The White Reindeer (1952)


If you watch The White Reindeer (1952) like I'm going to encourage you to do, try to find a better copy than the one on YouTube. It's probably a beautiful movie, but the choppy, fuzzy version I located didn't do it justice. If ever a movie was intended to be seen in "glorious black and white," it would be this one. Taking place mostly outside on the white, snow-covered hills of Finland, any black or shades of gray probably pop off the screen.

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Since I cannot verify this hypothesis, I'll have to instead focus on the images that don't rely so heavily on aesthetics. Luckily, the movie has some good ones. With very few to no special effects, we witness Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen) transform from a beautiful young woman into a white reindeer. In one frame the woman leaps into the air toward the right side of the screen. In the next, the reindeer lands on the ground from the left side of the screen.

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That's not really a scary vision, unless you stop to think, "Wait a minute, that's a were-reindeer. Cool!" It is a scary vision, though, when Pirita looks into a mirror and sees that she has grown fangs, then slowly creeps up behind her husband, Aslak (Kalervo Nissila) with them bared. You see, she isn't just a were-reindeer… she's a vampire/were-reindeer. I think. She wasn't born this way, and she didn't exactly ask to become this hybrid creature that feeds on men… or did she?

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Her curse is a byproduct of loneliness when Aslak is away on long reindeer-herding expeditions. In a creepy scene, she visits a shaman who creates a love potion for her. He taps a drum and a stone bounces on it. She merely touches it and the same thing happens. If she sacrifices the first living thing she sees on the way home, no man will be able to resist her. Later we'll see that the ones who get further than simple attraction end up dead.

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The first living thing she sees is a small white reindeer. She takes it to an altar, pulls a dagger, and expresses a crazy look in her eyes. Cue the dramatic music and Pirita falls back on the snow. Sometime later, she wakes up and runs back home. Speaking of music, The White Reindeer is like a silent movie with a hyperactive score. It's moody when it needs to be, but is more upbeat during its scenes depicting happy people and events, such as when...

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They travel by skiing gracefully across the land. Their entertainment is a reindeer race with the animals pulling participants in sleds. An early scene where Pirita meets Aslak by passing him in a race, then literally rolls with him in the snow at the end of it, is exhilarating. Riding back together, she doesn't need any love potion. He asks, "Will you be mine." That brings up my one question about the entire nature of the movie...

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What do we make of Pirita and her choices? On one hand, she's an innocent heroine. On the other, the act of visiting the shaman is a blatant act of infidelity. Her crime as a human may be more severe than her crimes as a vampire/were-reindeer. I have to believe a clarifying point was lost in translation. On the other hand, the movie opens with a song about a woman with evil in her stomach who didn't know she was a witch. Maybe she's been bad all along.

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If so, the distinction casts the movie in a different light. It's not about the fall of a woman. It's about an evil presence from the beginning. That makes it more frightening and worthy of categorizing as "horror." It's a fairytale either way, springing from Finnish mythology, and an award-winning one at that: Cannes Film Festival (1953) International Prize for Fairy Tale Film and Golden Globes, USA (1957) for Best Foreign-Language Foreign Film.

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The first words in the English subtitles are, "A tale of a witch's love." That makes its intentions pretty clear, which means my idea of ambiguity is really a non-issue. The White Reindeer was made by cinematographer-turned-director, Erik Blomberg. It was written by him and his wife, Mirjami Kuosmanen, the actress who plays Pirita. There could be some interesting psychology in that one, especially if art was imitating life for what I'd like to assume was a happily married couple.

Written by Erik Blomberg Directed by Erik Blomberg, Mirjami Kuosmanen Starring Mirjami Kuosmanen, Kalervo Nissila Released July 25, 1952 (Finland) RT 67 min. (restored version) Home Video Filigra Nowa (DVD)

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