For Mikko Niskanen, Eight Deadly Shots was the film and the role of a lifetime. Battling depression in a rural retreat, the news reached Niskanen about a tragedy in the neighbouring village that shook the whole country. The small farm owner Tauno Pasanen had shot four policemen who had come to arrest him.
”The horror event of Pihtipudas hit me like an electric shock. It switched on the current to my lifeless brain. Questions began to demand an answer. I guessed, no, I knew that the shots of Pihtipudas were the conclusion of a long and coherent chain of events. I realized that in the background there was a whole field of problems, a field familiar to me. I also realized that this was a task for me. I did not choose the task, it chose me.”
Eight Deadly Shots became the masterpiece of Niskanen, a Finnish director who had started as an actor during the studio era, for instance in The Unknown Soldier (1955), the most popular Finnish film. After the downfall of the studio system, the Finnish Broadcasting Company emerged as a key producer of ambitious films. Eight Deadly Shots, its prestige production, was instantly recognized as more than a film. It became a national event.
Before Scenes from a Marriage, Decalogue and Berlin Alexanderplatz, Eight Deadly Shots was an early example of a director creating his major work for television. Niskanen’s few predecessors included Rossellini, Malle and Pialat (La Maison des bois).
Eight Deadly Shots hit a raw nerve, because the background of the tragic narrative was an epic transformation that concerned everybody. The 1960s was a decade of a big move away from the countryside. Urbanization and modernization was rapid and brutal. Most left for Finnish cities, half a million moved to Sweden.
Finland was split in a regional divide between the poor northeast and the affluent southwest. Traditional skills of agrarian life lost their value. Eight Deadly Shots shares a basic theme with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: what happens when the world we knew suddenly vanishes.
The transformation is also a seismic blow to patriarchy and masculinity. The manual skills of the farmer, the lumberjack, the horseman, the carpenter, the hunter and the fisherman lose their vital importance. Machines take over in the fields and the forests, even in ditch-digging. The father is no longer able to sustain his family and loses respect and self-respect.
Eight Deadly Shots is also a saga of alcoholism: alcohol as rebellion, as the greatest joy, and the curse and root to a horror story that ends with a destruction of a family and a bloodbath of four policemen. Mikko Niskanen offers one of the greatest performances of an alcoholic, comparable with James Mason in A Star Is Born, Albert Finney in Under the Volcano and Mads Mikkelsen in Another Round.
Niskanen studied at the Finnish Theatre School in the 1940s, worked in the Finnish film industry in the 1950s and studied at Moscow’s VGIK with fellow students Tarkovsky, Shepitko and Khutsiev. In the 1960s Niskanen became the most popular director of the Finnish New Wave, influenced by neorealism, nouvelle vague, direct cinema and kitchen sink. But I would argue that in Eight Deadly Shots, the main affinity is with Shukshin: conveying the pain in the heart when age-old tradition has to give way to modernity.
Eight Deadly Shots has always been a popular and highly acclaimed film, but only the original long version does justice to it. A short cinema version was edited, but it fails to convey the dynamics and the grandeur.
The film was shot on dual-strip 16 mm (full frame film strip with a separate magnetic sound strip). Earlier analog and digital transfers failed to convey its visual force. Why does it matter? In a film like this, form is substance. Niskanen created a work that is built both on action and duration. In passages of duration, the rich cinematography conveys the full intensity of being.
Thanks to the 2022 restoration of The Film Foundation, produced at the behest of Peter von Bagh, a new 35 mm transfer of the long version was created. It is a revelation of the original cinematography in its full rawness and subtlety. The bite is again powerful like that of a bear.
Art Director: Jorma Lindfors
Production Company: YLE
Cast: Mikko Niskanen, Tarja-Tuulikki Tarsala, Tauno Paananen, Elina Liimatainen
Restored by The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project, Yleisradio Oy, Fiction Finland ry, and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna at L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory.
Pasi (Niskanen) supports his family of four children and one baby in the late 1960s countryside Finland through seasonal work on his small farm and by doing forest work during the winter. He is a hard-working man, but the tough circumstances frequently lead him to seek escape in heavy drinking and to earn a few pennies by illegally distilling moonshine with his neighbors. This leads to confrontations with the law, as well as putting stress on Pasi’s marriage. When the police surround Pasi’s house, the drunken man opens fire with his hunting rifle and kills four of the officers.
Pt 1 & 2
Pt 3 & 4