The Monthly Cinema and Literature magazine in its 61 edition July – August, 2017, reviews the works of the renowned Finnish director, Aki Kaurismaki in 37 pages. This review consists of interviews and translation of some foreign critics as well as a number of Iranian film experts and critics.
Kaurismaki’s cinema is always the meeting point of social realism and tender humanism. In his humanistic films, parody is one of the signs of this self-awareness. Characters fighting their fate, in Kaurismaki’s works create comical situations. Rhythms of his films closely follow the life rhythm of the social losers, meaning lethargy and inertia.
The silence governing human relations. The stone cold faces of Kaurismaki’s protagonists are traceable in the sad and hollow life of the workers. They want to flee this despair and yet are its captive. Their slavery is equal to imprisonment. Kaurismaki’s motif is not failure, instead, he creates a situation that can lead to victory, but one that people show no attempt or action to achieve.
Navid Pourmohammadreza, Independent Journalist and Film Critic takes a short trip to past and present cinema of Kaurismaki. Navid had heard in the past that a single frame from Aki Kaurismaki’s work will suffice if you want to know his world.
He says, “The rules and principles of Kaurismaki have never been in more contrast to the laws of physics, in the toing and froing of the internal and external, the trade-off between the world realities and the real cinematic possibilities.”
Manager of the Cinema and Literature magazine, Homayoon Khosravi-Dehkardi In reviewing works of Kaurismaki puts into perspective the geography and the landscape of Finland as the harsh backdrop of Kaurismaki’s movies and highlights the Director’s life during and post Russian crises as the influencers of his style. A colourful account of events, history and life of the Finns from the 19th century to modern day is painted that gives insight into the challenges of the new film directors in their endeavours.
In his review, Homayoon, himself, creates a picture of how Kaurismaki’s work came to be and develop as the result of his childhood, travels, and the economic and political environment that inspired his works. Most of his works are taken on the road showing empty and cold lands of Finland in 1980s. He highlights the corruption of the governments and vulnerabilities of people. “This drifting, ties Kaurismaki’s characters to transient stations; to hostels, bars, restaurants, supermarkets and different working places, to cinema halls, to the cloakrooms and in one word to “no place”.
Hootan Zangenepoor, author, critic and film maker in reviewing Aki’s works writes that
Kaurismaki’s cinema goes directly to the most reduced people of a modern and advanced society and tells not just the story of their distressing lives but their actual life stories such as migration, unemployment, loss of identity and lack of motivation. The picture Kaurismaki paints is not the representation of the society’s disillusioned people but rather the reasons that have led their actions to degradation.
Amir Hossein Siyadat, Film critic, highlights the road scenes in Kaurismaki’s films, the path represents evolvement; roads that do not necessary arrive at a defined destination. The roads themselves are the destination. Kaurismaki’s characters are drifters with no fixed or certain residence and their picture with a suitcase is a motif familiar in Kaurismaki’s films.
The constant shift between places gives a sense of transience to his works, as a result, the little people have to make do with small and not lasting happiness, like a night out in cheap cafes, drinking, smoking and listening to pop music, a music that is made fast and disappears fast. To the weary working-class, the (rock/pop) club becomes a temple, where music bears the weight of their weariness, their disgust and their paralyzing passivity.
Ramin Alaei, film critic, draws parallels between Kaurismaki and such greats as Loachs who in coming upon writers like Kafka and Becket, takes the writer out of critic realist domain and accuses them of subjectivism and annoying passivity in lieu of the social class. But the other members of the second group either by giving a proper sample of the contemporary life situation have gone towards the writers’ works or for thinking literally - literature, not as a mean to reshow the physical reality or to formulate pre-existing concept and the new effects but a body to give meaning to.
Geography of Alienation
By Homayoun Khosravi Dehkordi, Owner and Manager of the Cinema and Literature Magazin and film critic
Aki Kaurismaki in the Film “Take care of your scarf, Tatiana” portrays characters’ inability to find life that purpose leads to their demise. The theme of death from the 4th movement of Symphony No. 6 of Tchaikovsky (Symphony Pathétique) accompanies the character on his way back to his depressing home to his mother. This theme can be seen in most of Aki’s Kaurismaki’s works. The characters walking along the Volga River, are invited to disentangle themselves from life’s misery with the music of Helena Siltala (1930), Henry Theel (1917-1989) and others. This dark yet philanthropic nature is unique to Kaurismaki’s films and has its roots in his country, his interests and life.
Finland and Helsinki hold an independent characteristic in Kaurismaki’s movies and in particular the emotionless-faces portrayed by protagonists is attributed to culture, history and the Finnish society.
Apollo Atelier, the first Finnish Film Production Company, was established in 1906 and in addition to short documentary films, the Company released “the Traffickers” by Teuvo Puro in 1907. Four years later, “Sylvi” was made by the same director. It was the first long Finnish feature film based on a play by Minna Canth which was screened in 1913. Until 1916, the Russian officials had prohibited Finland from making movies. A couple of companies in Helsinki and a small studio in Tampere were established. The building of one of these studios was constructed by Erik Estlander. The building and its roof were made of glass and was completed in 1916. During these years, the film industry encountered numerous obstacles such as developing lab shortage, as a result of which, films that were made during that time are no longer available. Out of all those films made before 1920, only 15 minutes of “Sylvi” and a few pictures from “the Traffickers” is left. In the following years until the day Finland got its independence in 1918 there was no special activity in the film industry in Finland. It’s good to know that the Russians created the earliest censorship system in Finland before the October Revolution. After her independence, Finland got involved in the civil war between the reds and the whites and it was only in 1919 when the first powerful Finnish company “the Finland Film” was established by Erkki Karu. A director himself he should be recognized as the founder of film industry in Finland. He had produced a number of films including “the Rural Sandal Makers” in 1923 which is one of the masterpieces of the silent movies era. Many consider this film to be the most important comedy folklore in Finland second to Alexis Keidi of Kurt Jager. Other works that were categorized as comic and folkloric were made by Karu and the Finland Film.
In Finland there were many other important film directors; Carl Von Haartman and Teuvo Puro known for films such as “Demon’s Grimaces” by Puro (1927), “Great Victory” by Haartman (1927) that appeared during the last years of the silent movies. Out of the 35 films made in the 1920s, Finland Film was responsible for the making of over 22 of them. During this period many other companies were established but short lived. The Comedy Film is one of them that was founded by Kurt Jager, the German cameraman. This studio which was affiliated with Jufa, was the most important film union in Germany and it helped to monopolize distribution of films made by Finland Film. Finland Film benefited from its national identity and managed to drive out its competitors.
The first sound film was made in Lahin Film Studio in Turku in 1931; “Say it in Finnish” was directed by Yrjö Nyber, who was also CEO at this film company. Finland Film made its first sound movies in 1931; “Dressed like Adam” and “A Bit like Eve” which were based on a play written by Agapetus. During the same year, another film was directed by Karu; “The Wood Cutter Bride” that is the first real sound movie in the cinema of Finland. In 1933, Karu was forced to resign from Finland Film and soon after he established the Finland Film Industries known as SF. After making a few comedies he started his real competition with the Finland Film. The period from 1933 until the beginning of WWII, is considered the Golden Age of Finnish cinema because of the competition between the companies and also studio systems that were similar to those in Hollywood.
In Finland Film, Risto Orko replaced Karu and stayed in this position until 1990. Valentin Vaala after his company Finikia, went bankrupt, moved to Finland Film and made a number of successful comedies. Vaala was known for his skill in making melodrama and rustic genres. After Karu’s death, Tuivo Sarka became the Manager of Finland Film Industries (SF) but in 1965 this company also went bankrupt. He made nearly 200 films and directed more than 50 of them himself. During the war with the Soviet, there were farce films made against the Soviets but were taken away after the reconciliation between the two countries.
In the post war period until 1960s, cinema of Finland together with the rest of the world started the new wave. There was not a considerable activity in the Finland Cinema. Of this period Edvin Laine (1905-1989) is known for making movies such as “the Conquering Shadows” in 1945 and the “Unknown Soldier” in 1955.
Life and Work of Aki Kaurismaki
Born into a middle class family on April 4th, 1957, Orimattila, north of Helsinki, Aki was the third of four children in the family. His father Jorma Kaurismaki (1931-1991) worked in the finance department of a textile company. His mother Leena Kaurismaki was trained as a cosmetologist. The family travelled and moved several times. At first, they travelled from Orimattila to Lahti where he went to school and then to Toijala and Kuunsankoski 40 km of Tampere and later 100s of km north west to the Kankaanpää region where Aki finished elementary school. In the 1960s some Finns were granted the opportunity to travel abroad which the Kaurismakis took advantage of. The first trip was a summer spent in Leningrad and Odessa. This trip was made during the Soviet time and is considered to be an important period in the life of Aki Kaurismaki. The second trip was to Spain.
The Kaurismaki brothers were film watchers and watched at least 5 or 6 movies a day. During this time (1970s) they became interested in films by famous cinema giants such as Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné and Jean Vigo and admired cinema noir. Later on, Mika continued studying filmmaking. Aki following his brother applied for cinema school in Munich in 1977 but did not pass the interview and was told that it was due to his cynical and negative approach. Aki studied media science at a university in Tampere, but soon realized that it would be best to experience the real life and for a while worked as a kitchen hand in a restaurant and then as a postman. In 1980 he joined his brother who was working in cinema.
They made their first film “The Liar” in 1981. Aki wrote the screenplay and Mika produced and directed it. The film was a success. The two brothers then launched the Villealfa Film Production Company where together they made movies. Their second film, “The Worthless” was made in 1982. Aki Kaurismaki is most famous for his extraordinary talent in using his impressions from life. He learnt a lot from his brother and he used his learnings in films that were less commercial.
In 1983, Aki finally made his first film which was a modern adaptation of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. There have been almost 30 adaptations of the novel and Aki’s was about Helsinki of the 1980s. The character of the film is a law student who gives up studies and works in the city’s slaughter house. In fact he evokes the character of Raskolnikov.
New Wave in Cinema of Finland
In the 1960s, the film industry faced a major crisis. The whole process of film making from choosing the subject, story, film style and even production, investment and screening, all were revolutionized globally. Keeping pace with Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson in Britain, Miloš Forman and Jiří Menzel, Roman Polanski and Yeri Eskolmovski in Poland, Miklós Jancsó, András Kovács and Istavan Szabo in Hungary, Doshan Makayof and Aleksandar Petrović in Yugoslavia, Bernando Bertulluci, Marko Beloqui, Armano Olmi, Pier Pazolini and Francesca Rozi in Italy, Alexander Kellogg, Folker Shelendrof, Riner Verner Fasbinder and Weim Vandress in Germany, Yasujiro Ozu, Keni Mizo Gooshi, Kir Korosava, Shohi Imamura, Nagisa Oshima in Japan, Dariush Merjouei, Naser Taghvaei and Masoud Kimiaie in Iran and other different artists in India, Satyajit Ray, USA (Cinema boys, Scorsese, Cappola and .. ) Latin America (Walter Salles, Iñárritu and … a different cinema emerged and set the stage for a new way of storytelling without boundaries set on by conventions or traditions.
Finland Film, and Finland Film Industries (SF) and many other small companies were gradually closed down. Those like Risto Jarva (1934-1977), Mikko Niskanen (1929-1990), Ravni Molberg (1929-2007), Jorn Dorner (1933 Swedish) and … made films inspired by French and Italian film makers. The Finnish black comedy that carried on to Aki Kaurismaki was born in this period.
The global movement, the new wave, that changed the structural paradigms in the 60s showed its fundamental impact on the Finnish Cinema of the 80s. The conventional film making companies were closed down and film makers like Edvin Laine and Miko Niskanen, made their last films. All of a sudden in the 80s, more than 30 films were made by first-time directors. Kaurismaki brothers were amongst the most important of these film makers. They are considered the most influential film makers of this period who breathed a new life into the Finnish cinema. Mika mostly showed the aimlessness of the middle class urban society of Finland. He was more skilled in Hollywood style storytelling. The “Liar” written in 1981 by Aki and directed by Miko brought great success to the two brothers. They started the Villealfa Company which is referred to the Villealfa of Jean Luke Godard as a symbol of the French new wave influence on them. By making low budget movies and keeping a close and critical eye on the urban middle class life, they managed to turn the company into one of the three largest film companies in Finland, and created the 5 day Midnight Sun Film Festival in association.
Arrival of the 90s saw the emergence of more film makers in Finland. Up until early 80s the artistic society had a negative view of the commercial cinema in Finland, which meant the industry was not profitable. This trend gradually changed from mid-80s. Government provided assistance to those who made more popular films that could attract more people to the cinemas. Cinema was not immune to the economic crisis of the 90s, but the situation improved slowly towards the end of the decade. The first decade of the new century saw many film makers who had been born in the 60s and 70s make films that had won awards.
In the 2010s, the Finnish cinema produced 20 to 25 long feature films. In 2016 three highest viewed movies in Finland were produced by Finnish film companies which are promising.
Finnish cinema like many other countries is moving towards a global form, however, due to the two polar histories of the second half of the century, i.e. the former Soviet socialism and the capitalistic of the latter years, a more bitter tone is reflected in the Finnish films of that era. The taciturn Finns and their special humor in the cinema of their country, at least from the 60s to the 2000 was quite distinct and the impact of the economic crises of the 90s can be seen in Finnish works. Aki Kaurismaki’s unique style is the trademark of this cinema, a cinema that is better, humourous and yet humanistic.
While Kaurismaki’s cinema and his humanistic context is deep and meaningful, more effort to make more popular films needs to be made. Kaurismaki in his movies like Crime and Punishment implicitly humiliates the aura of holiness that surrounds literary adaptations. In his other adapted films he delicately makes absurd stories that ridicule the intellectual and foolish views of those idolizing masters such as Bergman or Antonioni. This reminds us of the views of Godard and Francois Truffaut about the quality of conventional films which is a step forward towards promoting the artistic cinema. In Hamlet Goes on Business (1987) Kaurismaki’s lonely character is like an insect that is chopped by ax in the Crimes and Punishment. Going against the board of directors, he turns his Hamlet into a black comedy. As if by deploying these clumsy, lonely and defenseless characters into different literary works, Kaurismaki, humiliates them and dispatches them to a war with the monsters of capitalistic society, and at times sends them back to their grave. The Gypsy Life inspired by a novel with the same title inspired Puccini also and The Last Supper Painting carry subtle hints to Juck Perevor(?) and Charl Boulder and the Godard and Scorsese cinemas.
Kaurismaki’ proletariat trilogy, the Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and the Match Factory Girl (1990) are again stories of lonely and defenseless characters in search of a lasting love and work, when the characters find it attainable, they realize that they can only be achieved in a faraway place. Kaurismaki’s road movies are often similar to Shadows in Paradise inspired by road movies of Jim Jarmusch. He uses rock music as general soundtrack in this film. Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana, and Leningrad Cowboys Go to America both made in 1994, show Kaurismaki’s interest in registering traveller-like story of the film by using soundtrack.
The Man without a Past, 2002 and the Sunset Tours, 2006 are also about his lonely and vulnerable characters in the city of Helsinki and as usual the scenery plays a unique role in the story.
From the second part of the 2000, Kaurismaki decided to make a trilogy with the context of immigration. The first of that is L’Havre made in 2011 and the second, The Other side of Hope in 2016 which screened in different countries. Aki has announced that he has no intention of making the third film.
Right now the eldest brother Mika has migrated to Brazil and Aki who has always made films in Finland, like other Finn Film makers works in a cinema that is under the dominance of Finikino, Film Organization in Finland. This organization supervises all the films, production, in particular distribution and releasing of movies in Finland. The sponsor of this Organization is the Union Bank of Finland. In the best case scenario, it can be said that Finikino supports films that tackle subjects of interest to the government and the bank.
Characteristic features and film making style
The Aki brothers address risk of corruption by the Swedes and Americans and vulnerability of the people in Finnish society. Aki especially with his subtle humour expresses the weakness of part of the society on one side and the wickedness of people on the other, and with a Chekov like observation makes his audience to look inward. The influence of French and German film makers like Jean Pierre Melville and Weim Vandress and Robert Bresson in Aki’s films is obvious. The interchangeability of subjects and at times actors between Jarmusch and Aki Kaurismaki in many of their works such as in Night on Earth of Jarmusch or Leningrad Cowboys Go to America of Kaurismaki can be seen.
He’s written, directed, produced and compiled different films. His view on life’s experience is what forms his films. Although he is very skilled in writing screenplay and has written many of his brother’s films, for him, the script is generally formed on set. The dim lights and colours can affect the script. Unlike many of the great filmmakers, the actors and the dialogue are last on Aki’s list of priorities. The script draft is only finalized after the lighting tests. During the filming, Aki avoids many shootings and even does not believe in numerous and tiresome rehearsals. The taciturn, apathetic faces has turned into Kaurismaki’s signature and characterizing features of his works. Most of his works are taken on the road showing empty and cold lands of Finland of the 1980s. The space and scenes in his works never end in description and creation of lyrical moments but as the matter of fact, he often continues showing his protagonist inability to make these connections. His movies are often filmed by Salminen.
More than his talent in project management and the use of his tools of trade, we owe Kaurismaki’s art to his accurate, astute observation and ingenious, his integrity and his compassion for people and his surrounding society. This is perhaps the essence of great artists and an important lesson to be learnt by newcomers to art.
Lost in the No Man Land - A glance at the conception of passivity in Aki Kaurismaki’s Cinema
Amir Hossein Siyadat, Film critic
The man loses his memory after he’s hit on the head. His documents are lost and no one knows his identity. He’s lost and lonely in the true definition of the words. He has no place to live and no work to make a living. His world has gone back to square one. He should start afresh. He gets a room in the shantytown at the margin of the city, with the basics, fridge, picnic stove, a few chairs, a bench and a music box! The only thing missing is a job which soon comes along even if it is a low job. The man is recognizable to a few people, even though he is a stranger to the people around. His stereotype persona is identifiable in Kaurismaki’s previous films even if he has forgotten his past.
Most of Kaurismaki’s protagonists are either like the man without a past, have lost everything, are often lonely and jobless or have nothing to lose. We can remember them in their solitude in their humble rooms and basic furniture. They all are either at the end of their rope or on the verge of the unknown, forced to start afresh. We know as much about their past as we do of the “Man without a Past”. They have no affection for their past and live in the present, in a barren world without roots or traditions. As if they have come from a no man’s land, and even though they have nowhere to go, they still dream of moving to a liberating land. Kaurismaki’s dark comedy is often created through the conflict between these drifting and vulnerable groups with that of everyday people.
People failing at finding or keeping jobs, places to live or their inability to make connections and communicate. At times even failing to materialize as simple a wish as dining at a restaurant, where for a moment they may pretend to belong to a higher social class (people’s interactions with restaurant staff is a familiar scene in his cinema.)
His protagonists are void of any heroism and have no special talent to be proud of. And even though Kaurismaki tries to maintain his distance with his characters, his empathy is noticeable. In scenes such as the closing night of a bankrupted restaurant in the Drifting Clouds, there is an effective visual interpretation; customers in a happy frame, connected, singing and dancing and in the opposite frame stand the unemployed workers, alone, quiet and confused, witnessing. The bitter smiles in Kaurismaki’s world come from this type of reversal of familiar relationships and teachings. A stratum that once had the dream of changing the world is now content with the minimum! He is a total loser. Kaurismaki portrays a lethargic period of desirelessness.
Crime and Punishment, Shadows in Paradise, Ariel and the Match Factory Girl are all documentary-like movies starting from labourers’ spaces, perhaps with the intention of preparing for an endless silence that would be heard to the end. The silence governing human relations. The stone cold faces of Kaurismaki’s protagonists are traceable in the sad and hollow life of the workers. They want to flee this despair and yet are its captive. Their slavery is equal to imprisonment. Because despite being fed up with their endless circle of labours’ life, they have no way out. The motifs, the machinery on the factory floor where Ariel works and the workers’ lodge, mirror her conditions after release from prison; they draw strong parallels to the working condition of Taisto’s fiancée, at the slaughterhouse where he works. It draws similarities between the dull prison days and every day working life.
By elaborating on the prison function in the Crime and Punishment and the Match Factory Girl regardless of the style elements, one can trace similarities with the dialogues with Bresson. We won’t be wrong to draw parallels between the scenes of Eva and Rahikainen meeting and that of Michael & Jean meeting at the closing scene of the “Pickpocket”. (That is if we consider this work a response to Dostoyevsky’s novel rather than an adaptation of his work)
Although one can make assumptions about Rahikainen’s motivation for murder, he insists that he did not commit the crime with the intention of taking revenge. He says that he killed the guy because the guy disgusted him. He is a simple labourer whose life consists of going to the slaughterhouse and back home, a worthless Sizief-like grind.
There is no sign of remorse or guilt or fear of being caught that can be traced during the interrogation nor is there any anxiety noticed in Raskolniko when Eva enters the crime scene.
He is more similar to Meursault’s Stranger, because it is neither good nor bad, it is neither moral and nor immoral. His crime is out of despair, it is not driven from seeking purpose or human enlightenment or prosperity of mankind. His way is the continuation of the road that Camus portrays of the rebellious man. The last word of Rahikainen in the final scene of his meeting with Eva, explicitly demonstrates this absurdity “we all die and there is no heaven waiting”. He asks Eva not to wait for him. His world is far darker for an earthly love to lighten (like the light in the life of Raskolniko or Michel) or to absolve his sins. Raskolniko is devout and committed to morality and this causes him not to end his rage. The final dialogue of Rahikainen has a prophetic nature and indicates a potential and hysterical outrage. He says that “killing man is not important and he wanted to kill a principle (a notion, an idea)”. The temptation of sin for Raskolniko and Michel is for the fact that they believe wise and able people may disobey if they see fit. But Raihikainen’s belief in this principle is uttered from behind the bars where least is expected. Kaurismaki’s prison is openly void of religion and moral implications and suffering is no longer sacred. Rahikainen at the end is not remorseful but seems far more dangerous than before.
He ends up where the Match Factory Girl ends up and although its title immediately evokes Hans Christian Anderson’s famous story, in comparison with the 19th Century poverty of the match selling girl, there are more unknown elements to understand the darkness surrounding the industrial world in which the Match Factory Girl lives. Times have changed and it is not palpable that a girl should perish in the streets because of her unsold matches, nevertheless it remains a reminder, like the Danish story, that the world is as cruel as ever, perhaps even crueller than before; what kills man is no longer the winter cold, but the cold of human relationships and the industrial life.
The opening three minutes of the film is highlighting the automatic machineries in the match factory in production and packaging, there is no sign of man until the hands controlling the machines come into the frame, Iris’ hands.
People in the film never laugh. In the 3 member family of Iris, no kind moments are formed. TV constantly broadcasts war, genocide and famine while Iris’ mother and step-father are dozing in front of the TV. They are desensitized. Life goes by and like the unstoppable production of matches crushes Iris under its cogwheel. Iris’ tears in the cinema while watching the Marx Brothers (where we can only hear the sound) could be the result of the sorrowful distance that she feels between herself and Grucho, a comedian who doesn’t give a damn about the world and is able to mock everybody with his sharp tongue. Iris without pride and full of self-demeaning complex is a person of submission and acceptance and unlike Grucho, she hates herself to the degree that she wishes she were dead. The match selling girl in the Danish story was also craving her death and on one Christmas Eve, death comes to her like a pleasant dream.
Iris however, projects her death wish outwards, she aims the arrow first from her body to her soul and then aims it at others. The killing spree begins. This outrage is the destructive aspect of her passivity. In the final shot, when the police come to the factory to arrest her she is not surprised and does not resist. There is nothing awaiting her outside and the punishment, whatever it is, compared to the bitterness she has endured so far is nothing. Thus she goes voluntarily with the police so that she would commit her postponed suicide. They take Iris away but we see the workers remain working as if nothing has happened. Kaurismaki’s world is such; cold and dark. His sky is more silent than his people.
This is perhaps the most poignant point that he makes, he wants to remind us of Bresson. Even though in his later works, the bitterness does not cry loud as much as these two killing films, instead he attempts to thin the sorrow with music and humour.
Characters fighting their fate, in Kaurismaki’s works, create comical situations. We recall his characters having endless bad luck. In I Hired a Contract Killer, Henry falls in love with a girl after he decides to take his life but is in constant run from the hitman he has hired! In Shadows of Paradise, Nikander’s colleague decides to leave his street sweeping job to start his own business, but has a cardiac arrest and dies among the garbage.
In Ariel, fate decides Taisto’s way to work one day and he faces the robbers. In Drifting Clouds, the Lauri is randomly chosen as one of the workers to be laid off. IIona loses hers when the restaurant is sold off. Both struggle to find a job but with no avail and each time they encounter an obstacle. With such puppet like life, to talk about stability and goal is practically a joke. The key word of Kaurismaki’s films is the pathway and not destination.
For the weary people of the mundane working life, the path represents evolvement; roads that do not necessary arrive at a defined destination. The roads themselves are the destination. Kaurismaki’s characters are drifters with no fixed or certain residence and their picture with a suitcase is a motif familiar in Kaurismaki’s films. All are travellers even when there is practically no journey. In the fully urban space, the women (Gypsy Life or the Shadows in Paradise), always return to their men every time they leave them, they come back with their tail between their legs because they have no better place to be.
In most cases, people can cut off ties with their hometown and take the road to a different geography (Ariel and the Shadows in Paradise), but is this considered a happy ending for them? How could we be certain that it won’t turn out to be the same for them wherever they go?
This drifting, ties Kaurismaki’s characters to transient stations; To hostels, bars, restaurants, supermarkets and different working places, to cinema halls, to the cloakrooms and in one word to “no place”.
The constant shift between places gives a sense of transience to his works, as a result, the little people have to make do with small and not lasting happiness. To them, happiness is a night out in cheap cafes, drinking, smoking and listening to pop music, a music that is made fast and disappears fast. To the weary working-class, the (rock/pop) club becomes a temple, where music bears the weight of their weariness, their disgust and their paralyzing passivity. Radios, and stereos, become not only life essentials, but rather the ever-present sacred instrument to the tiresome isolation of Kaurismaki’s characters, instruments that can change the rhythm of their lives albeit momentarily.
The passivity of the weary characters in the frozen spaces in Kaurismaki’s static frames has become heavier, his restrictive method in directing them portrays them as soulless statues, thus constant reminders of loneliness. His minimalistic style, short dialogues and plain scenes indicates his frugality in connecting compassionately with his low-life characters and is in line with his deliberate attempt to keep his distance with reality. This deliberate distance is more evident in his more recent works such as L’Havre, the cinematography of which has become so abstract that one can hardly notice a trace of his neorealist concerns that he used to demonstrate in his earlier films.
It is not difficult to notice that Kaurismaki has become more gentle from Crime and Punishment to his L’Havre. He once said even though he plans to give his films a sombre ending, he ends up feeling sorry for his characters and changes things to give his films a happy ending. Thus, it is not surprising that he calls the Drifting Clouds a combination of the Bicycle Thief and what a Wonderful World of Kapra. He needs Kapra to beautify the outside reality and to take away the coarseness of neorealism and to lean towards the colourful dreamy animation.
What we see at the end of the Drifting Clouds does not comply with the given data of the film up to that point. The staff that have been laid off, with no prospects, after all the frustrations, are gathered together at the request of the owner to open a new restaurant, and it is only with their participation that the new restaurant can flourish. A collective dream materializes and the drama takes a new pleasant turn, a Cinderella-like happy ending (like A Pocket Full of Miracle.) Similarly, L’Havre has a fairy tale ending. The kind-hearted people hand in hand save an immigrant boy from the claws of the discriminating law and make him reach his destination.
Everything, from the course of events and the cartoon-like cast of the characters to the stylized sceneries and the playing with light and colours all attempt to create a “true make-believe” story that wants to confront an “obvious reality” and to stage an exaggerated happy-ending. So happy that it cannot be said with certainty whether it is a real happy ending or a mock happy ending.
The ending of Shadows in Paradise is similar. Nikander suddenly with an unprecedented courage and determination goes to the store where Ilona works in order to take her with him to a better land. Everything from the dialogues to the interactions between the characters has a comical appearance and the film becomes an apparent break from the usual. As if the sullen Kaurismaki of the “Match Factory Girl” has decided to make the transition to the cheerful Kaurismaki of the “Leningrad Cowboys Go to America” and the “Calamari Union”. From this angle, the ending of Kaurismaki is similar and yet different to the happy endings of Kapra. It is similar because like in What a Wonderful World, there is a godlike intervention changing the destiny of mankind and carrying him to a pleasant situation is evident. And it is different because it emphasizes that it is just a film. Kaurismaki’s happy endings unlike that of Kapra’s are more comforting than optimistic, his happy endings are bitter! If in the world of Kapra, angels can be sent to earth to save mankind, in the earthly world of Kaurismaki, men do not get their answers from heaven but from the camera, from art and its pleasant lies. Therefore, these happy endings like the temporary and non-lasting happiness for the protagonists of Kaurismaki have a non-lasting nature, like drinking, transient and untrue and Kaurismaki’s sullen face can be seen beyond them.
Let us return to the starting point of the Man without a Past in order to further open the cinematography aspect of the film and then to wrap it up; the camera pauses on the electrocardiogram signals stating that the heart of the body that is abandoned on the hospital bed has stopped beating. This motionless corpse is body of a lonely, helpless and without identity man. A man with no one waiting for him, therefore it could be a raw material for Kaurismaki’s film. When nothing can be done by the doctors, one can expect cinematic miracle. With one gesture from the director, dead can become alive. Kaurismaki can talk to him in an abstract familiar ambiance, about a semi utopian classless atmosphere; the life story of a margin dweller in a common gypsy-like in a small room with a boring job and little happiness, but of course caught up in massive bureaucracy similar to those that exist in the Light in Dusk or the Drifting Clouds. As soon as the man feels comfortable in this unfamiliar situation, another situation calls him, his past life. With his identity clear again he has to pack his bag and return to its real life where he has a name, a roof over his head and a wife. This is a movement from the margin to the context, a relief from the skeleton of name and ID from an abstract world to a concrete world, a world that is no longer like Kaurismaki cinema. From this perspective, the man’s meeting with his past wife can be considered as the confrontation of two types of cinema, like a film within a film, meeting between the ex-wife and his lover from one galaxy and the man without a past from another. Man asks his ex-wife; “did we argue a lot?” Perhaps, this is a dual question from the past history of the cinema and a cinema based on action even in the form of melodrama! Anyhow the love triangle in its usual tradition and concept is so old for Kaurismaki to retell in a film such as Juha, to leave aside his familiar methods to picture it by closely observing the grammar of the silent expressionistic cinema. At a gesture by the rival, the memory-less man leaves the house with her. From the frown formed on the forehead of the rival, one can see that the intention is a “duel”. Do we have to fight now? For this proposition, regardless of an explicit and primary implication, one can imagine a distant detection, meaning that the person the rival addresses, in addition to the memoryless man, is the stereotypical forms of melodrama. Passivity of the memoryless man to this question strangely turns the potential action scene for the rival to an inner conflict.
The memoryless character of the passive cinema says goodbye to the rival, wife, home and his past and by returning to the shantytown, to embrace all the familiar gypsy soul of the Kaurismaki’s world. He returns to the nameless and undetermined ambiance, to the world of short happiness and temporary stations, to the no-where. He sits in the usual dark and gloomy bars in order to submerge himself in music, and so like all Kaurismaki’s characters, to experience loneliness amongst other lonely people.
A short trip to past and present cinema of Kaurismaki
Together with the Man without a Past
Navid Pourmohamadreza, Independent Journalist and Film Critic
From the very first moment, from the time the cigarette is rolled and lit, the blues and the greens, blue chairs in the background, the green surface of the train and the same familiar North European sounds, without much else, we know that we are standing in the world of Kaurismaki.
I had heard before that in order to get to know Aki’s world, a single frame suffices. The train stops, a man in leather jacket carrying a suitcase gets off the train. He sits on a bench. His wrist watch is not working. Before he dozes off he looks at the city’s tall tower, it’s a few minutes to 4 am. Soon he falls into a deep eternal asleep. The familiar criminals of Kaurismaki’s films who migrate from one film to another have caught up with the Man without a Past. This time more ferocious than ever. They beat the man, rob him and throw away his documents and then disappear only to show up in another film, the Light in Dusk which will be made in couple of years’ time. At 05:15 a.m. the man’s pulse stops. This is announced by the doctor. According to the medical science and law of physics he is declared dead and should be moved to the morgue but not in Kaurismaki’s world. A few moments later he sits up as they do in horror movies and moves the sheet away and adjusts his broken nose. The rules and principles of Kaurismaki has never been in more contrast to the laws of physics. In the toing & froing of the internal & external, the trade-off between the world realities and the real cinematic possibilities, for the first time ever, the latter pushes aside the former & triumphs. The Man without a Past leaves behind the past in search of new days.
The Man without a Past is the materialization that Kaurismaki’s past films were dreaming of. His proletariat trilogy was exactly that. The Shadows in Paradise was the story of the impossibility of a trivial and a happy romance. The ultimate dream in this romance was a shy garbage man on one side and, a poor and helpless woman on the other dreaming of a job and the basics of a simple life, yet unattainable prospects in the background of cold and snowy Helsinki. They had to get on a ship and leave Helsinki and search in some other place for this minimalistic romance. But Kaurismaki film would not get on a ship, he would wave at them from the port, procrastinate a little and again return to the city. Kaurismaki’s cinema is always the meeting point of social realism and tender humanism. In his humanistic films, Aki constantly attempts to find a solution for his protagonists, knowing full well he cannot intervene nor change the situation. Parody is one of the signs of this self-awareness. Kaurismaki’s humanism safeguards the misery and struggle of the poor, it sympathizes with them, and their fear of the future. Nevertheless, he is aware that his attempts to safeguard is flawed and at times he sneers at himself.
Ariel, his second film in this trilogy is the most parodic of them all. The character of this film, this time has no time for romance and wants to go right to the point, get married and start a family. The jobless immigrant has no difficulty winning over this struggling woman working multiple shifts. He moves in with her. Later on he ends up in jail and during one of her visit times he proposes to her. He uses the file that she has smuggled into prison to escape. He marries her, steals, saves some money for the trip and at the end he takes the woman and her son on a ship destined for Mexico. Kaurismaki ridicules the genres and makes an amalgam of melodrama, thriller and comedy. Ignores the hardship of life and at the end makes a journey by ship. He knows well that the utopia of the ship journey only belongs to the protagonists and not his and he is the one who has to put up with the cold, snowy Helsinki and the poor people at the fringe of the society until the next film comes up.
The Girl from the Match Factory is the final landing place to Kaurismaki’s proletariat, the most bitter and the most lonesome of his films. No romance, no marriage, no ship to anywhere, no humour. The character of the film is a girl working in a match factory that is condemned to a monotonous and lonely life. She mistakes a stranger’s advances for love and falls into such despair that even the humanistic powers of her creator cannot save her. All there is, is the hard, cold realism and the minimalistic loneliness. This film is Aki’s most sparing in terms of words, most stagnant in terms of inertia and the most soulless in terms of emotions. This time the girl unlike those who get on a ship ends up in prison for her madness and crimes. Despite the promises in the other two films, there is no way out of Helsinki for her. The colourful and cinematic richness of the film is not enough. It is not surprising that years after this film was made, the situation repeats itself, this time it is a male character in the Lighting at Dusk.
Helsinki was changing with the developing economic relations. Old industries were giving way to new, many became jobless, some grew old and new ones arrived in the city. The same small group of actors were moving from one Kaurismaki film to another Kaurismaki film. Drifting Clouds, quietly and with dignity observes this change and development, the history of Helsinki, through the story of a restaurant and the personal history of people working there. He knows well not to get emotional in his most melodramatic film. Despair and grief of losing one’s job is the foundation of realism whilst the tireless effort and strong faith of the characters in overcoming the situation is humanism. The film is a graceful balance between the two and through subtle humour and stylized expression, brings them together. The final sequence of the film is a new opening moment in Kaurismaki’s cinema. The old colleagues who once ran the most successful restaurant of the city get together and after months of hardship, failure and humiliation open a new restaurant. Now comes world’s biggest suspense. Would anybody come in to the restaurant?
Waiting for the first customer to walk in. This apparently most banal occurrence in the world turns into a largest event in the Drifting Clouds. The first client walks in and after that the restaurant is born and the life of a group of people is revived. The hard days are over and the film ends. The Drifting Clouds is the first of the trilogy until the restaurant is opened but it doesn’t go any further. It follows the hard working and struggles until the victory and then leaves it at that. It believes in victory and happiness. The outcome of the faith and materialization of happiness is not followed by the old ship leaving the port. The film ends on the verge of happiness, and until another man walks in, it removes the sadness and the humiliation so that there is no past and one can experience a moment of happiness and content. The Man without a Past, the second film of the trilogy is the realization of life after the opening of the restaurant.
Thanks to Kaurismaki’s generosity, the Man without a Past starts a new life, beyond the domains of names and identity, void of memories. He has to learn a new life, a new job and how to love. Even though he doesn’t recall his past, but the film knows its past, the fate of the former films, those who got on the ship and those who stayed behind, those who died of poverty and those who withstood the hardship and carried on. The film knows this haven, it appreciates the world of the Man without a Past minus the bitterness, the hardship and the violence and understands that all this has not come easily. The renewed life in the Kaurismakian world, in between the stylized sceneries and warm colours, next to poor but graceful men and women, where the hardship of the story and the realism necessities are minimalized, is a rare bliss and the reborn man enjoys it all. Just like Kaurismaki, the newly born man achieves his unfulfilled dreams and goals from the preceding films of the trilogy in one instance.
In that simple and familiar moment where people fall in love at the first sight, he falls in love, but in order to achieve the romance he doesn’t need to get on the ship or move to another (Ariel, the Drifting Clouds). There is no tragedy and death of a lover (Gypsy Life) and no mistaken feelings (Match Factory Girl and Lighting in Dusk). He stays in Helsinki, city of Kaurismaki, city of the poor and the city fringe dwellers, and in the city of miseries, he falls in love.
The Man without a Past is the manifestation of a collective energy. Manifestation of warmth, compassion and solidarity in a community. The lonely and shelter-less man becomes a citizen in the society. He gets motivated by it and returns the energy. Together, they slowly make new plans, and they challenge the government ruling and the official structures. They create new routes, they dance and drink and in this forgotten corner of the city, they draw a new geography from the looks and smiles. Romance is no longer the whole story but the only by-product of a part of the collective energy and passion. These are all by-products of the story and fate of a man who starts life after his heart stops beating.
It is time to say goodbye but first a moment to remember. The man without a past is sitting at a bar after he’s released from prison, he’s quiet and emotionless. A short while later, another man approaches him and sits next to him. He is the bankrupt employer who had to rub a bank to pay the unpaid wages of his former workers. His accounts had been frozen by the bank as he hadn’t been able to pay his debts. He now apologizes to the man and asks him to get the pending salaries of the workers and to pay them. All the while we are reminded of an image. Where the two men are sitting, in the background, there is a photo of Matti Pelonpa on the wall, one of the usual actors in most of Kaurismaki’s films. No one like Matti has tasted the bitterness of poverty, and loneliness in the Kaurismakian world and no one is more worthy of the kindness of the film maker in his most humanistic film, like Matti. Matti died at the age of 44 in 1995, a few years before the Man without a Past was made. In a film whose main character could not remember anything, memory of the other man is revived, a man who shares the past in Kaurisimaki’s older films.
Dostoyevsky, Rothko, Kaurismaki and Logic of Absurdity
Ideas on Crimes and Punishment
Ramin Alaei, Film Critic
Dostoyevsky in Crimes and Punishments narrates the story of Raskolniko, a student guilty of a crime. Unable to analyse the complex motive of his action, he murders the loan shark, a woman the killer calls a louse, and a second one who unexpectedly arrives at the scene of murder. After the murder, Raskolniko is unable to spend the money and the stolen jewellery. He hides them.
In fact it is in this rhetoric of misery that the Sisyphus of Dostoyevsky novel portrayed. Raskolniko cannot recreate the purpose behind the murder in his mind. He merely thinks of the goal. Why is it that it is absurd for Dostoyevsky to visualize Raskolniko’s life? It seems that his novels easily answer this question. In fact, since man is a sinful creature for Dostoyevsky, his life is meaningless. This is the reason there are no innocent characters in his literature. Even if there is a character, it is an absurd figure, a person who by revolting against absurdity attains creativity. Dostoyevsky believes that all sinners will be given the chance to prove their humanity. He believes that man can merely prove his humanity and not his innocence. Dostoyevsky of course was a devout but it is unlikely that the idea of sin in his thoughts is derived from the Christian faith. Because for him, sin is not man’s failure before God, but a characteristic that ties him to his fellowman. Dostoyevsky states that man can judge sins of others if he only knows his own sin, when he confesses that he is also an accomplice in the sin. Why?, because it is only then that the concept of justice to some extent will materialize. At this moment, the judge and sinner will realize that a similar essence would put them next to each other and that is the sinfulness of man. Thus the sinful Raskolniko can only take the judgement seat and condemn the usurer when he admits his own sins. In fact this is when justice at last can be reached. When both Raskolniko and the usurer can be judged on equal terms. In fact, sin is looked upon as a fate while punishment is understood as a human condition.
Kaurismaki’s adaptation of Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment has followed this trend. In fact, in the context of living, by following such cues, we can find the reality of connection between the absurd art and abstract.
Filmmakers like Kaurismaki can be divided into two groups. One group with Loachs at the center and the second group consisting of Adorno, Deloz, Beniamin and Bediu.
In dealing with writers such as Kafka and Becket, Loachs, takes the writer out of the critical domain of realism and accuses him of subjectivism and a passivity towards the social classes.
The members of the second group however, have produced samples of contemporary life, they have either gravitated towards the writers’ literal way of thinking or his literature. Literature, not as a reflection of the physical reality but as means to create meaning rather than formulate a pre-existing concept. This is what Kaurismaki calls harsh & brutal in cinema.
“I want to remove all that is surplus and see man in its barest form”, says Roy Anderson, but we can hear his echo from Kaurismaki. Even though there is no apparent connection between the two they both try to give form to a formless matter.
What is the surplus Roy Anderson is refereeing to? Is it but the makeup of the very basic matter and what is in our mind’s reality, the very formless? Idiocy, meaninglessness and of course absurdity.
In the scene from the Crime and Punishment after Raikanen kills the victim and takes the watch and money, he is calm and sits quietly by the corpse. This is when the woman who had delivered the victim’s meal sees Raikanen next to her customer’s dead body. In this scene what the audience expects and presumes is for the woman to scream, and while the killer tries to quieten her, she cries for help in order to survive. But this doesn’t happen in Kaurismakis film. Instead she asks what has happened to the victim and Raikanen quite coldheartedly tells her that she is dead. Raikanen can be considered the symbol of immorality, absurdity and weakness, in fact an absurdity that does not end either in suicide or religion. He obsessively tries to describe and to form but cannot and is constantly silent. This is the best adaptation of Crimes and Punishment and Raikanen is the best Raskolniko in the history. The most sinful Raskolniko. An absurd film that depicts non-absurdity. An absurd attempt in depicting the non-absurdity.
The Ideological Reduction of Discourse
A view on Cinema of Aki Kaurismaki
Hootan Zangenepoor, author, critic and film maker
Kaurismaki’s cinema goes directly to the most reduced people of a modern and advanced society and tells not just the story of their distressing lives but their actual life stories. Themes such as migration, unemployment, loss of identity and lack of motivation. Let’s compare the leftist and like-minded Ken Loach to Kaurismaki. In all of Ken Loach’s works, people actually externalize their outrage and this projection has practical outcomes which we can call, revolution, coalition, opposition or establishing objective organizational entities. Two examples of an outcome in the form of revolution can be seen in the Wind that Shakes the Barley and I, Daniel Blake. In the former, the character is killed by his brother, and in the latter the protagonist single-handedly starts the change, the humanistic actions and confronts the liberalism and bureaucracy; both demonstrate dissenting purpose. To change, one needs to fight. In fact, Kaurismaki grapples with this idea.
In phenomenology reduction discourse that people in the modern world find themselves in, where is the “place” and “value” of the action, individualistically and organizationally?
Rodolfo, the hero of the story ( a term I’m facetiously borrowing from Kaurismaki) character of the Gypsy Life, is in love with a masterpiece that apparently never ends, however, his love is passive and lacks identity, motivation or action. Relationships in this film, as well as the Man without a Past and Take care of your scarf, Tatiana are in a way referrals to the withdrawn, and fail to find identity or personal credibility
The picture Kaurismaki paints is not the representation of the society’s disillusioned people but rather the reasons that have led their actions to degradation. There has to be an action, like Daniel Blake’s to change the situation, even if it costs their life. Therefore, Kaurismaki’s motif is not failure, instead, he creates a situation that can lead to victory, but one that people show no attempt or action to achieve.
The other most important point in Kaurismaki cinema is to take a partner to join in their frustration. In the Gypsy Life, people find their own types and gain inner strength in numbers. It seems that the losers find another loser in order to energise them, but this does not bring an organizational movement or any development – contrary to Loach’s works. Unlike them, the more introverted people have a more explicit individuality. This can be seen in his trilogy, which is the result of Kaurismaki’s depressed but accurate view.
Frustration is not a power to take on, but an energy to be, being in its purest form – accepting whatever is meant to be and the phenomenology reduction of Kaurismaki’s cinema does not end here.
People in these films are not as cold and soulless as portrayed, but they are vulnerable and fragile. Let me point out to Heidgey’s approach to language,” Language is the place of life. Life is formed in language”. Man is a being which in essence gives meaning to things that are in essence meaningless. Things that are worthless and meaningless, are given a code and through the code, absorb emotion and feeling and create an abstract layer that is life itself. Thus, language with its structural approach reassigns meaning to things, in particular abstracts, such as love and kindness.
Now in the nature of dialogue or life in the language of protagonists of Kaurimsaki’ film, the critics and audience of the filmmaker, consider the dialogue and emotions of the characters of his films in the Scandinavian geography and in order to credit their view, bring facts from Bergman or Roy Andersson but it seems that it is not because of the geography. Dialogue in Kaurismaki cinema is emotionless and dramatic in order to show the phenomenology reduction discourse, because the social political stance of the film maker is such. People’s way of talking is cold not because of the routine and monotonous, frustration and hopelessness and their identity, but by talking this way they try to recreate a life in another language, a life wherein there is no social frustration. This of course is not done consciously but it is a psychological way, the dialogue reduction discourse is merely an individualistic approach of the protagonists of Kaurismaki, people who seem to have either forgotten or have lost their ability to make a change, or to rebel.
Form in Kaurismaki’s cinema, has mixed with his phenomenology view. He likes medium frames and avoids saturated colours. Not having many close-ups and the flat visual story, all justify the depressing approach of the filmmaker. Rhythm of the films closely follow the life rhythm of the social losers, meaning lethargy and inertia. This results in auteur’s characteristic of Kaurismaki, a cinema that does not follow the paradigm of pre experienced stories. Therefore his works could not be categorised in its genres. The comical interpretation of his cinema is not aligned with the film maker’s views and one cannot say that Kaurismaki tries to make a social satire or humour. The reason for the funny people, their dialogues and the situations in his works is to eliminate meaningful occasions. If a man is considered without meaningful occasions with the outside world - a reduced phenomenology– then, the audience themselves try to give meaning to the person, according to their experience in language and life direction - which in fact the mind constantly does - and since the personal interpretation of the audience does not match with the situation of the people in Kaursimaki’s film, the situation is interpreted as comical. Kaurismaki’s cinema is full of such unfamiliar situations where the audience has been given the responsibility of defining and thus it seems attractive. The same approach can be traced in Hal Hartley and even Roy Anderson cinemas.
It has to be said that Kaurismaki’s cinema is very personal and a frustrated cinema. A depressing and distraught cinema which suffers from this phrase by Marx, now the time for defining the world is over, now is time to change the world. Therefore as a general view on Kaursimaki’s films the only thing that comes to mind is Geroge Orwell's 1984 quote in "If there is hope...it lies in the poor".
Summary & Translation by Hengameh Azarmi