by Douglas Messerli
Aleksi Bardy (screenplay, based on a story by Bardy and Dome Karukoski, with additional storylines and dialogue by Noam Andrews, Kauko Röyhkä, Mia Ylönen, and Mark Alton Brown), Dome Karukoski (director) Tom of Finland / 2017
I feel I have to begin this essay by expressing my surprise in what this film reveals about the figure at its center, the gay porn artist—all three words, I would argue, being equally appropriate, his work being art, gay, and most often representing pornography without any of the negative evaluations that others might attach to any of those words—Tom of Finland, better known in his homeland as Touko Laaksonen.
Critic Glenn Kenny writing on the Roger Ebert site describes Tom of Finland’s art somewhat differently, but nonetheless appropriately:
“How to describe the art of Touko Valio Laaksonen, aka Tom of Finland? Shall I compare thee to a Village People wet dream? No, that’s not quite it. His depictions of gay masculinity, to my eye, are kind of a gender inversion of the iconography of, say, a female bombshell like Jayne Mansfield. The men who sprang from the imagination of Tom of Finland are perfectly chiseled, bubble-butted, well-endowed boys who can’t help it. Their emotional range runs the gamut from friendly (there are some big smiles) to intimidating (there are more impassive-to-frownlike expressions, often camouflaged by thick mustaches). Heterosexual males had their Vargas pinups and other varieties of cheesecake. Tom of Finland drew their gay equivalents, but in a way that tended more toward the surreal/irrational, at least to my eye. A part of the effect had to do with the fact that so much of his artwork was done in black-and-white, pencil drawings of such exquisite and varied shading that one could marvel at the peculiar, painstaking craft as much as one might drool over the impossible physiques.”
I don’t know what I expected the man behind these images to be like, but certainly it was not the fairly gentle, somewhat war shell-shocked, homebound illustrator living with his plain-looking sister in a society so homophobic that at one point in the film even our generally straight-faced hero jokes that he’d have better luck selling his art in the Vatican than in Helsinki.
But before going in further I should perhaps take a few moments to establish why our hero is having nightmares and can’t sleep due to images of his wartime memories. It is somewhat strange that all the promotional material on this film simply describes Touko’s service as being in the World War II military, but in fact he is a lieutenant in the war Finland fought just before and again during World War II with Russia, sometimes described as the Finno-Soviet Wars or more specifically, in Finland, as the Winter War (1939-1940) before the full outbreak of World War II, and The Continuation War (1941-1944).
Even Helsinki Film describes Touko on IMDb as “serving his country in World War II.” It’s clear they don’t want to remind us of the fact that while the Allies, the United States, United Kingdom (including the British Commonwealth), the Soviet Union, and China stood together against the Axis forces of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Empire of Japan, the Finns were fighting the Russians, one of the American-British allies.
The Winter War began with the Soviet invasion of Finland on November 30, 1939, before the official US involvement in World War II in 1941. Outdone by the Soviet military strength with tanks and aircraft, Finland lost, but nonetheless the four month ended with many Soviet losses and, early in the struggle, seemed to be going Finland’s way. Seeing the early Finnish successes as a sign that the Soviet troupes were weak helped Hitler to believe that he could attack Russia with success.
At the Winter War’s end, Finland was forced to cede substantial territories despite the fact that The League of Nations had deemed the attack illegal and had expelled the Soviet Union as a member.
With the general declaration of World War II in 1941, Finland resumed the war, fighting this time with the military support, economic aid, and military assistance by Germany, an alliance Finland justified for self-defense, while they battles were mostly concentrated on regaining their lost territories, most of which they had regained by September of that year. But by 1944, when the tide turned against Germany, Finland had again lost most of those territories. Hostilities between Finland and the Soviet Union on September 5, 1944 with the signing of the Moscow Armistice, which also meant the expulsion and disarming of any German troops still in Finnish territory, which in turn led to the Lapland War between Finland and Germany. Only with the signing of the Paris Peace Treaties in 1947 did Finland’s involvement in the war finally end. It’s estimated that there were more than 63,000 Finnish casualties with the addition of 158,000 wounded during the wars, with 23,000 German deaths and 60,400 wounded. Soviet deaths range from 250,000 to 305,000, with 575 estimated to have been wounded or fallen sick.
The war in short represented a strange episode in Finnish history that tainted their democratic principles and put a blot on the everyday landscape of Finnish life that led to the semi-nationalistic mood and dour attitudes in the Helsinki landscape regarding sexual expression that we see through all of the early episodes of Tom of Finland. It also explains why we witness in the early episodes of the film Touko stabbing and killing a Soviet paratrooper and his later regret for that act, as he turns over the body to see a young man who will a few years later be recognized as one of Finland’s allies.
The guilt of the Finnish populace is almost palpable throughout the film, and their inability to quickly recover the way the rest of Europe was attempting to is apparent. It also gives context to Touko’s voyage to Germany in an attempt to sell his drawings in what had become a more open society—despite the taunts of a German prison guard when Touko is arrested for homosexual activities and refusal to pay a hotel bill, “During the war we knew what to do with your kind.” One imagines postwar 1950s Germany and Denmark to be a more open society than it is presented in this film, but through Touko’s Finnish viewpoint, and the fact that he has just been robbed of his “illegal” drawings by a gallerist who decades later Tom of Finland discovers had issued them as cheap pornographic books colors Touko’s lower continental visits, we perceive that "openness" depended on one's perspective and nationality.
If nothing else this film makes clear that the sexually open-minded Europe that I and others encountered during the early 1960s was not the same Europe of the 1950s (a fact to which Stefan Haupt’s Swiss-based film The Circle of 2014 also attests). Touko is almost trapped in Germany as even the Finnish embassy spokesman is ready to reject the artist’s claim to be a Finnish citizen, leaving him to the still brutal German prison system because he admittedly is “interested in pheasants,” apparently a code word of entering gay bars in Berlin. Only when he calls for the interceding of a Finnish military officer with whom Touko had regularly had sex during the war who happens to be stationed in Berlin is the artist finally released and able to return to his homeland.
There, despite the joys and his relationship with Veli, he must now cope with his own sister’s intense homophobia, meaning that he has to hide all of his artwork behind panels in the attic. Although he and Veli might now attend wild sexual gatherings at the mansion of his wartime officer friend, Touko’s lover—who by now has encouraged Tom of Finland to begin printing and selling his images abroad—dreams of decorating their house with yellow curtains which are kept open during sex, and possibly even opening up the entire house to the same kind of parties that the officer is hosting. Touko reminds him that “yellow” is a sissy color and that Finland will perhaps never tolerate such open mindedness regarding queers. As if to reiterate his observations, a party at the officer’s mansion is raided by the police, most of the participants escaping through a nearby balcony, with the officer himself being arrested and sent to a clinic determined to help “cure” him.
Several critics have complained that the film is slow going and somewhat impenetrable up until this point, its sudden shift of gears in the last third of the movie being unjustifiable. I’d argue that, in fact, just under the surface the film up to this point has been quite dramatic, but that director Dome Karukoski’s graceful subtleties of text have simply flowed below the more loudly-pitched radar of US viewers. Unlike an US film of this sort, which probably would have treated the subject more as a documentary, Karukoski does not shove forward token characters in order to elucidate the events that are happening just below the surface. For those who know nothing about Finnish history or are unable to glean what has happened to make Tom/Touko the strange combination of outrageous sensualist and quiet and even slightly paranoid everyday man that he is, I imagine this film is not only slow-going but rather meaningless. How is someone so out of touch with a truly communal gay experience able to imagine worlds in which so many openly gay men express their love of all things masculine through various uniforms, methods and transportation, and trips to various paradises where sex of any kind is openly permitted? How is such a dour man living in such a repressed world, in other words, able to create such bacchanalian urban and wilderness fantasies? In order to survive, obviously, he has no other choice. In a sense, drawing such images was Tom of Finland’s “cure.”
Meanwhile things are mostly improving. Money through sales of photographs he has taken and bound of his artwork are selling throughout the world and he has just been invited to the US for a tour of Los Angeles, New York, and other cities. Veli has a cough of which he can’t seem to rid himself, but perhaps the California air will help. When Veli stays behind, we worry a little about the possibility of AIDS, while recognizing that in the mid-1960s the disease had yet to surface, let alone make its way to Finland.
What Touko Laaksonen hadn’t realized back in Helsinki is just how much of a gay cultural icon he has become in the USA and by this time in the rest of Europe, where seemingly every gay man, drag queen, and even straight women have seen and used his art to help better stimulate their lives. The film that until this point has been a sad commentary on Finnish sexual provinciality now suddenly becomes a kind of wild sexual fantasy that grandly overstates Tom of Finland’s influence on gay culture and turns the gentle artist into a cultural hero for the entire LGBTQ community.
Having been there, it’s a hard tale to swallow, despite its cheerful embracement of a myth that is not unpleasant to believe, as if pornographic cartoons were at the heart of gay liberation. But, like Tom of Finland’s art, it's such a friendly, likeable movie by this point that it’s hard to just walk of the theater or turn off the DVD. You want to toast it’s silly meme and sing along at film’s end with Sylvester’s disco prayer “Take Me to Heaven.”
Were it only that simple to believe that a few books of drawings of over-endowed joyful gay men “caused” AIDS and brought on a series of denials and inactions that buried hundreds of others. In fact, every LGBTQ figure in some way or another had to carry that underserved hatred with them, often to their graves.
We’re ready now, Mr. Karukoski, for a room full of shouting leather-wearing faggots to applaud the artist who provided them their wardrobe and enough fantasies to play out for the rest of their lives. Put on Sylvester and cheer along with those of us who can’t get enough of Tom.
Los Angeles, November 24, 2021
Reprinted from World Cinema (November 2021).