Finland’s Midnight Sun has in its three decades become known among cinema aficionados as one of the world’s most legendary and unique film festivals. Its reputation as something of a rarity is enhanced by the fact that it’s difficult to get to, given its location in Lapland north of the Arctic Circle, and that it keeps its guest list of industry and filmmakers small. This is partly because the town of Sodankylä has only one main hotel, but also because of the desire to safeguard an intimate atmosphere stemming from a view of human connection that is the very opposite of elitism. Midnight Sun was founded by filmmakers Anssi Mantarri and Kaurismäki brothers Aki and Mika. In its professed resistance to the fakeries of commercialism, red carpet glitz and cynical sycophantry the festival demands that any airs be left at the door. My favourite anecdote about Midnight Sun survives from the 2002 edition, when a non-celeb guest expressed a desire for a sauna. They were handed a towel and as an afterthought prepared for company: “There’s already someone in there.” An unclothed Francis Ford Coppola was sweating it out when they opened the door, the story summing up perfectly the Finnish sense for understatement and festival’s lack of hierarchy among visitors. Whether or not the tale’s remained accurate through retellings, the laidback, communal atmosphere I encountered bears out its believability.
More than anything Midnight Sun is a festival for Finns. They come from across the country to soak in cinema, clustering by the Sattanen lakeside for a chat and vodka tipple in between, or for reindeer sausages and cloudberry crepes in the refreshment tent. As the festival’s name acknowledges, endless light is the truly strange and otherworldly quality that defines it. Because the sun doesn’t go down at this time of year the hours are elided into a timeless daze, giving the five-day event its magic-tinged aura. No matter, as films screen around the clock in the festival’s rustic and unassuming screening venues – Sodankylä’s one actual cinema, the school gym, and a couple of circus tents. Stumbling from a screening at 3am, the persistent sunshine sends a signal that erupts Circadian rhythms, making sleep difficult. It’s a headily shared disorientation.
It’s hard in this age of jaded irony not to sound rose-tinted describing the idealism that drives Midnight Sun. It’s undoubtedly in part due to the no-bullshit, laconic quality of its particularly Finnish brand of sincerity that the festival’s approach has fiercely held its ground in terms of credibility. A question now hangs over its future direction given the death last year of Peter von Bagh, its longtime artistic director. A local will to preserve his spirit was very much felt at this edition. As well as tribute screenings of films von Bagh himself directed, including last year’s Socialism which looks at working-class struggle and the urge for utopian community through a collage of images from cinema’s history, his face was large on the ubiquitous festival posters, and even one of Sodankylä’s streets is named after him. “Spirit” is a word people often use when talking about what makes Midnight Sun rare. Peter von Bagh himself speaks in terms of an intuitive feel for the intangible and the dreamlike fortuitousness of synchronicity and the essence of personalities when describing the guiding principles of putting a festival edition together in his book Sodankylä Forever – qualities that beyond practicalities make an event more than the sum of its parts.
Belief in the synchronicities of chance mean Midnight Sun’s program is not rigidly organised according to themes, but encompasses the widest range of cinematic experiences that rather than feeling random keeps surprise alive. Over this year’s edition my viewing ranged from Hasse Ekman’s beautifully melancholic Swedish film noir Girl With Hyacinths (1950), about the mystery of a young woman’s suicide, to experiments pushing the medium today – Miguel Gomes’ humour-tinged, spectre-haunted compendium of tales on contemporary Portugal, Arabian Nights, and Jean-Luc Godard’s venture in 3D, Goodbye to Language. The transporting power of music is central to Midnight Sun, and the gamut ran from the wonderful comic satire of Jacques Feyder’s French silent classic The New Gentlemen (1929), which was accompanied by a lush orchestral score by Finland’s Avanti! led by Antonio Coppola, to enthusiastically packed karaoke screenings of the best musical scenes in Finnish cinematic history and Prince vehicle Purple Rain (1984).
As von Bagh wrote in his book, even during his lifetime the festival’s mission of keeping the fragile artform of cinema alive against commodification was becoming more acute year by year. In their struggle against digitalisation, the festival endeavours to screen prints where they can. In what may be a losing battle this is now less than half the program – but you sense the fight continues. In this care for the way in which a film is seen, the white summer nights also lend to reflection. With light defamiliarised as a phenomenon by being so much at the forefront of the heightened experience of simply being in Sodankylä, it’s hardly a big jump to turn focus anew to the beams of the film projectors, and their powers over perception.
In their concern to keep film history alive, the programmers hold old gems on an equal par with current festival circuit fare, refusing to surrender to the fetishisation of the “new”. It’s a respect refracted among audiences, who formed a line that stretched way back through the town’s street to enter Christian Petzold’s acclaimed latest Phoenix, but also packed out screenings of unhyped Slovak archive classics. Among these was The Organ (1965) by Štefan Uher, who also directed milestone of innovation The Sun in a Net (1962). Set in Slovakia during the Second World War, it sees a Polish deserter hide out from the fascists in a Franciscan monastery by pretending to be a monk and using his talent as an organist to play for the parish, the head friar taken with his ability to convey holiness through music’s beauty. This sets the regular, lesser-gifted organist, whose sense of status in the community has been thrown out of joint, against him. The film is beautifully shot in elegantly stylised black and white, its church frescoes, organ pipes and Bach’s religious cantatas setting the mood for a world of sombre reverence, searching souls and treachery, in which the power of art struggles for transcendence over human weaknesses. Its tale of informants, hypocrisy and petty rivalries is a harsh indictment of life under the communist state, and it was banned in its home nation for part of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Another impressive triumph of mood was Eduard Grečner’s The Return of Dragon (1968), in which an outsider is persecuted as a scapegoat in a medieval world of lyrical gloom, superstitions and suspicions. Potter Drak was blamed for a natural disaster which befell his village, and returning many years later to the village, where his former love is now married to another man, he is still unable to gain their trust in this adaption of the novel by Slovak author Dobroslav Chrobák.
The festival’s ongoing concern with the human face of film is reflected in extended morning discussion sessions with the guest filmmakers, traditionally usually hosted by von Bagh and this year led by respected curators and critics which included Germany’s vibrantly opinionated Olaf Möller. Petzold, Gomes, Mike Leigh and Whit Stillman were among guests honoured with retrospectives this year, as was Polish director Małgozarta Szumowska. Her two recent Berlinale-awarded films In the Name Of (2013) and Body (2015) were screened. The first is about a closeted and conflicted gay priest running a home for delinquent boys, while the second is about a grieving anorexic and more, shot through with black humour. Both are boldly steeped in the intensity of human emotion against the backdrop of a strongly Catholic country in which the weight of the corporeal and a belief in spiritual transcendence are often difficult to reconcile. A real revelation was The Stranger, made in 2001 before her international reputation was kicking into gear. It’s a work of raw, grit-tinged tenderness that shows a younger, more earnest phase in the director’s worldview. Introducing the film, Szumowska admitted she couldn’t bear to watch it again after all these years, fearful she’d find a naivete in there unbearable now to stomach. But the film’s earnestness is punctuated with a fierce intensity that carries depth of feeling without ever crossing into easy sentimentality. Eva (Małgozarta Bela) is a 22 year-old drifting through a dead-end job who must deal with the discovery she is pregnant and decide whether or not to keep the baby. The ebb and flow of emotions are imaginatively couched within a striking approach to sound design, as Eva’s music fanatic father tells her that a foetus becomes a human as soon as it is able to hear. The complex development of her relationship with her unborn child, and an uncertain new romance with a mysterious drifter are portrayed from a strongly female perspective as she struggles with unknowable risks and possibilities.
In interesting counterpoint to Szumowska’s work was a career retrospective of Danish auteur Nils Malmros, whose final film is the critical self-interrogation of a decidedly male perspective. He became known for coming-of-age dramas which are heavily autobiographical, drawing on his own memories of growing up in Århus. The bittersweet and nostalgically poignant Tree of Knowledge (1981) was shot at the high school he attended. It has a beautifully understated feel for the subtle shifts in internal teenage emotional life in its portrayal of a group of classmates through episodes that accumulate a quiet force. We share the bewilderment of Elin (Eva Gram Schjoldager) as through a gradual shift she loses popularity and is ostracised from her group of friends. The gentle calm with which Malmros recreates his worlds in such earlier work makes his final film Sorrow and Joy all the more alarming. The film is also autobiographical, but rather than dealing with a maturing process that is universal highly relatable for its audience it focuses on a 1984 tragedy so extreme it is almost beyond comprehension – his wife having killed their 9 month-old baby with a kitchen knife – and the gutting of their identities this entailed. The film does not re-enact the actual event, but opens as filmmaker Johannes (Jakob Cedergren) arrives home from a conference and learns what his schoolteacher wife Signe (Helle Fagralid) has done, then flashes back to set out the background to how such a tragedy could happen.
Rather than the episodic tapestry of films such as Tree of Knowledge, Sorrow and Joy is constructed with a clear and controlled narrative arc. There’s an emotional flatness and sentimentality to the film that is unsurprising given the need for distancing coping mechanisms such an event must elicit. What is most challenging and intriguing about the film is its relationship to reality and implicit status as a tool for processing and positioning trauma. In this context, the very nature of the film is ambiguous. Is it an artistic mirror that orders a chaotic disruption into more bearable sense? Therapy to resolve problematic personal history? A confessional device to purge guilt? A spectacle of denial?
As flashbacks set out the first chance meeting of Johannes and Signe and the development of their relationship, we learn that she is manic depressive, and that the killing occurred during a severe psychotic episode during which she had not slept for many days. She is deemed not responsible for her actions, as if having committed the act in a troubled sleep. Miraculously, Malmros and his wife remained married (and tour with the film together – both were guests at Sodankylä). The film is couched as an epiphany on what it means to really love – the greatest lesson of adulthood. Far from painting Johannes as a paragon of human understanding, the film is rather a litany of his past behavioural shortcomings and their contribution to Signe’s tormented state of mind.
From his arrogant condescension, teasing her for her unsophisticated taste in decor and approach to literature, to his gross misjudgement of the gravity of her illness, as he persuades her to throw away her lithium, his influence is shown to have been destabilising rather than supportive. His neglect of Signe’s emotional needs is compounded by a crush he develops on Iben (Maja Dybboe), the teenage star of the film he is working on, sowing suspicion and jealousy which further upsets the power balance. This queasily inappropriate attraction and its frank retelling is one of the most troublesome aspects of the film. While the film in question Beauty and the Beast, about a 16 year-old whose father struggles with sublimated desire for her, was not included in the retrospective, its shooting is shown in Sorrow and Joy – in particular the director pressuring the young actress to perform a scene topless, in which she parades around the house in front of her father. Signe’s discomfort with his plan on travelling to Berlin with Iben to promote the film at its premiere is presented as a major catalyst for the killing.
A guilty conscience seems to have led Malmros to position this re-enactment as cathartic release, or a public apology to his wife. Iben is portrayed as encouraging his attention, and what her real-life equivalent Line Arlien-Søborg (who also acted in Tree of Knowledge) feels about part of her personal history being utilised in this exercise is never addressed – nor one then has to assume is it considered to be of much consequence by Malmros. This ethical consideration seems to have been belittled by the mammoth questions of cause and agency the film concerns itself with in terms of the killing. Much is made of Signe giving her permission to make the film in a sentimental scene which presents this as a gift and proof of love. Though in defence of Malmros, that the ethical complexities within the film are too much for any human to fully take in is hard to argue with.
Indeed, there are so many societal and even existential taboos in the film, one is tempted to throw one’s hands up and abandon any attempt to read conventional and rational purpose in it at all. Can we ever comprehend a mother killing their own child? A marriage and any kind of hope surviving that? An illness that can cause an act so extreme to ever really be trusted managed and under control? If there is purpose in it wider than Malmros indulging his own need for emotional closure, it is in its call for a better understanding of mental illness, and its sympathetic exploration of a tormented mind. And there is something more: it asks us beyond the usual kneejerk doubts and reactions to risk the feat of understanding. Miraculously, all the parents of the students in Signe’s elementary school class campaign to have her return as their teacher, an eventuation that one audience member in the Q&A with Malmros incredulously said would never happen in Finland (or almost any other country). This must be reflective in part of Denmark’s progressive views on mental illness – and the fact that truth in its irreducible complexity is often harder to believe and absorb than fiction. Deeply confounding and challenging as this film is, it’s especially fitting to discuss its mysteries in the context of Midnight Sun, which was forged and persists on the deep belief that cinema is transformative, and that community brought together around it can regenerate in its glow.
Midnight Sun Film Festival
10-14 June 2015
Festival website: http://www.msfilmfestival.fi/index.php/en/