Part of Intellect’s World Film Locations series, World Film Locations: Helsinki explores the relationship between the city, cinema, and Finnish cultural history. Cinematic representations of Helsinki range from depictions of a northern periphery to a space of cosmopolitanism, from a touristic destination to a substitute for Moscow and St. Petersburg during the Cold War. The city also looks different depending on one’s perspective, and World Film Locations: Helsinki illustrates this complexity by providing a visual collection of cinematic views of Helsinki.
This cinematic city is a collective work where individual pieces construct a whole, and one which we, as viewers, then shape according to our perspectives. The contributors emphasize the role of the city in identity and cultural politics throughout Finnish film history and its central role as the locus for negotiating Finland’s globalization.
About the Author
Pietari Kääpä is a research fellow in the School of Film and Television Studies at the University of Helsinki. He has published extensively on transnational Finnish cinema, including Directory of World Cinema: Finland. Silja Laine is a lecturer in landscape studies at the University of Turku, Finland.
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World Film Locations Helsinki
By Pietari Kääpä, Silja Laine
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
City of the Imagination Pietari Kääpä
Text by Pietari Kääpä
IN DISCUSSING THE cinematic imagining of Helsinki on screen, one faces the ironically appropriate fact that one of the most well known feature films to include 'Helsinki' as part of its title does not actually feature Helsinki on screen. The title of the film - Mika Kaurismäki's Berlinset Helsinki Napoli: All Night Long (1987) - tells us all we need to know. This is the internationally prevalent image of Helsinki as the northernmost European capital. It is a periphery, as different from the rest of Europe as the southern Naples is. The film's exploration of West Berlin as a Cold War-era city of two zones evokes another crucial geo-imaginary frequently associated with Helsinki, that of a borderline between the East and the West, with Finns keen to emphasize the 'Westness' of Helsinki, as Kaurismäki arguably does in the film's title.
International perceptions of Helsinki often align with these geocultural coordinates - north, east - or they evoke a version of the city seen in the films of Aki Kaurismäki, a space of lonely, sad individuals in films such as Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö/Match Factory Girl (1990). Helsinki is not only a 'kaurismäkicity' but has also featured as the pinnacle of modernism in early documentary and fiction films. The city has been used as a way to support Finnish self-conceptions of cosmopolitanism (or 'worldliness'), displaying a range of design styles and architectural wonders. But in the Finnish imagination, one of its main functions has been to embody the divergence between the city and the countryside, a theme of lingering persistence in Finnish cinema.
Migration from the rural areas to Helsinki became a concrete social problem as alienation and the changes in lifestyles were captured by the 'New Wave' films of the 1960s and the 1970s. Taking their cue from the rebellious aesthetic and thematic work of the nouvelle vague, the films of Risto Jarva, Mikko Niskanen, and others took a sociorealist approach to imagining the city. Some of the films explored the alienation of women in modern suburban life (Jaakko Pakkasvirta's Vihreä leski/Green Widow ). Others provided chronicles of the unpredictable economic circumstances of the internal immigrants (Risto Jarva's Yhden miehen sota/One Man's War ), where life in the city was depicted as claustrophobic and hostile to interpersonal relations. Generational changes have also found their imagined representations in the unyielding grayness of Helsinki's suburbs (Täältä tullaan, elämä/Right on, Man ) or they work to reflect the 'worldly' attitudes of the protagonists (Arvottomat/The Worthless ). As Helsinki takes on different forms according to the specific producer/audience demographic, the cinematic imaginations of the city become a collection of cultural political perspectives contributing to its development.
Occupying simultaneous ideological functions between an inspirational pinnacle of artistic achievement and a corrupting influence, Helsinki's cinematic role has been heavily politicized. This is not only to do with the ways it has been used as a historical mirror to strengthen the sense of Finnish sovereignty in the face of Soviet aggression - see Helmikuun manifesti/ The February Manifesto (1938). It has also acted as a statement that aligns Finland culturally to the West as with Olympics related films such as Kultamitalivaimo/Gold Metal Wife (1947). This politicization has taken on alternative connotations as Hollywood producers have used Helsinki as a substitute for Moscow and other Soviet cities. This is of course ideological in its own right as the Soviet Helsinki of Gorky Park (1983) is a haven of corruption, a space so oppressive that the only option is escape. Simultaneously, Finnish produced films such as Vodkaa Komisario Palmu/Vodka Komisario Palmu (1969) have been criticized for their pro Soviet stance where Helsinki is now imagined as the battleground for heroic Soviet soldiers.
Depictions in the twenty-first century continue to use the city in subjective ways, reflecting the diversity of social/ideological perspectives it attracts. Thus, for a director like Aku Louhimies, Helsinki in, for example, Jäätynyt kaupunki/Frozen City (2005) is a space for depicting the fallacies of the welfare state. Meanwhile, Louhimies' Kuutamolla/Lovers and Leavers (2001) paints it in glamorous terms as host to romantic fantasies and nostalgic evocations. For others, the city is now a late capitalist haven that sustains class divisions (Leijat Helsingin Yllä/Kites over Helsinki ), or it has transformed into a fantasy world of colourful characters compensating for strained family ties (children's films such as Pelikaanimies/ Pelican Man  and the Risto Räppääjä series [2008-]). In capturing a sense of the sociocultural zeitgeist, Helsinki has also become a networked epitome of the information society in Nousukausi/Upswing (2004) and Hymypoika/YoungGods (2004). Underneath their seemingly leftist critical exteriors, they construct a structured view of the city, divided into its slums and exclusive neigbourhoods.
Yet, even here, the city is constantly re-imagined as previously maligned or marginalized neighbourhoods are gentrified for young urban consumers. Cinematic imagination plays a key role in films like Pussikaljaelokuva/Six Pack (2011) and Monte Rosso (2008), which emphasize hipness and a certain air of nouveau bohemianism in their depictions of Kallio and Punavuori, respectively. Simultaneously, they commercialize local cultural elements and reveal the role cinema plays in the process of gentrification. Through its cosmopolitan facade, the city has never seemed more like a space of open opportunities, and simultaneously, a commercial space ripe for exploiting and exploitation. Working alongside these forms of cinematic imagination are criticism of cosmopolitanism as a form of global citizenship that includes few and excludes many. Two key Helsinki texts, Risto Jarva's A Game of Luck (1965) and Aki Kaurismäki's Ariel (1988), provide critical explorations of the city's role in the contemporary nation as they not only capture the contemporary present of the city but the very process of change. The targets of criticism here concern the notion of an urban mentality, which emerges from local or national contexts, but connects to universal calls for moral equality and a pervasive sense of shared common humanism. These critiques of cosmopolitanism thus become cosmopolitan in the most idealistic sense of the term, as they take place in Helsinki, but expand the thematic scope of the cinematic city far beyond its geographical borders.
One aspect of contemporary Finland strikingly marginal in the cinematic imagination is race and the different ethnic groups that populate Helsinki. While films about immigrant experiences have been produced, they are very rare (Jos Rakastat/ If You Love ) or handled in clumsy ways (Vieraalla maalla/Land of Love ). The global realities of contemporary Helsinki are thus still elusive and in need of appropriate representation. This is especially important as the vitality of Helsinki as a central location in film culture emerges in art gallery showings and publications such as Outi Heiskanen and Minna Santakari's Asuuko Neiti Töölössä? (SEA, 2004), which contribute substantially to the discussion that keeps the city and its past alive for contemporary audiences. Thus, it is very important that its past is understood in a historical perspective to which new visions contribute, as in Peter von Bagh's compilation film on representations of Helsinki in Helsinki ikuisesti/Helsinki Forever (2008), which acknowledge the historical realities of the city while also imagining it as capable of the types of representations that meet its contemporary multicultural reality.
The city has beens used as a way to support Finnish self-conceptions of cosmopolitianism (or worldliness), displaying a range of design styles and architectural wondersCHAPTER 2
Documenting Helsinki's Changing Landscapes
Text by Pietari Kääpä
DOCUMENTARY VISIONS of Helsinki range from films presenting themselves as objective slices of reality to explicitly political documentaries with a clear message to convey to audiences. From the early days of cinema, short actualities captured the splendor of the capital city. It was no accident that the depiction here was often glamorous as producers aimed to represent a modern impression of the city. The aim was to contrast the city against the countryside and project an image of a forward-looking nation, promoting Helsinki as a city of international standards and appeal, not unlike a northern Paris.
One of the most ambitious of these documentary projects is Finlandia (Erkki Karu, 1922), a multi part feature film constructed for the purpose of displaying the diversity of Finland to international audiences. Helsinki is portrayed as the epitome of modernity as it embodies the progressive ideals of a European nation, which, importantly, still needs its rural aspects which provide its claims of development a sense of authenticity. Similar projects were also produced for the
Helsinki Olympics in 1952 (XV Olympic Games in Helsinki [Hannu Leminen, 1952]). The film provides a contrast between the city and the natural environment, with the city depicted in distinctly cosmopolitan terms. Helsinki, as a documentary subject, had accumulated a set of identifiers that set it apart from its fictional counterpart. Feature length documentaries took on the propagandistic role of disseminating an image of a cosmopolitan city. Such depictions had an explicit political function as they were intended to project an image of the nation, and Helsinki as its flagship, to the international community unclear of the nation's cultural values and, most importantly, ideological loyalties. Meanwhile, the construction of such films functioned to underline to the domestic audiences that a new era in geopolitical relations and domestic welfare had arrived.
Subsequent decades showcase particularly impressive work from Risto Jarva, who explored transformations in the life of the city, from its ideological mores to its architecture. These films saw the city as the locus for social development, including campaigns for gender equality (Nainen ja yhteiskunta/ Women and Society ) and against the commercialization of the spaces of the city centre. As much as the films of Karu and Jarva showcased idiosyncratic attitudes to the documentary format, Jörn Donner and Peter von Bagh, two well known polemicists active in film culture since the 1950s, have produced documentaries of Helsinki. Their films, Yhdeksän tapaa lähestyä Helsinkiä/Nine Ways of Approaching Helsinki (1982) and Helsinki ikuisesti/Helsinki Forever (2008), respectively, provide a more or less totalized vision of the city instead of the shorter films which often focus only on certain social issues. These films can be argued to be true city films, the types of city symphonies frequently produced in the 1920s. But they are also, crucially, subjective versions of the city.
Donner's Nine Ways of Approaching Helsinki, a co-production with Pirjo Honkasalo and Pekka Lehto, provides an idiosyncratically ironic depiction of the role of the city in Finnish culture. While what we see on screen abides with most conventional definitions of reality, it is made explicitly clear that this is a highly subjective version of the city. Donner spent his childhood in Helsinki and much of the film works as an autobiographical exploration of meanings the city evokes in him. The director's philosophical musings are complemented by short sections on distinct themes that matter for the director. 'Approaches' is a good term to use as the distinct vignettes of the film emphasize that the city appears different depending on who is looking at it and for what purpose. These include the role of religion, patriotism, internationalism, and social inequality in the city, all used for polemical purposes. A good illustration of this is the story of a particular individual who has migrated to the city and attempts to moor himself in this fluctuating world. Donner's voice-over is particularly scathing as he describes the infantile mindset of the Finnish male reliant on their mothers (äitee) and unable to fit into 'continental' ways. The segment captures the social heart of domestic migration in simplistic but effective terms. The approach is like a condensed version of a wide-spread social problem, conveyed in the idiosyncratically ironic mores of its directors.
If Donner's version is a polemical exploration of the city's social and cultural history, Von Bagh's is an archive of cultural impressions. Presented as a compilation of clips encompassing the history of Finnish cinema, it constructs a multi-perspective view of the cultural history of the city. By compiling the ways other directors have seen the city into a singular experience, Von Bagh constructs an archive that sees into the past and shapes a subjective mind map of the city. Thus, the film both indicates the complexity and plurality of envisioning one's social place and relations to the surrounding world while it provides a deeply personal exploration of the meanings of the city in domestic art and cultural history.
But ultimately, the main work of the film is done with its viewers as its use of fictional clips as historical material transcends any obligations of realism - that is, realism in the sense of abiding with a verisimilitudal view of the city. The viewers will simply bring their own sets of associations to bear on the cinematic snippets, connecting them with personal memories as they flow with Von Bagh's experiences. The film is documentary production at its most open. It emphasizes the impossibility of viewing the city in totality or arguing for an absolute understanding of what the city may mean. The film's acknowledgment of the cultural memory of the city as an ongoing, shared, if subjective, notion indicates both the importance and plurality of 'feeling' about the city and the nation. Both Donner and Von Bagh's films emphasize that documentaries need not only be flashes of reality about the city. They can also be meditations on the very act of constructing memory in and through cinematic texts.
Helsinki Forever is documentary production at its most open. It emphasizes the impossibility of viewing the city in totaliy or arguing for an absolute understanding of what the city may mean.CHAPTER 3
THE SUPREME VICTORY/ KORKEIN VOITTO(1929)
Suomenlinna, a maritime fortress located off the coast of Helsinki
CARL VON HAARTMAN'SThe Supreme Victory is a spy film set in Helsinki and nearby areas. It tells the story of a frivolous baron Henrik von Hagen (von Haartman) who after many years happens to meet his old beloved madame Vera Vasiljevna (Kerstin Nylander). In the aftermath of the October Revolution this Russian has become a Bolshevik spy. Suomenlinna, a military area where foreigners are not allowed, is one of her targets. Madame Vasiljevna uses her feminine skills to charm baron von Hagen who has a severe weakness for beautiful women. Not understanding what he is doing he takes the vamp to Suomenlinna across the frozen lake on a motor sleigh. As the couple closes in on the fortress a tracking shot presents a view from the sea of its snow-covered walls. Foreigners should not see more but as baron von Hagen knows high military personnel the couple are given a tour of the place. The film contains a number of shots of Madame Vasiljevna standing smiling next to large cannons as she is especially interested in Suomenlinna's coast artillery. It later becomes apparent that she has hidden a spy camera in her purse to gather information about Finland's defence capabilities. Clearly, the Soviet Union is making plans to give military support to a possible Bolshevik uprising in Finland. In The Supreme Victory, Suomenlinna is represented as the guardian of the nation's independence that is threatened not only by Bolsheviks but also by thoughtless citizens like baron von Hagen. * Jaakko Seppälä
Excerpted from World Film Locations Helsinki by Pietari Kääpä, Silja Laine. Copyright © 2013 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Helsinki: City of Imagination
Reality Bites: Documenting Helsinki’s Changing Landscapes
Map of Scenes 1-7: 1927-1952
Designer City: Architects in Helsinki Films
Map of Scenes 8-14: 1952-1962
Creative Geography: Helsinki as Body Double (Part 1)
Map of Scenes 15-20: 1965-1978
The Same But Different: Helsinki as Body Double (Part 2)
Map of Scenes 21-26: 1979-1988
From Hämeentie: The Local Logic of Aki Kaurismäki’s Helsinki
Map of Scenes 27-32: 1997-2005
Comic Spaces: Helsinki’s Social Districts in Film Comedies
Map of Scenes 33-38: 2005-2011