Tom of Finland: Liberating and/or Oppressing?

in 45th Norwegian International Film Festival Haugesund

by Cüneyt Cebenoyan

Yes, it’s porno. And yes, it’s art. But what kind of art is it? Some say it’s liberating. There is obviously some truth to this point of view.

I am talking about the art of Touko Laaksonen, known as Tom of Finland, the subject of the film Tom of Finland. Tom of Finland was one of the films in the Nordic Focus section of the Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund, so it was a contender for the FIPRESCI Prize. It didn’t win in Haugesund, but it had already won a FIPRESCI Prize in Göteburg in January. The film attracted the attention of our jury. For me, it was a film which left an enormous number of questions unasked. No, I was not expecting answers, but there were questions to be addressed.

First of all, the protagonist is Tom of Finland , the nom de plume of Touko Laaksonen, who had a particular political stance during World War II. He was a Nazi collaborator. He was a Nazi admirer. He fought with the Nazis against the Soviets. At one point, we see him killing a Soviet parachutist with a knife. The scene is strange because we do not understand if this has happened during or just after the war. At any rate, Tom sees a parachutist land, realises that he is a Soviet soldier, and kills him without hesitation when he could easily have taken him hostage. What Tom does after the man is dead is strange. He caresses his face like a necrophiliac would. Or is this remorse? The answer can be found in the aesthetics of Tom’s drawings.

Tom starts making drawings of gay men having sex. Post-war Finland is a very oppressive place for gays. It is illegal to be gay. The men in Tom’s drawings resemble supermen. They have strong muscles, enormous and erect penises, very broad shoulders and very narrow waists. I would think that if Susan Sontag had commented on these drawings, she would categorize them as fascistic. Sontag has said that “right-wing movements, however puritanical and repressive the realities they usher in, have an erotic surface.” In his early works, Tom is obviously in love with Wehrmacht aesthetics. And that fascination continues in his later works, in the form of leather jackets, boots et al.

The world of Tom of Finland is exteremely macho. The gay men of Tom of Finland have not a single trace of femininity. This is an exclusively male world in which even the most macho heterosexual man would fear to tread. Its preferred colour is black, not the rainbow colours we use to identify with the LGBT movement. For Tom, only a sissy would like a colour such as yellow.

The relationships between these gay men usually have violent elements to them. There are drawings in which wardens fuck prisoners.And everybody is happy and smiling in these drawings. In real life, this is totally unacceptable. We cannot speak of “consenting adults” where one is a prisoner of war and the other is his warden. There is extreme inequality in this relationship. It is rape, in fact. Which takes us back to the Soviet parachutist and Tom. A dead person is a completely defenseless person. His is a position of absolute surrender. It is similar to the relation between a prisoner of war and his wardens. Therefore, I think of the scene where Tom caresses the face of the Soviet soldier as necrophiliac.

One may say that phantasy is phantasy . Whatever stays in phantasy and is expressed in art is OK. It is liberating. I have doubts. Tom of Finland or Touko Laaksonen’s phantasy and reality were, at least during the war, not so much separated. Yes, a fascistic aesthetic is still an aesthetic, not fascism itself. But is it totally harmless to enjoy it? Is there no connection between life itself and art? Is art just a kind of entertainment which does not deeply affect the soul? I don’t have definite answers.

But the problem is that the film does not ask any of these questions. The film bypasses the specific kind of sexuality in the art of Tom of Finland and focusses on the oppression of gays in general. In that sense Tom of Finland is a kind of pioneer and the film salutes him. But the ideology behind his art is oppressive. Yes, we know that Tom of Finland, the man himself, has denounced fascism. But the aesthetics of fascism is what made him.

Edited by Lesley Chow