Helsinki, Forever (2008)
Dir. Peter Von Bagh
Helsinki, Forever is a lovely contribution to the budding micro-genre, the city symphony, and one that absolutely transcends the overtly scholarly implications that seem implicit in such a picture. The city symphony is essentially a portrait of a city, one painted by the cultural landmark of film, and one using film clips, photographs, and other art works as an abstract exploration of a specific culture. While Helsinki, Forever is not the masterpiece of the genre, as that would certainly be occupied by Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, it is by my estimate a shade lovelier and more moving than Terrence Davies’ film of similar nature about Liverpool, Of Time and the City. Davies’ film is more than accomplished in its own right, but Von Bagh’s film feels certainly more emotional and wounded, not to mention downright giddy in its unearthing of a very generous portion of Finnish film archives, the vast majority of which have remained unseen by Western eyes.
Peter Von Bagh is quite possibly Finland’s most influential film critic and historian, and his masterful editing and archival work shown here is quite impressive indeed. If nothing else, the sheer beauty of these often rare images kept me enraptured throughout the film, impervious to the sometimes wavering nature of the narrative. Helsinki, Forever attempts to encapsulate the history and growth of Finland’s cultural epicenter through vast archives of film and art, and does so in the unenviable but noble window of 75 minutes. For some, the idea of an “essay” film is tough enough, so perhaps this is as acceptable a length as some audiences can tolerate.
However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few bones to pick… A particular note of interest is the film’s heavy inclusion of clips from arguably Finland’s most famous filmmaker, and certainly the one most recognizable to Western eyes, Aki Kaurismaki. Helsinki, Forever contains a very generous smattering of typically gorgeous moments from the filmmaker (including one from one of my favorites, The Man Without a Past), but the editing within the film nags at me a bit. While the clips used from Kaurismaki’s film certainly reflect the typically melancholy and wistful tone of the piece, it seems to me that what Helsinki, Forever neglects to mention is the warmth and exuberant humor that is so defining of his work. Instead Von Bagh here almost paints his films as funereal and almost dystopian explorations of a burgeoning city. And this is perhaps where Helsinki, Forever feels slight; the coldness and isolation of this particular city is felt and explored, but what of the humor that defines a society as well?
Naturally, this is a mountain to climb, and one cannot help but feel slighted in many manners by the truncated length of the film, but in many ways this is a blessing; the footage provides a glimpse of how a city views itself, and Von Bagh leaves us with an ambiguity that allows the viewer to decipher for themselves what Helsinki means to its inhabitants, and to the rest of the world. In other words, this is by no means intended as a definitive view of Helsinki, but instead an idea and projection of Helsinki. This is the city symphony in a nutshell, an exploration that cannot replace a lifetime of experience and immersion into a culture, but using its media as a mirror unto itself, trusting that this can speak volumes about how a society views itself and encourages its growth, and in some instances, its decay.