Witchcraft is an amorphous category, and the witch, as a figure, contains infinite possibilities. In many ways, her greatest power is the power of transformation. She is certainly prone to literal metamorphosises: she may turn herself into a cat, a hare or a bird at will. The line between the witch and the familiars who keep her company is indeed a thin and porous one. More than this, however, she is capable of transforming to fit into specific cultural contexts or historical moments. Almost every recorded culture has its witches; and in every culture, the witch reflects the fears, anxieties and even the hopes of her community. The witch is a malleable creature: she changes her form to fit her locale and her society. In Western Europe and the US, our conception of the witch is quite limited. She may be the Halloween hag with her black cape and conical hat; she may be a wicked queen, or a teenage Satanist. Yet, around the world and across time, witches have taken shape in a myriad of diverse ways. In Russia, the Baba Yaga, the archetypal Slavic witch, lives in a cottage perched atop two chicken legs. At night she flies abroad with the aid of a pestle and mortar.
Amongst the Kaguru people of Tanzania, witches signify inversion, a reversal of the moral order. These witches cover their ordinarily dark skin with white ashes and walk on their hands. Witches are endemic to all nations and time periods. Archaeologists have found references to magical practices and shamanistic motifs in Palaeolithic artefacts and cave paintings, while some of the earliest surviving legal codes, inscribed in Ancient Mesopotamian texts during the 17th century BCE, make reference to the use of a river ordeal (or swimming test) for the identification of witches. In July of 1990, 34 people were accused of witchcraft in a South African village. A decade earlier, a survey conducted in the United States showed that 70% of respondents feared that Satanic cults were preying on children. Considering the complexity and multiplicity of witchcraft beliefs, it seems strange, then, that our cinematic witches are so often confined to a comparatively limited Euro-American archetype. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Erik Blomberg’s 1952 film The White Reindeer (Valkoinen peura) seems so strange and unearthly. Centred around the theme of witchcraft, Blomberg’s film draws much of its inspiration from the folk beliefs of Finland’s semi-nomadic Sami people. As such, its witch is a distinctly alien creature; she is an amalgamation of sorceress, vampire and lycanthrope. She challenges our understanding of what witchcraft might mean, extending the boundaries of the archetype beyond expected cinematic conventions and imbuing the witch with a revitalised sense of the uncanny.
Pirita, the witch, in Blomberg’s The White Reindeer
Directed by Erik Blomberg, and co-written by Blomberg and lead actress Mirjami Kuosmanen, The White Reindeer is one of the most internationally renowned Finnish films, receiving awards at Cannes as well as winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. Yet, for all its success, The White Reindeer is a strange, often disconcerting film. It is framed like a fairy tale; although, it seems more like one of those older, darker tales consigned to the depths of folk memory than anything that could be found in a children’s storybook. The White Reindeer was filmed in the northernmost part of Finland where vast expanses of snow stretch endlessly towards the horizon and clouds cast ominous shadows over the blinding white landscape as they race across the sky. Blomberg certainly exploits the inherent strangeness of this unfamiliar space. His camera lingers on stark vistas of ice and snow, hovering over gnarled, snow-encrusted trees and settling upon the fragile orb of the northern sun as it disappears behind the distant hills.
The cinematography evokes sensations of isolation and loneliness. Tiny settlements are almost swallowed whole by the immensity of the natural landscape, while great bonfires built to provide some semblance of warmth appear like little more than solitary candles flickering in the vast darkness of the Finnish winter. In one striking scene, a herd of reindeers, trudging through the icy wilderness, is shot from a distance, appearing like a thin, black thread tracing its way through a length of pure, white silk. In another startlingly beautiful scene, Blomberg emphasises the inversion of cultural norms by inserting a negative image of a deer running through the landscape.
There is a sense throughout the film that nature exists as the dominant force in this region and that the humans who attempt to eke out a fragile civilisation in this hostile landscape are only temporary trespassers in a wild and ancient place. The proximity of animal life is a recurring motif in this film: the reindeer that serve as the main livelihood for most of the characters, as well as dogs, cats and wolves, are a constant presence throughout. Even in death, these animals are omnipresent: the sacred site of the Stone God is strewn with antlers shed by reindeer the previous winter or left behind after death. This creates a forest of bone in the midst of the all-consuming snow banks, and Blomberg effectively employs these abandoned antlers to frame a number of scenes.
The strangeness of the landscape and this alien environment is further accentuated by Blomberg’s unusual stylistic choices. Although produced in the early 1950s, The White Reindeer feels oddly out of time and, on a visual level, it resembles nothing so much as a silent film. There are long stretches of the film with little to no dialogue, the silence of the characters echoing the silence of the boundless snow drifts. Performers are often shot from low angles, creating a sense of distortion, while the frequent use of soft focus evokes a dreamlike state. The fusion of monochromatic cinematography and expressionistic techniques convinces us that this film somehow exists outside of time, in the a-temporal realm of the fairy tale. Like a distant fable, The White Reindeer deals in magic, fate and inevitability. Blomberg’s opening shots, panoramas of the snow-blanketed landscape, are accompanied by what seems to be a traditional Finnish folk song, a mournful lament that tells of a young girl, raised in the northern wilds who is unaware that she was born a witch. An eerie instance of foreshadowing the song also warns of the ultimate fate of the film’s protagonist, a beautiful and vital young woman named Pirita. Although the opening scenes are ambiguous, the suggestion buried within their surreal procession of images appears to suggest that Pirita herself was born to a witch; although, she is ultimately brought up in the warmth of a kindly family living amidst a small community of reindeer-herders. As with many strong-spirited fairy-tale heroines, Pirita matures not only in beauty but in mischievousness. She taunts the reindeer herders and confidently joins their sled races.
In many ways, she both defines and defies femininity: she is beautiful, sensual and alluring, but she is also strong, competitive and independent-minded. She marries a young herder named Aslak whom she had previously raced against in the sledding competition. They share a genuine affection, but despite the merriment that attends their union, a melancholy surrounds their relationship from the beginning. There is a sense of inevitability and even in their happiest moments, it seems apparent that sorrow will be the pair’s ultimate fate. Yet, like so many tragedies, the sorrow that attends the young couple is not visited upon them from a malevolent external force but is instead cast as a self-inflicted wound.
Throughout the film, Pirita is depicted as both beautiful and strong-willed; she craves life, motion and excitement. As such, the dreary, immobile existence of a reindeer herder’s wife appears to drain her of her vitality. She cannot stand the endless nights alone and the stasis involved in dutifully awaiting his return. For her, love, like sledding or lassoing reindeer, needs speed, intensity and passion. She seems to crumble under the weight of lonely nights and silent days, and, as in a fairy tale or fable, her yearnings drove her to seek supernatural aid. She reaches out to the Other secreted in the heart of the self: the shaman, Tsalkku-Nilla, who lives at the edge of her small village. Subsisting on the meagre offerings brought to him by villagers in need of counsel, this odd little magician inhabits the border zone that separates community from the hungry wilderness beyond. Pirita seeks love and attention, a respite from, loneliness, and so she is willing to sacrifice her innocence. The shaman tells the young woman that to become irresistible to men, to shake off the pall of loneliness that enshrouds her, Pirita must sacrifice the first living thing she encounters on her journey home to the distant, implacable stone god. With the irony characteristic of all such fables, the first living creature to cross Pirita’s path as she trudges home through the snow is a tiny, fragile reindeer fawn – a pure white animal that had been given to Pirita as a gift by her husband. A symbol of Pirita and Aslak’s naïve, newly-wed love, the destruction of the dear is tantamount to the evisceration of Pirita’s innocence. From the moment she sheds the creature’s blood, Pirita is cursed to transform into a stunning white reindeer whose gleaming coat and wild spirit enchants every herder who lays his eyes upon her. Pirita has indeed become irresistible to the men of her community, but just as the promises of fairies and djinn are so easily inverted, transforming wonder to horror, so too does the ambiguity of the young woman’s wish open itself up to a very literal (mis)interpretation and subversive play. Pirita is desired by the men of her community; she is hunted by herders who seek to pierce her flesh, strip her of her fine fur and consume her flesh. Pirita’s metamorphoses recall the trials of womanhood: her wish to be loved turns her into the object of a violent hunt. To be caught by those who adore her is to be rent asunder, mutilated, destroyed. Yet, to be the object of such devotion also ensures that Pirita herself is rendered monstrous. Turning into the eponymous deer whenever the sun sinks behind the horizon, Pirita must feed upon her pursuers just as they are driven to violently desire her consumption.
The White Reindeer is often read as an allegory for female sexual desire. Yet, this interpretation is complex and often contradictory. On the one hand, Pirita is a hunted creature, eternally hounded by men who wish to penetrate her flesh apart and tear her body asunder. On the other, she herself is something of a vampiric entity, destroying all those who dare to pursue her. It is possible, therefore, to read Blomberg’s film as a cautionary fable – a warning to young girls, akin to “Little Red Riding Hood”, about the men who will seek to devour them once they traverse the boundary into womanhood. However, it is also possible to interpret The White Reindeer as a condemnation of female sexuality, an edict against its dangers, its uncontrollability. After all, Pirita’s restlessness extends beyond a mischievous affinity for lassoing reindeer and racing against the male herders. She also appears possessed of a voracious sexual appetite, one that cannot be satiated by the naïve Aslak. Through her desire and her need to act upon this desire, Pirita brings the curse of the white reindeer upon the community. In this way, Pirita brings about an inversion of cultural norms; she, as a woman, is active in seeking fulfilment of her sexual desire. She refuses the passive role of a herder’s wife and exercises her own agency.
However, while the film appears to function primarily as an exploration of female sexuality – either expressing anxieties about women’s vulnerability to sexually aggressive men or condemning the heroine’s promiscuity and wilfulness – The White Reindeer is a far more complex and multi-faceted film. Indeed, beyond its engagement with the issue of sexual agency, the film is also interested in a series of interrelated questions about community, spirituality and history. As noted above, The White Reindeer is set in northern Finland, amongst the semi-nomadic Sámi. A Finno-Ugric people, the Sámi have traditionally inhabited the Sámpi cultural region, which encompasses large parts if Norway, northern Finland, Sweden and Russia. However, because the Sámi are not a single, unified community and lack any defined boundaries, they have been regularly subjected to oppression, discrimination and forced assimilation. From the nineteenth century onwards, the Sámi experienced increased pressure to abandon traditional belief systems in favour of Christianity. Allusions to this forced Christianisation and the loss of traditional belief systems proliferate throughout The White Reindeer. The shaman who grants Pirita’s wish resides in a distant cabin on the edge of the community. He is a marginal figure, an emblem of an older faith who ultimately freezes to death in his lonesome cabin. Yet, where the shaman is relegated to the outskirts of the community, Christianity appears to occupy a central position in the lives of the Sámi. When Pirita attends the wedding of a young village couple, the ceremony is conducted by a Protestant minister wearing a clerical collar. Blomberg here seems to be alluding to the loss of traditional beliefs as shamanism and folk religions are replaced by a homogenous form of imported Christianity.
The White Reindeer is pervaded by a powerful sense of loss: Pirita and Aslak’s happiness is fleeting, the innocent white fawn is slaughtered, and the people who inhabit the Sámi community have seen their traditions recede into the past. Yet, despite the demise of folkways and ancient practices, The White Reindeer also suggests that such traditions will never truly die. They may be relegated to the margins by the forces of assimilation, they may be repressed and driven into the darkness of the wilderness, but they will always endure somewhere deep within both the individual and the collective consciousness. When Pirita visits the shaman, he conducts a ritual to the hypnotic beat of a ceremonial drum. When Pirita touches the drum herself, the shaman recoils. Her touch causes the rhythm to become faster, more intense.
In this moment, the shaman realises then that she is no simple village wife but a witch, something ancient and powerful. Later, when Pirita attends the wedding ceremony, the groom is distracted by the beautiful sorceress seated amidst the pious congregation. As he gazes at her ever more intently, we hear a rhythmic drum beat swelling, consuming the young man with its primal intensity. The drum beat is a motif consistently associated with Pirita, but its connection to shamanism and pre-Christian rituals also creates a link to repressed indigenous past. The sound of the drum therefore suggests a return of something ancient, a lost heritage. That the drum beat so often attends Pirita’s use of her alluring powers gestures towards the possibility that Pirita herself is also a manifestation of Sámi tradition. At the beginning of the film, she appears as a bright and happy village maiden. She may be somewhat bolder than the other girls, but she is a vibrant part of the community. Her expectations are ordinary: she hopes to marry her love and start a family. Yet, as she follows her desires, her true nature is revealed; she is a witch, an avatar of powerful and ancient magic. The violence wrought upon the community by Pirita’s transgressions and her supernatural metamorphosis thus suggests the chaotic return of ancient ways that were disregarded with the coming of Christianity. The stone god’s shrine is empty and abandoned, but the church is full. The community has forgotten its past, but in her violent transformations Pirita ensures that this heritage is reborn.
The White Reindeer is a strange and ambiguous piece of cinema. It lends itself to a multitude of readings and interpretations because it deals primarily with the fantastic. Its language is a lexicon of the symbolic and it is as ambiguous as a fever dream. Yet, this open-endedness is deeply fascinating and ultimately bewitching. Blomberg’s film draws us into a culture so remote as to be fundamentally alienating. In doing so, it presents us with a fragile community, a community on the cusp of changes. The film is therefore pervaded by a bitter nostalgia and potent sense of loss. Beautifully evoked by Blomberg’s monochrome palate and strange dreamlike lapses into soft focus, The White Reindeer is a fairy tale, and like so many long-forgotten fables, it is brutal, unforgiving and infused with a profound sadness. Indeed, for many long years, the film itself had receded from the cultural memory, lost to time and changing tastes. However, to many fans of art horror, The White Reindeer retained an enigmatic allure. For this reason, I imagine that many will be grateful for Eureka film’s recent Blu-ray release of the film. Drawn from a 4K restoration completed in 2017 by the National Audio-visual Institute of Finland, this 1080p presentation renders the stark monochrome of Blomberg’s unsettling landscapes in vivid detail. Yet, perhaps more enticing is the manner in which this once-forgotten masterpiece has been finally afforded the careful critical evaluation it deserves. The two-disk Eureka release not only includes a feature-length audio commentary by film historian (and Diabolique editor-in-chief) Kat Ellinger, but it also features an exclusive video essay on witchcraft in Nordic cinema by journalist Amy Simmons as well as an extensive collector’s booklet and some fascinating documentary footage shot by Blomberg in the 1940s. Hopefully, this carefully and lovingly restored Blu-ray will return The White Reindeer to a position of prominence in the canon of twentieth-century European horror.
Eureka’s release of The White Reindeer is available from April 8th, 2019. You can learn more and/or purchase a copy on Eureka’s online store.