Winter War (1989) Movie Review

If you could use movies as a measure of real life (which you should never do, natch), then the World War II movie “Enemy at the Gates”, and now “Winter War”, teaches us that, for advice on how to conduct successful warfare, don’t look to the Russians. “Winter War” is a Finnish war picture that tells the little known (to us in the west) bloody clash between the Finns and the Russians in 1939, with World War II and the Germans lost somewhere in the background.

The film opens with Finland under aggressive demands by Stalin’s Russia to cede a hefty stretch of territory. With Hitler’s Germany devouring territory all over Europe on the march to accept France’s quick surrender, Russia has signed a non-aggression pact with the Germans that keep them out of the Nazi war machine — at least for the time being. This leaves the ambitious (and all around madman) Stalin to declare that he wants more than just a piece of Finland, and sends over 400,000 soldiers to take it by force. The Finns fight back, using poorly trained soldiers from the country and everywhere else. And yet, the Finns are infused with an extraordinary fighting spirit that can only be summoned by someone fighting for their homeland.

“Winter War” uses Martti Hakala (Taneli Makela), an intelligent warrior in a sea of blackened faces and dead bodies, as its center of focus. Martti, along with his eager younger brother Paavo (Konsta Makela), quickly discovers that the Finnish Army is not the least bit ready for such a full-scale war. Nearly half of the troops are without proper uniforms, and the soldiers even have to agree to refuse their first pay cycle in order to allow the Army to buy more supplies. When the battle gets under way, the lacking nature of the Finnish Army becomes even more apparent. The Finns have nothing — no tanks or airplanes — and soon has to resort to Molotov cocktails to fight Russian tanks.

Pekka Parikka’s war movie is a monumental task. I’ve never had the pleasure of being immerse in Finnish cinema, but it’s quite obvious that the movie, made in 1989, was a massive undertaking that cost a lot of money. Based on a novel by Antti Tuuri, the film opens slow, and takes an astounding 50 minutes to build up to the first battle scene. Before that, we are introduced to the politics of the situation and the background of the characters. Unfortunately, as is the case with most war movies of this scale, it’s impossible to really get to know everyone, so Parikka uses Martti as our center, and it’s through his eyes, and with him, that we follow the progress of the war.

At over 3 hours of running time, “Winter War” hits its first big snag soon after the 2-hour mark. The movie is, simply put, too long for its own good. It tells, in great detail, the brutality and insanity of the battle tactics employed by the Russians, who attacks in a sea of black uniforms like mindless zombies racing across the white snow-covered Finnish countryside and frozen riverbanks. But the film quickly bogs down into a series of attacks by the Russians, counterattacks by the Finns, and more attacks by the Russians, which leads to more counterattacks by the Finns.

All of the above doesn’t seem to deter writer/director Parikka, who keeps giving us the same routine over and over. I am reasonably certain that this is really how the battles actually occurred in 1939 — as a series of attacks by the invading Russians and counterattacks by the dug-in Finns. The whole repetitive nature of the real-life battle comes through, and we understand that this is the true nature of war — repetition and blood, then repeat process. But even though Parikka may be re-telling the war exactly the way it happened, it makes for tedious cinema.

By now, with realistic war films like “Saving Private Ryan”, “The Thin Red Line”, and the HBO 10-hour mini-series “Band of Brothers,” pretty much everything that needs to be said about World War II, and just war in general, has been said. The familiar themes are all here (and granted, “Winter War” was made nearly a decade before those others): closeness brought on by war; battle fatigue; insanely stupid officers; the contrast between soldiers who has fought and those who talks about it; soldiers back in civilian life where they no longer belong; and even the contrast between veterans and replacement soldiers. Like those other war movies, “Winter War” hits on all the topics and themes, and does them well.

The recreation of the Finnish-Russian war, an unknown topic to non-Finns, certainly puts the film above the others. And while “Winter War” has less gore than those other war movies, it does have its share of soldiers sliced into pieces by artillery fire. It’s just that in comparison to those other movies, “Winter War” can’t help but come out slightly tamed. Time, I believe, is the biggest factor here. Time and the cinematic advancements of technology used to make war movies.

Of course, shaving an hour, or perhaps 30 minutes, off the running length would also help a lot.

Pekka Parikka (director) / Pekka Parikka (screenplay), Antti Tuuri (also novel)
CAST: Taneli Mäkelä …. Martti Hakala
Vesa Vierikko …. Jussi Kantola
Timo Torikka …. Pentti Saari
Heikki Paavilainen …. Vilho Erkkilä
Antti Raivio …. Erkki Somppi

Buy Winter War on DVD