RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE: A FILM BY JALMARI HELANDER

December 25, 2012 Essays on Film

Every year there comes a day when legions of people around the world, adults and children alike, celebrate the miraculous arrival of a singular individual. He is recognised and revered for both his appearance and his works: tall, bearded, long flowing hair, a jovial disposition, fondness and rapport with children and a penchant for miraculous acts of generosity. Yes. I am referring, of course, to Santa Claus: the portly cosmopolite who sojourns across the world on Christmas Eve, frequents family homes and bestows gifts upon deserving children (and, reportedly, a lump of coal for their undeserving counterparts). So the story goes.

Santa Claus has come to symbolise both the spirit of Christmas and its lucrative commercial appeal. In fact, one does not necessarily have to identify with or subscribe to Christianity in order to accept and celebrate the figure of Santa Claus. For this writer, Santa Claus also represents one of life’s inaugural tests: the will to believe in the seemingly impossible and improbable. Cinema, of course, bears witness to countless films about belief in the miraculous existence of Santa Claus. In writer/director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010), however, it is the demands that faith places on the individual and the challenges that it poses to their entrenched convictions that is dramatically foregrounded.

Set against the backdrop of the sprawling mountain ranges of Finland, referred to in the film as the Land of the Northern Lights and home of the original Santa Claus, Rare Exports centres on events that transpire and affect the lives of a community of reindeer farmers situated at the border of Korvantunturi mountain. It is twenty-four days before Christmas and the search for Santa Claus consumes a number of the inhabitants, among them Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen), an obsessive scientist and head of Subzero Inc. a company that has set up base at the peak of the mountain on the pretext of conducting seismic research. What Riley is staging, however, is a clandestine excavation of the mountain supervised by his drilling expert, Brian Greene (Jonathan Hutchings).

 

 

 

 

 

 

SEARCHING FOR SANTA 

The film opens with the two men conversing in the office quarters. An anxious and puzzled Greene informs Riley that the samples he has so far extracted from the mountain are troubling and inexplicable. After drilling thirteen thousand feet, his team have encountered a massive layer of sawdust sixty-five feet deep, ‘I mean it doesn’t add up, it doesn’t make sense’. Riley, however, senses that his team are on the verge of an unprecedented discovery, ‘It does [make sense]. In the olden days, people used to store ice by encasing it in sawdust. This mountain is like a giant icebox. Drill deeper and you will see’.

When the team, in fact, discover buried ice beneath the colossal layer of sawdust, Riley beholds the sample in the light and triumphantly advises the doubting Greene, ‘Always believe, always’. Gathering the men together on top of the mountain, Riley delivers a grandiose speech that emphasises the magnitude of their find and underscores the urgent task ahead:

Gentlemen, listen up. My dream since my early childhood is about to come true. I can proudly say that we are standing on a sacred grave, on the biggest burial mound in the world. This remarkable place puts even the pyramids to shame. It took the Sami people of laplands centuries to build this mountain. You have twenty-four days to open it. Roll up your sleeves. Prepare the dynamite. Do what you do best. You have a grave to rob.

Unbeknownst to Riley and Greene, this scene is witnessed by two youngsters who have trespassed onto the drill site: Pietari (Onni Tommila) a faithful believer in Santa Claus and Juuso (Ilmari Jarvenpaa), his older and domineering friend. Leaving the site, Pietari ponders what he has just seen and heard, ‘I think Santa Claus is buried up there’. The sceptical Juuso, however, reproaches his naivety and explains that the Santa Claus who visits him every year is Piiparinen, as associate of his father, ‘Your Dad pays him for it. Don’t you get it? This whole Christmas thing is just a bluff’. The moment these words are uttered an explosion erupts from the top of the mountain, sending ice and debris into the air and serving as ominous sign of strange events that will follow in the coming days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the curious and unrelenting Pietari, the covert operation on Korvantunturi mountain provokes further inquiry into the figure of Santa Claus. Withdrawing to the confines of his cluttered, second-story bedroom, Pietari surrounds himself with a plethora of texts and illustrations devoted to his subject.

In a series of fluid close ups, Mika Orasmaa’s eerie cinematography scans the pages of tomes such as The Truth About Santa Claus and chapters describing ‘The First Santa Claus’, revealing stark and graphic depictions that go against the grain of popular wisdom: Santa Claus perched on a pyramid of skulls, his head bearing the curled, menacing horns of a goat (Santa as demon); Santa Claus appearing in a family home, greeted by children who welcome his arrival with laughter and applause, a heavy, loaded sack in one hand and a long, threatening, cane in another, his skeletal face pondering a child before him whose father displays a gesture of resignation (Santa as Judge); Santa covered from head to foot in thick, black fur, crouched above the bloodied, disembowelled carcass of a reindeer, his claw-like hands ripping out the entrails, his teeth tearing into them with animalistic brutality (Santa as predator); a naked boy stretched across the knees of this same, beastly Santa, hands held in place behind his back, thighs and buttocks bleeding from lashes administered by a branch (Santa as merciless punisher); a towering, colossal and naked Santa Claus rampaging through a forest, plucking its inhabitants from the ground, wielding them, upside down, between his fingers and hanging them from his horns, the dead bodies resembling objects in a bizarre, ritualistic headpiece (Santa as plunderer); a heavily-cloaked Santa Claus immersing a naked child into a boiling cauldron, a sack at his feet bulging with the bodies of other children who will soon succumb to a similar fate (Santa as cruel sadist).  In one of the most ominous and prophetic illustrations, Santa’s sinister presence is evoked through metonymy; a trail of massive, bare footprints crushed into the snow (Santa prowling, on the hunt).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poring over these illustrations, the shrewd Pietari deduces the origins and purpose of Santa Claus’s iconic and conical red cap. Contemplating a portrait rendered in side profile, Pietari takes a red marker and proceeds to fill in the negative space marked by his massive horns. The red cap, it turns out, served as a subterfuge for concealing Santa’s grotesque monstrosity.

What emerges from this repertoire of illustrations is an ancient figure that provoked collective dread and retaliation. ‘The real Santa Claus was totally different,’ Pietari advises Juuso, ‘The Coca-Cola Santa Claus is just a hoax. The real Santa Claus. He tears naughty kids to pieces. Not even their skeletons are left. The Sami people got angry and lured him onto the ice. The ice broke under him. The lake froze solid and Santa was trapped. Come summer, they dug out the huge ice block and buried it under a sky-high pile of rocks. This became Korvantunturi mountain’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLAUS IS COMING 

Helander’s taut and economical screenplay initially follows the logic and the subject matter evoked in these illustrations. On Christmas Eve, a series of unsettling and grisly events befall the community that resonate with the depictions of the ancient Santa Claus. In the morning, Pietari awakes to find footprints in the snow beneath his second-story window.  The patriarchs of the community and its reindeer farmers – Rauno (Pietari’s father), Aimo (Juuso’s dad) and Piiparinen (the town Santa Claus) – discover that their entire herd has been brutally decimated. The bloodied and savaged corpses of four hundred and thirty-three reindeer are strewn across the snow beneath Korvantunturi mountain, depleting the town of revenue and plunging the farmers into certain bankruptcy.

Suspecting the work of wolves that have descended from the mountain as a result of the recent explosions, the men (accompanied by Pietari and Juuso) decide to investigate. Trespassing across the border and journeying up the mountain, they not only find that the drilling site has been hastily evacuated but also notice that an object of ginormous proportions has been retrieved from its peak. More bizarre incidents follow on Christmas Day. Almost every house in town has been looted of its radiators. Aimo’s barn, likewise, has been breached, the thieves making off with the hessian sacks that contained his abundant potato crop. Even the town’s children have gone missing, among them Pietari’s circle of friends, including Juuso. In their place the abductor has left creepy mannequins made from bundled straw.

The most disturbing occurence is the discovery of a body in the wolf pit set up by Rauno on his property: a thin elderly man, with long, grimy hair and dirty flowing beard who has assumed the clothing and identity of Subzero Inc.’s drilling expert, Briane Greene. Rauno and Piiparinen are alarmed by the old man’s peculiarities, most notably his acute sense of smell with its ability to detect the proximity of children. Pietari informs the men that the decrepit figure before them is non other than the real Santa Claus extracted from Korvantunturi mountain. With the help of his friends, Rauno holds the old man hostage in his abattoir until arrangements are made to return him to Riley in exchange for a ransom (to cover the cost of the slain reindeer).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IN VIEW, OUT OF SIGHT

Rare Exports’s potency lies in the indeterminate depiction of its primary subject: the recovered Santa Claus of Korvantunturi mountain. From the film’s opening scenes the determination to retrieve and behold (or, conversely, confront and banish) this entity consumes its players and their prerogatives, most notably Riley the sinister, convulsive scientist and Pietari the inquisitive but cautious protagonist. This objective, however, is confounded by an intrinsic blindness: the inability to completely perceive and grasp Santa Claus.

Rendezvousing outside an aircraft hangar, the farmers (accompanied by Pietari) present Riley with the old man who they have now dressed up as Santa Claus and confined to a cage. Approaching the subject, Riley confronts his severe, unsettling stare, observes his pupils momentarily shift in colour and comes to a startling and terrifying realisation. ‘Put down your weapons and smile as nice as you can,’ he advises Rauno and his associates, ‘Move slowly and do exactly as I say. This is not Santa. It’s one of his little helpers […] Santa is going to find out who’s naughty or nice’.  Santa’s elves, it turns out, are not dwarves with pointed ears but fully grown, dirt and grime-stained elderly men wielding picks and axes. ‘They’re protecting their master’, Riley warns Rauno as a small army of them appear out of nowhere and proceed to attack the group.

When the restless Pietari leaves the men to fight off the approaching elves and enters the aircraft hangar he, too, is startled  by the discovery before him: the subterranean Santa Claus of Korvantunturi mountain. This recovered entity, however, defies contemplation, is almost imperceptible and remains encased in a colossal, towering but rapidly thawing block of ice. Exposed to the heat emanating from the town’s collection of looted heaters, ovens and radiators, the frozen Santa Claus resists the interrogation of vision and cinema’s driving motivation: to disclose, reveal, illuminate.

Here is an entity all the more frightening on account of its partial visibility (the exposed, obscene and ghastly set of horns violently protruding from the ice) and those of the subjects laid before it: the writhing, indistinct bodies of screaming children (among them, Pietari’s friend, Juuso) trapped inside the stolen, hessian potato sacks. As Pietari informs the group, ‘They are all here. And soon they will get smacked’. The sublime terror of this Santa Claus lies in its enormity and ambiguity, both of which are suggested by the scale of its frozen tomb and its opaque, lustrous and reflective surface. Our inability to see through the ice block, to distinguish the form and features of Santa Claus at once exacerbates our ocular desire and frustrates its fulfilment, confining us to brooding, anxious speculation: what kind of entity could belong to these horns? Does it possess a human body and face? Will it proceed to tear the children to pieces or boil the flesh off their bones, once it is through smacking them?

In Rare Exports, the insidiousness and intensity of fear are accentuated by what cannot be completely seen as much as by what remains visible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

POSTMODERN ICON

The final scene in Rare Exports  is also one of the funniest and most profound, helping at once to elucidate the film’s title and illuminate a theoretical frame for its interpretation.

After annihilating the ‘real’ Santa Claus with dynamite (but keeping his horns as a grotesque souvenir), Rauno, Aimo and Piiparinen proceed to clean, clothe and train the army of human ‘elves’ who have been put out of service but  successfully lured and herded into an electrified reindeer pen. In a brilliant and hilarious montage, we observe the filthy old men being hosed and scrubbed down in a communal shower, instructed on etiquette (posing with a child mannequin and presenting it with a parcel – in the fashion of a shopping mall Santa Claus), tailored in customary red and white attire and shipped off as ‘live cargo’ to all corners of the word, including locations as ostensibly remote as Zanzibar in Tanzania. This training and distribution of Santa Clauses not only enables the community to recuperate their losses but also procures them an exorbitant profit.

But the scene also subtly hints at the synthetic and manufactured orientation of spiritual and mythological figures. Santa Claus, to invoke the words of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, is ‘human all too human’, a protean, composite identity with multiple sources of origin and manifold histories, among them Saint Nicholas of Myra from Greece, the German god Odin, Sinterklaas or De Goede Sint of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, the Scandinavian being Tomte, and British and North American versions of Father Christmas.

In light of this, it is not surprising that Santa Claus has, in recent decades, enjoyed the status of a postmodern icon, evoking the peripatetic nature of signs, their ability to enter new contexts and generate alternative and unforeseen interpretations. According to postmodern folklore, the late American anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) once observed how a Tokyo department store had taken a keen interest in the key symbols of Christmas. During the European Christmas season, the store decided to construct a display that incorporated its most important elements. The final result? An installation that featured Santa Claus nailed to the Cross! Interestingly, the artist Robert Cenedella offered his own rendition of this crucified Santa Claus in an (in)famous and controversial painting that was displayed in the window of New York’s Art Students League in December 1997.  As one of the many signs that mediate our interpretation of Christmas, Santa Claus is always on the move, open to new contexts, transformed by repetition, modified with each representation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IRONY AND MONSTROSITY

One of my earliest memories concerning Old Saint Nick stretches back to 1987. I was ten that year, going on eleven and on the verge of finishing the second year of Primary school. Before classes ended for the summer, my prepubescent colleagues and I set about composing our Letters to Santa and listing all the toys that we expected him to deliver during his hectic travel itinerary. True to form, my my desired gifts arrived by Christmas day. Nevertheless, after ’87, the plausibility of Santa Claus became impossible to sustain. Even that year, the seeds of doubt were already planted: at the very moment of composing that wishful letter, I already suspected that my parents would be coughing up the presents, only for Santa to claim all the credit.

There is something in this about the ironic nature of belief:  we invest faith in stories and historical figures despite their physical or material impossibility. Santa Claus continues to appear, year after year, maintaining his status as the beacon of generosity and good will even though many of us doubt that a single man led by a herd of flying reindeer can physically deliver millions of gifts, around the world, in the span of a single night. Perhaps this is the definition of faith per se: belief despite evidence, conviction in the absence of proof.

One of  Rare Exports‘ subtle and sobering lessons is perhaps the monstrosity of the stories and figures that we revere and continue to celebrate – often, unquestioningly. The hideousness of the Santa Claus in Rare Exports is inseparable from the patriarchal nature of his mythology and its marginalisation and exclusion of women. There are no representations of women in the illustrations of Santa Claus that Pietari peruses, nor are there any female characters in the film. When women are included they appear as extras in the distant background or are verbally (and ironically) invoked in relation to their absence – there is a poignant scene, for example, where Pietari openly pines for his mother (it is uncertain whether she has abandoned the family or passed away).

In a community where stoic, stern and taciturn single fathers (like Rauno) struggle to raise sons (such as Pietari), the benevolent patriarch of the festive season can mutate into a malevolent and deadly agent of discipline and punishment – a symbol of power unchecked and abused.  Can one not, then, interpret the spectacular, explosive fate that befalls Santa Claus in Rare Exports as a dismantling of his authority and sovereignty (over children and Christmas, alike)? I’d like to think so. After cramming the frozen Claus with a crate full of dynamite, Rauno wryly remarks, ‘If you ever wondered how Santa can be in a zillion places all at once, now you know’.

 

– Dr. Varga Hosseini