Finnish filmmaker Dome Karukoski brings artist Touko Laaksonen–otherwise known as homoerotic artist Tom of Finland–to life in this richly photographed and moving film about gay life in post-WWII Europe and America. Tom of Finland (a Kino Lorber film) explores Laaksonen’s life, from his career as a decorated officer in the Finnish army during World War II, to his move to Los Angeles and his eventual fame as a homoerotic artist and cultural icon. His home in Echo Park, Tom House, still stands as an archive, a museum, and headquarters for the Tom of Finland Foundation. We sat down with Finnish actor, Pekka Strang (above), who plays Laaksonen in the film, to talk about the importance of this movie in today’s political climate.
Exuberance: How do people feel about the film, and the artist, in Finland?
Pekka Strang: The artist, Touko Laaksonen has not been that well known, but of course Tom of Finland has become a brand, and an important symbol for sexual freedom, gay pride, and the LGBTQ movement all over the world. He was drawing his homoerotic pictures in the 50s and 60s when it was illegal to do so, and yet this strange visionary from a tiny town in Finland changed the world. Today, of course, we have the “alt-right” scared people that every country has, but I think people are quite proud when they see Finland being talked about around the world. People send me photos and say, “Hey look I’m in Paris and here is Finland mentioned in Paris!” It’s pretty wonderful.
EX: Is the film a political statement?
PS: It is a political statement just by existing. The world changed right after we finished the movie. Everything got more political, with the American election. In Europe, we have always had these right-wing movements but they weren’t relevant anymore. But as far as LGBTQ rights and sexual freedom, you can’t turn back the clock. The water is already running and you can’t stop it by putting a stone in front of it, because its just going to find its way. Of course when the government makes its divisive statements, the worst thing is that it empowers people on the street to act on these terrible thoughts. But I’m an optimist and I believe we are not going back.
Last week I went to Russia to promote the film, and we are illegal there. It’s illegal to promote homosexuality there. But on the other hand, nothing happened to us. However, the violence against gay people in Russia, in Chechnya and in Iran and Iraq is terrible, and must end. But homosexuality wasn’t invented in the 19th century. It’s as old as mankind. If you don’t get that you are probably a creationist. But you can’t debate with stupidity.
EX: Exuberance is a design and lifestyle magazine. Lets talk a little about Laakson’s influence on the world of design.
PS: Tom of Finland had a huge impact on the LGBTQ community. He was openly gay, and his illustrations were openly sexy. Jean-Paul Gaultier flew to Finland for the opening. He said that Tom’s work was hugely influential in his fashion design. Think of people like Freddy Mercury, Judas Priest, Madonna, Lady Gaga. All influenced by Tom’s work. It is eroticism, and very sexual. But it is also beautiful technique and illustration. No one can get a drawing of leather to shine that way!
EX: How important was Tom’s early life in his development as an artist and ultimately one of the inspirations for a movement?
PS: It’s important to understand how the second world war affected him. When you send all your young men to war and they die at the age of 17, that changes you. It is a heavy burden to carry. His courage came from the fact that once you feel death so close to you, and you have seen your buddies dying, you know that there’s an end to this and you know you better live while you can. I don’t think there has been a movie where there is a decorated officer who is a gay man who doesn’t care that he is gay. That is a special thing about Touko Laaksonen. He didn’t condemn himself, it was the society around him that didn’t give him the right to be equal.
EX: Have you met any of his family?
PS: I met his nephew after the screening and we couldn’t talk much because we were both so emotional. Of course, he didn’t know his uncle had this other life. He just knew that he was a lovely uncle who always played with the kids and took them to restaurants and told them they could order anything on the menu. He didn’t know about his uncle’s struggles and that hit him and he was just sobbing. The only thing I could do was offer him a Tom of Finland napkin I had in my pocket, and hug him. And that was the strange thing. Touko left Finland to have this free life in LA, and his family didn’t really know about it.
EX: If Laaksonen were alive today, how do you think he would feel about the attention?
PS: Just before he died in 1991, he was hoping for recognition in Finland. He was already well-known in the rest of the world. It would be so nice to get him here for one day, and walk around with him and say, “look what you’ve done.” He didn’t see himself as anything but an artist. He said something that I loved, which was that he spent 10,000 hours alone with his characters, just working. But it was a hell of a good time!
Tom of Finland was a 2017 Tribeca Film Festival Selection, and has been chosen as Finland’s entry into the Best Foreign Film category for this year’s Academy Awards. It is playing at Quad Cinema now through October 17 in an exclusive New York engagement, and opens in Los Angeles on October 20. –Deborah L. Martin