and a general sense of the transience of life.

With directors like Vaala and Lubitsch, surface is never superficial. Schein is not far from Sein.

In the appreciation of such an elegant surface it is particularly rewarding to be able to view a first generation nitrate print. Nordic films of the studio era were as a rule struck directly from the camera negative.


In our Finnish old-fashioned mono culture Vaala was a stranger in many ways.

He was Russian in a deeply anti-Russian Finland.

His religion was Russian Orthodox in the most Lutheran Protestant country in the world.

He was gay in a country where homosexual acts were criminalized by the law.

And he made the most definitive native Finnish films such as this one.


The figure of the lumberjack called Nokia was unique in Finnish cinema for a long time. (Yes, Nokia shares his name with the famous cellphone brand. Nokia is an ancient name of a place in Häme where the story takes place).

Nokia is a lumberjack, but although he is gay, he is completely different from the lumberjacks of the cartoons of Tom of Finland.

Martti Katajisto gives a sensitive and moving performance of a man agonized by feelings he has a hard time making sense of.

[Based on my notes to the introduction for the screening].


I did not see the screening properly because I was sitting in the projection room of the Dryden Theatre operating the live electronic subtitling. I viewed the film from a long distance and through thick security glass. The projectionists defined the print as having been "well-loved" (probably it has been screened a thousand times), but with only four splices.

I have seen most of Vaala's nitrate era films in glorious nitrate but never People in the Summer Night because it happened to be the first Vaala nitrate title of which a safety screening print was created. The first screening of the safety print was a revelation of Vaala's genius for a young generation of cinephiles including Peter von Bagh. 

The English translation by Maarit Tulkki is accurate in every detail but fails to convey the distinguished flavour of the dialogue.

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