In the Catbird Seat/Joe Kirkish
‘Tis the month to celebrate the winter solstice: HEIKINPAIVA, and the Calumet Theatre joins in the celebration for its once-a-year CLUB FINNDIGO, featuring a new Finnish movie on Friday the 18th.
HELLA W is the name of the movie – a new, magnificently mounted drama about the life of one of Finland’s most famous (and infamous) authors.
Hella Wuolijoki rose to fame in the early 1900s, at first locally in the country of her birth, Estonia, where she became both loved and scorned for her courage to invade the political and business world of men; she crashed high society, and then in the late ’20s became known countrywide as she juggled a timber business while blooming as an exceptional writer of plays and movie scripts. She was accepted among Europe’s prestigious writers like Bertold Brecht and Maxim Gorky. She knew world dignitaries, including the avowed Communists Lenin and Stalin. She smoked in the open (with a lengthy cigaret holder, clenched imperiously at the corner of her mouth), openly held her own footing among men and scandalized society with her brazen social life.
Her scripts included Hollywood’s “The Farmer’s Wife,” starring Loretta Young in the lead, but her masterpiece, which she wrote while in a Finnish prison (thought to be a Russian spy during Finland’s conflicts with that country) was a set of five plays, “Niskavouri,” about generational clashes between members of an aristocratic family over the future of their home, Niskavouri – not unlike PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre’s “Downton Abbey” (three of the plays, incidentally, have been translated into English by Finlandia’s Melvin Kangas; he recently produced, one each year, at the university. All three have been chosen for production next summer during FinnFest).
In the ’20s, Hella emerged into a literary and political society that openly discussed culture while promoting left wing ideas. “I am not a feminist,” she once stated, “but I am politically involved in what is right for our country.” Accused by the Finnish police of being an illegal resident Marxist spy for the Russians, she was sent to prison after being caught hiding a Soviet paratrooper. Treated insufferably, she however took to her ancient typewriter and, a cigarette clamped firmly between her lips, surrounded herself in wreaths of smoke while she wrote unceasingly.
That imprisonment began in 1943 and continued despite pleas from friends, relatives and dignitaries, until she was finally released as a nearly broken woman late in 1944. Then she began in earnest to affect the political scene, became a member of the Finnish Parliament and even served out the ’40s as director of the national broadcasting company – active but never completely returned to full health.
All her adult life, Hella continue to write, besides her dramas, several books under the male pseudonym of Juhani Tervapaa – all characterized by featuring strong female characters. She died in Helsinki in 1954 as an undaunted female – admired and acclaimed to this day.
In the movie, we first find her silhouetted against a window’s bright light, working with intensity at her typewriter, blue smoke rising from her ubiquitous cigaret, clouding the air around her like an animated halo. From the start, she is shown as a strong, domineering woman, fearing no one. Even in prison, humiliated and treated like a common criminal, she survives to create her finest writings.
The film is top notch! If for no other reason, HELLA W should be seen as a remarkably powerful character study seen during the turbulent period in which she excelled. The film is attractively shot, from the authentically recreated early 1900s to awe-inspiring close-ups of the stocky, red-headed woman as she plunges from great heights to unpleasant prison life and back. And while the entire cast portrays well the characters that touch on Hella’s life, it is Tina Weckstrom who shines in her portrayal of Hella. She dominates in the spirit of her times – a daring, undaunted woman, looking much like the grande dame of her fictitious Niskavouri. Long after the film is over, the face of the actress’s feisty character and the part she played during Finland’s querulous times remains.
A complete Finnish buffet will be served by Kangas Cafe & Catering in Hancock at 6 p.m., with the movie at 7:15 p.m. Cost for both, $18; movie alone, $5. There is a discount for kids younger than 10. A reservation for the buffet should be made by the 17th at 5 p.m. at the Calumet Theatre by calling 337-2610.
Plowe’s Funeral Home in Houghton, Neil Ahola director and owner, sponsor the film.
Rotten Tomatoes averages: “Promised Land,” C+; “Texas Chainsaw in 3D,” F