If, like me, you grew up in the United States and are not a huge World War II buff, you may be unfamiliar with the Continuation War fought between Finland and Russia from 1941 to 1944, let alone Väinö Linna’s 1954 novel The Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon sotilas), which offers a take on that war from the point of view of ordinary Finnish soldiers.
Lack of knowledge of the historical context needn’t hamper your enjoyment of Aku Louhimies’ film Unknown Soldier, based on Linna’s novel, if you’re the sort of person who loves it when a film offers you the chance to be exposed to culture and history that you were not previously aware of. Trust me, Unknown Soldier offers that opportunity in spades, and may well inspire you to learn more about the history behind this fictional presentation. On the other hand, if you prefer movies that stick to familiar territory, and follow predictable Hollywood formulas, then perhaps this three-hour epic is not the film for you. Of course, if you’re interested in Finnish history and culture, Unknown Soldier is a must-see: not only is the topic of historical importance, but this film was both the most expensive Finnish film to date when it was released in 2017, and the most successful film (in terms of box office receipts) in Finland for that year.
Unknown Soldier follows a machine gun company fighting on the Karelian front (contested territory on the border of Finland and Russia) from 1941 to 1944. It’s beautiful but rugged forested territory, and it’s very easy to lose your bearings during the combat scenes because cinematographer Mika Orasmaa favors low camera placement and close to medium shots. That’s probably what it feels like to be involved in this kind of fighting: you’re intensely aware of your immediate surroundings but don’t have much sense of the big picture, and your individuality gets subsumed by the group effort.
In more relaxed moments, we get to see the different personalities of the company, including the unconventional but very effective Rokka (Eero Aho), his pal Susi (Arttu Kapulainen), and the idealistic Kariluoto (Johannes Hopolainen). Unknown Soldier does not sugar-coat the grind of this kind of warfare, nor the inevitable loss of life that comes with any war, but it also offers moments of respite, levity, and even joy. Chyrons provide occasional guidelines as to the time and place of different scenes, but the progress of the war is less central to the film than the experiences of the soldiers fighting it.
The most striking thing about Unknown Soldier is its consistency of tone, reinforced by a consistently muddy tonal palette (think of it as Lord of the Rings in reverse), as if to say that the sun never really shines on the common foot soldier. This approach is consistent with the general tenor of the film, and a welcome corrective to the glorifications of war that Hollywood likes to produce, but produces a certain sameness of feel that is best enjoyed by those who are really up for that kind of experience. | Sarah Boslaugh
Unknown Soldier is distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include the featurette “Into the Unknown: The Making of Unknown Soldier” (59 min.), 13 deleted scenes (11 min. total), four post-production featurettes (10 min.), and two trailers.