Filmmaker Retrospective: The Tragicomic Cinema of Aki Kaurismäki

To think about Finnish Cinema without the name Aki Kaurismäki coming to mind is almost impossible. Together with his brother Mika, Aki has brought film in Finland ever more notoriety. Personality dictates his camera movement and plotlines, while his writing is as sharp and no-nonsense as it could be.

The constant tones of emotional opacity in his dialogues and the sombre and minimalist lighting of his spaces always reinvent the fact that his characters are so well sunk into their lamentable realities.

Characters who are played by a peculiar troupe of actors and actresses that usually come back home when the name Kaurismäki flicks in an opening scene. He knows them, they know the feeling of his films, and that harmony has been responsible for a very consistent arsenal of productions that emanate tragic and amusing intensities.

Before him, perhaps the most widely known efforts that Finland had showed the world were the post-silent-era mastermind Valentin Vaala at the production company Suomi-Filmi, whose films enriched the notion of the local imaginary in the form of cinematic adaptations from national literature; and also some names such as Teuvo Tulio – famous for highly dramatic style –, and Risto Jarva and Mikko Niskanen, the latter two already part of the New Wave in Finnish Cinema.

Mika Kaurismäki also gained notoriety in the 1980s, beginning professional filmmaking two years before his younger brother, and later moving to Brazil and starting a new stage of his career. Like many of his compatriots, Aki was fond of shorter feature films, a particularity in the constitution of his pieces: some do not surpass the 90-minute mark, and many do not even last for more than 70ish minutes. He claims that it is the most appropriate way to tell a narrative in cinematic form, and he surely makes it work that way.

In the early 1980s, when Kaurismäki made his first films, Finland went through a period of relative peace and quiet as regards market power. The country dealt directly with the Soviet Union, and the following decade would bring about a deep recession, partly because of the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet regime.

The director chose not to portray much of such relative prosperity, and focused his efforts on telling stories about the unescapable misery of several psychologically undernourished individuals.

The result is a subtly recognisable signature of moody and apathetic performances and storylines. Such a distinctive flair could not go unnoticed: the 57-year-old who went from postal worker to Finland’s most relevant contemporary filmmaker, responsible for about one-fifth of the national film output.

However, Kaurismäki’s modest style is counterpoised by his keen eye for a body language of disappointment and hopelessness in his characters. He has directed with an abstract notion that his characters are not part of a bigger picture, of a promising and relevant scenario, but part of a theatre of confusion and frustration, of simplicity and madness. He is a director with focus on the human, on character-centred narratives and argumentations.

From the most banal of a protagonist’s actions – such as taking off their shoes, or pouring some cheap drink into a glass – to dark psychological aspects of grief and sudden despair being incorporated, his actors are led to perform for stories about lost battles, although some of them somehow are won in the nick of time.

For a man who has famously stated, “When all hope is gone, there is no reason for pessimism,” he surely knows how to blur the confusing frontiers that separate the urgency of hope from the anxiety of perdition.

Responsible for intriguing plots and touching introspections about death, happiness, and transgression, he has reached the status of auteur for some time now.

The Proletariat Trilogy is a testament to his remarkable courage in dealing with themes such as love and abandonment in a cold-hearted atmosphere and direct editing. His fascination with smokers and rock-n’-roll has demonstrated his lack of interest in creating idols or martyrs; his characters are limited to social inabilities, and notably addicted, either to cigarettes, easy money, or the uncanny shadow of sorrow that accompanies many of them in their pathetic daily lives.

His sharpness for subtle humour is able to create bizarre tales of delusion such as the Leningrad Cowboys series of films. His short film Rocky IV is an intelligent parody of the American cinematic myth, and exposes an attempt to mock the potential of climactic clichés that legitimate over-romanticised struggle.

Among his relatively short collection of films – only 17 since 1983 until the release of the most recent one, Le Havre (2011) –, there are notorious pieces that deserve special attention. His tidy use of the camera for precise medium shots and his excellent manipulation of colour and lighting work to make his career a fascinating one. This list encompasses ten of his greatest titles, which might be exemplary to describe Kaurismäki’s unconventional cinema.


1. Crime and Punishment (orig. Rikos ja rangaistus, 1983)

Crime and Punishment

Rahikainen is a troubled man with no remorse for committing the crime of his life. Kaurismäki did not hesitate to be equally audacious and turn his idea of debut into an adaptation of one of the most acclaimed novels in world’s literature.

Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece unveils a somewhat reasonable man, with justifications for the act of murder and a personal conception of causality. The film’s protagonist has motivations of his own, but does not ponder on the effects of his act and that it carried a purpose worth killing for.

The investigation that follows the murder he committed is the focus of the plotline. Inspectors Pennanen and Snellman (excellently played by Esko Nikkari and Olli Tuominen, both of which worked with the director in other occasions) are austere professionals, breathing realism and the wear of a stressful career, and spend the whole film trying to follow Rahikainen’s trail, one that is difficult to spot due to the young man’s insipid connections.

Nobody really seems to be close to him, which adds up to the unfavourable material life he has. His involvement with the witness of the crime, Eeva Laakso, is the key for the investigators to convict him, but she also feels minimally attached – an attachment that contains fear – as to not turn him in.

He eventually turns himself in, and Unlike Raskolnikov, Rahikainen does not have convictions that give him resilience in defending himself; a result from the bleak world he used to inhabit. He receives one last visit from Eeva in which she vows for a romantic future when he leaves prison, to which he replies that he has turned into a vermin for killing one, but he never exposes the specific arguments to humanise his act.

He has always been alone, and being locked away is not such a problem after all. The film ends with the conformed sadness of a man having a metal door locked in front of him.


2. Calamari Union (1985)

Calamari Union (1985)

This comedic drama depicts the inner workings of a group of impoverished men that seek prosperity in a fantasyland called Eire. They all dress identical garments, they all smoke constantly, they are always sunk into deep seriousness, and they all share the same name: Frank.

However, the civilisational barriers of urban decay and rich people stand in the way of their plan, and their ultimate goal is to reach the shore, on the far side of Helsinki. Going through reflections about their own condition as invisible individuals, they transcend some of these obstacles and a few of them reaches the last destination, only to find frustration.

The auteur himself has declared that melancholy defines the Finnish character, and that the high suicide rates in Finland are due to “lack of light. Light in every way. The sunshine. Now it is proven medically that people need vitamin D. It is always dark, and when it is dark, it is also dark in the mind.”

The long night that spans for virtually all of the film’s length translate that remark in a fictional dimension. The existence of Eire is all that the Franks truly believe in, and they believe that there are senses of discipline, severity towards high society and camaraderie necessary for people like them to reach that promised land. Darkness takes over even more as the comrades start falling.

“What if we’d found ourselves by an open grave, breathless” one of them says during an intense dialogue scene, “Breathless, we would’ve realised that we wouldn’t have been able to say anything, no breath. They don’t know how to teach one to feel the vibes here. We don’t know the rules.”

As the Franks realise that they are years too late for their ride to Eire, they fall into the mesmerising sphere of reality and wish to flee to Estonia, thus unveiling possibly the strongest national allegory in Calamari Union.


3. Shadows in Paradise (orig. Varjoja paratiisissa, 1986)

Shadows in Paradise

With this one Kaurismäki started his long-term partnership with two of his most frequent and assiduous actors: the actor Matti Pellonpää and the actress Kati Outinen.

The first film in the Proletariat Trilogy depicts relations between its characters that may evince empathy and grief, but also disappointment and disbelief in their accomplishments. The rubbish collector Nikander (Pellonpää) lives in a limbo of dissatisfaction and boredom. His routine throwing waste into the back of the bin lorry is an introspective reminiscence of how he has wasted days of his life in dull activities.

Gambling, vague English lessons, an occasional stop at the club, and getting food at the local market; the very place where he meets Ilona (Outinen), the woman whom he is going to try to relate to for the rest of the film.

His life seems to show some promise when his colleague Melartin tells him about plans of running his own waste collection company. The prospect of not having to answer to bosses who are indifferent towards their financial life and work comfort arouses Nikander, and they dream together.

One day, however, Melartin suffers a heart attack during work and Nikander has to face the return of his previous life, submissive and silent. His closest human contact is gone, and it is not like he has got many of them.

He soon gets himself into bar fights and sleeps on the pavement, drunk and lost. He keeps going to work and tries to engage in a clumsy courtship with Ilona, the cashier at the local market. Both honestly see no future in doing it, but both of them trust in sticking together as an escape from the cold nights. She does so in a disinterested manner, he does so with constant pressure and hope. She wants a better job and perspective, he wants human warmth.

Their interaction is marked by a strong sense of failure and pity. Ilona barely talks, and bears a restless semblance whenever in Nikander’s presence. The latter looks at the floor and mumbles, proposes nights out and seems to favour embarrassment over comprehension and change. They give up their pointless resistances and reconsider their union in the end, moving away from Helsinki to change their very lives.


4. Ariel (1988)

Ariel (1988)

Kaurismäki is notable for his constant use of his characters’ journeys for better places to conclude his stories. Ariel has one of the most intriguing ones. It only takes two film sequences for the protagonist Taisto Kasurinen to be convinced to leave his job as a miner and look for better opportunities in the capital Helsinki, driving across the gelid landscape while he tries to warm himself because of a problem with the car’s retractable roof that cannot be closed.

In the capital, his life only worsens over time, as he does not seem to fit in the social paradigms and was, very early in the film, ripped of all his precious savings. Having to live in a communal shelter with no positive prospects for his new life, he roams about on the city’s streets for many a night. Ariel is the second part of the illustrious Proletariat Trilogy, and keeps up the uneasy pace of human frustration and misery from the previous title.

Taisto tries to reconcile with his reality throughout the film, without much success. The loss of a father to suicide is too heavy a burden for him to bear, and his indifference to his surroundings because of the shock hides away the otherwise obvious despair, giving way to a false sense of calmness.

It is interesting to note that Taisto is one of the characters that smoke the most in a Kaurismäki production, an indication of both the distinctive motif of the director, but also of the constant anxiety and pressure from the protagonist’s current situation. He meets Irmeli, a single mother struggling through several jobs to keep her flat and her little son going.

Sympathy arises from both sides, and the subsequent crimes that put Taisto in jail only serve to motivate the reunion with her once he actually breaks out. The ending consists of a more fortunate circumstance, as the three of them – Taisto, Irmeli, and her son – illegally get aboard the ship that carries the name of the film. Unlike the daylight, lively mood of the ending scene in Shadows in Paradise, this one is nocturnal, transgressive, apprehensive.


5. Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)

Leningrad Cowboys Go America

When Kaurismäki directed the first film to contain the concept for the band Leningrad Cowboys, he may have wanted to create a comedy myth. Neither the film nor the fictional band are widely known, but the myth lives on for many who have watched this hilarious, bothersome, and embarrassing comedy.

Leningrad Cowboys are a group of musicians whose music is only second in strangeness to their visual style. Bearing a glorified version of a quiff, very pointy shoes, and suits, the members of the band seek fame and commercial success in the U. S. after having failed to impress a potential label in their country. Upon arriving in America, they realise that their folk music style is not appreciated, and that a shift to rock-n’-roll would be the best chance to hit the American market.

However, the whole continuity of the film is based on the premise of a road movie, so the members keep going through financial hardships to get a car and food. As they head towards Mexico, they play in small bars and clubs, always leaving a horrible impression for their poor renditions of rock-n’-roll music.

Leningrad Cowboys Go America is one of the few films Kaurismäki set outside Finland – others include Le Havre and La Vie de Bohème, both set in France; or I Hired a Contract Killer, set in England. In portraying the estrangement that arises from the cultural clash between a rural, folk-oriented group of people and the more market-oriented American public, the film finds its amusing touch.

It is worth noting that Leningrad Cowboys became something of a franchise in Karismäki’s career, since he has made some other pieces involving the band, including a sequel, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994), one documentary, and some short films.