Author: Mudede, Charles
Date published: July 15, 2010
dir. Peter von Bagh
The documentary opens with a massive ship entering the frozen city of Helsinki. Men and boys fearlessly walk on the ice that's being crushed by the ship's mighty progress. The ship heaves, the ice beneath its tremendous weight breaks, and a boy happily walks beside this violence: steel, ice, and freezing water. His smiling face and his death stand next to each other. But death, like the ship, passes by him and the other boys and men. This moment, which was captured about a century ago, is accompanied by these words: "The past, with all of its memories, events, and experiences, is alive in us. Often the past is more powerful than the present." The documentary, which is directed by the film critic Peter von Bagh and is a part of the From the Land of the Midnight Sun series at Northwest Film Forum (it includes Finnish shorts, music videos, and another documentary, The Living Room of the Nation), is about the city and the art form that, as Walter Benjamin once pointed out, best represents it: cinema.
The city is Helsinki, and what we see is a lyrical mix of how it has been captured by a variety of film forms. The movie scenes (one of which is claimed to be the most beautiful shot of Helsinki) and documentary footage (one of which is of the city watching German invaders) are sometimes matched with paintings of city scenes and buildings. Three narrators (two men and a woman) read not a narrative but fragments of urban theories, historical facts, and philosophical insights about the rapid development of Helsinki. There's also lots of pop music. From one tune: "The song of the city/Over the asphalt/On a summer night/Alluring sound/The prettiest girl, destiny brought you to me." From another tune: "Tuija, a factory girl/You only blossom at night/Tuija, a factory girl/Falling in love with so many/Cinderella of the factory."
Benjamin wrote: "Couldn't an exciting film be made from the map of Paris? From the unfolding of its various aspects in temporal succession? From the compression of a centurieslong movement of streets, boulevards, arcades, and squares into the space of half an hour?" Yes, it could. But who knew this is as true for Helsinki as it has always been for Paris, the most cinematic city? CHARLES MUDEDE