Spoken language, so they say, only makes up 10% of all human communication. But, as Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s The Cuckoo proves, that percentage is vitally important. It tells the story of a Finn, a Lapp and a Russian all bound together through misfortune at the end of World War II in a state of mutual incomprehension.
Towards the end of 1944, the Nazis were in retreat across Finland from the advancing Red Army, and the Finns who had been forced into military servitude for the Germans were either abandoned or left to fight the Russians. Veiko (Ville Haapasalo) is a Finnish sniper who has been chained to a rock by his German platoon, with a few days’ rations and a rifle, and instructions to shoot as many Russians as possible before he starves to death. He is what the Russian soldiers called a Cuckoo – a sniper on a suicide mission.
However, Reiko feels no loyalty to his German masters and instead – with innovative use of his glasses and the gunpowder within the bullets – manages to blast himself free from the rock. While chained, he witnesses an aerial attack on a jeep containing a political officer and his prisoner from the Soviet army, Ivan (Viktor Bychkov), who has been arrested for writing supposedly subversive poetry. The officer is killed and Ivan is freed, but severely wounded.
He is rescued and taken back to the simple reindeer farm of a young Lapp woman, Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso). As she nurses Ivan back to health, a freed Veiko comes across her homestead and so begins a touching three-way drama of sexual desire and political distrust. The Finnish Veiko, with his SS getup, is assumed to be German by Ivan, who can understand neither language to distinguish the nationalities. To make matters worse, the beefy sniper seems to be winning the affections of Anni, as Ivan’s usual silver tongue technique fails on the vivacious farmer who can’t make out a word he is saying.
As the English subtitles tell us what each of the characters is saying, we gain an advantage over them and laugh at the confusion that results from this overlap of Finnish, Lapp and Russian. For example, Ivan boils up a meal of hallucinogenic mushrooms, as Anni tries in vain to tell him that if he eats them he will enter the "land of the spirits". The hatred between the two men only seems to be one way – Ivan looks at Veiko with disdain because of what he believes the Finn represents, while Veiko attempts to explain that he too despises the Nazi regime.
Anni looks upon their disputes as a mother would look at squabbling toddlers, but the admittedly humorous arguments hide dark undertones of political hatred. The minx-like Lapp humours the men because she craves sexual gratification after the war claimed her husband years ago. The men stay simply because they have no idea how to get home.
A deeper reading could say that The Cuckoo shows the arbitrary hatred of war and how it is impossible to overcome, but the film’s execution is more interesting than the tried and tested messages it portrays. The less said about the excruciatingly long sequence illustrating Lapp mysticism the better, but aside from that, the sweeping pans of the bleak but beautiful landscape break up a charming tale about the absurdity of human interaction without a common language.