Finnish melodramatics: Teuvo Tulio's 'The Cross of Love' bears down on a lusty lighthouse keeper's daughter.

'Discovering Teuvo Tulio'

Dennis Harvey December 4, 2008

In the age of the Internet and pirated DVD, can there remain any hidden niches of international cinema as yet undiscovered by seekers of the esoteric and odd? Happily, the answer is: Yes. Thankfully, it seems there’s always some eccentric back-chapter as yet undiscovered—case in point being the Pacific Film Archive’s "Discovering Teuvo Tulio," a four-film retrospective of works from Finland’s master of over-the-top melodrama in the 1930s and ’40s, shown in newly restored prints from the Finnish Film Archive.

You might be surprised to learn the Finnish film industry had much going on before Aki Kaurismaki (who played a major role in his predecessor’s current revival) hit international arthouse consciousness a half-century later. But Tulio had it going on, and then some.

The director died fairly recently—in 2000 at age 87. He had an aborted comeback in Sensuela (released in 1973, though shot five years earlier), considered by some a classic of retro sexy-psychedelic feminism—and by others as the worst Finnish movie ever. But his career behind the camera was mostly compressed into two decades from the mid 1930s to the mid ’50s. Prior to that, his Turkish-Polish-Persian-Latvian looks won him some fame as an actor considered "the Valentino of Finland."

But once he got the directing bug, he gave up acting entirely. Sadly, a fire destroyed all prints of his first three features. But we still have the first he produced himself, 1938’s The Song of the Scarlet Flower, and it’s a whopper. Kaarlo Oksanen, a former athlete who would die in the war just three years later, plays Olavi, a rural Don Juan who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em by the score. "You’re so strong! And you’ve plowed so much today!" one target gushes as her resistance crumbles. Told "Nobody in this family marries servants" when he actually decides to do the honorable thing by one girl he’s disgraced, he storms off and becomes an itinerant logger, virtually surfing down rapids atop a log at one point. Naturally, such stunts attract more female fans, whom he services in what he calls his "evening chores," and frequently drives to disgrace, prostitution, and/or suicide.

Scarlet Flower
has all of Tulio’s trademarks: Shots of raging rivers et. cetera to symbolize torrid passion; striking landscape photography; startlingly frank eroticism for the era that doesn’t flinch from brief full-frontal nudity; and nonstop melodramatic excess indicting men for abusing women. There’s heavy moralism at work here, but it’s the kind that ensures plenty of colorful sinning goes on before the guilty are punished or reformed. With its heavily made-up thespians (Olavi included—is that lipstick?) and lyrical odes to nature, Flower feels closer to early Soviet cinema than European or Hollywood—perhaps unsurprisingly, since Finland was officially part of Russia until 1917, and Tulio himself was born in St. Petersburg, moving to Finland as a youth.

"One’s a true Christian, the other’s a bad heathen," a farmhand says of the two brothers in 1940’s In the Fields of Dreams. The "bad" one, Aarne (Oksanen again), is a gambler and reckless driver—albeit of horse and buggy—who’s equally fast with the ladies. "You are so white and pure. I approach you like a pilgrim," he mush-mouths to the new shepherdess (Miss Europe of 1938, Sirkka Salonen). You can bet that temple is about to be desecrated. Meanwhile, he’s lusted after by another laborer (Kirsti Hurme) who’s brunette, busty, and usually leaning against fenceposts with her arms raised for maximum cleavage elevation. These Fields host not only a swooning mother who seemingly dies of sheer disapproval but also baby snatchers and a murder trial.

With Tulio, life in the country is nonstop scandal and excitement—but the city is even worse. The series’ two remaining films are both tearjerkers about women led down the primrose path to ruin. In 1944’s The Way You Wanted Me, Marie-Louise Fock has her shining saucer eyes forever raised beseechingly heavenward, as island naif Maija. She yearns to experience the "pulsating, intoxicating life" of the "bustling city." After she’s disgraced by yet another rural lout, she gets her wish—but men are men everywhere. It’s a quick descent from housekeeping for grabby-handed rich folk to streetwalking. There’s a certain Reefer Madness quality to this cautionary tale, in which anytime anything good happens to our heroine, you can bet two minutes later yea more tragedy and degradation will strike.

Likewise crucified on the Cross of Love (literally, in a prurient "religious" painting she poses half-naked for) is Riita, daughter of a lighthouse keeper whose wife ran away to the city years earlier. She, too, would like to see the glittering lights—and a shipwrecked, pencil-mustachio’d playboy is all too happy to, er, help her out despite daddy’s stern warnings. Needless to say, five seconds later she’s wearing a beret, smoking cigarettes, and cruising for tricks.

Based on a Pushkin story (!), this tearful tale stars Regina Linnaheimo, Tulio’s life companion and occasional scenarist. Already past 40 at the time, she’s pretty hilarious gamboling about like some Heidi-like child of nature in early scenes, before Riita’s long downward spiral commences. Even then, Tulio can’t help but show her skinny-dipping—his heroines might be sacrificed on the altar of male lust, but for all his churchy moralizing, their director has a one-track mind, too.