Festivals | One Man’s Century: Peter von Bagh’s Sodankylä Forever

By Olaf Möller

The Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä is something of a legend: everybody has heard about it, but who has actually made the trip to Finland’s farthest north? Besides, the stories one hears—the program, the presence of many an old master over the decades, the drinking and general sense of camaraderie, the way cinema is celebrated, almost worshipped there—all sound too good to be true. The name most people associate with Sodankylä is Aki Kaurismäki who’s commonly considered the fest’s founding father, which is only partly true—for there’s also his brother Mika, fellow maverick auteur Anssi Mänttäri, and, most importantly maybe, Peter von Bagh, an incarnation-condensation of Finnish film culture into one man’s vision and works. Of which there are many. Besides doing Sodankylä, von Bagh is also the artistic director of Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato; a teacher of cinema, these days at TaiK (Aalto-yliopiston taideteollinen korkeakoulu); the founder and still editor-in-chief of Filmihullu; and the author/publisher of more than two dozen books, the latest being a collection of discussions with directors during the Midnight Sun Film Festival’s first quarter-century (Sodankylä ikuisesti; WSOY; Helsinki, 2010).

One is tempted to say that above all else, von Bagh is a director in his own right, mainly of documentaries, of which he has made many, almost all for television. Only a few of these are known beyond Finnish borders, certainly due to language issues—only a handful at best seem to have been subtitled into anything other than Swedish—and quite probably also to the subjects, which range from WWII (1939, 1993; The Last Summer 1944, 1992) via Helsinki in cinema (Helsinki Forever, 2008) to the careers of Tango-axiom Olavi Virta (1972 and 1992) and the grand cine-poet of Finlandia, Mikko Niskanen (A Director On His Way to Become a Human BeingThe Story of Mikko Niskanen, 2010). Similar to the latter’s oeuvre, von Bagh’s looks like a monumental meditation on the Finnish 20th century, its decisive historical moments as well as its key figures in popular culture. And it’s very much von Bagh’s version, as a small anecdotal detail might suggest: when we were recently talking about Avoveteen, the 1936 novel by Urho Karhumäki and its 1939 adaptation for cinema by Orvo Saarikivi, von Bagh mentioned that he had used moments from that film in several of his own; in his book Nuvole in paradiso. Una guida al cinema finlandese, he calls it “an X-ray of Finland’s innocent years”—a film like an era that is a central element of a personal mythology/history.

The Finnish century probably began in 1917/18 when the country gained independence from the nascent USSR and continued until…who knows. Most centuries inside the one we call the 20th started at some point other than 1900 and didn’t necessarily end in 2000 (see Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of the “short century”). The century of cinema Peter von Bagh evokes in Sodankylä Forever: The Century of Cinema (Sodankylä ikuisesti. Elokuvan vuosisata) might be one of the briefest: it starts somewhere in the ‘30s or even ‘40s and ends…when exactly? It comes down to a question of belief: did the Utopia Cinema (as the Austrian Filmmuseum twice called seasons of the filmmakers under discussion) survive the demise of the industry? The fall of the Wall and all the cultural changes it brought forth? Judging by the film’s spirit as well as the people one gets to see and listen to, Utopia is still within our reach, if we choose to embark on the journey.

Sodankylä Forever consists for the most part of choice moments from discussions held over the last 25 years at the Midnight Sun Film Festival. Featured are Samuel Fuller, Miklós Jancsó, Marlen Huciev, Mario Monicelli, Jacques Demy, Jerzy Skolimowski, Andrej Smirnov, Michael Powell, Dino Risi, Ivan Passer, Joseph H. Lewis, Aleksei German, Francis Ford Coppola, Claude Sautet, and many others, but only those names stuck in my mind, usually due to the length and power of their contributions as well as there sheer presence, and most times also for personal—let’s say cine-mythocanological—reasons. Yes, there are also quite a few nuggets of wisdom from people like Agnieszka Holland, Abbas Kiarostami, István Szabó, Ettore Scola, and Miloš Forman where one—or at least little me—wonders what they’ve done to deserve the honour of a trip to Sodankylä. But then again, Forman is a great performer—and likely bullshitter—as well as a wonderful raconteur, and Szabó has an aura that comes from burning conviction.

Forman actually gets to tell the film’s “motto-tale”: how he went to the movies for the first time at the age of six, how an adaptation of Bedřich Smetana’s Prodaná nevěsta (1866) was played, how the film was silent or shown without sound, and how the audience—as everybody knew the opera—started to sing along. So, little Miloš concluded, cinema is a place where people go to sing together while watching living pictures. This is key: the audience, i.e., the masses, as cinema’s essence, an active, essential part of the art. And thus Sodankylä Forever demands to be seen in cinema even if it was made for television (actually, it’s the apotheosis of a four-part series).

Lauri Timonen’s description of Sodankylä Forever in the catalogue of Il Cinema Ritrovato is a bit misleading: he suggests that the directors are engaging in something like a heavenly symposium on cinema and a century. Although there is that whiff of Camelot or Valhalla to it all, the directors aren’t really “talking to” each other, even if they’re sometimes complementing each other’s stories or deepening a point. The auteurs don’t tell the story—von Bagh does. With his melodiously booming voice, he relates his tale of cinema, of which the directors’ statements and reminiscences, life lessons and ruminations, tales tall and extra/ordinary, form but a part: there are also the details and episodes you can’t invent, the genius and gristle of human existence, like Jancsó suddenly starting to quote from the “beautiful Hungarian translation” of the Kalevala, or how Forman, Passer, Skolimowski, and a certain Václav Havel found themselves one year staying in the same boarding-school dormitory (von Bagh notes wryly that the only failure among them was Havel because he didn’t contribute anything to cinema). Von Bagh’s storytelling is crisp, even brusque at times: not a word too much is said, not an image shown for too long. There’s no self-indulgence here. Von Bagh’s strength and authority as a storyteller makes one follow the narrative where and howsoever it goes and moves, for there are quite a few sharp turns to it, sudden changes of direction which might first look like detours but prove to be simply the faster road less travelled. Also take note of the decisiveness with which the work moves—no grand gestures with the camera (most of the stuff was probably shot with no intention other than to record an event for the archives, and it shows), nothing fancy in the editing, just a simple and very precise idea about how and why a scene should begin and end. In all that, Sodankylä Forever has the grace of the bear: those rolling moves that manage to look rough and jerky while smoothly elegant at the same time.

War is an essential part of that story: cinema, for von Bagh, is always born out of epic strife, from moments of great upheavals. Finland’s ultra-complex WWII history often comes into play, albeit not by heroic figures but by rather humble yet charismatic human beings of intelligence and taste, people in synch with the moment and with different notions for tomorrow. For Finland that moment was WWII, but, as von Bagh quickly acknowledges, other places had similar moments, like the Stalinist Terror of the second half of ‘30s USSR whose aftermath gave us Huciev and that greatest generation of Soviet cinema. Sodankylä, von Bagh mentions, witnessed a massacre by the Germans. But it doesn’t always get that dramatic. Some actually talk about their puzzlingly nondramatic roles in certain circumstances, and Fuller gives us all the key to surviving a war: be nice to your sergeant.

On the other hand, there’s nature. Sodankylä is a small town surrounded by a vastness comprised of trees and lakes and rivers. There’s a message in the festival’s setting: certain things are much grander and maybe more important for the soul than cinema. Von Bagh includes a few shots of outings with some masters that are moving for being unexpected: who has ever seen Michael Powell enjoying himself in the forests? Some might call this proto-Fordian, others simply Finnish. Von Bagh, again in Nuvole in paradiso. Una guida al cinema finlandese, shows a keen awareness-cum-loving appreciation of Finland’s pastoral tradition, mentioning it almost every ten pages.

And the last word von Bagh leaves to Samuel Fuller, who tells of a nightly visit he paid to the quiet cemetery of Sodankylä. In that tale he says, “The wind has character.” There’s nothing left to say after that.

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