Varastettu Kuolema (1938)

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No one can hide from the eyes of the secret police!
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vt Stolen Death
Finland / 101 minutes, cut to 86 minutes / bw / Adams, Blomberg Dir: Nyrki Tapiovaara Pr: Erik Blomberg Scr: Eino Mäkinen, Erik Blomberg, Matti Kurjensaari Story: “Lihamylly” (nd—see below) by Runar Schildt Cine: Olavi Gunnari, Erik Blomberg Cast: Tuulikki Paananen, Ilmari Mänty, Santeri Karilo, Annie Mörk, Bertha Lindberg, Hertta Leistén, Gabriel Tossu, Ilmari Parikka, Aku Peltonen, Atos Konst, Viljo Kervinen, Paavo Kuoppala, Yrjö Salminen, Kusti Laitinen, Emil Kokkonen, Ida Salin.

Stolen Death - 0 opener

Runar Schildt set the novella upon which this movie is based during the Finnish Civil War of 1918. The movie pushes the events back to 1904. In either instance, a group of Finnish freedom fighters is rebelling against repressive Russian rule. The version of the movie that I’ve seen is the 86-minute re-release; the original apparently ran to 101 minutes. The shorter version holds together coherently, but time and again there’s the sense that nuances are missing and likewise some of the plot elements.

Robert Hedman (Mänty) is leader of a group of radicals (Konst, Kervinen, Kuoppala, Salminen) who devote themselves to printing and distributing pamphlets protesting against repression by the Russkis and demanding freedom. One night on his way home, Robert realizes he’s about to be picked up by the secret police and so hides his precious notebook, complete with details of his co-conspirators, in a dark alley.

When he returns, after having been frisked, he discovers the notebook gone.

Stolen Death - 1 Manja

Manja (Tuulikki Paananen).

The person who has purloined it is Manja (Paananen), the young mistress of the foreign-born black marketeer Jonni Claësson (Karilo). It’s difficult to be certain, bearing in mind the extent of the cuts to the version I’ve seen, but I think it’s the case that the role of Manja (pronounced Maria) in Jonni’s enterprise is to whore herself to the Russian troops as a route to pilfering weapons from them, weapons that Jonni can sell.

Madame Johansson (Mörk) runs a junk shop that’s a front for illicit activities, such as the forging of passports. It’s to Madame Johansson that Robert goes for a faked passport when he realizes revolutionary pamphlets are no longer enough: the comrades must take up arms. Madame Johansson is a great creation—while beating up the price that Robert is prepared to pay, she tells him anecdotes of crime and the tortures that the gendarmes have meted out to the criminals they’ve captured, anecdotes that, because of Mörk’s delivery, have us giggling at what are really tragedies and barbarisms.

Stolen Death - 2 Mme J warns Robt of dangers of forged passports even while taking his money for one

Madame Johansson (Annie Mörk) warns Robert of the dangers of forged passports . . . even while she’s taking his money for one!

She’s also in league with Jonni. Thanks to Robert’s purloined notebook, Jonni realizes the gang of high-born would-be insurgents is ripe for a bit of exploitation. He has sent Manja to infiltrate their numbers and plant the idea that there’s an easily available source for the guns and bombs they want. Jonni reckons there are two ways of leeching the young tearaways: (a) selling them the weapons and then (b) using the fact that they have the weapons to blackmail their well heeled relatives—such as Robert’s uncle, who’s a high muck-a-muck in the government—with the threat of the youngsters going to prison and being subjected to the tortures of the secret police.

Stolen Death - 3a Robert explains his situation to Jonni

Robert (Ilmari Mänty) explains his situation to Jonni . . .

Stolen Death - 3b and Jonni sets his terms

. . . and Jonni (Santeri Karilo) sets his terms.

Madame Johansson initially rejects the scheme with revulsion—“If your heart is golden, there must be gold in every back yard”—but she’s a wheelerdealer of strictly purchasable virtue, and soon their vile alliance is sealed.

What Jonni hasn’t reckoned with is that Manja, who has for ages hated him but lacked the opportunity to leave, might fall in love with Robert, whom the bully regards as an ineffectual wimp (an analogy, perhaps, for Finland’s relationship with its bullying Russian overlords). But fall in love they do, and soon Manja is his loyal-lieutenant in the freedom-loving gang.

Stolen Death - 4a

Stolen Death - 4b Robert and Manja and the imminent kiss

Robert (Ilmari Mänty) and Manja (Tuulikki Paananen) loom inexorably toward each other for that first kiss . . .

Stolen Death - 4c and what happens to the pic of Robt's girlfriend

. . . and what happens to the photo of Robert’s girlfriend.

Robert’s high-born mother (Lindberg) is horrified when she learns of the scheme, and every bit as horrified when she stumbles across the domestic arrangements between Robert and Manja. Given the choice between Manja and his mother, Robert chooses the girl: he cares nothing that her past has been checkered . . .

Stolen Death - 5 Robt and his mother wrangle over the guns and the girl

Robert (Ilmari Mänty) and his mother (Bertha Lindberg) wrangle over the guns and the girl.

There’s more, much more. Although the movie’s noir credentials are impressive, from the cinematography to tropes like ubiquitous paranoia, the constant fear being that the people the protagonists trust may be doubledealers, there’s actually quite a lot of humor along the way, in the form of a number of set-pieces:

(1) Inspired by Manja, the gang realize the way to get hold of Jonni’s black-market weapons is not to pay his extortionate prices but simply to wait until he’s off at a business meeting in Turku and then, using the set of his keys that Manja still has, burgle him. They decide to conceal the stolen weapons in a coffin so that they can drive the contraband in plain view through the town to the railway station, then take it by train to somewhere distant.

(1a) As the fake cortège goes solemnly through the streets, a group of Russian soldiers pauses to salute the departed. The soldiers are standing outside Madame Johansson’s junk shop, which they are on their way to raid. When, a few minutes later, they carry out the raid, they unearth enough evidence of miscreancy that Madame Johansson disappears from the movie.

(1b) Despite the fact that a late-arriving old woman (Salin) on the platform successfully delays the train so she can board it, our friends still manage to miss it.

(2) Robert has a bright idea. If they can’t ship the coffin out of here immediately, they can put it in the local morgue and collect it later tonight. So they do exactly that.

(2a) Unfortunately, there’s an identical coffin at the morgue, and the attendant (Peltonen) gets the two mixed up. This later works to the great advantage of Robert and Manja because, after they’ve gotten the coffin home at last, the soldiers break in and discover the coffin contains . . . a corpse.

Stolen Death - 6 The quirky morgue attendant

The quirky morgue attendant (Aku Peltonen).

(2b) There’s a really slick piece of business that the gang use to get their hands on the right coffin, swapping it for the other. If you don’t grin as you watch the audacity of this maneuver, you’re tired of London.

(3) The cops raid Robert’s apartment again, just as he and Manja are unwrapping a machine gun. (The title of Schildt’s novella, “Lihamylly,” literally means meat-grinder, a slang term for machine gun.) There’s a tremendous street and rooftop chase, with Robert and Manja eventually stumbling into a cobbler shop. The shoemaker (Tossu) hides them in the back and then rebuffs any attempt by the soldiers to search the place by dragging an unfortunate child to him and spanking it.

Stolen Death - 7 Bearing the 'meat grinder', Robt and Manja flee the soldiers

Bearing the “meat grinder”, Robert (Ilmari Mänty) and Manja (Tuulikki Paananen) flee the soldiers.

(It was at this point that I realized I saw this movie decades ago, probably in my teens. I felt so sorry for the child who was getting spanked despite having committed no crime!)

Stolen Death - 8 The shoemaker comes to their rescue

The shoemaker (Gabriel Tossu) comes to their rescue.

(4) There’s a very funny baby-in-pram routine about which I’ll tell you no more.

Despite all these entertaining sequences, it’s obvious there can’t be any end to this but tragedy: Finland did not, after all, witness a glorious uprising in 1904 that drove the Russian tyrants from the land. There’s the same sense here that we get in so much of noir: the foreknowledge that the sap, however much we might sympathize and even like him (less often her), is doomed. There’s the sense that the authorities, not just the ruling ones but the petty officials, are irredeemably corrupt; when Robert’s frosty mother takes him a food basket in prison, the guard (Parikka) promptly steals all of it except the loaf of bread at the bottom. (Since that loaf contains a hidden gun, at least for once the corrupt official gets to rue his corruption.)

Stolen Death - 10 The prison guard rips off Robt's food basket

The prison guard (Ilmari Parikka) rips off Robert’s food basket.

This is a fine movie to put in front of people who insist that film noir is a US genre that started in 1940; here’s a 1938 movie, made in Finland, that has as many attributes of the genre as Fritz Lang’s M, made in, er, Germany in, er, 1930.

Director Tapiovaara made just five movies, of which this was the second. Bearing in mind the setting of Varastettu Kuolema, it seems something of a bitter irony that Tapiovaara met his death in 1940 during the Winter War, precipitated by the Soviet invasion of Finland. As for Runar Schildt, author of the original novella, he committed suicide in 1925, in his mid-30s; his son, Göran Schildt, eight years old at the time, also became a significant writer.

Stolen Death - 11 Manja is seized by a wrathful Jonni

 Manja (Tuulikki Paananen) is seized by a wrathful Jonni.

Mänty is quite splendid as Robert and there’s a very strong support performance from Mörk as Madame Johansson, yet there’s no question but that the movie belongs to Paananen as Manja. In his notes on the movie at his Film Noir site, Tony d’Ambra says that “Paananen has a presence as disarming as Garbo”; I’d agree with that assessment, and perhaps more so. Paananen has an extraordinary magnetism on the screen. At first we see her as a not overwhelmingly attractive strumpet—rather as Robert’s mother does, in fact—but we’re not too far into the movie before our heart is hers. Paananen puts the full force of her intelligence onto the screen, and it’s no wonder we come to identify with her so strongly.

Stolen Death - 9 Manja

Tuulikki Paananen as Manja.

The cinematography is infused with German expressionism and with everything people would later come to call noir; I’ve put a few examples here. Yet Tapiovaara and Blomberg were also doing something a lot more adventurous than most of the Hollywood film noir directors would ever learn to do. Quite a few stretches of the movie are actually shot as silent. It’s something many viewers might very well not notice (I almost didn’t until my beloved pointed it out). The musical soundtrack (by George de Godzinsky) is so compelling and the events onscreen so involving that it’s easy not to realize we’re being hoodwinked.

I’ve been unable to ascertain publication details of the Runar Schildt novella upon which this movie is based. If anyone knows them, the information would be much appreciated.

Stolen Death - closer

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4 thoughts on “Varastettu Kuolema (1938)

  1. This film looks rather stunning, based on the screen caps you’ve posted. The script sounds really interesting, too. I think I’d really like this one.

    I loved this: “…she’s a wheelerdealer of strictly purchasable virtue…” Tells you everything you need to know about a person, no?

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