Western Christmas tradition centers on the jolly figure of Santa Claus and his workshop manned by adorably cheery elves at the North Pole. Fantasy is dominated by figures like J.R.R. Tolkien’s majestic elves in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, inspired by Old English poetry. But there are other, darker incarnations of elvish creatures in folklore from around the world.
If you’re in the mood for something a bit different for your holiday entertainment this weekend, I highly recommend a Christmas double feature drawing inspiration from Nordic folklore: Elves, a new Danish series that debuted on Netflix last month, and a delightful 2010 Finnish film called Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010).
(Some spoilers below but no major reveals.)
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale has its roots in a pair of short films by a Finnish production company specializing in commercials. The first (Rare Exports Inc.), released online in 2003, showed a trio of hunters searching the wilds of Lapland for a wild Santa Claus. It proved so popular that the company released a sequel short film in 2005 (Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions). Both were directed by Jalmari Helander, who eventually found financing to produce a feature-length film based on the concept. And we’re so very glad he did.
Per the official synopsis:
It’s the eve of Christmas in northern Finland, and an ‘archeological’ dig has just unearthed the real Santa Claus. But this particular Santa isn’t the one you want coming to town. When the local children begin mysteriously disappearing, young Pietari and his father Rauno, a reindeer hunter by trade, capture the mythological being and attempt to sell Santa to the misguided leader of the multinational corporation sponsoring the dig. Santa’s elves, however, will stop at nothing to free their fearless leader from captivity. What ensues is a wildly humorous nightmare—a fantastically bizarre polemic on modern day morality.
The film takes place near Korvatunturi (Ear Fell) in the Finnish province of Lapland, a place said to be the home of a Santa Claus-like figure in Finnish folklore called Joulupukki. The literal translation is “Christmas goat” (or ‘Yule goat”), and the folklore figure is usually depicted wearing red robes, with a sleigh pulled by (non-flying) reindeer. Joulupukki isn’t necessarily an evil creature in the legends, although his goat-like appearance was said to frighten children. The version in Rare Exports seems to share commonalities with Krampus, a figure from Central and Eastern Alpine lore who assists St. Nicholas, punishing naughty children on Christmas with birch rods
Tonally and aesthetically, Rare Exports owes more to the Brothers Grimm and Tim Burton, than to the cheery wholesomeness of, say, Norman Rockwell or Miracle on 34th Street. Visually, it’s quite striking. Helander’s camera lingers lovingly over the frigid Lapland landscape, and the story moves along briskly, with all the right beats in all the right places.
Onni Tommila, who plays Pietari (and is Helander’s nephew), is an amazingly expressive young actor who anchors the film. We feel his fear and determination to ward off Santa and his elves, fueled in part by his deep need to win his father’s grudging approval—particularly given the recent loss of his mother. Bonus: the film provides its own explanation for the classic conundrum of how Santa can be so many places at once on Christmas eve. It all adds up to a genuinely suspenseful, action-packed, and occasionally poignant Christmas tale.
While Rare Exports riffs on Joulupukki, Elves finds inspiration in what seems to be a combination of elverfolk that inhabit hills and mounds, and the trolls and huldufólk (“hidden folk”) of Scandinavian folklore. These are wild, forest-dwelling creatures and in the hands of series director Ron Ezra, they make very effective menacing Christmas monsters. Per the official synopsis:
Hoping to reconnect over Christmas, a family of four travels to a remote island in the Danish archipelago, only to find it controlled by members of a strongly religious community living in balance with fierce creatures in the woods revealed to be… elves. Real, monstrous beings that inspired the folklore and myths we all know. When the girl in the family finds and brings home a baby elf, she inadvertently disrupts the balance and throws everyone on the island into a life-or-death battle for faith, family, and pure survival.
The girl who causes all the chaos is Josefine (Sonja Steen). She has a soft spot for pretty much all animals, yet her parents—Mads (Peder Thomas Pedersen) and Charlotte (Lila Nobel)—refuse to let her get a dog. That’s a decision they’ll come to regret. En route to their vacation rental, they hit something with their car, but there’s no sign of whatever it was when they get out to investigate. Josefine eventually finds the wounded creature: an adorable baby elf. She befriends the creature and nurses it back to health, telling only her brother, Kasper (Milo Campanale) about its existence.
Alas, the adult elves don’t take kindly to what they interpret as the theft of one of their offspring. And when a misguided Josefine decides the elves are being locked up against their will and turns off the electric fence keeping the creatures at bay, things get bloody very quickly. (The very first scene depicts the offering of a cow by local islanders, which is devoured by strange, unseen snarling creatures in a matter of minutes, so the elves are formidable opponents.)
Scholars tend to interpret these mythological creatures as representative of the powerful forces of nature in a fairly harsh environment prone to earthquakes, avalanches, volcanoes, and the like. Challenge or disrupt that natural order at your peril. That theme is infused throughout Elves.
Josefine and her family are disruptive from the start, ignoring island handyman Møller’s (Rasmus Hammerich) warning to stick to a particular road on the island. They also cut down a local tree for their Christmas decorations in express violation of local customs. They can’t plead ignorance either, since that taboo was spelled out for them by Karen (Ann Eleonora Jørgensen), a local woman who has been raising her orphaned granddaughter Liv (Vivelill Søgaard Holm) to succeed her as island guardian against the elves.
Josefine, too, ignores the warnings of Karen and Møller, but she also has genuine bond with the baby elf. That unlikely friendship, and the competing factions intent on keeping them apart, fuels the emotional stakes of the series. Neither can safely inhabit the other’s world, and a painful separation seems inevitable. With its six half-hour episodes, Elves is a perfect Christmas binge, and the finale leaves open the possibility of a second season—assuming this sleeper gem of a series manages to find an audience.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is available for streaming rental on Amazon Prime Video. In Finnish (with subtitles) and English. Elves is streaming on Netflix. In Danish with English subtitles. And if you want a triple feature this holiday weekend, try adding the 1989 French film, Dial Code: Santa Clause (alternate title: Deadly Games), to your viewing list. The darkly violent (like all the best fairy tales) predecessor to 1990’s Home Alone is vailable on Blu-Ray and DVD and well worth the investment.