A sombre mood of loneliness and overwhelming isolation hangs heavy over the succession of almost indistinguishable landscape images which open cinematographer Erik Bloomberg’s 1952 directorial debut: a proto-folk horror cum ethnographic fairy-tale from Finland called The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura).
The scene is set immediately: we are in Lapland; the ‘present day'. As the opening titles are unveiled, the camera follows the gaze of the indigenous reindeer herder who anonymously inhabits the foreground of the first shot. A series of images, panning left to right, give the impression of the camera revolving through a 360-degree turn. Similar shots of vast snow-blanketed hills lightly spotted with lichen-stained Birch trees, extending seemingly forever across the expansive horizon, dissolve into each other repetitively as a lone female soprano intones a lilting melody that wordlessly expresses its sense of mournful regret against the drone-like paganistic pulse of the rhythmic drumming it accompanies.
Already we are being subtly but robustly assailed by intimations of the vast, unimaginable geological time-scales that have been at work in producing such a haunted landscape. They indicate an ancient and essential, and inescapably cyclical form of nature, built through a process of creative repetition and imprinted with a harsh fatalism which seems to animate the land and the sky and the rocks with an emotion that might be summarised thus as a melancholy form of otherworldliness.
The strange mood is further enhanced and expanded on in the following post-titles prologue sequence, which details, in smudgy soft-focus imagery entirely without sound, the origins of the film’s charismatic anti-heroine. Here, striking and beautifully composed shots of the snowy fells of Lapland during dusk make a harrowing backdrop for the image of a lone woman crossing the wilderness, fleeing hungry wolves through a glooming expanse lit by the setting sun, until she finds partial refuge from the elements in a small lean-to inhabited by a huddle of concerned older women. They help deliver the pregnant stranger a healthy child in the midst of the warmth of a campfire, although the weakened mother dies during the strenuous process of giving birth.
The most notable thing about this dream-like section of the film (aside from its atmospheric simulation of the silent movie conventions of an earlier age) is the narrative relayed in the folk song on the soundtrack accompanying the images. It’s easy to miss upon first viewing, but the song’s lyrics -- which are, once again, sung by a solo female voice -- range far beyond the events depicted on screen and encompass not just the circumstances of the child’s birth and her parentage, but also her future life as an adult, which includes her eventual fate: which is to be hunted as an outsider through this same snowbound landscape, not by wolves this time, but by members of her own community.
In fact, the song relates all of the events which are about to be set before us in their entirety and explains how everything we will see should be informed by the fact that the child was born to a witch who will inherit her mother’s curse. This is one film where spoilers can be excused, since Bloomberg structures it deliberately so that we know in outline from the very start everything that is about to happen to its ill-fated central character.
It’s that inherent sense of cyclical fatalism again, built into the structure of the story and expressed in mimicry of the folkways of a traditional culture. The story draws on this for its sense of supernatural potency. The silent-era imagery during this opening portion looks as though it inhabits a liminal space caught between fairy tale and ethnographic representation, becoming a poetic visualisation of the patriarchal constraints that inevitably come to delineate the formative pathways that will shape this new-born child’s very sense of self in later adulthood. There is by implication the sense that the story represents an archetypal arrangement of elements constantly alive in this landscape, that have played out many times before and will probably continue to do so again and again in variations that spiral outwards to embrace an otherwise uncertain future.
Even some of the core features of the film’s production background feed into the mixture of the factual and the fairy tale that informs its unique atmosphere. Actress Mirjami Kuosmanen plays the pregnant woman hunted by wolves in the opening scene, and also the woman’s adult daughter, Pirita: the main character in the rest of the film. The mythical, fantastical fable-like feel of the opening segment continues to exert its influence across the very different, almost documentary styling of the sequences following it (wherein certain traditional features of Sámi social culture are recreated on camera) -- partly because of the identical appearance of these two related characters both played by the same person.
Bloomberg’s evocative cinematography also emphasises the continuity between the fantastical sides to the story and the immediate and more practical nature of the lifestyle of the indigenous population: contradictory qualities which seem to define a landscape that invokes a form of atavism that encourages feelings of an awestruck sublime caught midway between terror and wonder. With its eerie featureless horizons where low clouds hang across flat fells and deep glacial valleys, and where vast herds of migrating animals greatly outnumber the huddled communities of humans who must work together to earn a living in this harsh but weirdly beautiful environment, we can easily come to understand the appeal of the belief system of the Sámi people, with its foundations in animism. The film successfully conjures a psychological state that assumes agency existing across the whole spectrum of the natural environment, drawing on animating energy contained within the rocks and plants and animals as well as humans. The White Reindeer echoes many of the films that later came to be grouped under the genre term ‘folk horror’, in that it posits a world in which modern forms of contemporary, Christianised patriarchal Sámi culture have not replaced traditional animist beliefs but rather formed a palimpsest that merely obscures them. We sense their continuity and essence in every event depicted, through a combination of narrative rhyming, metaphor and the striking visual compositions which make up a landscape portrait of the weather systems and climatic conditions providing such a mysterious backdrop to the story.
Kuosmanen and Bloomberg were very much a husband and wife team, and The White Reindeer was a collaborative project in the truest sense of the word. When Bloomberg came to expand his directorial ambitions from short documentaries to feature-length ficiton films, it was Kuosmanen who came up with the initial idea for The White Reindeer and then later co-wrote the screenplay with her husband. As well as playing two roles in the movie, she also oversaw this low-budget project’s costuming and makeup. For his part, Bloomberg’s approach to the fantastical material (which was based on traditional regional legends about similar shape-shifting entities), did not represent an abrupt break with his former documentary output. In fact, the subject matter affords him an opportunity to revisit some of the material that constituted his first documentary short, made in 1947, and included with this new UK edition of the film. Titled With the Reindeer, this seven-minute-long short showed how traditional Sámi culture is organised around the herding of reindeer. It tells how the various herding communities come together regularly for an organised ‘round up’ to determine who owns what, with the community ‘corralling’ procedure necessarily involving every member of the various tribes.
The imagery included in this short narrated film – of herders crowding into lean-tos during the hunt and engaged in lassoing their antlered quarry to the ground – reoccurs throughout The White Reindeer itself and often looks similarly authentic. Like such documentary footage, the film has very minimal foley effects, which on one level lends it a rather endearingly amateurish ‘stitched together’ quality that actually rather works in its favour in a manner that is very reminiscent of the atmosphere created in Herk Harvey’s film, Carnival of Souls. Although it eschews the narration we associate with conventional documentary forms, its use of music to set a very specific tone to accompany these authentic-looking images of everyday Sámi life lend it, when they’re combined with other similarities in presentation such as the use of a hand-held camera, the distinct feel of cinema vérité.
The film’s music, by Einar Englund, is an essential component in establishing the unique real/unreal tone of The White Reindeer. Deprived of a more sophisticated effects soundtrack for establishing the mood, and with very minimal dialogue, Bloomberg has to rely instead on the music to an even greater extent to bring to the fore what the characters are experiencing internally, or to help elucidate the group dynamics operating within the indigenous Sámi community while demonstrating Pirita’s place within it. It’s a documentary or early newsreel technique which creates a particularly resonant experience for the viewer, becoming all the more acute as superstition and fantastical elements of the supernatural take on more and more significance for the development of Pirita’s story.
As a result, Englund’s score is incredibly dominant throughout, its cues encompassing everything from the sprightly sleigh-bell anchored orchestral fanfare accompanying the chaotic reindeer race at the start of the first act (showing how Pirita initially fits comfortably into a very male-dominated competitive culture and is accepted within it); to elegiac, delicately woven folk-based Ralph Vaughn Williams-inspired paeans to a landscape at once romantic and ominously forbidding. Here the music works alongside contemplative, atmosphere-enhancing interludes to the action that, again, highlight the animism underpinning Sámi beliefs.
Whenever Bloomberg’s cinematographic style moves away from a realistic mode grounded in naturalistic landscapes or the traditional practices of the indigenous population and encompasses a more Gothic register in order to highlight the more fable-like aspects of the tale, the director makes use of expressionistic techniques that would not look out of place in a 1930s Universal Horror picture. Englund’s score also tracks this transformation in the character of Pirita through the different style of cues accompanying such moments. These often anticipate the bubbling tension to be found in the music of the composer James Bernard (particularly in the scores he wrote for films made by Hammer Pictures later in the ‘50s and ‘60s): there are sequences, particularly in the middle section of the film, when Pirita is struggling with her dual nature, in which The White Reindeer’s dominant sense of docudrama-like verisimilitude gives way completely to a Gothic excess that is replete with highly-charged symbolic imagery elaborating on the concept of the female vampire as acutely as anything Terrence Fisher was to place upon the screen only a few years afterwards.
The White Reindeer constantly moves back-and-forth between these two extremes of visual representation to create a work that acts as a subtle character study couched in the visual language of a dark folk myth, about someone who finds herself compelled to reject the moral and social norms of the society which had previously sustained her and anchored her sense of selfhood, and so who can only end up more isolated than ever as a result of pursuing the taboo-breaking fulfilment of her deepest needs.
The gender aspects of this theme are foregrounded early on and are evident in Pirita's delight in the communal excitement of a reindeer race which gives way to a flirtatious tumble in the snow and awakens her, perhaps for the first time, to romantic and sexual feelings. Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä), one of the other competitors in the race, followers her as she breaks away from the others, and playfully lassos her like one of the deers he herds for a living, joking that “a reindeer is fast, but a wolf is faster!” Already this comment verbally reminds us of the film’s mythical opening, when Pirita’s witch mother was pursued by wolves across the moonlit fells. It also anticipates the tragic conclusion of the film, and provides an Angela Carter-like fairy-tale animal metaphor for the pursuit of love and sex in a patriarchal setting which demonstrates how a spirited, rebellious form of femininity might well play along with the idea of being the hunted prey in the game of love, but that there might also be much danger and eventually a price to pay for colluding in such gestures.
Pirita and Aslak’s love match develops along the conventional lines, drawing their relationship under the umbrella of this society’s mandated semi-feudal form of romantic union -- with coins and heirlooms exchanged by the parents as a marriage dowry, and a raucous reception held in the grooms’ parents tiny home, which is where the entire community comes together to provide approval in the form of drunken revelry and expectant glances. But it's not long before this protective cocoon of marital bliss is disrupted by Aslak’s need to be away from home (and Pirita) for long periods on the fells, herding and corralling the reindeer. Pirita’s completely new and unexpected experience of loneliness only seems to highlight how important feeling valued by her mostly male peers had previously been in forging her identity; household chores and enforced introspection do not sit well with her personality, and she cannot help but notice -- and be flattered by -- any male attention that now comes her way.
Her internal dissatisfaction finally crystallises into one of the most memorable scenes of the film: Pirita visits the hut of the local Shaman in search of a love potion that might help her win back the attention of her husband when he comes home after long absences too exhausted to fulfil her needs. The shaman, Tsalkku-Nilla (Arvo Lehesmaa), turns out to be a strange crab-like hermit, seemingly banished to the outskirts of the Sámi community to live his isolated existence in a remote shack located somewhere in the snowy Finnish wilderness, where he awaits his 'clients', squatting like some feral animal over a boiling cauldron of questionable substances that are heated by a fire that also illuminates the equally grotesque pet goat permanently positioned at his side! It is as though this Shaman character represents the dangerous, subterranean and atavistic portions of his culture that are unconsciously rejected by its wider population, yet allowed to continue to exist so long as they stay safely out of sight whilst a ‘civilising’ veneer of Christianised belief and morality is displayed on the surface in their sted.
Those, like Pirita, who find it difficult to live a fulfilled existence under such a scheme of things might periodically visit this disquieting figure out of some unvoiced need to feel an authentic connection with their lost heritage and with the world of the spirits underpinning the old beliefs, but the impression is that it has become a furtive activity that would be scorned if anyone were to find out about it. The shaman is himself, though, yet another expression of accusatory patriarchal authority, who immediately attempts to shame Pirita for finding herself in such an unwholesome position, knowingly cackling to himself “you women, young and old the same!” His proffered solution to her feelings of loneliness and rejection take the physical form of a bubbling potion brewed from a lurid ingredients list that is inclusive of such delights as graveyard soil and “the balls of ten bull moose”; and he informs her that she must “sacrifice to the stone god the first living thing she meets on her way home” in order to reap the full benefits of this profane curative.
However, his domineering atavism -- founded on the assumption of male-centred authority -- is immediately challenged when the shaman’s traditional spirit drum reveals to him Pirita’s witch origins. Now that she has been brought into close contact for the first time in her life with the elemental spirit realms from which her suppressed heritage derives its power, the carved piece of reindeer antler acting as the shaman’s drum marker dances of its own accord across the personalised map of the spirit world painted on the drumhead; or rather it moves while now under Pirita’s control instead of his, as she suddenly transforms in an instant from beleaguered supplicant into powerful supernatural entity, leaving the terrified shaman instantly divested of all power and authority.
The imagery and editing here are feverish, expressionistic and delirious; Bloomberg propels us straight away into another sequence equally as affecting, in which the newly empowered but almost deranged Pirita hurries outside into the snowy whited out fells to sacrifice her husband’s wedding gift of a white reindeer calf before the great ‘stone god’, as instructed. This imagery is powerfully transgressive, paganistic, and ritualistic; it taps into the mythical wellspring suggested by an interest in the poetry of landscape from which folk horror derives much of its power. In destroying the calf, Pirita is decisively rejecting her role as nurturer and caregiver and dutiful wife. In symbolically slaying this innocent creature -- given to her as a wedding gift -- she is rejecting Christian purity, motherhood and her husband’s authority. The act is performed like a diabolic ceremony before a great slab-like stone monument: a black finger crowned by a reindeer skull and topped by a mantle of antler horns pointing up to the ominous cloud-strewn heavens. The monument towers like a centrepiece above a reindeer ‘graveyard', with antler ‘grave markers’ jaggedly piercing its icy surroundings like barbed wire on an abandoned battlefield.
This moment also constitutes the film’s decisive break with realism and a turn to fully-fledged poetic fantasy: a brief slow-motion shot in negative of a reindeer galloping across the snowy landscape might or might not be deliberately intended as a reference to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) -- in which Heir Hutter’s coach ride through the forested mountainside on his way to Graf Orlok’s castle is also shown in the negative as a way of indicating his crossing over into a supernatural realm during the journey (Jean Cocteau also used the same idea two years before the release of The White Reindeer to depict a motorcar traversing an invisible threshold as it enters the Underworld in Orphée) -- but it certainly marks out a change in the tone of the rest of the film from here on in, with Pirita’s double nature and her increasing alienation from her community becoming the narrative’s primary focus. It’s an angle which the film addresses in a style combining the traditional fairy tale and all its mythic resonance with a stylistic form of horror cinema that is based around vampires and werewolves, producing a unique dark fantasy aesthetic grounded in Nordic culture. In this phase of its evolution, the film’s ability to draw on elements of horror and myth to create a psychological portrait of the alienation and the increasing marginalisation of a single character is reminiscent of some of Ingmar Bergman’s best work, a comparison which is especially pertinent seeing as much of the film’s power resides in Bloomberg’s ability to capture the compelling and versatile performance given throughout by Mirjami Kuosmanen, as Pirita grapples with the results of her post-transformation status, much as Bergman often focused his most psychologically penetrating work on female performances, in particular, those of his long-time partner and collaborator Liv Ullman.
Eureka Entertainment’s recent release of The White Reindeer on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD as part of the Masters of Cinema series offers a beautifully crisp 4K restoration by the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland. Several insightful essays by film critic Alexandra Heller Nichols and journalist Philip Kemp are included in an excellent accompanying booklet, which, together with film historian Kat Ellinger’s knowledgeable commentary track and Amy Simmons’ video essay, Pleasure and Punishment: The Portrayal of Witches in Nordic Cinema, provides a fully rounded introduction to the film and its context. From Nordic art cinema to folk horror, The White Reindeer contributes an important chapter in the evolution of both, one that is sure to become much more widely known about and appreciated thanks to this essential release.