ON DVD & BLU-RAY
The White Reindeer (1952) Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
A Sami woman requests magical help
This Finnish folk-horror tale is set amid a Sami community in rural Lapland. It features Mirjami Kuosmanen as Pirita, a young woman who falls in love with a herder named Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) after they compete in a reindeer sledding race together. They get married and seem destined for a happy life.
One day, however, Aslak is forced to leave on an excursion for several days. Pirita suffers from loneliness and decides to give into temptation by approaching a shaman named Tsalkku-Nilla, who casts a spell which makes her irresistible to all of the herders in the valley by making her transform into a stunning white reindeer at each full moon. However, this spell has an unpleasant side effect in that it also gives her vampiric urges.
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A haunting tale that hearkens back to the silent era
With a few exceptions such as the works of director Aki Kaurismäki (Leningrad Cowboys Go America, The Other Side of Hope), Finnish cinema isn’t terribly well-known at a global level. This is despite the fact that the country’s film industry was born in the early 20th century and has gone through several prolific periods since then.
The White Reindeer won a number of awards, including Best Fairy Tale Film at Cannes in 1953, and Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film at the Golden Globes in 1957 (several years after it was made; it wasn’t shown to American audiences until then). As a result, it is one of those few internationally-known examples of Finnish cinema. Watched today, it’s a remarkable film which is quite different in style from what you would expect of a production from this period.
It’s an unusually brief affair at just 68 minutes in length and, while there are intermittent moments featuring dialogue and sound effects, the majority of it plays out very much like a film from the silent era. This is noticeable right from the beginning which depicts the birth of our tainted central character, Pirita, in the middle of a snowstorm. The only sound during this sequence comes courtesy of a beautiful folk ballad where a female singer summarises our protagonist’s tale in lyrical form. Many subsequent scenes rely purely on action, expressive performances, symbolism and striking landscape shots to tell the story.
In the tradition of all of the best silent films, it’s a pleasure both to look at and to listen to. The cinematography (by Erik Blomberg, who wore several other hats here including director, editor, co-writer and co-producer) effectively conveys the vastness of the Lapland vistas and generates plenty of expressionistic atmosphere during the darker scenes. Einar Englund’s score is powerful and dramatic throughout, providing a genuine emotional underpinning to the action. The onscreen animals - especially reindeer - are another crucial element here. There are a number of scenes featuring the actors handling these majestic beasts in a manner which looks genuinely dangerous, e.g. attempting to subdue them by grabbing their antlers and wrestling them to the ground.
While The White Reindeer could, on paper, be classified as a horror film - featuring as it does witchcraft gone awry and implied vampirism - the overall effect is more haunting and tragic than it is in any way scary or gruesome. Mirjami Kuosmanen (who also co-wrote with Blomberg) displays an impressive sense of range in her performance as she switches between being feisty, charming, anxious, seductive and sadistically evil. Sure, the acts that she carries out through the course of the film are insidious. However, as with many of the best horror movie monsters, it’s hard not to feel some measure of sympathy for her.
Even with its short runtime, The White Reindeer does sometimes feel repetitious, especially in its excessively numerous scenes of herders marshalling hundreds of reindeer across snowy vistas. Nonetheless, the overall effect is one of an undeniable and rare cinematic magic. Well worth a watch.
Runtime: 68 mins
Dir: Erik Blomberg
Script: Erik Blomberg, Mirjami Kuosmanen
Starring: Mirjami Kuosmanen, Kalervo Nissilä, Åke Lindman, Arvo Lehesmaa
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
This 4K restoration is something of a mixed bag, albeit one does get the feeling that they did their best with deteriorated source materials. There are a few white specks, flickers and other blemishes clearly visible at times, as well as some occasional muffle on the soundtrack. In general, however, the picture is pleasing with solid contrast and detail.
Kat Ellinger, editor-in-chief of Diabolique Magazine, provides yet another excellent, genre-literate commentary. She reveals that The White Reindeer was one of only a small number of horror films to have been made in Finland. At the same time, however, it was very much ahead of the genre curve, predating the late-1950s British/Italian gothic horror revival. Its notion of a woman possessing vampiric tendencies was unusual in cinema until at least the 1960s, whereas that of female lycanthropy (albeit, here, Pirita transforms herself into a reindeer rather than a wolf) didn’t really take off until the 1980s.
She also looks at the relationship between the twin talents of Erik Blomberg and Mirjami Kuosmanen, who were married and very much devoted to each other in real life. They collaborated together on twelve films. Sadly Kuosmanen, who was also a very active sportswoman, died prematurely in 1963 at the age of 48 from a burst blood vessel. While Blomberg survived her by 33 years (passing away in 1996), he lost his muse after her death and retired from cinema in the late 1960s.
Audio Essay by Amy Simmons
Simmons, a film critic for Time Out London and the BFI’s Sight & Sound magazine, provides us with this informative but somewhat dry look at the history of witchcraft in Nordic cinema from a feminist slant. She runs from the Danish-Swedish silent film Häxan (1922) through to Lars von Trier’s more recent Medea and Antichrist, stopping off to look at a couple of Ingmar Bergman films and, of course, The White Reindeer.
With The Reindeer
This short 8-minute doc from 1947 was directed by Erik Blomberg, who takes a look at the real-life Sami reindeer herders going about their business.
Colour Test Footage
We get just over a minute of on-location colour footage with actress Mirjami Kuosmanen and some reindeer.
1952 Jussi Awards
A brief clip from a Finnish television show covering the country’s equivalent of the Oscars. Erik Blomberg, Mirjami Kuosmanen and Einar Englund all look (justifiably) proud of receiving their awards for The White Reindeer.
The one other extra here is a collector’s booklet, as per usual with a Eureka Masters of Cinema release.
Whether you’re a fan of world cinema or cult horror, you should definitely seek this one out. The print is slightly blemished but the quality of the film itself and a somewhat interesting collection of extras help to alleviate it.