“It’s normal: when the cinema was “silent,” we were free to lend it all the noises, the tiniest as well as the most intimate. It was when it set about talking, and especially after the invention of dubbing (1935), that nothing remained to challenge the victory of dialogue and music. Weak, imperceptible noises no longer had a chance. It was genocide.” – Serge Daney, Cinemeteorology
The new restoration of Nyrki Tapiovaara’s Varastettu kuolema happened without much notice last year, released on DVD in Finland from a new digital transfer, a restoration of the original cut released theatrically. Unavailable until now, it was then-criticised by the social-democratic magazine, Kulttuuriskandaali, for including insert shots of decadent objects owned by two of the film’s principal characters. In 1954, 16 years later, the film was re-released with changes made by Tapiovaara’s editor/cinematographer, Erik Blomberg. Blomberg elected to cut all the high angle and insert shots from the film for the reasons above, deeming them too extravagant and inspired by a French Avant-Garde cinema irrelevant to the film’s narrative of Finnish resistance fighters. Tapiovaara couldn’t approve of these edits, however, as he’d died two years after the film’s original release fighting for Finnish independence in the Winter War of 1940.
Opening with the machinations of a covert, student-activist printing press, Robert (the film’s initial protagonist), leads his comrades through the streets of Helsinki, before being tailed by a constantly-looming Russian force, attempting to overthrow their grassroots resistance against Soviet rule. Robert and his comrades are eager to increase their partisan efforts by transporting weapons to fellow comrades on the Russian/Finnish front. Only the local arms-dealer, Jonni, stands in their way – offering them weapons and passports by way of blackmail, holding Robert’s list of partisan names as collateral. Both parties are well-aware that Jonni’s the only feasible way of purchasing and transporting weapons out of the country. If Robert and his partisan cohort refuse to buy Jonni’s weapons (with money that they don’t even have), the list of names will be released to Soviet authorities and they’ll be sent to death. Even still, they rebuff Jonni’s advances and opt to transport the weapons themselves – but with few means to do so. The film’s characters are among one of two factions: collaborators or dissidents. The collaborators are made up of Jonni, Robert’s bourgeois family, the aforementioned gendarmes looming among the spare Helsinki streets and their higher-up czarist officers unerringly chasing down our leads in the film’s climax. The revolutionaries are an even smaller group, primarily made up of Robert and his comrades, Jonni’s former accomplice Manja, a shoemaker who shelters Robert from the gendarmes and the dispirited trinket shop-owner with whom Robert covertly deals in black-market passports.
The film’s focus eventually shifts to Manja, one of the great partisans I can recall in cinema. Upon meeting Robert, she turns his printing press into an arms trading post, flouting Jonni’s grip over her in the process. She helps Robert – with her knowledge of Jonni’s weapons and their whereabouts – to transport guns in coffins and haul ammunition belts beneath her many hats and dresses. In this time, she’s now been fully radicalised and still experiences the majority of the film’s indignities both firsthand and undeterred. Firstly, she’s shunned to her face by Robert’s mother as a working-class wastrel and – when running a gun hidden in a baby carriage – is swarmed by the gropes and advances of a lurking gendarme officer. Still, through her, both the film’s noir and melodramatic trappings manifest – then quickly metamorphose beyond themselves and into a higher purpose. When faced with the film’s potential noir narrative, Manja the femme fatale is summarily left behind by Manja the revolutionary. As the primary example of this, when first left alone with Robert, she describes to him her upbringing and life thus far: having been a seamstress in rural Finland, she’s now adorned with shiny jewellery and tea gowns from Jonni (the same gowns she uses to transport guns), donning this bourgeois-collaborator facade with a simmering contempt. She then approaches Robert like the „femme fatale“, insinuated through her longing glances and the shadow-filled room they’re cast in. But this (additional) facade is undone-then-re-established within the movement of their embrace, all for a greater purpose; that of her newfound revolutionary drive, one she sees in Robert.
Without the burden of boy-meets-girl inner conflicts or this bi-polar, femme fatale persona, she very readily leaves Jonni shortly after this encounter and even more readily kills him when kept from Robert in the final act. Though these femme-fatale/love interest constructs are bypassed altogether, one can sense the spectres of their narrative constructs floating through the film’s darkened palette: the glint of Manja’s earring in a close-up that merely traces the outline of her face in a silvery light; the glaring white spotlight of a streetlamp that punctures through the pitch-black fabric of a night-time-set, overhead shot; the swinging light that sways over Jonni’s dead body, splayed atop his taxidermied panther – among these images, the film’s iridescent whites burn with a greater mystery than anything said or inferred through conventional narrative incident or spoken dialogue. Tapiovaara understood, at a point when noir cinema was in its nascency, that it’s the swipe of a hand, a sliver of light that reveals an eye or the passing of currency in close-up that keeps a mystery alive, not the narratives that incite it all.
Mandated by the time and technical means, the above incidents are set to one of two sounds at any given moment: either a tinny, interpersonal dialogue spoken in the film’s interiors or a degraded-sounding orchestra underscoring the exterior set pieces (a bipartite limitation set by its early post-sync sound, monaural soundtrack). Tapiovaara, by necessity most likely, wasn’t tempted to overwhelm his film with overdubbed dialogue or foley work in a time when Northern/Eastern European cinema was first learning how to speak. Set only to the orchestra’s swells, the film’s final set piece reunites Robert and Manja as they speed through in a carriage – machine gun in tow – to a getaway boat on the Finnish/Russian border. Manja is shot by the trailing gendarmes and dies a slow death on the way to these Finnish borders. Having been pilfered, cheated, masqueraded and used as a form of transportation, a true death has manifested through a soldier of the revolution. As Robert closes Manja’s eyes, the film fades to black, without an “end” title card. Eliding spoken and written text, there’s the sense in the film’s conclusion that there’s no time left for explanations and – as a result – no time for a film that speaks of a then-unforeseen national independence; only time for one that shows it.