MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Digital Nation: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Too often, movies leave audiences scratching their heads in bewilderment over how some exceedingly well paid, college-educated Hollywood studio executive could have been dim-witted enough to green light such an inarguably bad picture. A critically lauded film can be equally perplexing, leaving viewers wondering if they fully grasped a director’s intentions or could articulate what exactly they admired about it.

Optimally, such confusion prompts discussion and debate. Paying good money for lousy movies only breeds resentment.

For those reviewers paid to sit through all mainstream products, good and bad, such polarization represents the intellectual distance between, say, The Last Airbender and Inception, or Furry Vengeance and Toy Story III. Too many films make us wish there were pills for selective amnesia. Too few prompt the kinds of questions that compel moviegoers to seek immediate guidance from learned thinkers and historians on the Internet.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale isn’t a tenth as challenging as, say, Last Year in Marienbad or, even, Last Tango in Paris. The twisted Finnish fantasy-thriller did, however, leave my head spinning with curiosity. Primarily, I wondered if my lack of knowledge about European Christmas traditions might have caused me to miss the point of something I’d thoroughly enjoyed. It wouldn’t be the first time I laughed at all the wrong places in a movie.

My research began with a perusal of the production notes handed out to journalists before the screening. Questions left unanswered there prompted a Google search and a not-insignificant investment in time studying 2,000 years of holiday customs. Still curious, I called my 91-year-old father in Milwaukee to inquire about his boyhood memories of Christmas. I had scheduled a phone interview with the filmmakers, in Finland, but, turns out, they were otherwise occupied.

It wasn’t until I turned on the television Wednesday night and saw that the Documentary Channel was airing The Legends of Santa that I felt as if there might be sufficient material there to craft a column. All that was left to do then was re-watch Rare Exports, check out what other people were saying about it at and go, as directed, to YouTube, where the short films that inspired the feature could be found.

Thank God, for modern technology. I might have been able to write the same column as the one before you, today, at the height of the Analog Age – a mere 30 years ago — but it would have required a spare 16mm copy of the movie and projector, months of waiting for source material, several hours of page-turning at a library, at least two expensive long-distance phone calls and an operable typewriter.

Rare Exports is among a small handful of movies that have looked upon the Christmas holiday season with a jaundiced eye. A Nightmare Before Christmas, Bad Santa and Christmas Vacation” come to mind, but they speak from a more American point of view. Jalmari Helander’s idea is of a decidedly Old Country vintage.

Early on in Rare Exports, we’re advised by the youngest protagonist not to think of the Finns’ Father Christmas in the same way as the American “Coca-Cola Santa.” Historically, the bearded gentleman who visited homes wore a bishop’s robe and only rewarded children who were pure of heart and without sin. Those boys and girls who had lied, cheated, swore, snuck a nip of schnapps or otherwise disobeyed their parents were handed over to St. Nicholas’ close aide, Krampus, a demonic creature that closely resembled a goat. Krampus would put the especially bad children into a sack, haul them off to God-knows-where and do terrible things to them. Although scientific evidence is stacked against the existence of such a character, teen revelers in horned masks and animal skins still take to the streets each December 5 to torment younger children.

The tradition explains why Pietari, the tow-headed boy at the heart of the story, is terrified that an older friend will report recent shenanigans to their parents, who would be obligated to rat them out to Saint Nick. Among the film’s conceits, Helander concedes in the press material, is creating a Father Christmas whose mission became so intertwined with that of Krampus, the two entities eventually merged into one being.

It is that humanoid creature, presumed frozen to death in a wolf trap, that’s dragged naked to the shed where Pietari’s father, a butcher, goes about his business. The old man is spared being ground into sausage at the last second by a perfectly timed gasp for air. Apparently, the wizened geezer escaped from an icy chamber deep inside a volcano-shaped peak in the Korvatunti mountains, where he’d been buried for 200 years. Under the guise of surveying for minerals, Santa-hunting excavators tapped into a mass grave for Father Christmas, Krampus and dozens of elderly elves, also naked.

(Spoiler ahead)

American children undoubtedly would cheer such an escape, thinking Santa and the elves then could arrive on their rooftops on time and in possession of the iPhones, X-Boxes and Zhu Zhu Pets they demanded of their parents. They would be blissfully unaware of Krampus and his demand that mischievous children pay for their crimes, or that all of the children in the village had been kidnapped and put into potato sacks.

Once captured by local hunters, these elves would require of full year of brainwashing, re-training and scrubbing to be ready for contact with children around the world as Santa surrogates. Absent the migrating herds of reindeer, the exportation of such valuable commodities could become a lucrative business for Pietari and his father.

(Spoiler behind)

Before performing any research, I had assumed that Helander had imagined the old man to be the anti-Santa and he designed the elfin assault on the slaughterhouse strictly as homage to Night of the Living Dead. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Coca-Cola Santa and his reindeer-driven sleigh had arrived in the nick of time and fought off the zombie elves with AK-47s intended as gifts for the children of Tea Party members. None of that happened, however.

As fractured fairy tales go, Rare Exports is probably too scary for kids not yet in their teens. It’s R-rated, but mostly for some bad language and oblique shots of elfin penises. Teens and adults should find it safe, enjoyable and undeniably creepy.

Before or after watching the movie, I recommend checking out YouTube for the hilarious short films Rare Exports Inc. and Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions, elements of which anticipate the bizarre events in Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. (Both can be found at You Tube.) In them, hunting for Father Christmases has become a national pastime, for sport and commercial purposes. A disembodied voice describes the prey as “beasts without mercy” and “the most precious free-roaming wildlife of the north.” Fast, crafty and unpredictable when cornered, the Father Christmases are brought down by tranquilizer darts and carted back to rehabilitation centers.

In Scandinavia, the concept of a judgmental Saint Nicholas figure goes back to Pagan culture, as does the malevolent presence of Krampus (a.k.a., Black Peter). Similar representations have followed the spread of Christianity from Byzantine Anatolia (now Turkey), throughout Europe and onto American shores.

In The Legends of Santa, also available on DVD, Lord Richard Attenborough narrates the history of this progression and subsequent bastardization of the Sinterklaas legend for the purposes of conspicuous consumption. It’s a fascinating story and should be of interest to anyone savvy enough to have stopped making annual trips to Sears to sit on Santa’s knee.

Of special interest in Hefin Owen’s film would be the evolution of Santa’s image in United States. Significantly, perhaps, Dutch immigrants who settled in New York brought the Saint Nick legend with them, but left Black Peter home. My grandfather also left the German equivalent of Krampus and Black Peter in Europe. December 5 was kept special by hanging stockings full of apples, oranges and nuts over the fireplace. Back then, in Wisconsin, an orange was as rare and welcome a winter sight as a TV commercial without Santa is today.

American writers and illustrators further refined Santa by removing his bishop’s robe and replacing it with various Dutch-style uniforms and winter wear, sometimes as a parody. The Clement Clarke Moore poem, The Night Before Christmas, added the sleigh, reindeer and benevolent elves. It was picked up in newspapers throughout the country and the world.

Forty years later, a representation of Santa by political cartoonist Thomas Nast would grace the cover of Harper’s Weekly. In addition to celebrating the holiday, the illustration carried jabs at government policies during the Civil War. In the 1930s, artist Haddon Sundblom would borrow Nast’s red-and-white color scheme for “Coca-Cola Santa,” but re-make him as a decidedly benevolent, exceedingly jolly character. His assignment was to create a marketable image, sufficiently compelling to boost soft-drink sales in winter. It wasn’t the first Santa associated with a beverage company, but, for better or worse, it became the most enduring.

Today, Krampus wouldn’t recognize the international symbol of childhood greed and laissez-faire capitalism if he fell into Santa’s lap.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon