By Sarah Eilers
It’s a black and white film, but it’s the white that overwhelms. A carpet of snow beneath Nordic pines, white uniforms head-to-toe, white planks used to construct a horse-drawn ambulance sleigh. Soon enough, an explosion, and the rising of white-clad figures from snow-covered foxholes, rifles at the ready. What is this?
With winter upon us, we searched the film vault for a title on cold-weather health concerns. What we found is an intriguing mystery: a VHS tape apparently duplicated from a 16mm film that itself is a copy of a copy. Given this lineage, the resolution is poor, but the military medicine depicted is clear enough.
The Medical Service of the Finnish Armed Forces in Winter: The Utilization of Paper in the Care of Casualties appears to have been shot as a silent film in Finland in the late 1930s or early 1940s, probably by a Finnish military or medical agency. It shows Finnish troops in white winter uniforms on skis, demonstrating unusual techniques of emergency battlefield first aid. Soldiers use rolls of strong, reusable paper to make bandages, slings, even a stretcher. The film uses the terms crepe paper and kraft paper, and notes that, besides its durability as bandage material, the paper can withstand weights of up to 440 pounds when used to form the bed of a stretcher.
Recall the time and place. In the Winter War of 1939-1940, Finland had shocked the world by repelling a Soviet military offensive, relying on skis, bicycles, complete familiarity with the landscape, and superb aim. This footage likely was shot around that time.
By March 1940, Finland had capitulated, signing the Treaty of Moscow and giving control of the Karelian Isthmus to the Soviet Union. The government soon allowed German troops on Finnish soil, forging a short-lived alliance with the Nazis as that army prepared to invade the Soviet Union. The lesser of two evils perhaps, with the Finns calculating that such an alliance might offer an opportunity to regain territory ceded to Moscow in 1940. In the end, that didn’t happen.
An opening slide in the film reveals that a German version existed; perhaps the Nazi army somehow obtained the footage and re-made it as a German-language instructional film (no Germans appear on screen). After the war, with Germany under occupation, the American military confiscated the German version and re-made the remake, with narration in English. Somewhere along the way, an orchestral soundtrack was added, whether by the Finns, the Germans, or the Americans, is not clear. Nor do we know the composer(s) of the pieces featured. The U.S. Army donated its English-language version to the National Library of Medicine in 1955.
As far as we have been able to determine, no Finnish collection has the film in its original version. One other repository in the United States, the University of California’s Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) has a copy of the German version. As in the English version, the film opens with a title slide and one additional scrolling slide describing what’s to come, but contains no credits. The BAM/PFA believes the film was donated by the Library of Congress, but has no other details.
“Orphan” films such as Medical Service of the Finnish Armed Forces are not unusual in film archives. Titles may be passed from agency to agency with little attention paid to provenance, projected so often that pieces of the film break off, and revised with edits, soundtracks, and translations that may or may not be documented. For example, about 14 minutes into our copy, the screen abruptly goes dark for about 10 seconds, then fires up mid-scene. We think a portion of film must have fallen away during handling and a clumsy splice inserted, but without comparing it to other versions, we don’t know.
This film poses many questions; for instance, questions about the medical uses of paper: Was the technique of paper bandaging adopted by the U.S. and other militaries, and/or by civilian agencies? How did the Finns produce such durable paper? Wasn’t paper scarce and expensive, even in a timber and paper-producing country such as Finland? And questions about the film itself: Does a Finnish version still exist? Are there missing title slides, intertitles, or credits? Are the explosions staged? When was the orchestral soundtrack added, and who is the composer?
We hope an inquisitive reader may be able to help us learn more about the medical uses of paper and about the history of this rare and unusual film. If that reader is you, or someone you know, we invite you to share what you know about the film by commenting below.
To watch more films like Medical Service of the Finnish Armed Forces from the National Library of Medicine’s Historical Audiovisuals collection, visit NLM’s Digital Collections.