‘Tom of Finland’: A strong biopic of Finland’s iconic gay erotica illustrator

Nov. 22, 2017, 11:17 a.m.
'Tom of Finland': A strong biopic of Finland's iconic gay erotica illustrator
Pekka Strang as the eponymous title character of “Tom of Finland.” (Courtesy of Protagonist Pictures)

Dome Karukoski’s biopic “Tom of Finland” brings to light the salient effect Touko “Tom” Laaksonen’s work and life had on the gay community. Gaining prominence in the 1950s-1970s, Tom’s audacious and venereal erotica helped to give pluck and validity to a people ostracized beyond measure. Through this compelling, albeit conservative work in regards to its subject matter, Karukoski brings viewers along a timeline of cascading events that begin with Tom’s sexual awakening in the midst of World War II as a member of the Finnish army and culminate in his achievement of worldwide renown.

The film immediately relays the dangers of being homosexual in 1940s Finland as a young Tom must face vicious policemen who engage in nighttime park patrols to catch same-sex couples in carnal acts, as well as a homophobic sister who repeatedly spurns any signs and attempts made Tom to come out. Tom finds an outlet for his frustration through erotica – the authoritative figures who filled him and many others with trepidation were now depicted partaking in acts they so criminalized.

This reclamation of power speaks to audiences around the world, and Tom finds himself a household name in many countries – including America, where his art helps to catalyze the gay liberation movement. This era is not without its hardships for Tom, however, as his growing prominence coincides with the height of the AIDs crises and his longtime lover, a dancer named Veli, grows extremely ill. In spite of this, Tom successfully secures for himself the designation of a principal gay icon.

The Stanford Daily was given the opportunity to interview Pekka Strang, who offers a stoic and affable portrayal of the titular character. In the interview, we delved into his process of inhabiting Tom, the necessity of this film and the significance of his work for the LGBT community.


The Stanford Daily: What scene made you fall in love with the film?

Pekka Strang: The scene where [Tom and Veli] buy the curtains and hold each other’s hand in public. This scene is like an earthquake. For so long, they concentrated on not showing emotion for one another, but now Tom’s life partner is dying. When the love of your life is dying, you have to go beyond yourself, beyond the threshold of what you can do. Here, Tom is telling the world, “Fuck off, let me hold his hand.”


TSD: Why was it important that this film be made now?

PS: There wasn’t a story 10 years ago. The world was not about gay rights. It wasn’t open to learning more about it then. Even now, our movie is still illegal in Russia. We need to remind ourselves about minorities and their plight, because liberty is so fragile.


TSD: Many are saying that Tom’s disruption of the explicit depiction of authoritative figures resonated with them.

PS: He takes away their power and humanizes them. The police officer becomes one of them. The moment we let the police think they’re not like you and me, they become distanced and they develop a superiority complex, which is very dangerous.

TSD: Why was Tom of Finland himself so important?

PS: In Tom’s time, gender was divided into three: Man, woman and homosexual. Tom’s work helped to challenge these categorizations. His work encouraged others to be who they wanted to be. He wanted people to enjoy life, enjoy sex and have fun. He helped to show that this was what gay people wanted to: A happy life. Tom’s biggest legacy was to embrace life.


TSD: What do you think is Tom’s biggest impact?

PS: I don’t think Tom wanted to imply that there should be a male ideal. In the long run, I believe he was trying to tell people to embody their true selves. All things must wear terrible masks until they’re recognized, which is maybe what he was trying to do with his art. He exaggerated a lot of things to make it clear that the gay community should be able to express themselves and have equity.


TSD: What was the hardest part of playing Tom?

PS: The most challenging part was playing another real human being.

TSD: What did you do in preparation for this film?

PS: I spent a lot of time looking at his photos and artwork to get a grasp of who he was as an artist. I went to the Tom of Finland Foundation in Los Angeles and actually got the chance to meet his nephew. That particular meeting was rather emotional, as we were both so connected to Tom and happy that his story was finally being told.


Contact Allison Oddman at aoddman ‘at’ Ssanford.edu.

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