b. 4 April 1957, Orimattila, Finland

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Two Finns are in a bar. After hours of silence, one man raises his glass to the other and says, “Cheers.” The other man snaps back, “I didn’t come here for conversation.”

The world of Aki Kaurismäki undoubtedly owes much to the deadpan mien of his homeland, as evidenced in this traditional Finnish joke, but is also remarkably distinctive, instantly identifiable by a single frame from almost any of his films. The uncommon union he forges between social realism and visual stylization, and between dry comedy and warm-hearted humanism, is something Kaurismäki’s actors refer to as “Akiland”, and what American critics delicately describe as “an acquired taste” (1).

Kaurismäki is, in fact, almost single-handedly responsible for rejuvenating the failing Finnish film industry in the 1980s with a series of highly original comedies made with his brother Mika. Over the past twenty years, Kaurismäki has become one of the pre-eminent auteurs of international art cinema, fusing minimalism and melodrama to poignantly depict the hardships of Finland’s blue-collar class. His films, however, are never didactic. Instead, they make a joke out of the extremity of the economic situations they depict, mining the cruelty of the unemployment officer or the bank bureaucrat for black comedy. So, while social criticism is always present, it is couched in humour to soften the blow. The elegant compositions and rich colour design further cloak the bleak reality faced by Kaurismäki’s characters in a dreamy visual beauty (that owes much to Kaurismäki’s long-time cinematographer, Timo Salminen), heightening the sense of otherworldliness that is so unique to his work. Kaurismäki’s influence on other filmmakers is immediately evident in the output of several of his contemporaries – particularly those inclined toward deadpan stylistics, such as Jim Jarmusch, Tsai Ming-Liang and Corneliu Porumboiu – and over the past decade, most films by other directors coming out of Finland fall noticeably under Kaurismäki’s shadow.

Straight Out of Finland

In many ways, Finland is a country that doesn’t quite fit in. It is situated between East and West both geographically and culturally, yet remains somewhat apart from both. The Finnish language, for example, bears no resemblance to any of the Germanic Scandinavian languages, and is also nothing like Russian; its closest (but still distant) relative is actually Hungarian. The country’s government hovers somewhere between capitalism and socialism; although 20 percent of Finns are likely to vote Communist in an election, the country’s economy is moving rapidly towards increased capitalism, which has caused countless economic and social problems that provide the basis for the working-class stories told in Kaurismäki’s films. (2)

Most people know little about Finland, but there seems to be a measure of truth in some of the stereotypes. For instance, many Finns drink heavily; Finnish film historian Peter Cowie writes that alcohol is a necessity to many citizens because it is “a shield against the harsh climate, the solitude, and the press of modern existence” (3). Kaurismäki is no exception. He drank “whiskey, white wine, and a Bloody Mary in the 40 minutes I spent with him” (4), one reporter wrote. He occasionally enjoys unsettling people by measuring time in terms of alcohol consumed (e.g., “when I was young: 10,000 pints ago” (5)). But at the same time, as Cowie notes, “in Finland an intoxicated man may look sullen where his Mediterranean counterpart will be singing with joy” (6).

Are Finns depressed? They live in a huge country with a tiny population, sparsely distributed across a huge land mass, and even in urban areas like Helsinki the city centres are “empty after dusk has fallen” (7) – which, in the winter, can be as early as 3pm. The suicide rate in Finland is nearly double that of the United States. Over 20 percent of the country’s population lives in overcrowded conditions. These facts translate into equally dire statistics for Finland’s film industry – the nation of 5.2 million has only 338 movie theatres, and the average person goes to a movie one or maybe two times per year (far less than the average American, who goes to the cinema nearly six times a year). (8) In the 1980s, the Finnish film industry was practically nonexistent – but then arrived Mika Kaurismäki and his little brother, Aki.

The Brothers Kaurismäki

In their youth, the Kaurismäki brothers were insatiable cinéphiles and watched five or six films every day at the Finnish Film Archive, where they especially admired Jean-Luc Godard, Yasujiro Ozu and American film noir. (9) Mika studied film in Munich, but Aki was rejected by the Finnish film school “because he was considered to be too cynical” (10). Aki began a media studies program at the University of Tampere, but soon quit “to work ‘in real life,’ taking ‘honest jobs’ such as postman and dishwasher” (11). In 1980, the brothers created their own film company, Villealfa, named for Godard’s Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965), and began rapidly making films together.

Generally, Aki wrote the screenplay and Mika directed; this was the case for two of their early efforts, Valehtelija (The Liar, 1981) and Arvottomat (The Worthless, 1982), in which Aki also starred. In between these two films, the brothers co-directed a rock documentary, Saimaa-ilmiö (The Saimaa Gesture, 1981), and soon after they would make two more feature films together: Klaani: Tarina Sammakoitten suvusta (The Clan Tale of Frogs, 1984) and Rosso (1985). Mika is generally regarded as a very good director, with the ability to work in a variety of genres and a strong sense of classical Hollywood storytelling; Aki, whose later solo work is notable for its clever takes on popular genres and riffs on Hollywood conventions, clearly learned a lot from his brother, but then aimed his ideas toward less commercial ends.

The films the Kaurismäki brothers made together in the early 1980s gave a terrific burst of revitalization to the floundering Finnish film industry – since that decade began, the Kaurismäki brothers have been responsible for an astonishing twenty percent of all Finnish films. (12) Although Mika continued making successful films throughout the rest of the 1980s and into the present, it was when Aki began to direct his own scripts that he had the chance to hone the remarkably original style that would soon draw international attention.

Anti-Art Cinema

Crime and Punishment

In 1983, Aki Kaurismäki made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Prestuplenie I nakazanie (Crime and Punishment), reset in contemporary Helsinki, featuring a law-school dropout-turned-slaughterhouse-worker as Raskolnikov. Kaurismäki says he decided to make a film version of the imposing Dostoyevsky novel because,

[Alfred] Hitchcock said he would never be able to touch that book, and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll show you, old man.’ Later I realized that he was right. It was not my style, but I had no style then – it came later. (13)

The protagonist of a Kaurismäki film is almost always the same character: a lonely, working-class underdog of few words in search of love and a steady job. In a way, Raskolnikov seems like a logical point of reference for beginning a career devoted to sympathizing with these “loser” characters. Kaurismäki himself recognizes that Rikos ja rangaistus (Crime and Punishment) was

the first time I started to develop the loser character Nikander [the protagonist of Kaurismäki’s Varjoja paratiisissa (Shadows in Paradise, 1986)]. Right up to [Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana (Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana, 1994)] he’s the same character. (14)

The first shot of Crime and Punishment – a close-up of a butcher’s cleaver smashing a bug on the cutting board and then continuing to chop meat – is further evidence of how Kaurismäki’s worldview – of small, defenceless individuals being crushed by large and uncaring forces beyond their control – was present from the start.

Also there from the beginning was Kaurismäki’s ridicule of the seriousness and inscrutability of the art house tradition. After Crime and Punishment, which explicitly mocked the pretensions of highbrow literary adaptations, Kaurismäki decided to try to make “the lousiest film ever made” (15) – and so Calamari Union (1985) was born. The absurd premise of this film – in which ten ordinary men, all named Frank, try, unsuccessfully, to walk from one end of Helsinki to the other without getting killed – mocks the metaphysical implications traditionally associated with the episodic plotlines and mundane narrative detailing found in the work of art cinema masters like Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman. The film’s most frequently noted sketch involves the Franks (who, like many Kaurismäki characters, are fans of large black sunglasses) performing an impromptu rock number at a club with lyrics such as “Bad boys are coming to break your toys” (16) – and so begins the Kaurismäki tradition of featuring rock-and-roll concerts in nearly every film. Unlikely rock band as crucial narrative element and a deep-seated delight in tweaking the tenets of art cinema would both be taken even further in the late ’80s and early ’90s with Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys films. Ironically, by this point Kaurismäki would become the darling of the contemporary art cinema establishment, a cult favourite among film festival-goers around the world.

Soon after Kaurismäki made another literary adaptation, Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business, 1987), that locates the classic tragedy in the contemporary world of big business. After his father’s death, Hamlet (Pirkka-Pekka Petelius) holds a majority of stock in his family’s corporation and decides to go into manufacturing rubber ducks. A Shakespearean power struggle ensues, with absurdist comedy layered on top. The film is shot in gorgeous black-and-white tableaux with an astute B-movie sensibility: dark shadows, bright lights, and occasional bursts of histrionic music. As with Crime and Punishment, Hamlet Goes Business – an unexpected hit at the 1988 Berlin Film Festival – uses comedy to undermine the pretensions of the literary adaptation genre, but is also a scathing indictment of the hypocrisy of the wealthy and powerful.

The Working-class Trilogy

In 1986, Kaurismäki made Varjoja paratiisissa (Shadows in Paradise), the first film in his “Working-class Trilogy” (aka “Proletariat Trilogy”). With this film, Kaurismäki established the storyline that he would revisit time and time again over the years to follow: the plight of a virtuous, inexpressive outsider who loses everything he has, meets the love of his life, works very hard, and, after a series of heartbreaking events, escapes to freedom – which usually lies anywhere outside Finland.

Shadows in Paradise

Nikkander, a lonely garbage truck driver (played by Kaurismäki’s best friend and favourite leading man, Matti Pellonpää), falls in love with Ilona Rajamäki, a shy supermarket check-out girl (played by Kaurismäki’s most frequent leading lady, Kati Outinen). After watching Nikkander eat dinner by himself at home, sadly gazing out the window, and then being treated to the equally heartbreaking display of Ilona sitting by herself at a nightclub, the only woman there who is not invited to dance, it is clear that these two belong together.

From this point forward, Shadows in Paradise deconstructs the romantic comedy. When Ilona steals from her corrupt boss in retaliation for unfairly firing her, Nikander helps her out of the resulting jam. The relationship that ensues, however, spirals quickly downward, reaching its climax during Nikkander’s English-language class, at which the phrase of the day is, “It’s funny. It’s very funny. And it’s a lot of fun, too, being in love.” These words – which also seem to capture a fragment of Kaurismäki’s worldview – inspire Nikkonen to run out of the school, confront Ilona at her new job and perform his version of the quintessential romantic comedy finale – sweeping the heroine off her feet. “You’re coming with me”, he announces. “Where?”, Ilona asks. “On a honeymoon. You can’t make it on your own.” That’s that, and the couple happily escapes to Estonia. As with the simplicity of the set-up, the efficiency of the resolution is so exaggerated, it’s hilarious.

Ariel (1988), the second instalment of Kaurismäki’s Working-class Trilogy, and the first of his films to be successfully released across Europe, tells the tale of Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajala), an unemployed miner who travels from the Laplands to Helsinki to find work. There he gets mugged, falls in love with a single mother who works four jobs (while he, ironically, still cannot find one for himself) and is then thrown in jail for trying to beat up the thief who had mugged him. Eventually, the couple escapes to Mexico.

Ariel firmly established the iconography that Kaurismäki would revisit again and again in his later films: a mixture of seediness and nostalgia featuring jukeboxes, Cadillacs, dive bars, stray dogs, and Ray Bans. But Ariel’s style is more free-wheeling in cinematic references than Kaurismäki’s later, more strictly minimalist work. It undermines dozens of conventions from B-movie genres: in a gaolbreak scene, Taisto and cellmate Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpää) knock out the prison guard, but pause to place a pillow under his head before escaping, and, in prison, Mikkonen turns the emotional soliloquy of a wrongfully convicted man into one of existential boredom: “I’m innocent … in God’s eyes at least. In a way I did kill him, but the truth is I didn’t. Whatever – he died and I was sent here.” The movie’s “climactic” bank heist misses the real action as the camera dramatically swoops alongside the pair of criminals running to the front door with guns drawn, then the camera halts, patiently observes the exterior of the bank, and finally reverses its movement once the pair comes running outside with the money. It left the actual heist entirely off-screen. The crime caper, the prison drama, and the film noir – these are a few genres among many that are picked up, turned around, and quickly discarded by Kaurismäki in the span of about 70 minutes.

The Match Factory Girl

Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö (The Match Factory Girl, 1990) is one of Kaurismäki’s darkest films, but it is also one of his funniest. Exploited by her parents and ignored by society, lonely factory worker Iiris (Kati Outinen) becomes pregnant in a one-night stand. After being scorned by the father of the child and cast out by her own parents, Iiris decides to fight back for the first time in her life, using rat poison to coldly exact her well-deserved revenge. It is a bleak, harsh story, and visualized accordingly: icy blue lighting fills the house Iris shares with her parents, and the cinematography (by Kaurismäki’s regular director of photography, the extraordinarily versatile Timo Salminen) is crisply composed and sharply focused. The film opens with a rhythmic, elegantly edited sequence showing the progression of a matchbox being assembled by industrial machines, ending with a close shot of Iiris’ hands, mechanically examining each completed box that passes by her post.

In some ways, Iris resembles the put-upon heroine of Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (1967), but in that film – like many others by Bresson, who was one of Kaurismäki’s greatest heroes – the motivations of the main character are unclear. Iiris’ feelings, on the other hand, are almost transparent. This is partially thanks to the privileged information we’re given about her depressing situation at the film’s outset, but it is also a result of the pared down æsthetic, which visually expresses the loneliness and solitude of Kaurismäki’s characters. While Bresson would have his actors (or, as he called them, “models”) repeat their lines over and over again, until they were drained of all emotion from the sheer dullness of repetition, Kaurismäki uses an opposite approach to get a similar effect: his actors do not know what their lines are until right before they speak them. Sometimes, he has them read the lines off cue cards. On the rare occasions when Kaurismäki does give his actors a script in advance, it is prefaced by something like “The same sentences every morning without passion.” (17) And, although his actors say that Kaurismäki always shoots only one take, the director himself once admitted to an interviewer that he actually shoots the rehearsal and then pretends to the actors that he is shooting the first take. He does this because he wants them thinking as little as possible about “acting” and more about reading a line as simply as possible. The result is an impassive acting style that serves a double purpose: to mimic the uncaring capitalistic society looming over Kaurismäki’s films, and to work in comedic counterpoint to the frequently dramatic content of the dialogue itself.

Loser Goes to London

“Where I come from, we eat places like this for breakfast”, deadpans Henri Boulanger (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in I Hired A Contract Killer (1990). He is speaking to the dozens of bar patrons who fell silent when he walked into the room, and the threat is made even more unconvincing by the fact that it follows his polite order of a single ginger ale. Although it was technically made in between Kaurismäki’s two trilogies of working-class melodramas, I Hired A Contract Killer is actually very much a part of them in content and in form, fusing Bresson-style minimalism with the plot of a B-movie in overdrive. When we first see Henri, he has passed out at work, with his forehead flat on his desk and a telephone against his ear – apparently, his call was so boring he literally fell asleep. Lunchtime is a long, flat shot of workers gathered at a large table, talking and laughing loudly. At the far left edge of the frame, Henri is visible, sitting at a separate table by himself and silently eating a sandwich. Every now and then, he looks over at his co-workers – even, at one point, offering an adorably tentative smile – but his presence goes entirely unnoticed, in a delicate balance of humour and poignancy that is quintessentially Kaurismäkian.

I Hired A Contract Killer

The premise of I Hired A Contract Killer is a clever twist on one of Hollywood’s favourite scenarios: a hit man out for blood. This time, the hero hires the hit man to kill himself. After being fired from his job, Henri decides to commit suicide, and first tries hanging himself, only to have the cheap rope break under his weight, and then tries sticking his head in the oven, but the local gas union suddenly decides to go on strike. This bad luck is pitifully funny, but also reflects Kaurismäki’s ever-present interest in larger economic realities. After these misfires, Henri hires a hit man to do the job for him. Just after closing the deal, Léaud falls in love with a woman selling roses on the street, and spends the rest of the film trying to escape the killer he arranged himself, culminating in an absurdly dedramatized “chase” scene marked by awkward pauses and actors slowly running from one side of the screen to the other. This finale, like much of the film, intentionally exaggerates the clarity and efficiency of classical Hollywood filmmaking, creating unexpected comedy by flattening its traits to the barest minimum.

I Hired A Contract Killer is Kaurismäki’s only English-language film, and it was both set and shot in London. The glamorous location, however, didn’t get in the way of Kaurismäki’s unchanging vision of working-class life, for all we see of the city are poor neighbourhoods of dilapidated buildings and empty cafés. As in the vast majority of Kaurismäki’s films, which are set in the working-class fringes of Helsinki or other cities, the most typical elements of an urban setting – people, cars, noise, tall buildings, modern technology – are drained from the landscape. Even though Finland, home of Nokia, has one of the world’s densest concentrations of mobile phones, they are never seen in Kaurismäki’s films. Instead, an entire dormitory is shown sharing a single landline. Additionally, there are no computers whatsoever – only typewriters – and Kaurismäki will only film cars made before 1962 (preferably Cadillacs) because modern cars, in his opinion, are “ugly and have no personality” (18). In his Finnish-language films, the dialogue his characters speak is a very formal, literary version of the language that most Finns don’t use anymore. And, most conspicuously, the music that permeates the homes and businesses of his characters seems to be from another time, coming from old jukeboxes and vintage records. The films’ excellent soundtracks are full of melancholy Finnish tango, often seen performed live at a dance hall or dive bar, and old-time American music: blues, rockabilly, early punk rock. At one point in I Hired A Contract Killer, Henri stumbles into a cafe where Joe Strummer of the Clash is performing the rarity, “Burning Lights”. As a result of all this, Kaurismäki’s work appears to be set in a strange past era – an archaic world, vaguely familiar, but with an undeniably dreamlike quality.

The Leningrad Cowboys

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) unexpectedly became Kaurismäki’s biggest hit yet – and led to a series of films about this fictitious polka/rock-and-roll band from the Laplands (played by actual Finnish rock band, The Sleepy Sleepers). Leningrad Cowboys sport pointy-toed shoes and outrageous pompadour hairdos, performing spirited but hilariously atrocious covers of American rock songs from the 1950s and ’60s. Because their music is so terrible, a record executive suggests that they go to America (“They’ll listen to anything there!”) to make it as rock stars. In New York, they manage to book their first gig: a wedding in Mexico. This sends them on a road trip through the Deep South during which their bassist dies (and is put on ice in the trunk), their conniving manager hides beer from them, and regrettable renditions of “Born to Be Wild” and “Tequila” are performed at any club that will have them. They eventually arrive at the wedding, revive the dead bassist with a shot of tequila, and make it onto the Mexican Top Ten charts.

Leningrad Cowboys Go America

Kaurismäki himself deemed Leningrad Cowboys Go America “the worst film in the history of cinema, unless you count Sylvester Stallone’s films” (19). In magazine interviews, Kaurismäki gave ludicrous justifications for the film (“my film is based on a cautionary vision of the changes that have taken place in the USSR and in Eastern Europe as well as the growth of migration that followed” (20)) as part of what Peter Von Bagh has called part of the “total performance” (21) of Leningrad Cowboys. After the film became a cult hit across Europe, Leningrad Cowboys also began performing live, further adding to the confusion about their provenance. In 1994, Kaurismäki made a string of black-and-white music videos of the Cowboys followed by two feature-length films. One of these is the documentary, Total Balalaika Show (1994), which records a 1993 concert featuring Leningrad Cowboys alongside Russia’s 100-member Alexandrov Red Army Ensemble. The concert was held in Helsinki’s Senate Square, attended by 70,000 people, and featured the Cowboys performing “Happy Together” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” with the help of the Red Army Choir and a group of women performing traditional Russian folk dances. Then, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) followed the band on another road trip guided by their former manager, who proclaims to be Moses leading them to the Promised Land – which, as it turns out, is Siberia.

As with Calamari Union, the minimalist premise of the Leningrad Cowboys films is part of the joke. It’s already absurd that these men are wandering around Mexico playing accordions in wannabe-Elvis outfits, but it is even more absurd that audiences – particularly the arthouse set – are paying money to watch a movie about them.

Mid-Career Melodramas

In 1991, Aki and Mika Kaurismäki each started their own separate production companies – Sputnik Oy and Marianna Films, respectively – but planned overlapping shooting schedules so that they could share much of the same crew, and continued to use Villealfa to produce films by other Finnish directors. The first film produced by Sputnik Oy was La Vie de bohème (1992), a black-and-white adaptation of the early 19th century Henri Murger novel, which depicts the friendship of three impressively untalented artists, including an artist who paints enormous odes to his pet sheepdog and a musician whose new piano work is a sonata entitled Traffic Jam.

La Vie de bohème was made in Paris with the actors speaking French – even though the majority of the cast was Finnish. As one might expect, this has the effect of line readings that are even more wooden and awkward than is usually the case in Kaurismäki’s films, a quality that must have thrilled him. Throughout La Vie de bohème, the novel’s romanticism is undercut by the ridiculousness of the characters waxing intellectual in their impoverished circumstances, which then makes the few moments of seriousness (such as the final scene, in which Rodolfo’s lover dies) refreshing and surprisingly emotional in contrast.

In 1994 – the same year he released Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses and Total Balalaika Show – Kaurismäki also made Pidä huivista kiini, Tatjana (Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana), a ’60s road comedy about two middle-aged men in a vintage Cadillac (complete with built-in record player) who pick up two women – an Estonian and a Russian – and give them a ride to the Tallinn ferry. The film encapsulates Kaurismäki’s attitudes towards three countries with historically strong presences in Finland: consciousness of Russia’s enormous influence, idealization of Estonia as place to escape into paradise and love of American popular culture.

Kaurismäki tackled an altogether different kind of genre in his silent, black-and-white Juha (1999), adapted from a famous Finnish tragedy written by Juhani Aho in 1911. The story is a classic love triangle, in which the plain wife of a simple-minded farmer falls in love with a smooth-talking stranger from the city. Kaurismäki has a great love for silent cinema and frequently criticizes the excessive dialogue in contemporary films (which comes as no surprise in light of his own close-lipped work), so it seems natural for him to want to make a silent film. As he wrote in the director’s notes for Juha:

We can never again make films like Broken Blossoms [or the Yellow Man and the Girl, D. W. Griffith, 1919], Sunrise[: A Song of Two Humans, F. W. Murnau, 1927], or Queen Kelly [Erich von Stronheim, 1929], because since film started to gamble with mumbling and all that ‘hoochie coochie’ and fancy words, stories have lost their purity, cinema its essence: innocence. (22)

The Loser Trilogy

Drifting Clouds

In the 1990s, Finland began to suffer a severe economic crisis. A major recession hit the northern, industrial part of Finland, leading to several years in which about half a million people were without jobs. Although many of his previous films directly addressed Finland’s floundering economy, when the recession struck Kaurismäki became particularly concerned: “If I didn’t make a film about unemployment now I wouldn’t have the nerve to look at my face in the mirror.” (23) The result was 1996’s Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds), the first film of Kaurismäki’s “Loser Trilogy” (aka “Finland Trilogy”), which, along with the Working-class Trilogy, contains the most representative and important work of his career.

Like the Working-class Trilogy, the films in the Loser Trilogy were minimalist comedies. But, although a few of Kaurismäki’s previous films – most notably The Match Factory Girl – were melodramas, Drifting Clouds and the two films that followed marked a time of refined focus for Kaurismäki, who was now more invested than ever in showing the economic hardships and social obstacles facing working-class Finns with compassion and even seriousness, in a style indebted to the warm humanism of Frank Capra. And, while the world encountered by his characters was bleaker than ever, the cinematography grew even more luminous in response, taking his trademark saturated colours, velvety shadows and glowing lights to dazzling new heights.

Drifting Clouds follows a husband and wife, Lauri (Kari Väänänen) and Ilona (Kati Outinen), who lose their jobs as tram-driver and head waitress. The economic pressures of unemployment lead to a marital crisis. Although all the cards seemed stacked against the couple, a group effort eventually leads to the successful opening of a new eatery, Restaurant Work, and, indeed, Kaurismäki describes Drifting Clouds as a tribute to sisu, or “the peculiarly Finnish quality that translates roughly as perseverance” (24).

The film’s rich colour design recalls Douglas Sirk’s 1950s weepies and helps to fill in the emotional blanks left by the sparse dialogue. For instance, when Lauri and Ilona’s new television set is repossessed, the couple is shown in a long-shot, standing completely still as two men remove the television. They say nothing, but the entire living room is emblazoned in a deep royal blue, with a bright scarlet sofa in the centre. Visually, the image throbs. This, and the many other shots like it, are largely a testament to Kaurismäki’s outstanding cinematographer, Timo Salminen, who has shot every one of his films. Kaurismäki says that he composes the images but gives Salminen complete control over lighting; this division of labour might help to account for the almost magical tension between the down-to-earth settings and the ethereal cinematography that they are rendered in. The æsthetic might vary from one film to another – ranging from the expressionistic chiaroscuro of Hamlet Goes Business to the lyrical natural landscapes in moments of Ariel, and from the cold industrial scenery of The Match Factory Girl to the hallucinatory primary colours of Drifting Clouds – but Salminen’s remarkable range of styles all create a world in which practical reality is visually amplified in some way.

Kaurismäki’s visual and storytelling abilities reached their apex with 2002’s Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past), a love story between two adorably innocent characters set against a grim backdrop of crime and impoverishment. The film, the second in his Loser Trilogy, was met with worldwide acclaim, winning the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and earning an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. (25)

A man (Markku Peltola) arrives via train in an anonymous city and is immediately mugged and beaten. He regains consciousness only to find that he has amnesia and so is forced to start his life anew, forging a makeshift home in a container park and falling in love with the Salvation Army worker who helps him get back on his feet. In Kaurismäki’s words, “I wanted to make a film about homelessness without making it so socially declaring. […] The idea of a man without memory, without a past, made it more like a B movie.” (26)

Kaurismäki paints the bureaucratic government as oppressors of the working class through deadpan caricatures that are very funny, but at the same time frighteningly close to reality, suggesting that the inequality of Finnish society borders on the absurd. What kind of society rewards greed instead of work, the film asks, and forces its most ethical members into crime in order to do what is right when the government does wrong?

The Man Without a Past

A more personal social challenge is confronted by the man’s love interest, Irma (Kati Outinen). Irma has a job, but faces another problem shared by many Finns, employed and unemployed alike: loneliness. In one key scene, Irma changes for bed, neatly hanging her Salvation Army uniform on her otherwise-empty clothes rack, and carefully placing a mat underneath the door crack to shut out the hallway light from the dingy women’s dormitory where she lives. Then, something entirely unexpected happens: she slowly turns her head to look almost directly at the camera, if to say to the audience, “This is what happens to the people you always ignore.”

After this jarring moment, there is a sudden shift in tone: Irma looks down at a small tape recorder on her bedside table and hits Play. The 1950s rock song “Do the Shake”, which instructs listeners to start dancing wildly, starts to play, and Irma proceeds to solemnly remove and fold her bathrobe. Maintaining her poker face, she casually throws the robe to the side, as though the music has inspired her to become somewhat reckless in her usual bedtime routine. She gets under the covers and looks hopefully toward the alarm clock on her nightstand as the song continues to play. This, as much as any single moment, epitomizes that unique co-existence of comedy and tragedy that is at the heart of Kaurismäki’s work.

As “Do the Shake” continues to play, the film cuts to a shot of the man sitting at the waterfront, then to the Helsinki skyline and then to several shots of homeless people sleeping on the streets, transforming “Do the Shake” into a much broader kind of commentary: connecting Irma to our hero as well as to Finland’s homeless population, extending the sympathy we feel toward her to all of the others who come after, and comparing the economic impoverishment of the country to the emotional isolation of one individual.

Despite all this sorrow, the film ultimately conveys an extraordinary hopefulness based on the fundamental goodness of the working class. In the end, the man survives thanks to others living in the container park community: homeless, jobless men and women whose generosity is thrown into greater relief by the fact that they have nothing of their own. This same hopefulness is expressed in their blossoming relationship between Irma and the man, which develops like a schoolyard romance between two Victorian ten-year-olds. After the man walks Irma home one night after work, she thanks him and the man responds by flatly exclaiming, “Look out!” “What?”, Irma asks. “There’s something in your eye”, announces the man, who then slowly leans forward and kisses her lightly on the cheek. Irma lowers her head in shame, and then looks back up at the man: “You stole a kiss.” “Forgive me”, he says, “I’m not a gentleman.” The exchange is hilarious but also remarkably touching – another example of Kaurismäki’s ability to delicately balance irony and sentimentality in his magical, self-contained universe.

With the success of The Man Without a Past, Kaurismäki’s membership in the art cinema Hall of Fame that he had once so mercilessly mocked was fully established. After making short films as part of the Ten Years Older: The Trumpet (2002) and Visions of Europe (2004) omnibuses, “Dogs Have No Hell” and “Bico” respectively, Kaurismäki completed his Loser Trilogy with its final film, Laitakaupungin valot (Lights in the Dusk (2006). Like the two features that came before it, Lights is a working-class melodrama, shot in gorgeously saturated colours, but it is also much more melancholic than any of Kaurismäki’s previous work. Instead of playing comedy and tragedy off of one another, here he veers straight toward tragedy. The jokes are few and far between, and the environment is notably different. We enter the modern era for the first time, complete with highways, cellular phones and even computers – all things that had never before been seen in Kaurismäki-land. But even without the filmmaker’s typical humour, Lights in the Dusk is still moving and visually rich, albeit with a more severe deadpan tone. After the femme fatale, Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), dumps our loser hero Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), Koistinen sits in a restaurant, drinking an entire bottle of liquor as the famous Finnish tango artist Olavi Virta sings: “You will see not a tear / even when my heart is crying […] You will drink the bitter cup of broken dreams.” This song, which Kaurismäki has used more than any other in his films, encapsulates the emotional world of his characters, without them having to say a word.

For the 60th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival, Kaurismäki was one of many prominent art cinema directors invited to make a three-minute film about movie theatres, Chacun son cinéma ou ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s’éteint et que le film commence (2007). Kaurismäki’s contribution, “La Fonderie”, is a gem of simplicity. A group of foundry employees silently finish their shifts, change clothes in the locker room and leave the factory. They file into a movie theatre and sit down to watch the show. A beam of light bursts from the projection booth, throwing the first film ever shown to a public audience – La Sortie des usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory), made by the Lumière Brothers in 1895 – onto the screen. The film consists of a single shot of a crowd of workers excitedly running out of the factory gates at the end of a long day. Kaurismäki’s own workers, in a rare showing of emotion, laugh themselves, as this film – like Kaurismäki’s own – has brought them hope.

Endnotes

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Man Without a Past”, Chicago Sun-Times, Friday June 27 2003.
  2. Peter Cowie, Finnish Cinema (London: The Tantivy Press, 1976: 10).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Jonathan Romney, “‘Which Do I Like? None. All My Films Are Lousy’: Aki Kaurismäki Plays Down His Talent”, Independent on Sunday, Sunday January 19 2003.
  5. Sheila Johnston, “Film Location Report: Action Speaks Louder”, The Independent, Thursday May 3 1990.
  6. Cowie, Finnish Cinema, p. 10.
  7. Ibid.
  8. “Statistics Finland”, general publications, www.stat.fi, 2003, “Statistical Abstract of the United States”, US Census Bureau, www.census.gov/statab/www/, 2002, and “The Statistical Yearbook of the Economic Commission for Europe 2003: Trends in Europe and North America”, United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, www.unece.org/stats/trends/chll.html, 2003.
  9. Aki Kaurismäki: Biography”, Lenin Imports, 2005.
  10. Peter von Bagh, “Finnish Cinema”, in Guide to the Cinema of Sweden and Finland (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000).
  11. Per Olav Hernes, “Aki Kaurismäki Has Been Awarded the Nordic Council Filmprize”, Nordic Council-Nordic Council of Ministers, http://www.norden.org/webb/pressrelease/pressrelease.asp?lang=6&id=797, 29 October 2002.
  12. Hal Erickson, “Aki Kaurismäki”, All Movie Guide, 2005.
  13. Jonathan Romney, “The Kaurismäki Effect”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 7, No. 6 (1997), p. 13.
  14. Ibid, p. 13.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Damon Smith, “Filmmaker Is a Man of Constant Sorrow”, The Boston Globe, Wednesday 20 August 2003, D4.
  17. This quotation is by Manne Ojaniemi and appears at the beginning of the script for I Hired A Contract Killer. (Ibid.)
  18. Peter von Bagh, “The Comedy of Losers”, in Shadows in Paradise: Photographs from the Films by Aki Kaurismäki (Keuruu: Otava Printing Works, 1997), p. 7.
  19. Simon Louvish, “A Tale of Two Memories”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 12, No. 23 (2002), p. 24.
  20. Bagh, “The Comedy of Losers”, p. 16.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Romney, “Last Exit to Helsinki, Film Comment, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2003), pp. 43-6.
  23. Gordon Sander, “Romantic as a Caterpillar”, Financial Times, Saturday 28 December 2002, p. 7.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Kaurismäki did not attend the 2003 Oscar ceremony in protest over the war in Iraq. In a letter to the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he wrote that the United States was “preparing a crime against humanity for the purpose of shameless economic interests”. But according to anonymous sources reportedly close to Kaurismäki, “[he] was never scheduled to attend the Oscars because the director cannot fly long distances without smoking”, so his protest might be best taken with a grain of salt. Ian Mohr, “Oscar Nominee Will Skip Show”, The Hollywood Reporter, Friday 21 March 2003.) Kaurismäki also boycotted the New York Film Festival the previous fall in protest of the U.S. failure to grant Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami a visa to attend the festival. A letter to the festival director read, in part, “Under the circumstances, I, too, am forced to cancel my participation – for if the government of the United States does not want an Iranian, it will hardly have any use for a Finn. We do not even have the oil. But I would like to invite the American secretary of defense [Donald Rumsfeld] to see me in Finland. We could take a walk in the woods and pick mushrooms. That might calm him down.” (Charles Lyons and Jorn Rossing Jenson, “Inside Moves: Kaurismäki Takes a Stand”, Daily Variety, Tuesday 1 October 2002.)
  26. Dave Kehr, “Amnesia, without the Melodrama”, The New York Times, Sunday 6 April 2003, p. 13.

Filmography

Feature Films

Rikos ja rangaistus (Crime and Punishment, 1983)

Calamari Union (1985)

Varjoja paratiisissa (Shadows in Paradise, 1986)

Hamlet liikemaailmassa (Hamlet Goes Business, 1987)

Ariel (1988)

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)

Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö (The Match Factory Girl, 1990)

I Hired a Contract Killer (1990)

La Vie de bohème (1992)

Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana (Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana, 1994)

Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994)

Kauas pilvet karkaavat (Drifting Clouds, 1996)

Juha (1999)

Mies vailla menneisyyttä (The Man Without a Past, 2002)

Laitakaupungin valot (Lights in the Dusk, 2006)

Documentaries

Saimaa-ilmiö (Saimaa Gesture, 1981)

Total Balalaika Show (1994)

Short Films

Rocky VI (1986)

Thru the Wire (1987)

Rich Little Bitch (1987)

L.A. Woman (1987)

Those Were The Days (1991)

These Boots (1992)

Välittäjä (Employment Agent, 1996)

“Dogs Have No Hell” (2002) – episode in the collaborative film, Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet

“Bico” (2004) – episode in the collaborative film, Visions of Europe

“La Fonderie” (2007) – episode in the collaborative film, Chacun son cinéma ou ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s’éteint et que le film commence

Films for Television

Likaiset kädet (You Filthy Hand, 1989)

*Please note: the above is strictly a filmography for Kaurismäki as a director. He has worked on dozens of other films as a writer, producer, actor, etc. For more information on his filmography in these other capacities, please see his page on IMDB (linked to below).

Select Bibliography

Michael Atkinson, “The Finnish Line”, Village Voice, Tuesday 15 April 2003, p. 116.

—–, “Whisky and Wry: Kaurismäki Goes America”, Village Voice, Tuesday 15 July 2003, p. 112.

Peter von Bagh, “The Comedy of Losers”, in Shadows in Paradise: Photographs from the Films by Aki Kaurismäki (Keuruu: Otava Printing Works, 1997).

—–, “Finnish Cinema”, in Guide to the Cinema of Sweden and Finland (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000).

Stephanie Billen, “Dislocations of a Sentimental Man”, The Times, Thursday 14 February 1991.

Celestine Bohlen, “One Visa Problem Costs a Festival Two Filmmakers”, The New York Times, Tuesday 1 October 2002.

Roger Connah, K/K: A Couple of Finns and Some Donald Ducks: Cinema in Society (Helsinki: VAPK Pub., 1991).

Peter Cowie, Finnish Cinema (London: The Tantivy Press, 1976).

Rob Edelman, “Aki Kaurismäki”, in Directors, pp. 505-7.

Hal Erickson, “Aki Kaurismäki”, All Movie Guide, www.allmovie.com, 2005.

William Fisher, “Aki Kaurismäki Goes Business”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 58, No. 4 (1989), pp. 252-4.

Adam Hartzell, “It’s Cold out There: Thoughts on Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana”, The Film Journal, Vol. 1, No. 6 (2003).

Per Olav Hernes, “Aki Kaurismäki Has Been Awarded the Nordic Council Filmprize”, Nordic Council–Nordic Council of Ministers, http://www.norden.org/webb/pressrelease/pressrelease.asp?lang=6&id=797, 29 October 2002.

Charles Lyons Jensen and Jorn Rossing, “Inside Moves: Kaurismäki Takes a Stand”, Daily Variety, Tuesday 1 October 2002, p. 5.

Sheila Johnston, “Film Location Report: Action Speaks Louder”, The Independent, Thursday 3 May 1990, p. 17.

—–, “Of Fins and Finns; the Little Mermaid, the Match Factory, Silent Scream, the Salute of the Jugger”, The Independent, Thursday 18 October 1990, p. 15.

Aki Kaurismäki, “Robert Bresson – a Wolf”, in James Quandt (Ed.), Robert Bresson (Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 1998), pp. 561-2.

Dave Kehr, “Amnesia, without the Melodrama”, The New York Times, Sunday 6 April 2003, p. 13.

Simon Louvish, “A Tale of Two Memories”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 12, No. 23 (2002), pp. 24-6.

Ian Mohr, “Oscar Nominee Will Skip Show”, The Hollywood Reporter, Friday 21 March 2003.

Andrew Nestingen, “Why Nation? Globalization and National Culture in Finland, 1980-2001”, Ph.D, University of Washington, 2001.

Erich Mari Remarque, Shadows in Paradise: Photographs from the Films by Aki Kaurismäki (Keuruu: Otava Printing Works, 1997).

Jonathan Romney, “The Kaurismäki Effect”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 7, No. 6 (1997), pp. 10-14.

—–, “Last Exit to Helsinki”, Film Comment, Vol. 39, No. 2 (2003), pp. 43-6.

—–, “‘Which Do I Like? None. All My Films Are Lousy’: Aki Kaurismäki Plays Down His Talent”, Independent on Sunday, Sunday January 19 2003, p. 7.

Gordon Sander, “Romantic as a Caterpillar”, Financial Times, Saturday 28 December 2002, p. 7.

Damon Smith, “Filmmaker Is a Man of Constant Sorrow”, The Boston Globe, Wednesday 20 August 2003, D4.

Andrew Spooner, “Where the Stars Don’t Come Out: The Midnight Sun Film Festival Is All About Tangos, Tears, and Storytelling”, The Independent, Friday 30 June 2000, p. 11.

John Whitley, “Film Makers on Film: Aki Kaurismäki on Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934)”, The Daily Telegraph, Sunday 18 January 2003, p. 14.

Aki Kaurismäki: Biography”, Lenin Imports, 2005.

Aki Kaurismäki named as New Academician of Art”, YLE, 22 May 2008.

“Finland’s Buster Keaton. Don’t Say a Word”, The Economist, 17 January 1998, p. 17.

Web Resources

Siunattu teknologia – The Kaurismäki Web Site

Orimattilan Kirjasto – Aki Kaurismäki presented by Orimattila Town Library

IMDB biography

IMDB main page

Wikipedia page

 

About The Author

Lana Wilson is the Film Programmer for the Great Neck Arts Center and its Furman Film Series. She also handles film programming, publications, and publicity for Performa, the New York biennial of new visual art performance.