Flashbacks

A Half-Century of Friendship with Finnish Renaissance Man Jörn Donner

A Half-Century of Friendship with Finnish Renaissance Man Jörn Donner

Had Jörn Donner been born anywhere other than Finland, he would have been world-famous. As it was, he dominated the Finnish cultural scene for several decades. Prolific writer, film critic, director, and producer, as well as a politician and the cofounder of the Finnish Film Archive (at the age of twenty-four), Jörn stayed a close and cherished friend for more than fifty years. 

We first met in Stockholm in the fall of 1964, when I interviewed him about his first features as a director, made in Sweden—notably To Love, a romantic comedy with the Polish heartthrob Zbigniew Cybulski. Jörn was a Swedish-speaking Finn, one of a minority of some 6 percent in Finland. He wrote in Swedish and had been appointed film critic at the Stockholm morning newspaper Dagens Nyheter in 1961. He had made an auspicious debut behind the camera for Sandrew studios in Stockholm with A Sunday in September, which won the Opera Prima prize at the Venice Festival in 1963, and I knew of his reputation as one of the first in-depth interpreters of Bergman’s work. Throughout his life he remained fascinated by Bergman, and we called on his expertise at Criterion on numerous occasions, for example when he and I discussed Smiles of a Summer Night for a supplement for Bergman’s classic comedy. He also contributed a ninety-minute documentary on Bergman for the Criterion edition of Wild Strawberries.

A year after our first meeting, when I was back in Stockholm writing about new Swedish cinema for the Financial Times, he called me one evening at my hotel and suggested he show me some clips from his film in progress, Adventure Starts Here (1965). The chain-smoking young man of thirty-two who drove me at breakneck speed out to the laboratory that night was charisma incarnate. Sardonic, egotistical, and remarkably knowledgeable about world affairs, Jörn obliged you to take him on his terms or not at all. But some of his earlier works, like Adventure Starts Here and Rooftree (1967), were austere and humorless to such a degree that they flopped at the box office, even though they starred Harriet Andersson, by then Jörn’s partner. She would dominate perhaps his most thoughtful film, Anna (1970), about a doctor, recently divorced, going out to an island to reflect on her situation.

Jörn Donner interviewing Ingmar Bergman

Dispirited by his failure to win critical or public praise in Sweden, Donner returned to Finland and it proved a smart move, because he could now show a more ironical and salacious side of his personality. Black on White (1968) brought him at last the recognition he craved as a director, even running on London’s Oxford Street for several weeks. A tart satire on the “perfect modern Scandinavian family,” it starred none other than Donner himself as the philandering refrigerator salesman who gleefully indulges in erotic antics with a woman he meets on the road. Portraits of Women (1970), Tenderness (1972), and Hangover (1973) confirmed his competence, if also his facetiousness, as a director, and he achieved even more notoriety with a corrosive documentary on his native land, Fuck Off! Images of Finland (1971).

Donner was a true loner, a writer who published dozens of books and hundreds of film reviews and provocative articles. His style owed something to Hemingway, with its spare, rugged prose and a clinical approach to the emotions of life. In 1985 he won the Finlandia Prize, his country’s most prestigious literary award, for Father and Son, one of a suite of novels featuring the bourgeois Anders family. I translated another, Angela and Love, into English, so that a German producer could consider making a screen version of it—but that never in fact happened. It was a joy to read Jörn’s lapidary Swedish, all adverbs pared away, the punctuation sparse and the paragraphs terse. He could drink deep into the night, but his unquenched rage to create enabled him to rise at dawn and head for his desk with monastic regularity.

I served on two juries with Jörn. The first was in Tampere at a short film festival in 1971, where as president Jörn was faced with a mini-crisis. No Russian entry impressed us, but the delegate from Moscow pleaded tearfully with the festival organizers that he had to return to Russia with some kind of award, or else he would lose his job. Jörn proposed that an additional prize be given, a simple wooden statuette in the form of a couple kissing, for a film that was mediocre but not appalling. His pragmatism won the day, and everyone went home satisfied. In 1986 we were on the jury of the Vevey Comedy Film Festival in Switzerland. Midway through, Jörn announced gruffly that he was flying to Budapest for a business meeting. He would only return, if at all, on the final day. It was characteristic of Jörn’s spoiled-child approach to certain obligations. I know, because I had to step into the role of the president at short notice! Yet beneath his often surly, laconic exterior, he often evinced a tenderness—especially with women!

Most of my memories of Jörn remain engaging. Sitting together for hours in a small office in Richmond in southwest London, subtitling into English a 16 mm print of Jörn’s documentary Three Scenes with Ingmar Bergman. Sharing premises with him in Helsinki, and learning how to use a fax machine for the first time (Jörn loved all forms of technological advance, providing they helped him to write faster). Planning the first front cover of my new annual Scandinavian Guide in 1985, a project to which Jörn gave wholehearted encouragement and practical help. Making the driest of martinis together, after a sauna. Or playing incredibly incompetent tennis at the massive residence he occupied in Bel-Air while acting as Consul General for Finland in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s.

Jörn enjoyed traveling in the U.S., although for several years his fleeting membership in the Communist Party in Finland caused him problems with the immigration authorities. Not so, fortunately, when he received the Academy Award for best foreign-language film in 1984, as producer of Fanny and Alexander—making him the first and thus far only Finn to have won an Oscar. “Thanks, the members of the Academy,” he declared when accepting the award with Bergman’s wife, Ingrid, “for having very good taste. I think so.” That same year he had also produced one of Bergman’s most valued TV movies, After the Rehearsal.

His accomplishments were many, and in many fields. He was a member of the Finnish Parliament, and then of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. He was on the board of Marimekko, Finland’s textile giant; managing director of the Swedish Film Institute from 1978 to 1982; and then chairman of the Finnish Film Foundation (1981–1983). He proved a successful sales agent for Rauni Mollberg’s masterly The Earth Is a Sinful Song in 1973, and encouraged a youthful Aki Kaurismäki, helping behind the scenes to produce Hamlet Goes Business. As if that were not enough, I was with him in Helsinki when a popular evening newspaper voted him “Finland’s sexiest man” on its front page—for the third successive year.

Our final meeting was in 2010, when he came to Montreux to celebrate my birthday, combining it, of course, with making yet another film—a TV documentary on the life of Finland’s renowned President Gustaf Mannerheim, who had ended his days by the shores of Lake Geneva. Jörn was writing books and involved in film production almost until the year of his death. The last of his fifty-five films as a producer and thirty-five as director was The Memory of Ingmar Bergman, a documentary about the cultural figure who had marked his life more than any other. Two months ago, he wrote to me that he was “still ill, not much being done. But I survive, so far. In six weeks the days will be longer . . .” So when Jörn Johan Donner finally passed away on January 30, 2020, it was as though a storm had abated or a comet had streaked out of sight.