One of the great things about the Finnish war drama, Unknown Soldier, is that it doesn’t rely on copious amounts of blood and carnage to make an impact on the viewer, nor does it ramp up the score to trigger some kind of emotional nerve. All too often, war films - especially those coming out of Hollywood - are plagued by cliches that involve the director increasing these departments to 11 as a way to elicit some type of response from the audience, and they fail to capture the human element of the story, which is what matters the most.
Don’t get me wrong. There have been some great war films over the years, but there have also been a lot that feel like they were just going through a checklist of everything that needs to be in it. Unknown Soldier doesn’t feel that way for a single second. It’s a raw, gut-punching look at how the men who fought in World War II were able to make it through the toughest of times by having their squad by their side. Sure, that sounds like your basic war film right there, but the way director Aku Louhimies captures it all is pretty magnificent.
Although this is the third adaptation of Väinö Linna’s novel of the same name, I can’t comment on how it compares to the previous two films, as I have not seen them. This review is strictly on the latest version. I will say, though, that having seen Louhimies’s adaptation has piqued my interest in seeking out the other two versions.
Unknown Soldier takes place between 1941 and 1944. The story’s main characters serve in a Finnish Army machine gun company, as they battle the Soviet Union. While most films in the same genre focus on the men fighting the battle, who then reminisce about being back home with their loved ones, Louhimies’s film will take some time away from the war to show certain members of the squad actually visiting their family members on leave and how them being home means a great deal for all involved. This approach is a rare one, but it’s effective in showing all aspects of the war, and how it greatly affects not just the soldiers, but those close to them, too.
One of the main characters who get the most attention in the story is Corporal Rokka (Eero Aho). Rokka helps lead the team through the toughest moments but also doesn’t believe in military discipline. And, whenever he gets the opportunity, he frees himself from the hell of battle to be with his family. There are several others who get a little bit of extra development to their personal story, but it’s mainly Rokka on whom the film focuses when it’s not showing the combat. He’s a strong character, and Aho is magnificent in the performance.
When it comes to the battle scenes, Louhimies doesn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of war. When the bullets are whizzing by, the camera is right there in the battlefield as the soldiers try to dodge them. There’s never a moment where it feels like the audience is in the back seat as everything is happening. The sounds of the ricochets and impact of the bullets are captured at an unsettling but realistic level. If you have a good sound system at home, this would be a great one to watch.
A previous international release had trimmed the film’s initial three-hour runtime to two hours and 15 minutes. Kino Lorber did an excellent job of bringing this film to the U.S. in its full, unedited format. The picture is presented in a 16x9 format with a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, capturing the beautiful imagery of Finland and the grim battle scenes so perfectly. Viewers can choose from 7.1 surround, 5.1 surround, and 2.0 stereo, when it comes to the sound quality of the film. There are only a few special features, but they run longer than most do. Into the Unknown: The Making of Unknown Soldier is a documentary that focuses on the making of the film and has interviews with the cast and crew. Its approach is different than most behind-the-scenes features. There are also a few deleted scenes and post-production featurettes for those who want to know what happens when the movie is in its final stages before getting released to theaters.
Unknown Soldier is a tense, realistic war drama that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of battle. It doesn’t overdramatize the emotions, nor does it have a soundtrack that overpowers the film. Surprisingly, the use of music is pretty minimal here, but when it’s present, it works wonderfully. If there were another war film to which I would compare Louhimies’s, it would be Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Both are a slower, more poetic approach to the war genre, and are beautifully directed.