In the early 1980s, the young Dome Karukoski, born with the first names Thomas August George as the son of an American poet and a Finnish journalist, arrived from Cyprus in rural Finland without speaking the language. Because of his name and his perceived status as a foreigner, he was bullied by his schoolmates into his teenage years and is very open about this experience when discussing the comparable character of Ramadhani in Heart of a Lion.
In Heart of a Lion, the protagonist is a member of a neo-Nazi gang, or “club,” and seems to reconsider his fixation on ethnic purity when he comes to accept Ramadhani, whose father is black. But a combination of two scenes in the middle of the film demonstrates how Karukoski organizes his material to create a sense of complexity that, he admits, also aims to produce a bigger emotional experience because it “[puts] the audience in a head lock.”
The loner will take center stage again in his next film, The Grump (Mielensäpahoittaja), which premieres in the autumn. It is based on the eponymous book by Tuomas Kyrön, whose title character is an 80-year-old man who constantly complains that the world around him keeps changing. This comedy is tied to Heart of a Lion, however, in its presentation of a character angry with a world that doesn’t stay the same, and it also anticipates the criticism his subsequent big-budget film, Tom of Finland, a biopic about the late gay artist Touko Laaksonen who is one of the country’s most famous names abroad, is sure to provoke at home among some of Finland’s more conservative inhabitants.
Finland is the only Nordic country where same-sex marriage is yet to be approved, but since the last attempt in parliament in February 2013 failed by a single vote, Karukoski is confident the next time will be very different. “Finland is conservative, and it is slower to change. It is a bit secluded, so that is the reason why it just takes time. We’re always five years late.”
With a budget of between 5 million and 6 million euros and locations stretching from Finland to the West Coast of the United States, with stops in Texas, Chicago, as well as a few destinations across Europe, Tom of Finland will be Karukoski’s biggest film to date, and it will also mark his first foray into English-language filmmaking. Following his inclusion among esteemed up-and-coming company in Variety’s annual selection of “10 Directors to Watch” in 2013, he received countless scripts but ultimately decided to go ahead with his own work, working with Kyrön on the screenplay for The Grump, while his fellow Heart of a Lion scribe and longtime producer Aleksi Bardy will work on the screenplay for Tom of Finland, which should start shooting in 2015.
The Grump and Tom of Finland seem to be a straightforward comedy and drama, respectively, but Karukoski’s oeuvre has proved the director’s agility with the two approaches as he has mixed elements of both to great effect. He is Finnish, after all, and black humor is in his veins. He freely admits the Finns are a melancholic people, and Lapland Odyssey, for example, opens with a stylish flourish as five men, over the course of a century, hang themselves from the same tree in rural northern Finland.
“There is this genre of films that have a tragic subject matter and also a tragic way of handling it. I hate those films; there is nothing interesting in that. … I don’t want to make those films, and I don’t want to watch them. … [They don’t] reveal another side.”
In the depths of the Russian State Library, Marina Chestnykh takes the creaking elevator up to the ninth floor. She walks past stack after stack of books behind metal cages, the shelves barely visible in the dim light from the frosted-glass windows. This is the spetskhran, or old special storage collection — the restricted-access cemetery for material deemed “ideologically harmful” by the Soviet state.
She arrives at a cage in the floor’s back corner. When she inserts a key in the padlock, the door swings open to reveal thousands of books, paintings, engravings, photographs and films — all, in one way or another, connected to sex.
It was the kinkiest secret in the Soviet Union: Across from the Kremlin, the country’s main library held a pornographic treasure trove. Founded by the Bolsheviks as a repository for aristocrats’ erotica, the collection eventually grew to house 12,000 items from around the world, ranging from 18th-century Japanese engravings to Nixon-era romance novels.
Off limits to the general public, the collection was always open to top party brass, some of whom are said to have enjoyed visiting. Today, the spetskhran is no more, but the collection is still something of a secret: There is no complete compendium of its contents, and many of them are still unlisted in the catalogue.
“We chose to preserve it intact, as a relic of the era when it was created,” Chestnykh said.