Monday, 2 September 2019

Tuntematon Sotilas - (The) Unknown Soldier - and other historical rambles

For those of you interested (probably just my imaginary Finnish friend who's into history), I got around to watching all 5 episodes (4 1/2 hours) of Tuntematon Sotilas. Before I jump into comments on the production, I wanted to make a little detour and to give a bit more background. The reason for the definite article in parentheses in the title is because Finnish doesn't have articles, so I'm not sure if it's meant to be 'The' or 'An', or if it's deliberately ambiguous. The story is after all about a whole (machine gun) platoon, or at least several soldiers within it (if not a whole generation), 'it' (A? The?) could be any one of them. Everyman. The fact there is no main character, in the book, it is an ensemble piece, is important I think. The men are all working class guys, including the platoon commander, 2nd lieutenant Koskela, younger son of a peasant farmer. Other officers (and ORs from other platoons and sub-units) seem to flit in and out, apart from perhaps lieutenant Kariluoto (a rifle platoon/company commander in the same battalion). Kariluoto seems to be from a more monied background than the other main personalities, and cut straight from the 19th century liberal-nationalist ideal. Contrary to the usual sterotypes, he and Koskela get along and develop an effective working relationship.

DVD cover

I may have said it previously, but this is seems to be an absolute classic of modern Finnish literature. To my knowledge there have been at least three cinematic or televisual versions made since it was published in 1954. It seems to me bound up in the national self-image, and maybe even holds a lesson in how this small nation must be in order to survive as an independent country. i.e. we know how to work, struggle and fight hard, but we really shouldn't do anything to annoy the Bear. Remember, this is against the background of other ex-Russian Empire states (Latvia, Lituania and Estonia) being swallowed up whole by the Soviet Union. And Finland managed to avoid being occupied by the Soviets, bar losing a sizeable chunk of territory, and the placement of temporary military bases (which were handed back in the mid-50s). There's the aforementioned strain of doing what needs to be done. And there's a theme, to my mind at least, about authority and how it comes about. The platoon generally get on and do what is necessary, Koskela has the men's respect and they follow him, but he doesn't do it by pulling rank. Generally they don't tolerate airs and graces or being bossed about - one soldier strikingly effective soldier outdoes his comrades in this respect. To me that says something about the culture of egalitarianism in the country.

Having recently re-read the book, the story was fresh in my mind and I was duly impressed by the faithfulness generally to the plot. Also the parts seemed to be well cast. They were largely as I imagined the characters to look. I was particularly struck by the physical resemblance and manerisms of Vera (a resident of Petrozavodsk) to the person in the book. Either someone has access to my mind (worrying thought) or Linna drew the character so well, there is a common understanding of exactly how she should be portrayed! Some of the characters seemed to be played down compared to their more prominent role in the book (Määtä, is one that springs to mind). Conversely, the part of Rokka, admittedly a larger than life character in the original, seemed to be more central, but that is just my impression. I get that with film, sometimes shortcuts have to be taken. And Rokka is one of those characters who is so iconic, you can understand why he was chosen. If you're familiar with, or aware of SLA Marshall's findings in Men Against Fire, Rokka is the small minority of men who takes the battle to the enemy, but otherwise is that most unmilitary of men, even compared to other citizen soldiers. The only quibble I'd have made with that first episode is that the book takes more time to show you the characters of more of the men, but again I understand choices sometimes have to be made. Koskela himself seems to take a little bit of a backseat too compared to his place in the book. However, 'Koski' is a very quiet man on the whole and spends a lot of time deep in thought, and that's hard to portray in film. How do you do that without clunky additional dialogue?

The wonderful Diana Poszharskaya conjured up as Vera in my imagination
Some of what I'm going to say next are, in the grand scheme of things, small quibbles. The series overall is brilliantly done. Absolutely faithful, and apparently historically accurate. I'm no WWII expert and someone better qualified than me will probably be able to point out that the T34s on show were variants produced for the Egyptians in the 1950s (I made that bit up). But to someone like me who isn't an expert but is not a complete ignoramus either, it was plausible.

So my quibbles? There were a number of added scenes. Some of them I felt actually helped. They explained the hinterland (literally in some cases) of the characters. Rokka's memories of him and his wife moving back to their farm in E.Karelia after it had been retaken from the Soviets in 1941 adds to the background of the character and the war. This guy was fighting for his home in a very real sense. His wife was shown tending to the farm on her own - it's only refered to in the book. Bear in mind this is a very unmechanised agriculture. Again, this explained his motivation. The man wants to do what's necessary to finish the war and get back home. There's a scene with Rokka home on leave - I don't remember this either. But it seems to add to the story. This ideal warrior is actually the perfect Finnish family man. He quietly gets on with the things that he has to do. There's not a lot of lovey-dovey dialogue or dramatic embraces or I love yous, but you know from the understated glances and taciturn joking references that the people have a deep love. Genuinely moving stuff. In the part relating to 1944, the family are shown packing up their essentials and fleeing west for the second time in five years (we know never to come back). If you weren't blubbing by now you would be a hard fellow indeed.

Some scenes seemed to be added gratuitously. There's a few references to 'Lottas' (or Lotta Svärd) - usually with the soldiers referring to them as the officers' 'floozies' or even 'whores'. There are hints. That's about it. For some reason this production has to introduce several scenes which involve the battalion commander having an affair with one of the Lottas, and it's affect on the nurse. I'm no prude, I don't object to 'nookie' being shown. But these scenes added nothing to the understanding of the characters. Completely extraneous in my opinion. I'm sure stuff like this must have gone on, but it just waters down the time for the characters in the book.

Other, perhaps unecessarily added scenes include Rahikainen (the platoon's, erm, 'informal Quartermaster') is shown pimping women in Petroskoi (Petrozavodsk). It fits with the character but I don't recall this being specifically covered in the book. Similarly, later on scenes of women residents of the city are shown impounded (the Finns established internment camps in occupied Soviet territory). Why have these scenes been added? Is this a counter-weight to the Rokka home scenes, to show a younger generation that the Finns were not simply the good guys (an older generation would have known this from direct experience or passed-on knowledge)? Is it a sympton of a latter-day Finlandisation? I don't think this is needed anyway because the book and the programme do call out the fact they cross the old border into 'Soviet Karelia' (i.e. the bit of Karelia that was never part of an independent Finland). One of the soldiers specifically says something to the effect of 'from this point on we are no longer liberators, but bandits'.  The book shows some of the residents of Petroskoi being distinctly against the Finnish invasion and question the soldiers as to why they have come. I don't recall the book mentioning Hietanen having sex with Vera either (maybe I forgot that bit?) though she is touched by the fact he gives his bread to the local children.

Another couple of added scenes concern the Koskela family. This explains something important going on historically I think.  I'm going off on a bit of a diversion here, so please bear with me. The Koskela family story is told in great length in another of Linna's works - the trilogy 'Täällä Pohjantähden alla' (Here Under the North Star). (also available on DVD). The first part of the trilogy set in the late 19th century, shows how Jussi Koskela hacked a plot out of forest and swamp, only to have the best of the land, land which he'd created, taken away from him by the landlord, the local pastor. The level of hardship portrayed is staggering and informs much of what follows. I was given some inkling of how different things were from the prosperous, modern country, when I was told that my wife's great grandmother was sold as a child in the early 1900s! Put this into context - whilst it was part of the Russian Empire at the time, this wasn't the former serf-holding heartlands, but the more recently added. 'freer' part. The territory that gave (some?) women the vote before the First World War.

Two box set of Here Under the North Star
Getting back to the Linna story, the Koskela family become involved in the bitter Civil War that broke out after independence, and were on the losing side (the Reds). They paid the price when some of the men in the family were executed by the Whites*. In Unknown Soldier, Koski's father pleads with him (again in a very understated way) not to get himself killed fighting for the people who carried out these atrocities. This, to me, again adds something to the story.  The younger generation is putting aside (temporarily at least) the strife of their fathers' generation in order to fight the bigger perceived threat. Indeed, in a more amusing epsiode in the trenches, one of the platoon (a man for whom the capitalist oppressors have done no favours) responds to Soviet attempts to persuade the Finns to mutiny by lobbing back earthy rejoinders. What today we would call banter. The downtrodden, poor, but independent-minded Finn was not going to respond in the expected fashion! In the last part of the North Star trilogy, we see the beginnings of the new welfare state of Finland. So after grinding poverty, hard work, strife, more hard work and then the ultimate sacrifice, we end at something approaching the sunlit uplands.

They've been able to keep hold of it better than we have in the UK.

Late edit: interview with some of the main actors. It's interesting that one of the actors considers the North Star book the superior one of the two novels. I'll have to track down a copy in translation. At least re-watch the DVD series. 

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