In Lapland, there is a legend that tells of a woman born in the snow, out in the wilderness, who because of her arcane provenance was destined to become a witch when she grew to maturity. Pirita (Mirjami Kuosmanen) was her name, nobody knew of her origins, and even she was not wholly aware of what she was supposed to be, but she was a headstrong adult, taking part in the races across the ice, pulled by reindeer, just as the men did, and she could match any one of them with her skills. She fell in love with local herder Aslak (Kalervo Nissilä) and by and by they were married, but the pull of strange forces was not going to allow her to live a normal existence...
The White Reindeer, or Valkoinen peura as it was known in its original Finnish, was the first film to emerge from that country that gathered an international following, going on to win prizes at various festivals, including a Golden Globe and a special Cannes gong. What likely helped its standing was that it was unapologetically Finnish, to the extent that for stretches of the action it resembled the sort of movie travelogue episode that provided interest for audiences, usually in support, for whom the idea of travel abroad had not been available to them, since they did not have the funds, the tourist industry was not so well established as it is now, and many had been to foreign climes already.
Albeit they had been to those climes during the Second World War, and that was not really the best way to experience those lands, either as neighbours or from somewhere further afield. Hence this brand of "look at life" entertainment flourished in magazines such as Life or National Geographic, or in material that was often footage taken by dedicated filmmakers not from those nations they depicted, and a narration was added to make them more friendly to the non-natives. Sometimes, on the other hand, those nations themselves made the films, either to publicise their wares on the global market, or thanks to local innovators who highlighted a particular aspect of their beloved homeland.
The White Reindeer appeared to begin that way, though if you were taking the first couple of minutes into account you would be aware of a mystical element that would fall away immediately afterwards only to return once the audience had their bearings and were aware this was how Finns - Lapps, to be precise - existed for a very long time, no matter these characters had coins as currency and occasionally could be seen wielding modern-looking rifles. That timelessness was significant, for what unfolded once we were introduced to the young couple at the heart of the story was very much a fable, all played out against the landscape of purest, white snow which the characters skied across, farming their (non-white) reindeer. That actual white reindeer would show up soon enough, but strangely.
What happened was that Pirita was called upon to make a sacrifice to a "stone god" by the tribe's resident shaman, and that sacrifice was to be the first living thing she clapped eyes on when she returned home. Now, technically that was two things, her husband and their not-yet-grown reindeer, so obviously she opted for the animal, but she has made a mistake anyway and her witchy ways assert themselves. They do this in a manner that may be familiar to horror fans of the era, and indeed all these years later, for she sprouts fangs and becomes akin to a werewolf or a vampire, yet her animal form is that of the titular beast which director Erik Blomberg (husband of the writer-star) filmed lolloping across the snow in a curious mixture of ungainly and graceful (it was difficult to describe). There were no transformation sequences, his camera simply cut away from the creature then back to see Pirita baring those fangs, much to her consternation as her true nature makes itself plain, which some may regard as a commentary on a fear of the female but could just as easily be an enigmatic item of myth. Music by Einar Englund.
[Eureka have released this on Blu-ray, and here are the features:
Limited Edition O Card Slipcase [2000 copies ONLY]
1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 4K restoration completed in 2017 by the National Audio-visual Institute of Finland
LPCM audio (original mono presentation)
Optional English subtitles
Feature Length Audio Commentary by critic and film historian Kat Ellinger
Religion, Pleasure, and Punishment: The Portrayal of Witches in Nordic Cinema a new and exclusive video essay by film journalist and writer Amy Simmons
With The Reindeer Erik Blomberg's 1947 documentary short
Colour Test Footage
1952 Jussi Awards Ceremony featurette
PLUS: A collector's booklet featuring new writing by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and journalist Philip Kemp.]