Heart of a Lion (2013)

Dome Karukoski’s Heart of a Lion tells the gripping tale of a Finnish skinhead adapting to life with his girlfriend and her half-black son.


Dome Karukoski

Aleksi Bardy

Director of Photography:
Henri Blomberg

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Leijonasydän

Many viewers may be tired of Second World War films and choose to leave the history in the past. And yet, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the consequences of racism. It is an ideology that, albeit in a slightly different form, remained on the books in the United States in the form of segregation until the mid-1960s, and in South Africa was codified into law shortly after the National Party came to power in 1948.

Neo-Nazis, or skinheads, can be found in most countries in Europe, and their guiding philosophy usually combines ideas of “purity” from Nazism with patriotism for their particular country. The title of Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s Heart of a Lion refers to the animal, found in Africa and Asia, that holds a sword above its head on Finland’s coat of arms and appears as a tattoo on the bodies of many of the country’s skinheads who proclaim their conservative intention to protect the country from change.

The problematic provenance of the symbol is an interesting point of departure for a discussion about the film, which has a skinhead character, the leader of a small pride of like-minded tattooed individuals, fall in love with Sari (Laura Birn), a woman whose son is half-black. This neo-Nazi is called Teppo (Peter Franzén), but having seen his previous love life crumble because of his commitment to defending the fatherland against imposters (anyone who doesn’t look like his idea of a true Finn), and perhaps also because of the great sex with Sari, he is willing to look the other way when his new love breaks the news to him that her son is called Rhamadhani (Yusufa Sidibeh).

Despite what we may be expecting, the film is filled with examples of love, all with neo-Nazi leader Teppo at the nexus, as his relationships – sometimes tender, sometimes fraught with challenges – with Sari, Rhamadhani and his own brother, Harri (Jasper Pääkkönen), inject positive feelings into a storyline that could easily have settled for cheap thrills and violence.

Not that Heart of a Lion lacks violence or aggressive characters, but the overarching idea seems to be reconciliation rather than destruction, and of course it helps our capacity for empathy when Teppo seems to share this desire.

But Karukoski has to step very carefully among the landmines of empathy in a film dealing with this subject matter, as it would be entirely inappropriate to care too much about Teppo or his brash younger brother. Teppo may be conflicted, and Harri may be torn between affection for Teppo and a need to hold onto the seeming security provided by his band of macho neo-Nazis, but although Teppo comes to accept Rhamadhani, he continues to show an affinity for an avowed kind of pro-Finnish fascism for a large part of the film.

Karukoski and lead actor Franzén approach the character of Teppo with extreme circumspection towards his credible development, and their success fuels the viewer’s appreciation of the storytelling here. Teppo is certainly a multifaceted character, but Harri shows signs of even greater complexity: He is an upstart and a provocateur, but when push comes to shove, he protects his brother, even when their ideas about the races are no longer alike. It is unfortunate that the other skinheads are much less well-rounded, as they mostly serve the purpose of a foil to the two brothers’ journey towards a relative liberation from the Nazist ideals.

One particularly puzzling detail is why the skinheads write their graffiti in English, a language that certainly is not part of the proud Finnish traditions they pretend to espouse and protect. In one scene, director of photography Henri Blomberg’s camera even goes in for a closeup on the back of one of the skinheads’ skulls to let us better see the tattoo that reads “White Power”. This English term suggests these Finnish troublemakers see themselves as an extension of the subculture that includes far-right extremists in the English-speaking world. However, none of this is ever discussed, making our comprehension of the way they see themselves rather problematic.

The story itself is very involving, although, oddly, Sari disappears for long stretches of time, apparently without being visited by her boyfriend or her son while she is receiving care at the hospital. It also contains several comical moments that counterbalance the inherent drama. Although Blomberg never shows off with his camera, there is one scene, shot late at night in a single take during a rampage on a few Gypsies, and the violence contained in that unedited bubble of a moment is upsetting and clearly communicated with Karukoski’s choice of shot.

Heart of a Lion is a strong, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable film about love, pride and prejudice, and as relevant as ever.

Viewed at the Festroia International Film Festival 2014