- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (24/12/2021)
(A Christmas Eve Nordic Special)
There's nothing more vulgar than tooting one's own trumpet. But Christmas only comes once a year and this festive fanfare doubles as an excuse as to why Parky At the Pictures isn't covering the week's new releases. Having written What to Watch Next If You Liked Scrooge (https://www.cinemaparadiso.co.uk/films/collections/what-to-watch/films-to-watch-if-you-like/what-to-watch-next-if-you-liked-scrooge) for Cinema Paradiso and 24 Films to Watch on TV This Christmas (https://www.bfi.org.uk/lists/24-films-watch-tv-this-christmas) for the BFI website, there simply wasn't time to squeeze a new column between the two end-of-year reviews.
However, having contributed to the BFI's 50 Great Christmas Films Currently Streaming (https://www.bfi.org.uk/lists/50-great-christmas-films-currently-streaming), it dawned that we could still come up with a Christmas Eve special that showcases a triple bill of monochrome Nordic gems that are showing over the holiday season on Netflix and Shudder.
A GUEST IS COMING.
Crime writer Stieg Trenter centred 23 of his novels around maverick press photographer Harry Friberg and his reluctant partner in crime solving, Detective Inspector Vesper Johnson. There's no sign of either, however, in Arne Mattsson's A Guest Is Coming (1947), an original case that has the feel of a slickly made B movie.
Christmas is coming to Brunn's Manor. However, it seems set to be the last the current occupants will spend under its roof, as Clemens af Ernstam (Ivar Kåge) has decided to sell up because the estate is too expensive to run. His brother, Urban (Erik 'Bullen' Berglund) is too full of the festive spirit to bother himself with business. But Ragnar (Karl-Arne Holmsten) feels his father has acted hastily and is in as bad a mood as his sister, Christina (Gerd Hagman), who fears that the famous novelist she has invited to spend the holidays has stood her up.
As night falls, Grevinna Doris af Ernstam (Naima Wifstrand) serves the traditional Christmas sops to her guests, who include her old childhood friend, Dr Häger (Olav Riégo). He is as surprised as anyone when Georg Essman (Sture Lagerwall) arrives unannounced and Christina is relieved that her invitation has been accepted after all. However, she quickly becomes put out when her guest (who looks nothing like his picture in the paper) is monopolised by her stepsister, Eva (Elsie Albiin).
She takes the children to the stables to leave some porridge for Santa Claus and is surprised when Georg follows her with a second helping that she had intended to leave out for Edvin (Erik Hell), a farmhand who had fallen on hard times since her father had fired him. They return in time to hear Clemens read the Nativity story from the family bible.
Next morning, everyone rises early to attend Matins. Ragnar confronts his father in the stable, as he comes in to saddle up his most docile horse, Olle. In frustration, Ragnar throws a pitchfork at Clemens, who fails to turn up at the church. Doris is concerned and sends Eva to find him, But there's no sign of him, even after they search the stable and find Clemens's body in the straw.
Urban is sceptical that Olle could have delivered a fatal kick to the head and he is inspecting a fallen horseshoe with Armstrong the groom (Tor Borong), when they spot Edvin disappearing through a trapdoor in the hayloft. Siv (Anita Björk), a veterinary student who is sweet on Ragnar, is determined to clear his name and wanders into the mill when she sees a light. She finds Edvin, who tells her that someone had stolen one of the horseshoes that usually hang on a wooden post. But she is too scared to stay and regrets her decision when Edvin is found crushed under the millstone.
Georg notices a small hole in one of the wooden chocks securing the millstone and is busy checking the walking sticks in the hall stand when he sees Siv returning one with a pointed end. He creeps into her bedroom and warns her that trying to protect Ragnar could do more harm than good.
As he leaves her room, he hears singing from the attic and sees Christina cradling a doll. She picks up another and stabs its eyes before Doris finds her and assures her that Eva is not trying to steal Georg away from her. Curious to know why the stepsisters so dislike each other, George pays Eva a visit in her room. He shows her the letter Christina had sent to him, in which she claims that her life is in danger. But Eva dismisses her as a kleptomaniac and a fantasist, who is due to return to her nursing home the next morning.
Arriving at the station in time to see Christina board her train, Georg intercepts a police letter about the case and is persuaded to search the af Ernstam bedrooms. Informed by Berta (Julia Cæsar) the maid that the family is meeting to plan Clemens's funeral, Georg goes snooping upstairs. On the landing, he bumps into Doris, who is trying to dispose of the horseshoe that she thinks has been planted in Ragnar's room. Georg concurs, but they are intercepted by Häger, who snatches the evidence away and marches downstairs to call the police.
Meanwhile, Siv finds a nail in Olle's crupper and realises that this must have made the horse kick out. She goes to the mill to file it down, but someone enters and, in trying to evade them, Siv falls from a great height into the waterwheel. Georg hears her scream and rushes out into the twilight and calls for helpers to fish her out of the icy river.
Häger drives Siv to the hospital in his car, with Urban and Georg. He is annoyed because someone stole the crupper during the commotion, but is so cold after his rescue act that he stokes the stove and goes to sleep. A sleeve from a shirt he is drying on a line over his bed wakes him to prevent him from being asphyxiated because someone has blocked the ventilation hole. Georg gasps for air at the window before settling down in a chair with a gun beside him to wait for the killer to make their move.
Elsewhere, Eva opens Clemens's safe and hands the sale documents to Ragnar, who throws them on the fire. But mischief is afoot outside Georg's room, as one of Eva's children, Berit (Berit Holmström), has picked up his revolver and has taken it into the attic to play.
The murderer arrives in the nick of time to protect the child, only to use the weapon on Georg themselves. The next morning, they sneak into Siv's room at the hospital with a hypodermic needle. But they are stopped in time and the truth emerges. However, you shall have to watch for yourself to discover the malefactor's identity (don't say we never think of you at Christmastide).
Few will have any difficulty in cracking the case, but there's much enjoyment to be had in watching Mattsson and Trenter cast suspicion on each of the characters in turn. For all that, they never quite make a convincing case for Georg to answer Christina's cry for help and leave hanging the fact that he doesn't resemble the photograph in the newspaper that he so casually tosses on the fire.
Nevertheless, Sture Lagerwall is a fine actor and makes a suitably enigmatic sleuth. He's well supported by a solid cast, however, which notably includes rising star Anita Björk, who would go on to become one of Sweden's greatest actresses.
Nils Svenwall's interiors are splendidly atmospheric, with the stables and the mill being full of lofts and hidden doors. Martin Bodin's camera explores them with a nimble curiosity that is matched by the precision of Oscar Rosander's editing, as Mattson switches angles and perspectives to catch the dread on the face of their intended victim, while cunningly keeping perpetrator out of sight.
THE WHITE REINDEER.
Released on disc by the estimable Eureka label, Erik Blomberg's The White Reindeer (1952) has found its way on to Shudder and the BFI Player this Christmas. Rooted in Kuola Saami mythology, this early example of Finnish horror was selected by Jean Cocteau's jury as the Best Fairy Tale Film at the Cannes Film Festival before it was chosen as one of the five Best Foreign Films at the 1956 Golden Globes.
Set in Lapland, the story centres on Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen), who falls in love with the handsome Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) during a sled race that culminates in them rolling in the snow after out-pacing their rivals. Having reached a financial settlement with her parents, Aslak takes Pirita to his log cabin for a drunken wedding reception. However, as he is a reindeer herder, he has to spend long months away from home and Pirita is frustrated when he is too tired to make love to her on his return.
Unimpressed by the gift of a white reindeer calf to keep her company, Pirita seeks out Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), the shaman who lives in a hut in the middle of the icy wilderness. He smiles when Pirita asks for a love potion to make her irresistible to Aslak. As he performs the ritual with his Saami drum, however, he realises that Pirita was born to be a witch and shudders when he orders her to sacrifice the first living thing she sees on the Seita altar dedicated to the Great Reindeer Spirit.
Much to Pirita's dismay, the first creature she sets eyes upon is her white reindeer. Such is her desire to captivate Aslak, however, that she performs the rite and feels sensations stirring deep within her. Desperate to see her husband, she makes her way to his camp, only to discover that he has gone on a hunting expedition.
Unable to sleep in the crowded tent, Pirita wanders into the moonlit darkness and promptly turns into a white reindeer. A couple of herders spot her and try to hunt her down. But, as one of the men attempts to wrestle the animal by its antlers, it changes back into Pirita, whose beaming smile reveals the vampire fangs she plunges into his neck.
Pirita makes herself scarce when the corpse is returned to the village, as tongues start wagging about the legend of the cursed reindeer. Yet, such is the strength of the spirit possessing her that Pirita can't stop herself from transforming and luring another hapless victim into her clutches. However, he manages to escape and, when he recognises Pirita at a campfire gathering, he has to be restrained and is considered mad when he accuses her of being the vampire who attacked him.
Aslak doesn't believe the ravings, although he is concerned by her distress when she sees him preparing a spear to kill the rogue reindeer. Having turned the head of a groom on his wedding day, Pirita trudges into the wilderness to ask Tsalkku-Nilla to remove the spell. But there's no sign of him at his snowed-in hut and Pirita despairs at the altar, as she fears she has been doomed by the dread that Aslak doesn't love her.
Cornered by a posse searching for the white reindeer, Pirita metamorpizes so she can make her escape. However, she runs right into Aslak, who hurls his spear at the creature. His triumph quickly sours, though, as Pirita resumes her human form and he brushes the hair from his dead wife's face, as the wind whips powder across the snowy landscape.
Acting as his own cinematographer and editor, Blomberg brings his documentary experience to bear on both the visuals and the depiction of the herding and shamanic rituals. He uses cuts instead of special effects to convey Pirita's shape-shifting, but still manages to maintain a haunting atmosphere, which is sustained by the exceptional performance of his wife and co-scenarist, Mirjami Kuosmanen.
Acting mostly with her eyes, Kuosmanen is prone to the odd melodramatic gesture, some of which feel as though they have been lifted from silent Expressionism. But, with Blomberg often shooting her uplit face from below, she has a Dreyer-like stillness that makes her seem poignantly helpless against the unsuspected nature that can overpower her without compunction. That said, Pirita is anything but a docile woman who accepts a traditional wifely role with a reluctance that makes this as much a study of female status as it is of repressed sexuality.
Accompanied by Einar Englund's swelling score, the final image of Pirita lying in the snow with a spear sticking out of her chest is all the more harrowing for the look of peace that contrasts with Aslak's anguish. However, the use of folk songs also stresses that this is a record of a way of life that was starting to disappear and was only barely sustainable by the time of another classic Finnish horror, Jalmarí Helander's Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010).
WHEN DARKNESS FALLS.
Long before Nordic noir captured the popular imagination, Maria Lang had come to be known as the Swedish Agatha Christie. Several of her 40 detective novels has been filmed, but the best known is Arne Mattsson's When Darkness Falls (1960), which marked the return to Swedish cinema of Nils Asther, who had spent the last three decades in Hollywood after following in the wake of his compatriot and occasional co-star, Greta Garbo.
It's Christmas Eve in the village of Västlinge and Arne Sandell (George Fant) and his wife, Barbara (Elsa Prawitz), are doing brisk trade in their small shop. Arne has enough to worry about with assistant Connie Lundgren (Adolf Jahr) being drunk. But he is so put out by the sight of Elisabeth Rydén (Birgitta Pettersson) arriving at the local train station that he lies to Barbara about his taxi fare failing to show.
Elisabeth has to trudge to the rectory, where she is to spend the holidays with Pastor Tord Ekstedt (Nils Asther), his young daughter, Lotta (Anna-Maria Giertz), and their ultra-efficient housekeeper, Hjördis Holm (Mimi Nelson). As she has just lost her parents, Elisabeth is grateful for the chance to revisit the place where she had spent a happy summer as a teenager.
As the household busies itself with last-minute chores, Arne conducts a choir practice in the church. However, he insists on popping back to shop to cash up and he is alone in the office when he is hacked to death with an axe during an argument.
Lots of people seem to be out and about, with Mårten Gustavsson (Bengt Brunskog) suffering a breakdown on his motorbike after promising to meet up with Barbara to give him a present. He is rude to Frideborg Jansson (Sif Ruud), who is out delivering Christmas hyacinths to her neighbours. She calls on the Sandells, but finds no one home.
Meanwhile, at the rectory, Elisabeth gives Lotta a white kitten named Nefertite and breaks down in tears. Hjördis seems uncomfortable with the guest burying her face in the pastor's shoulder and she hurries Lotta out of the room. But they are not alone for long, as Barbara calls to ask if anyone has seen Arne, as he hasn't been seen since choir practice. They accompany her to the shop, where Elisabeth finds the body in the storeroom.
Throughout the morning service, Connie looks anxiously around, as he pumps the organ for the carols. He receives a disapproving look from Tekla Motander (Hjördis Petterson), who comes for coffee at the rectory with her daughter, Suzanne (Eva Sjöström). Frideborg is also present and eager to discuss the murder until Barbara arrives. She asks Tekla if she is happy now Arne is dead and refuses to react when she's called a slut. But everyone falls silent when police detective Christer Wijk (Karl-Arne Holmsten) arrives.
He proceeds to question everyone present and establishes most people's whereabouts at the time of the crime. However, he also witnesses the extent of Tekla and Barbara's animosity and discovers that no one likes the red-bearded Mårten, even though he is the son of a church warden. Connie's brother holds the same post and he had been helping out during his illness. But he denies seeing anything untoward on the night of the crime and plays down the fact that he had squabbled with Arne about being drunk on duty.
While showing Elisabeth around the sacristy, Connie discovers that the church silver has been stolen. Wijk learns from Connie's sister, Alice (Maritta Marke), that he had asked her to give him a false alibi and he notes the state Connie gets into when she reveals that he had run up considerable debts and had been forced to sell the shop to Arne.
Wijk gets insights into Connie, Arne and Barbara from Hjördis, who is frank about their failings, but ready to concede that they are all essentially decent. When he visits Barbara, she reveals that something had been on Arne's mind and also lets slip that she had worked as secretary to Tekla's factory-owning husband before her marriage. At that moment, Mårten bursts in and demands to know if he's a suspect. But Barbara persuades him to calm down before he says anything indiscreet.
No one gives Lotta the same advice, however. Having told Wijk that Hjördis had gone out when she had claimed to be home, she also informs Elisabeth that she was in love with Arne and that they used to have secret rendezvous in the cemetery. What she doesn't know, however, is that Barbara also used to meet Mårten there and that Frideborg had almost stumbled across them on Christmas Eve.
Tekla also seems content to speak her mind and Wijk witnesses another spat with Barbara when she accuses Tekla of murdering her husband by refusing to call an ambulance when he suffered an attack of appendicitis. She also claims that Tekla gave Arne the money to buy the shop to silence him, after Motander had complained about his wife in the taxi en route to the hospital. However, Tekla gives as good as she gets and insists that Barbara had only come to Västlinge because she had been caught embezzling her former employer.
Despite the fallout, Tekla invites Barbara and her other neighbours for a Christmas soirée. Tord plays the piano and hopes Suzanne will sing. But she excuses herself to meet Mårten and Barbara tells Tekla not to be so anxious as he's a nice enough chap. Lotta gets into a panic when she realises Nefertite has gone missing and she manages to get herself abducted in the church by someone returning to stolen silver. Elisabeth finds her bound and gagged and Tord is relieved she's safe.
Suddenly, it's New Year's Eve and Barbara chats with Elisabeth, as she gets dressed for Arne's funeral. The papers believe Wijk is clueless about the culprit, but Barbara believes she can lure the killer into the open because she has found a typed note in Arne's jacket arranging a meeting in the cemetery on Christmas Eve.
She puts on a brave face during the burial and is grateful to Tord for hosting a reception afterwards. Barbara seems distracted, however, and Elisabeth is concerned. When darkness falls, Barbara absents herself to creep into the cemetery, unaware that Lotta has followed her. Mårten is also there with a torch and, when Lotta notices that the planks covering Arne's open grave have been moved, he shields her eyes from the sight of Barbara's body lying in the hole. He sends her to fetch Wijk and the local constable, who reveals that Barbara didn't have an accident, as she had been strangled.
It soon transpires that Barbara had sent the same message to six different people and Wijk quizzes them all together in a bid to make one of them crack. They keep their nerve, but the plot has a couple of more twists before the truth is revealed. And, being Christmas, we won't give them away.
In truth, they're rather clumsily handled in an otherwise textbook display of whodunniting. Confining the action to a limited number of sets tastefully designed by Barbro Lindström, Mattsson tends to use Hilding Bladh's camera as a detached observer whose objectivity offers the viewer few easy clues, even when it glides across rooms or lingers to catch mirror reflections. By avoiding dramatic leaps, Lennart Wallén's editing proves equally noncommittal and leaves the viewer to reach their own conclusions on the basis of the dialogue.
Adapting her own text, Maria Long gives the admirable ensemble plenty of scope for dissembling. However, there are also a number of catty exchanges between Hjördis Petterson and Elsa Prawitz (who was Mattsson's wife), while Sif Ruud and Anna-Maria Giertz also show well as the local busybody and the innocent who sees and hears everything without recognising its importance. With Mimi Nelson resembling Anne Bancroft playing Mrs Danvers and Birgitta Pettersson looking as though she had stepped out of an Ingmar Bergman drama, the female cast members have more interesting roles than their male counterparts.
But Mattsson and Long keep their cards hidden and even find room for a couple of red herrings. It all seems a little theatrical at times, but the emphasis on sexual treachery feels modern for 1960, especially for a story that is so predicated upon religion.