The White Reindeer (Erik Blomberg, 1952)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films present The White Reindeer.

criterion logoShot in the Arctic Circle’s snowy expanses, Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer is a marvel of film fantasy.  Pirita, played by the director’s wife, Mirjami Kuosmanen, is a bewitched young woman wed to an often-absent reindeer herder.  Longing for affection, she carries out a sacrifice to empower a local shaman’s love potion and becomes cursed, transforming into a white reindeer by night and drinking the blood of local hunters.  Based on an old Lapp saga, The White Reindeer blends documentary travelogue with avant-garde experimentation and produces an art house horror film without compare, winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and granted the prize for Best Fairy Tale Film at the Cannes Film Festival by Jean Cocteau’s presiding jury.

Disc Features:

  • New high-definition digital transfer of the film featuring 7 minutes of material not included in previously restored versions, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Seven short films by Erik Blomberg: With the Reindeer (1947), From the Lemmenjoki River (1948), Gold and Sand (1948), Thirty Years of Work for the Finnish People (1948), Open the Way for Our Flags (1949), Before the Opening Night (1949), and The Beauty Pageant 1955 II (1955)
  • Kodin värit, Blomberg’s theatrically released commercial for the Tikkurila paint company
  • Trailers
  • Photo Gallery
  • PLUS:  A booklet featuring a new essay by film scholar Henry Bacon

Erik Blomberg’s The White Reindeer is a difficult film to do justice to when describing its story.  To those unfamiliar with traditional Lapland and its folklore, the film’s content might sound patently absurd.  The White Reindeer focuses on Pirita, the daughter of a witch, adopted and raised by a devoted family, and married to a loving shepherd named Aslak.  Pirita grows frustrated with her husband’s time away tending the community’s reindeer herd and obtains a love potion from a local shaman that makes her irresistible to men, a potion that is effective through a startling and unexpected mechanism.  With each moonrise, Pirita transforms into a white reindeer and coaxes men into a secluded area called Demon’s Valley, where she returns to her human form and kills them.  The film implies by her fanged appearance that Pirita is drinking her victims’ blood, although it’s never actually depicted.  The local villagers are familiar enough with “white witch reindeer” to know that they can only be killed with cold iron and eventually begin to construct spears for the purpose of destroying the monster.  Most discussions of The White Reindeer comment on how the film consolidates witches, vampires, and werewolves into a single threat, but it is fair to say that Pirita’s situation most closely resembles that of the lycanthrope – she functions normally through much of the day and quickly comes to consider her uncontrolled transformations and her compulsive bloodlust as a curse requiring removal if she is to survive.  The crux of the film’s dilemma rests between the threat Pirita poses to the community and the threat the community poses to her, either in her white reindeer form or to herself proper, should they ever connect her to the supernatural animal.

Bily SobIf the idea of a white-furred, female, blood-drinking were-reindeer killing shepherds in northern Finland sounds too outlandish to seriously enjoy, too unfamiliar to effectively suspend disbelief, rest assured that The White Reindeer manages to pull it all off with perfect aplomb.  Blomberg, perhaps more notable for his work as a cinematographer than as a director, beautifully captures the spare snowscape of Lapland, using it a kind of blank canvass to pointedly isolate his subject or punctuate his mise-en-scène with careful perspective or set design.  In this regard, his scenes of the altar come most strongly to mind – the foreboding obelisk rising darkly out of the snow-covered land, the bones and antlers of long dead reindeer surrounding, encompassing, even imprisoning Pirita.  To my eyes, The White Reindeer‘s environment seems as otherworldly as those imagined by Tolkien.  Images of reindeer pulling small, single-occupant canoes through the snow are as fanciful as Blomberg’s sparingly used effect-shots (the dreamy image of a white reindeer running produced by a negative image) and clever edits (Pirita’s leap over a fire followed by the slow motion image of the white reindeer landing on the fire’s opposite side).  In addition to the seemingly contrary influences of fantasy and documentary working in stylistic concert, The White Reindeer also appears out of time with itself.  The infrequent dialogue, the emphasis on close-ups, and the exaggerated expressions of its performers evokes a resemblance to silent cinema.  It is worth noting here the performance by Mirjami Kuosmanen, Blomberg’s wife and co-writer.  Kuosmanen is gorgeous in The White Reindeer, lively and sweet early on, sensual and predatory later.  Her wide, intense gaze as her bloodlust comes upon her is brought to maximum effect by Blomberg’s frequent technique of lighting her from below, making her appear particularly fearsome and emphasizing the fangs she slowly reveals as she draws back her upper lip.  The White Reindeer holds complete mastery over its seemingly incongruous elements, making the film a highly celebrated work.  Often cited as the first great example of Finnish cinema after WWII, it won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and the Best Fairy Tale Film at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival (no small feat considering Jean Cocteau served as president of that jury).

Black Beauty Jillian TamakiThe White Reindeer has become a minor cult favourite among hardcore horror fans with an art house sensibility, but it’s generally not well-known in North America.  The film recently saw a Region 2 DVD release.  It’s cover treatment utilizes the aforementioned altar as its focal piece, but the design is too dark in tone and altogether too black in its chosen palette to properly represent the film.  Posters and promotional materials made at the time of the film’s release use a blue/turquoise and white/ivory colour scheme.  While these designs are definitely too dated for appropriation into a Criterion cover treatment, their use of colour is far more fitting and should be emulated.  Allow me to propose Jillian Tamaki as a suitable artist for a Criterion cover commission.  Tamaki’s embroidered covers for Penguin Books (sculpturally-embossed for commercial release) are beautifully rendered and her Black Beauty cover best demonstrates her inventiveness and her talent for pattern, texture, and abstraction.  That small detail of the horse’s red hooves, one of them shockingly detached from its leg, is elegant in its simplicity and suggests Tamaki may be ideally suited for this high-brow horror film.  I’d love to see a cover design from Tamaki set on turquoise cover stock and using primarily ivory-coloured thread to construct an image of the altar, of the reindeer, or of Pirita.  Such a cover treatment would better fit with the film’s look and the embroidered technique would subtly evoke the feminine figure at the centre of The White Reindeer.

Credits:  The IMDB cites an original running time of 74 minutes as well as a 67-minute restored version.  I’ve never seen the longer version.  I can’t even say it still exists, but, for the purpose of this proposed Criterion treatment, I’m assuming (or wishing) that the longer version could be found and presented.  Blomberg directed far more short films than features, so I’ve included many of them in a potential package for the Collection.  These diverse shorts examine reindeer herding and gold prospecting in Lapland, the Finnish Communist Party, ballet practice and rehearsals, and beauty pageant competition.  The Region 2 DVD includes trailers and a photo gallery, so I have also included these as special features on a Criterion edition.  Finally, I’ve tapped Henry Bacon of the University of Helsinki and the Transnational History of Finnish Cinema project for a booklet essay.

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