Unknown Soldier (Kino Lorber, NR)

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.

2 comments

  1. For people interested in (as close as can get) realistic war and human depiction this may be the best war movie ever made.
    Obviously, as any dramatization it has to have something that someone will think as something lacking, but in this case such nitpicking would be embarrassing, especially thinking of the film budget and how they managed to stretch the money to create such an epic movie.

    The movie attempts to show the lifelike variations of situations and feelings, personal and in human interaction.
    In one scene one can for instance see from the same people or team corageousness, next uncontrollable and suicidal panic, then relief and laughter getting the enemy to retreat, only to be shot in the head in the next second, utter grief sweeping through friends.
    The movie doesn’t depict explosions and shots unrealistically – it is expected of the viewer to understand the lethality of even one shrapnel, bullet or wound while the soundscape and visuals show constant danger. Nevertheless there are enough visually impressive scenes to go around. The camera work is exellent, both in battle and peaceful scenes.

    I do suspect that people who themselves have been in war, lost someone in war or emotionally understand the sacrifices involved will appreciate this movie with varying paces much more than someone who hasn’t seen life as much, so keep in mind this is not the movies fault but reveals the lackings in the viewers understanding.

    Finland was fighting for the very existence of their own land, culture, language etc. against an enemy with ‘tenfold’ resources. The fact that Finland managed to ‘force’ the USSR to a peace settlement is a feat which is among the greatest in all war history. This makes it even more compelling to get even a small glimpse into these historical events.
    And it really won’t and can’t get any better than this. Maybe there will not be made any similar movie on the topic in our lifetime again and for certain, Hollywood fastfood entertainment garbage can’t get close to this. Their interest is only box office revenues, not realism or even remote accuracy.

    I have met and talked with many veterans showing their grief and and trauma. Thus I had no difficulties sympathizing with the characters, story and events. After the movie I remembered the veteran meetings and things told, with tearful eyes. A powerful movie indeed.

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