Although his film Unknown Soldier has recently premiered in Finland to significant fanfare, director Aku Louhimies maintains a calm demeanour as he discusses the project in a downtown Helsinki café. After a few minutes of talking, two things become abundantly clear: his passion for filmmaking is palpable, and the release of Unknown Soldier represents the final chapter of a story which stretches back to his youth; a time before he had even considered a career in the film industry.
“The idea was born when I was serving in the military – as is mandatory in Finland,” Louhimies remembers. “I thought watch duty was boring so I found a pocket-size version of Unknown Soldier novel, which I read in secret.”
The story of a Finnish platoon battling Russia for over three years of World War II made a lasting impression on him.
Later the Finnish director and screenwriter would go on to make a name for himself with award-winning movies such as Naked Harbour, Frozen City and Frozen Land, as well as his first international breakthrough, the Netflix series Rebellion.
Then, about two-and-a-half years ago, the time was ripe to return to that thought from three decades ago – just in time for Finland’s centennial celebrations.
From book to action
Louhimies’ plan to adapt the Finnish classic gathered steam after getting several private investors on board, including the people behind Supercell, and developing a script based on Väinö Linna’s original novel.
“The story is a sort of phenomenon in Finland and it felt good to be able to take on a classic like this,” says Louhimies. “It could be described as a Finnish Hamlet or Macbeth.”
Since being published in 1954 the book has inspired several plays, operas and films, but Louhimies’ adaption is the first motion picture to also use the book’s uncensored original manuscript.
In the resultant movie, witty lines and beautiful Finnish forest landscapes are mixed with the harsh reality of war and its impact on the soldiers.
“This is a story about people – I was intrigued by how people change when exposed to a long crisis,” says Louhimies. “For me it was important to make three-dimensional characters.”
The storyline thus includes snapshots from the home front interspersed between raining grenades and gunfire showers. After three hours, this juxtaposition equips audiences with its rousing theme of men from different parts of Finland coming together to fight for a common cause.
A realistic wartime drama
The movie was shot entirely on location, deep in the untouched Finnish forests using no artificial lights or studios and minimal visual effects. The logistical challenges of the production infused an authentic flavour to the movie.
Helping to build the sense of being part of a team, the cast was sent to a boot camp for military training to prepare for the shoot. Needless to say, there were no hotels or trailers on offer during the entire 81 days on set.
“The crew stayed in tents that they themselves had to heat up and they slept in extremely harsh conditions, including sub-zero temperatures and snow,” Louhimies explains. “The idea was to make a real team of the actors and I believe that it shows in the final product.”
The director emphasises the importance of making movies that audiences find meaningful in some way. To him Unknown Soldier serves as a reminder of the consequences of war and honours the people that had to take part in battle against their will.
“A crisis like this reflects on all of society and nobody that survives returns the same,” says Louhimies. “I hope this could help the viewer to understand the conflicts happening today and the resultant refugeeism.”
Hitting the Finnish film ceiling
Unknown Soldier has made headlines as the biggest Finnish film production ever: the most expensive, the longest shoot and the largest crew.
Only weeks after the premiere the movie was already the most viewed in Finland this year and since then it has been watched by 650 000 viewers, which is over 10 per cent of the country’s population. Now the film is commencing its march to international markets.
“Distribution deals have already been signed with Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, England and Ireland – and more will probably come,” says Louhimies.
As for the director himself, the future is open. Viewers can expect almost any genre of movie from him as his inspiration comes from “life itself”. But what is a certainty is that Louhimies is ready to experiment further outside of the small local industry.
“I’m still in the beginning in my career and now it’s time to do my next film abroad since one could say that I have hit the ceiling in Finland – in a good way,” says Louhimies.