(CS Monitor/1-04-18) HELSINKI. In a Russian city overrun by Finnish forces, a beautiful Russian girl surprises her conquerors by bursting into dance, then proceeds to seduce one of the Finns.

In the riverine equivalent of the charge of the Light Brigade, a flotilla of Finnish assault boats, guns blazing, move in perfect unison, as Russian artillery bursts around them.

A Finnish sergeant, at the end of his tether after three years of combat, methodically mows down an entire company of Russian ski soldiers with his machine gun, eyes ablaze.

These are some of the scenes which have alternately beguiled, angered, and mesmerized the hundreds of thousands of Finns who have flocked to the latest filmic version of “The Unknown Soldier,” the classic 1954 novel by Vaino Linna about the experiences of a Finnish rifle company during World War II.

Written and directed by veteran Finnish director, Aku Lohumies, the latest-and some say greatest–”Unknown Soldier” cost 7 million euros ($8.5 million) to make, a record for a Finnish film. Whether or not that is the case, the new film has clearly struck a nerve with the Finnish public.MG5A2005TommiHynynen

Since Tuntematon sotilas opened in October, over 800,000 Finns-close to 15% of the population- have seen it, making it the most successful Finnish film in recent history. “A national sensation” is how Ilta Sanomat, one of the main newspapers, describes it,

Doubtless one of the reasons for the popularity of the film–which is set during the so-called 1941-44 Continuation War, which Finland initiated in order to gain back the territory it had lost to the Soviet Union after the1939-40 Winter War-is the sheer scale of the production. All told, Lohumies employed over 14,000 extras in the three hour film, and it seems he uses all of them in the movie, particularly in his epic battle scenes, which recall such classics of the war film genre as “Paths of Glory” and “Apocalypse Now.”

In the Helsinki theater where I saw “Unknown Soldier” one could sense the sense the awe and pride of the filmgoers as they watched hundreds forefathers march into battle with “the hereditary enemy from the East,” as Gustav Mannerheim, the commander-in-chief of Finnish forces during World War II described Russia-as well as their horror when their filmic kinsmen were strafed and blown up by the Red Air Force.

However as gripping as the combat scenes in the film are, they are not the only reason for the film’s extraordinary appeal, or what differentiates it from the prior versions, observers say.

“Some of the most moving scenes in the film have nothing to do with combat,” says Michael Franck, a noted Finnish documentarian. “I was particularly struck by the scenes of Roka [the aforementioned sergeant and central character of the film] when he is on home leave on his farm, and I think audiences were too.”

“I tried to go a little deeper than the other versions,” says Lohumies, who says he got the idea for the film when he was in the army himself thirty years ago. Assisting him was his friend, actor Eero Aho whose performance as the alternately possessed and sentimental Roka has also drawn praise.

“I wanted to give a three dimensional picture of war, without glorifying it or condemning it, but showing it like it is, including the toll it takes on the men.”

AkuAnother aspect of the film which has drawn high marks was Lohumies’ decision to use a number of Russian actors to humanize the “hereditary enemy,” particularly Diana Pozharskaya, who plays the girl from Petravazavodsk who seduces her conquerors.

“It was a great honor for me to participate in ‘Unknown Soldier,’ says Pozharskaya, who comes close to stealing the film. Pozharskaya, who is based in Moscow, says she read the original novel as part of her preparation for the role, which Louhimies created for her.

“I learned a lot I didn’t know before about the history of our two countries’ relations,” she says. “I knew that we had fought a long war with Finland,” she said, referring to the two back-to-back wars which the two countries fought during WWII. “But I didn’t know that Russia started the cycle.”

The fact that the film appears at a time when tensions in the Baltic region are on the rise may also explain its appeal.

“I saw the film with a friend says Alec Neihum, a student at Helsinki University who recently completed his compulsory military service. “Afterwards we found ourselves talking about the situation in the Ukraine. I don’t think that was an accident.”

Another reason for the widespread interest in the film seems to be a new willingness on the part of Finns to confront the less pleasant aspects of their history. Unlike the Winter War, which Finns consider their finest hour, there is little about the Continuation War to boast of.

For one, the Finns were the aggressors. Also, after achieving their original objective of regaining their lost territory, the rapacious Finns went on to annex part of Russia, before ultimately being thrown back.

As Vera reminds her Finnish lover “You invaded us.”

Also the Finns entered the war as a co-belligerent with Nazi Germany, an inconvenient truth which Lokumies does not gloss over. At one point during the war, in June, 1942, arguably the most infamous moment in Finnish history, Adolf Hitler flew to Finland to help celebrate Marshal Mannerheim, the Finnish commander-in-chief’s 75th birthday. Lohumies includes a portion of the original newsereel of Hitler’s visit in the movie.

“I want to make Finns think about their history,” says Lokumies.

“But above all, I wanted to make a great film, and one that did complete justice to the novel.”

If the response of the Finnish public is any evidence, he certainly has done that.

The above is the first draft of an article published in The Christian Science Monitor on January 4, 2018.

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