This remarkable film is a good example of what some film theorists have called the ‘national popular’ film. By that I mean a film that explores an important national event, is made by a local production company and seen by a significant audience both in the cinema and subsequently on TV/DVD etc. ‘The Winter War’ was the relatively short and bloody war in which Finland managed to stave off a Russian invasion in late 1939. The war ended in March 1940 with some Finnish territory ceded to the Soviet Union. Technically this was a victory for the Soviet Union but Finland remained independent and the Finnish forces proved a match for a much larger Red Army that suffered casualties on a 4:1 basis, arguably because of poor leadership and misguided strategic and tactical decisions. (The ‘Continuation War’ started in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union when Finnish forces attempted to win back territory, this time with German support.)
The Winter War was the most expensive Finnish film production to date in 1989 and it isn’t hard to see where the money went with many extras and scenes of destruction. The PAL Region 2 DVD available in the UK from Scanbox Entertainment offers quite a poor transfer of what I assume was the original print in the European aspect ratio of 1.66:1 – which makes the film seem much older than 1989. The DVD runtime is just over 120 mins which means it offers only two-thirds of the original running time. The Finnish PAL Region 0 DVD runs to over three hours. I found my copy in my local library but if I’d known about the original version I’d have gone for that (it seems to be easily available in the UK). Because I’ve only seen the shortened version, I’ve got be wary in commenting on the narrative – which not surprisingly seemed to be somewhat elliptical!
Director and co-writer Pekka Parikka adapted a novel by Antti Tuuri focusing on a Finnish regiment that is quickly recruited and armed and sent to the front in the Karelian peninsula (strategically the most important target for the Russians as the original border was relatively close to Leningrad). Here the Finns are eventually forced to defend the rudimentary ‘Mannerheim Line’ of trenches against a large Soviet force. The Finnish forces comprise some grizzled veterans alongside a larger proportion of young recruits. They have makeshift uniforms and a motley array of light weapons. The Russians have all the tanks and aircraft and far more artillery. The Finns know what they are doing and they are at least camouflaged by their white capes and outer tunics. In the truncated version of the film, the major achievement is the representation of war as brutal and relentless. The Russian tactics were stupid with massed infantry walking towards the trenches alongside the tanks. Hundreds were shot and killed by the defenders but nevertheless we understand the terror of the defenders faced with successive waves of attackers. The film is remarkable for two absences. We have no access to the Russian perspective so they remain a faceless enemy apart from a few individuals killed or captured at close quarters. There is no representation of Finnish politicians or senior military figures and apart from one speech by a senior officer to his men there is relatively little jingoism. The Home Front focus is on the young wives and girlfriends and the mothers. Because the frontline was so close to home, some of the men get leave – but as one of them says the likelihood is they will go home in a box.
Perhaps because the narrative features an older brother looking after his sibling, several American commentators have compared the film favourably to Saving Private Ryan, suggesting that Spielberg might have seen it. I can’t comment on that except to say that the Finnish film is mercifully free of the sentimentality that too often overwhelms Spielberg’s films. For me the Hollywood films that this reminded me of were those combat films about WWII and Korea made by Sam Fuller and Robert Aldrich – and of course, Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron. But then the real comparison might be with Russian films about the ‘Great Patriotic War’.
So, despite the truncated narrative, I’m glad I’ve seen this – it helps to explain some of the background to those Nordic crime fiction and horror stories I’ve been reading in which Danes, Swedes and Norwegians are fighting as volunteers alongside the Finns and against the Russians in 1939.