“The only land we’ll give them is their burial plot.”
I came across this film thanks to a hosted blogging event conducted by All About War Movies. I’m more into crime film than war film, but The Winter War from director Pekka Parikka sounded interesting–mainly because it covered a subject I wanted to know more about: The war between the Finns and the invading Soviet army. The film doesn’t give any historical background, so first I’ll back up and say that Finland was considered part of Russia until Finland declared independence in 1917. The new Bolshevik government, facing enormous problems on the home front, rolled over when faced with Finland’s demand for autonomy, and Finland then became an independent country. Move forward just twenty years to the Stalin-Hitler Pact. Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, and then the old territory of Tsarist Russia became a target. Stalin wanted Finnish land, he claimed, as a “buffer” for Leningrad which really was an excuse for a landgrab. The Winter War began after negotiations broke down between Stalin and Finland and a provocative Gleiwitz type event conducted by the NKVD took place. For the war, Mannerheim was the Finns’ Commander-in-Chief, and as a former member of the Imperial Russian Army, he had a good idea what the Finns faced. Incidentally, Mannerheim was opposed to the war and supported negotiations with the Soviet Union. The first film footage taken on Russian soil is of the 1896 coronation of Nicholas II, and if you watch the grainy footage, Mannerheim is walking slightly ahead of the new Tsar, off to the side, and carries the imperial orb.
The Winter War lasted from Nov 1939-March 1940, and the film concentrates on a group of reservists from the farming community of Kauhava–specifically the Hakala brothers Martti (Taneli Mäkalä) and Paavo (Konsta Mäkalä) as they defend the Mannerheim Line. The film opens with the chaos of goodbyes and men reporting for duty. This opening scenes are portents of things to come: the men are ill-prepared, there’s little or no equipment, and no one expects fighting to actually begin. Negotiations are taking place between Finland and the Soviet Union, so the more optimistic men don’t expect a war to take place. There’s one seasoned soldier, Yilli (Esko Nikkari) however, who fought in 1918, who fully expects to fight and who also expects the fight to be tough. As the negotiations play out, the men from Kauhava move closer and closer to the front line and there’s a range of innocence and denial about what they face.
No shots took place until 50 minutes into the film, and then from this point on the action was almost relentless. Mostly the film portrays a war of attrition. The group of men whose fate we follow are sent to defend the Taipale River. Watching the film, seeing the men freezing in the ice and snow, well I couldn’t help but wonder what is worse…a war fought in the freezing cold or a war fought in the jungles of South East Asia. That’s a rhetorical question, by the way, but there is something dramatic about flamethrowers used against the white landscape and the white snow that turns to blood or is churned with mud by the continual onslaught of tanks.
Since the Finns basically fight a war of attrition in a situation that seems to be a throwback to WWI trench warfare, we see battle after battle as the Finns are decimated in one way or another. The film shows clearly that the Finns were outgunned and outmanned, but while the invading Red Army was vastly superior in sheer numbers and weaponry to the Finns, Stalin had been busy executing Red Army officers over the previous few years. This left the Red Army weak in leadership. The Winter War does not depict the guerrilla warfare waged by the Finns–instead it concentrates on the fierce trench war waged between the lads from Southern Ostrobothnia and the Red Army horde who periodically storm the Finnish territory under cover of aircraft attacks.
The invading Russian horde looks like another species from a distance, and those old Civil war hats add to the sense of alienation. A couple of the close-ups of Russians looked uncannily like Trotsky which was a bit distracting, but since we see things from the Finns’ point of view, the demonic view of the enemy probably mirrors just how those on the front lines felt. One of the most remarkable facets of this film is the way in which the Finns treat each other–while the men are disciplined, the discipline appears to be internal rather than external. Yes we do see so-called superior officers, but for the most part the men appear to hold themselves in check. These men are not, unlike their Russian counterparts–soldiers–but rather simple men fighting to keep their way of life. And when one man, a rather more fragile character can no longer stand the pressure and has a nervous breakdown, he’s treated with compassion and love. Of course, these men all know each other since they hail from the same geographical region, and many of them are related. I couldn’t help but think of all the war films in which troops are shot by firing squads for breaks in ‘discipline.’ That element is absent here, and ultimately The Winter War is an unusual film because of its inner humanity. One scene shows the men agreeing to give up wages in the hope that this will allow the purchase of much-needed equipment and weaponry.
Although there’s a large cast, we follow the action, for the most part, through the eyes of the oldest Halaka brother, Martti, and it’s also through his eyes that the inevitable questions are raised: just how much do you tell the family back home? How honest should you be about the brutality of the conditions? Those left behind say they want to know the truth, but do they really? Are they prepared for the facts? Will knowing the facts even help?
After the prolonged, repetitive but realistic action, the film’s ending comes abruptly to an end and thus introduces a further sense of madness to the carnage just witnessed. How can men be bayoneting one another to death one minute and then proclaiming peace in the next breath?