Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Day the Earth Froze (Mosfilm, Suomi-Film, American International Television, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I decided to tap the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 archives for a suitable film for a low-energy night. I dug out The Day the Earth Froze, which I assumed (mostly on the similarity of its title to The Day the Earth Stood Still) would be a bad science-fiction movie. Instead it turned out to be a 1959 co-production of Finland and the Soviet Union, directed by a Russian named Aleksandr Ptushko (though that was not the way he was credited on this print, whose logo proclaimed the U.S. distributor as “American International Television”!) from a script by Viktor Vitkovich and Grigori Yagdfeld with Väinö Kaukonen credited as “Finnish dialogue editor,” based on the national epic of Finland, the Kalevala. This (badly) English-dubbed version featured a narrator, Marvin Miller, who in the dull and slightly bored tone of the narrator in an audio-visual movie for high schools explains that the film is based on the stories of Elias Lönnrot, who is compared to the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Andersen — and in the case of the Grimms, certainly, the comparison is accurate: like the Grimms, Lönnrot traveled throughout his country, partly for work (he was a doctor in his day job) and partly because of his interest in folk tales and legends, which he got people in villages throughout Finland to tell him and eventually wrote down in two giant collections, the Old Kalevala (1835) and a later one simply called Kalevala (1849), which like the later editions of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass consisted of rewrites of the earlier material as well as new stories. Though the Kalevala as it exists today is a 19th century transcription rather than an authentically old epic poem like the Iliad, Odyssey and Nibelungenlied, it’s actually based on ancient legends (unlike James MacPherson’s notorious 18th century forgery Fingal, a Scottish epic attributed to the poet Ossian, supposedly Fingal’s son, but actually entirely MacPherson’s invention) and Lönnrot did attempt to write it in the poetic style of the Finnish bards who originally created the material and handed it down in an oral tradition, complete with heavy-duty alliteration (also a feature of the Nibelungenlied and the libretti Wagner adapted from it for the Ring cycle) and regular meter, which 19th century English translators largely followed and 20th century English translators largely ignored. The Kalevala is a loosely connected series of interlocking plots, and the movie’s opening narration gets so confusing that for a moment there I was wondering when we were going to be tested on who was who and how they were related, and how much that would count towards our final grade in the class.

But the major part of the film deals with the hero Lemminkäinen (Andris Oshin, who was actually quite hot — he looked like a slightly stockier version of Prince Valiant and even though the medieval costumes didn’t do much to reveal it, a few shots showed off a quite impressive basket); his girlfriend, Annikki (that’s not a particularly unusual name for a Finnish woman but the MST3K crew had a lot of fun with it, at one point cracking “Annikki in the U.K.” as a reference to the Sex Pistols’ famous song); the evil witch Louhi (Anna Orochko, whose costuming and makeup made her look like a cross between the Wicked Witch of the West and Orson Welles as Macbeth — though her gadget for flying is a cloak instead of a broomstick, the scenes with her in the air seemed so much like the ones in The Wizard of Oz I half-expected her to leave behind a message in smoke reading, “Surrender Annikki”); an old wise guy named Väinämöinen (in the entire Kalevala he’s actually the first human — the Finnish equivalent of Epimetheus or Adam — but that’s not at all the case here), another guy named Ilmarinen and various locations called Pohjola and Kalevala. I recognized a lot of the proper names from the works of Jean Sibelius, by far Finland’s most famous composer, who wrote a lot of music based on the Kalevala, including a five-movement symphony with choruses and voices called Kullervo (which was drawn from a part of the Kalevala not included in this film: it deals with the warrior Kullervo, whose uncle murdered his father and the rest of his family but spared his mother and sister; later Kullervo becomes a free-lance warrior, meets and falls in love with a woman only to learn that she’s his sister, then fights a war against his father’s kinsmen and annihilates them, and finally commits suicide out of lingering shame over both incest and genocide — he’s sort of a combination of Siegmund, Siegfried and Etli, a.k.a. Attila the Hun, who appears as a character in a part of the Nibelungenlied Wagner did not use) as well as a four-movement suite (not designated as a symphony but effectively one) called The Lemminkäinen Suite.

Alas, the people in charge of this movie were far below Sibelius in talent — at least judging from their work in this version of the film (when I looked it up on imdb.com the review that came up was from someone pleading with people not to judge the 91-minute original release, Sampo, on the basis of this severly cut and heavily re-edited piece of junk) — and The Day the Earth Froze comes across as a barely watchable piece of nonsense, appealing enough to look at (since it was a Soviet co-production it was shot in “Sovcolor,” actually the old Agfacolor process the Russians had looted from the Germans after World War II, and though the print we were watching wasn’t of high quality it still had the delicate pastel look that makes Agfacolor so appealing — a far cry from the shrieking, overbright Pathécolor American International used for its own color productions!) but making virtually no sense dramatically. The main dramatic issue, to the extent there is one, concerns Lemminkäinen’s search for the Sampo, some sort of magical whatsit, in the land of Pohjola (yet another Sibelius work inspired by the Kalevala is called Pohjola’s Daughter, from which I had assumed that Pohjola was the name of a person instead of a place); he gets it but then loses it on the way home (in the original legend it falls into the sea and is unrecoverable), though in the movie he manages to save a piece of it and it’s a sort of amorphous hunk of blue crystal rock about the size of a dinner plate. Just what the Sampo is or why it’s so important (or why its loss is such a tragedy) isn’t really explained in this script, but its loss is significant enough that to avenge herself against Lemminkäinen for first stealing and then losing it, the witch Louhi (ya remember Louhi?) steals the sun from the sky and hides it in a cave, thereby plunging the world into darkness and cold (even colder than usual in Finland? Let’s face it, this is a country that’s so far north on the globe they’re used to it being dark for months on end!) until Lemminkäinen finally vanquishes her, restores the sun to its proper place in the sky and the film ends.

Maybe it is unfair to judge this film on the basis of what we have — perhaps if we got to saw a subtitled print of the 91-minute original cut this might actually emerge as a good, or at least moderately entertaining, movie (and one would think there are enough interesting stories in the Kalevala that more filmmakers than Aleksandr Ptushko would be attracted to it as a source!) — but what we have is a nice-looking but unwittingly silly film hampered not only by bad dubbing and a patronizing narration but also a virtually nonexistent special-effects budget (though the scene in which the sun’s rays penetrate out of the cave where Louhi hid the sun and start making their way back to the sky where they belong is cool) and a musical score by Igor Morozov (billed as “Otto Strode”!) which wouldn’t be that good even if we didn’t have Sibelius’ Kalevala-inspired works to compare it to, and the MST3K ridicule was especially nasty when they had the townspeople, in the scenes where they’re singing Morozov’s musical drivel, chant, “Failure! A failure!” regarding Lemminkäinen’s loss of the Sampo in tones that couldn’t help but remind me of Sir Robin’s minstrels in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.