The White Reindeer (1952)
Director: Erik Blomberg
Cast: Mirjami Kuosmanen, Kalervo Nissilä
Language: Finnish with optional English subtitles
Runtime: 108 minutes
Release Date: 8/04/19
Format: Dual format
Jamie Havlin takes a look at Erik Blomberg’s supernatural fairy tale based on Sámi mythology.
The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura) tells the story of Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen), orphaned as an infant and raised in the snowy expanses of the far north of Finland.
We learn from a folksong that opens the film that she was born a witch, although she doesn’t yet know this when we first see her here as she takes on a bunch of men in a reindeer race.
A highly spirited and attractive young woman, she flirts with a man named Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) during the race. After she slips out of her sledge, the pair end up rolling around in the snow, kissing. Before long, they’re being married.
Aslak is devoted to Pirita, but is also devoted to his job. He works long hours as a reindeer herder, sometimes away from home, meaning the time the newlyweds can spend together is necessarily short. This leads to a growing sexual frustration on Pirita’s part. She contacts a local Sámi shaman Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa) and obtains a love potion from him. ‘No reindeer-herder will be able to resist you,’ she’s promised.
During this visit, she first becomes aware of her magical abilities. She places her hands on the shaman’s drum and makes a stone jump up and down while holding her hand steady, before ripping a hole in the skin of the drum, again without any movement from her hand.
Instructed by the shaman to kill the first living thing she sees on her way home, she goes to a monument surrounded by antlers that is dedicated to a deity known as the Stone God. Here she sacrifices an adorable looking reindeer calf given to her as a present by Aslak.
The combination of her inherited witchcraft, the potion, and the sacrifice unleash some extraordinary and unforeseen consequences on her and her community.
As the moon rises that evening, Pirita transforms into the titular white reindeer and visits a nearby, secluded area known as Evil Valley. Here, after being hunted by one of one of Aslak’s fellow herders, she shapeshifts back into her human form and carries out the first of her killings, seductively sinking her fangs into the smitten man’s neck. Or so we are led to believe, this never being shown onscreen.
The lack of special effects is maybe partly due to the film’s meagre budget. It was made by a little independent film production company Suomi-Filmi, set up by the director. Despite this, The White Reindeer went on to become one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful Finnish films ever released.
It bagged three prizes at Finland’s premier film industry event, the Jussi Awards; it was chosen to be screened at Cannes, where it won a special jury award as Best Fairy Tale, and was later voted joint winner of Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globes.
Somehow, The White Reindeer did later fall into neglect. In recent years, though, interest has been reignited. This is partly down to Mark Gatiss popularising the term ‘folk horror’ in his BBC4 documentary A History of Horror. Since then, ‘folk horror’ has become an increasingly popular way to identify films like The White Reindeer and others which share a rural setting and where local folklore and the supernatural play an important part.
If you’re looking for scares, it has to be admitted that The White Reindeer is unlikely to be for you. If, instead, you want to see a economically told, culturally important one-of-a-kind movie with startling imagery from a part of the world under-represented in cinema, then I’d highly recommend this.
Find this film at Eureka Masters of Cinema.
All words by Jamie Havlin. More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.