Director/Coscreenwriter: Erik Blomberg
By Roderick Heath
It could be argued that all stories we generally refer to under the bracket of ‘horror’ today are in essence a type of folklore, rooted as so many are in storytelling modes descended from ancient cultural forms. To trace the genre’s persistence is to track it backwards through stages in the development, from the age of the urban myth to Freudian symbolic imagery to the haunted mood of Enlightenment-born gothic tales, on through medieval morality plays to the campfire tale. Such stories generations once narrated and sustained to keep themselves entertained and to keep the kids close by the warm and flickering firelight. Such a story could blend a warning about the eyes glowing in the dark beyond the limit of the hearth’s glow and also of other varieties of wolf, the kind hiding behind familiar faces and friendly smiles. As far as horror cinema goes, however, works that engage in authentic folkloric motifs and tales are relatively thin on the ground. The White Reindeer straddles the zone of such arcane storytelling precepts and more immediately recognisable generic necessities, offering what is in essence a werewolf tale, adapted to specific cultural climes, in this case the folklore of the Sami peoples of northern Finland, and mediated through the sorts of figurations one would expect from the setting.
True to its roots in such a tradition, The White Reindeer is more than a ghoul story. It’s also an anthropological recording and observation that has some resemblance to the style of documentary Robert Flaherty had made, capturing a powerful sense of life on the outermost fringes of European civilisation. It’s a creation that manages to bely the inevitable fact that it was fashioned by a collective of technicians and actors, and instead give you the feeling it’s been dreamt into existence. Of course, it’s actually an artful and carefully fashioned work of film craft. Director Erik Blomberg had been working in the Finnish film scene since the 1930s, and his readiness to step between roles as screenwriter and cinematographer perhaps testifies to a jack-of-all-trades necessity in the Finnish film scene of the time, serving in both capacities on the 1938 film The Stolen Death, for instance. Blomberg started directing documentaries in the mid-1940s, and with The White Reindeer made his feature debut. Blomberg’s documentarian experience and eye are evident in the film, as the film serves in part as a time capsule and piece of reportage looking at the lifestyles of the frozen north and its inhabitants, capturing social and communal rituals as a reindeer-drawn sled race and a bonfire night.
The White Reindeer contains relatively little dialogue in the usual dramatic movie fashion, and commences with a sequence where the story unfolds as a silent film with narration offered in song, a chanted account of the events that result in the birth of young Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen). Pirita’s mother Maarita (also Kuosmanen) laboriously forges a path through snowy wilderness, and gives birth to her daughter in a hut belonging to a frontier family who give her refuge. This approach helps The White Reindeer gain traction in its desire to evoke and reproduce a tradition of oral storytelling, whilst also making a show out of the method Blomberg adopts in converting that tradition into cinematic terms. A rhapsodic chain of images as Maarita flees across the endless expanses pursued by wolves, finds shelter with the family, and gives birth to a healthy girl before expiring, resolves in the matriarch holding the stranger’s child in her arms as the flames of the hearth surge high, dissolving into a vision of the snowclad land riddled with veins and caressed by veils of spindrift.
A tale of fire and ice is in motion, in which the landscape charted veers between the transient warmth and security of human habitations, huts and tents, lovers’ arms and family embraces, and the blasted reaches of Scandinavia’s extreme latitudes. Unseen forces rule out there, old gods that ignore the intrusion of Christianity and scarcely tolerate civilisation, offering prizes to the hardy and extracting punishments from the foolhardy with haughty will. The lyrics sung over the opening sequence describe the story that’s going to unfold, imposing a frame of eerie and disastrous fate. Blomberg’s approach here suggests he was taking some ideas from Sergei Eisenstein and his similar method for mediating the present’s vision of the past through layers of filmic conjuring and aesthetic devices on Alexander Nevsky (1938), which similarly forged such a bridge with lyrical music. Once the story moves on a couple of decades to when Pirita has grown into a woman, the hushed and ominous choral recitation gives way to immediate experience, collective clamour, and sensual excitement. Fierce and unflinching young Pirita participates in a sled race, and finds herself battling Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä), who only just manages to best her in the race after all other competitors have been left far behind. The thrill of competition instantly transmutes into erotic excitement as Aslak lassos the dark beauty and draws her in for an embrace. The couple are quickly married after the industrious reindeer herder Aslak offers an impressive bride price to her adoptive father. The wedding proves a scene of drunken merriment and general randy energy as the closest thing the local community has to a nob declares, “There is no more booze, the bread and salt are eaten,” so it’s time to clear out and let the couple get down to business. The young women of the village have to be cleared out forcibly in their delighted attempts to get an eyeful.
Pirita soon finds her marital bliss despoiled when Aslak must go off into the countryside for long stretches to round up wild reindeer. As a sign of devotion, Aslak brings back a white reindeer calf, a valuable and lucky find, and gives it to her as a pet. But Pirita finds herself lying awake at night even when Aslak has returned to her bed, as he falls asleep in exhaustion, leaving her pining for sexual pleasure. She elects to visit the local shaman, Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), to find a way of forcing her husband and other men to find her irresistible. Pirita’s naughty peccadilloes quickly start to reap a cheerless reward. Tsalkku-Nilla performs a rite for Pirita and informs her that she will have to take the first living thing she encounters after leaving his hut up to a remote altar in the countryside consecrated to the goddess Maddar Ahkk, and sacrifice that thing if she wants the spell to work properly. Tsalkku-Nilla beats upon a decorated ritual drum, bouncing around a rune stone upon its taut face, but when the stone begins to dance spontaneously as Pirita touches the drum in what seems a momentary fit of incantatory detachment, the shaman realises she has the powers of a witch.
Pirita treks back to her home and finds Aslak has returned from his trip, and stands before their hut caressing her white reindeer. Electing to take the chance of sacrificing the reindeer, she leads the animal out to the altar, which is surrounded by reindeer antlers jutting from the ice from the other times people have attempted such invocations. Pirita slaughters her pet, but an icy wind starts to blow and assails her, the first sign that she has offended the gods. Pirita soon establishes her magic has worked, as she now easily compels male eyes, but finds she now has the unbidden power to transform into a white reindeer. Heading out into the countryside in an attempt to find her husband, Pirita accepts the offer of some herders to camp with them for the night. But she turns into a white reindeer under the full moon and stalks the land about the camp. A herder named Niilo sees her in the night and gives chase, tracking her into a remote ravine referred to by the locals as the Demon’s Valley. When he catches her, she transforms back into human form. Niilo is dazzled by her beauty until she rips his throat out with sprouting fangs. Soon she commits more vampiric killings, all following the same pattern, and the locals become increasingly wary and vengeful. Pirita is lucky not to be outed as the monster when one of her victims, a hunter who was lucky to survive one of her attacks, sees her face looming in the flicker of firelight during a village celebration and recognises her. He goes berserk and tries to chase her down, but he’s tackled and restrained by his friends, who think he’s delirious.
Blomberg and Kuosmanen collaborated on the screenplay of The White Reindeer, exemplifying what seems to have been a productive romantic collaboration that ended when Kuosmanen retired from acting in 1956. She later died lamentably young at 48 in 1963. The film’s ironic study of romantic disaffection and marital grief suggests a sarcastic form of self-analysis, laced with irony in its realisation and sparked by Blomberg’s evident and obvious obsession with Kuosmanen’s face, an instrument with the same cast of dark, sharp, vulpine charisma that would soon make Barbara Steele a horror icon. Blomberg’s success with The White Reindeer earned him and Finnish film a level of international attention it had not known before, especially after Jean Cocteau and the Cannes jury he headed gave it a special prize. And yet Blomberg would only make four more features before the Finnish movie scene fell into a rut in the late 1950s. It’s not hard to see why The White Reindeer made such an impression in its time, over and above its raw cinematic qualities. A kind of pop anthropological and internationalist cultural interest boomed in the post-war years, fuelled by newly open channels of travel and communication, a process that would help many international filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa find worldwide audiences.
This accorded with many national movie industries both trying to relocate a sense of history and advertise themselves to the world with vignettes of localised flavour. The White Reindeer bolsters its standing as authentic product of a burgeoning culture by sporting a score by the country’s most notable composer of the period, Einar Englund. True to his creed as a cinematographer, Blomberg generates some extraordinary visuals throughout The White Reindeer, including a breathtaking shot of a Sami tent, aglow in firelight, framed against a dark plain and iron sky, studded with abstracted trees. This vision of an islet of human society subsisting in the face of a cold and indifferent universe quickly segues into Pirita’s transformation into the reindeer, visualised through the expedient of turning the image into a photographic negative so that white beast skips across black snow, a simple trick reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu: Eine Symphone des Grauens (1922). The bonfire night sequence sees characters wheeling in and out of the fields of firelight, punctuated by an eruption of fearful violence, as the troubled witness sees Pirita’s face looking stygian in the flicker, causing him to leap up, clutching a fiery brand, sparks flying and bodies wheeling within the little galaxies of the hearths.
The White Reindeer was released at a time when the genre was almost entirely fallow, supplanted by the science fiction craze of the early decade, presenting as it did avatars for an age busy congratulating itself on its rationality whilst inflating its neuroses to colossal, city-smashing scale, all the better to be cut down to size. The White Reindeer, on the other hand, betrays knowledge that it’s dealing in a metaphorical coin, but might also be the first major horror film to essentially reject the suggestive model of Val Lewton’s psychosomatic etudes and return to essential figurations, even as it tells a story with evident similarities to Cat People (1942). Lewton liked to smudge the borders between the liminal and the subliminal, to ask the question whether the menace of the supernatural is real or a construction of credulity. Blomberg and Kuosmanen’s approach instead uses the inherent symbolism in the idea of the shapeshifting woman to communicate its ideas, and so finds new power, ironically, in an archaic way of explaining human nature. The heavy emphasis linking supernatural manifestation and erotic anxiety, and its relatively unabashed confrontation of sexuality as a governing theme, could even make The White Reindeer a vital nexus in the history of the genre. Here might well be the point where horror film began reinventing itself, with a newly modern understanding of the forces at play in the genre’s symbology, and the understanding that the greatest source of terror even in the atomic age is the lurking irrationality lying within the human frame.
In more concrete terms, it’s hard not to see Blomberg’s images of Kuosmanen’s terrible beauty studded with vampiric fangs, eyes alight with a lust that conflates hunger for both blood and sexual excitement, and not see the germ for Terence Fisher’s approach to his vampires in works like The Brides of Dracula (1960). Likewise the lifetime-spanning narrative that traces an individual’s entrapment and destruction by predestined forces seems to have left a mark on Fisher’s Curse of the Werewolf (1960). Blomberg shot the film himself, and the intensity with which his cinematography weaves in with his vision of remote and legendary climes anticipates Mario Bava’s similar capacity. Closer to home, Blomberg might well have encouraged Ingmar Bergman to look closer at Scandinavian mythology and come up with his own peculiar version of them in The Virgin Spring, which looks precisely at the time when the pagan world Blomberg records met and was uneasily replaced by Christianity. The White Reindeer is also striking as one of the relatively few horror movies made before 1960 to sport a feminine monster, and the essence of the film’s baleful power lies in the collaboration that sees Blomberg’s gaze turned upon relentlessly upon Kuosmanen’s face and her performing with it, tracing out all of Pirita’s careening emotions, as both demonic entity and ordinary woman.
The White Reindeer describes one of the eternal fixtures of folklore, the demon lover. It also records a basic anxiety about female sexuality, timorous in the face of satiating it and apprehensive that it might drive any lady afflicted with greater than normal appetites to satisfy them in ways that betray herself and her assigned social role. But Blomberg and Kuosmanen’s approach to it makes Pirita no mere temptress. The struggle between the two forces opposite and equal within her is enacted in a manner that’s less like the clear-cut dichotomy of good human and wild beast as witnessed in The Wolf Man (1941) than it resembles characters in later generations of horror cinema like protagonists of David Cronenberg’s early work or Andrezej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), those who are driven to fashion their terrible interior struggles into new and perverse forms of flesh. Pirita’s nature is manifold, both child of the surging sky and the embracing hut, and her actions, whether cringing in shame or unleashing her dark side, are all a part of her. The reindeer is source of all industry and a great deal of human cultural activity in these blasted climes, and the fusion of the two has an inevitable quality in this place of flux, where the sun bristles low on the horizon and the landscape loses form amidst snow drifts and skeletal, thrusting branches, a place where it’s hard to get one’s bearings. Blomberg still contrives to shoot his pictures seeking out covert geometries, as if suggesting the unseen powers and subtle influences that shape the lives of these people, found in lines of skiers diagonally dividing the frame, or, in the film’s most reproduced imagery, viewing Kuosmanen through the frame of dead reindeer antlers jutting from the snow just as she’s on the fateful threshold of committing her blasphemous act.
Aspects of the story that resonate throughout other mythologies are particularly tantalising – the animism and motifs of transgression and transformation, the fatefully fused but doomed lovers, the act of forging a special weapon with a care and intention that transcends mere craft to become a totemic object. The necessary but failed sacrifice of a loved-one resembles that found in the tale of the Lambton Worm, another story of monstrous reckoning and legacy. The white hue of the monster obviously calls to mind Moby Dick and his many descendants, with the same inference of spectral stature, the haunting tone of bloodlessness, here also rhymes with the snow that cakes the earth itself, a constant fact and sometime enemy in the lives of the Sami, the hard natural order that claims its price heedless of human feeling. The locals discuss how only “cold iron” can be used to kill a phantom reindeer when bullets won’t hurt it, so all the villagers begin forging their own lances, and Pirita wanders the commune hearing the hammers on forges beating out her doom with bloodcurdling music. She soon almost loses control and attacks her husband when he’s dozing after finishing off his own iron lance. Aslak awakens with a fearful cry when, in bleary half-sleep, he thinks he sees his own wife’s face transformed into a leering, demonic visage – which is exactly what he has seen, but assumes he’s been dreaming.
One incidental problem The White Reindeer has to deal with is that even the largest and most bullish reindeer doesn’t really look that ferally threatening, which probably explains Blomberg’s decision to have Pirita turn back into a human before her killings – the sight of Kuosmanen’s vicious teeth is more alarming than the frankly huggable deer. Although The White Reindeer is a short and deftly compressed piece of storytelling, Blomberg still conjures some tremendously rhythmic sequences, and forges images that seem to claw at the edges of all intellectual awareness in trying to evoke a distant, submerged past still to be found in some Jungian netherworld. This sensibility is particularly apparent in the build to Pirita’s sacrifice of the pet reindeer, in the splendidly odd scene when she sits down with Tsalkku-Nilla where what seems like boastful eccentricity and peasant magic shade quickly into something altogether more abnormal and threatening until the shaman recoils from Pirita in fear. The sequence of Pirita’s journey to the shrine of Maddar Ahkka is a delirious conjuration of image and sound, Englund’s music painting wild sonic textures as Pirita struggles through the snow to reach a hill top where dead reindeer antlers sprout from the ground like a crop. Here a stone cairn capped by more antlers seems to stare out upon the land with stark and sinister promise, and Pirita withers and faints in the sudden tempest that falls upon the mountain.
Equally good are the climactic scenes, after Pirita is finally driven to flee the village after accidentally turning into the reindeer: as in many variations on the Jekyll and Hyde story, her ability to control when and why she changes form is steadily eroded until she transmogrifies in a public place in the middle of the day, and is then hunted across the countryside by the massed village menfolk. Pirita first tries to return to Tsalkku-Nilla and get him to help her, only to find him dead in his hut, glazed in ice, his drum smashed, as if the spirits he stirred have avenged themselves brutally. Pirita then heads to the pagan altar, but there her pleas fall upon deaf ears, and she is once again driven back into the wilds. Blomberg shoots Kuosmanen loping across a ridge with a fascinating, predatory gait, achieving a quality of unnaturalness that David Lynch has often instilled in his actors when depicting similar breakdowns in the walls between the tangible and the subliminal. True to many werewolf stories, Pirita is doomed to be destroyed by the unthinking hand of a loved one, in this case her own husband. Aslak corners her in the Demon’s Valley and skewers her with his lance, only to be confronted with her splayed human form on the snow. Blomberg returns for a brief, meditative glance at the winnowing spindrift flowing over frigid snow, before fading to black, as if to say our rent on Earth is brief, and how the time we have upon it treats us often has little to do with how we will it, but which forces have conspired to bring us into being.