Aki Kaurismaki -- Prolific Proletariat Film-Maker


                               Aki Kaurismaki is the best known Scandinavian dark humorist. His works have taken Finnish cinema outside Finland. He actively organizes Midnight Sun Film Festival with his brother, Mika – also a film-maker. They produce other Finnish films through their company, ‘Villealfa’, whose productions are known for its breathtaking speed. In a field characterized by time-consuming funding applications and well-made literary, prestige productions, the Kaurismaki brothers have proved that it was possible to produce movies for relatively little money in a short time period (within 50 days).

                            In World War II, Finland allied with Nazi Germany to fight the Russians and eventually lost. After that it tried to appease its powerful neighbor, Russia through the Cold War foreign policy. This situation gave undignified labels and did much damage to Finland’s national pride. However, Kaurismaki’s movies are not about restoring the pride. He tries to probe beneath the surface illusion of Finland’s affluent society, exploring the lives of those disadvantaged by Finland’s transition from traditional heavy industry to a high-tech information and consumer economy. So, many of his films begin with a description, a montage from a workplace such as a factory, a truck depot, or a mine.


                          Kaurismaki’s protagonists are drifters, alcoholics, blue-collar workers and deadbeats – different kinds of peoples from the working class. The reticent characters of Kaurismaki drawn on and parody Finnish stereotypes: shyness, reclusiveness and quirkiness – characteristics thought to be bred by Finnish people’s seclusion on Arctic stretches. In Aki’s shots of the city, central perspective street sights dominate; and his archetypal landscape is a cafeteria. Understood as a sign, a remainder for post-war Finnish audiences of the shared past, its design signals a period of transition from agrarian (rural) to city life. Cafeterias were characteristic of small Finnish communities and working-class quarters of the cities where the Kaurismaki’s grew up. These pleasantly anonymous cafes became meeting places for post-war teenagers.

                       Finnish or Scandinavian cinema is generally oriented towards naturalism. By contrast, Kaurismaki’s films give priority to external realism through ascetic settings, but indulge in fanciful turns, especially through music – Finnish tango – a crucial element of Finnish popular culture. As seen in his film, “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” (1989), rock and roll is another influence in Finnish culture. Aki expresses characters’ melancholia and utopian dreams in a deliberately kitsch fashion in this movie. He also combines social realism with stylized comedy filled with pastiches of popular genre: road movie, gangster film and film noir. Understatement is his key technique, supporting minimal dialogue and deadpan acting.

Matti Pellonpaa and Kati Outinen

                       Matti Pellonpaa is the actor who best personifies the gloom of a Kaurismaki protagonist (especially in “Ariel” and “Take Care of your Scarf, Tatjana”). Pellonpaa won the European Felix prize for Best European actor in 1991. Kati Outinnen, another Kaurismaki’s favorite, specializes in the female version of despondency. She won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for her role in Aki’s “Man without a Past” (2002).

                       The best of Kaurismaki’s work is the ‘new Finland trilogy.’ The first installment “Drifting Clouds” (1996) shows ordinary Helsinki workers persisting with quiet determination while their routine lives are shattered by wider economic trends – high unemployment and multinational takeovers of local businesses. “Man Without a Past”, the second installment articulates the social problem of homelessness -- another overlooked aspect of contemporary Finland. Here, a nameless protagonist travels to Helsinki is search of work, is robbed and beaten up, loses his memory and begins a new life among the city’s homeless who live in Helsinki dock containers – a virtual collection of Kaurismaki’s earlier films, where the city is invariably a hostile place, full of crooks and hoodlums.


                      Aki’s films both derive and comment on classical melodrama. What may be called the commonsensical mechanisms of melodrama -- repetition, proverbial sayings, clichés, its employment of history and memory – involve a stylized and natural commitment to past actions and behavior. The story often holds a secondary place to cinematic space. In fact it is constructed as critical space allowing the interrogation of political, social and economic power structures. The orchestration of the narrative, the emphasis on muteness and the excessive use of music refer to the commonsensical functions of the melodrama though in a self-conscious way. For instance, the excesses in “Match Factory Girl” (1990) (belongs to proletariat trilogy) are an exposure of abundance and it presents a mise-en-scene which is highly stylized, archaic and minimalist.


                      In Kaurismaki’s films, the difficulties in expressing feelings do not indicate their absence: the obvious lack of eloquent verbal expression in the Kaurismaki films only proclaims that they are to be found elsewhere. Desire is omnipresent, only it is sealed in the evasive gazes and in the music. “The Match Factory Girl”, for instance, a film that contains only twenty-four lines of dialogue presents a well-known Finnish tango from the first bar to the last: Iris, the central character, visits a dance hall, where the camera is placed in the doorway and registers the band in three steady takes. The melody sung in this film tells of the singer’s yearning for the land beyond the vast sea: where warm wind sweeps over sunny beaches. The singer is lamenting because he is ‘a prisoner of the earth, without wings.’ The words create a stunning discrepancy with the rigidity of the dance hall. In this scene, the musical performance becomes an expression for both the singer and Iris’s feelings and their inability to assert them.

                    “American cinema is dead! The European one is dying and I’m not feeling particularly well either”, said Kaurismaki in an interview (two decades back), which shows his public persona in line with his cinematic universe. His movies are less sophisticated but are often straight to the point. He has consistently sabotaged any proposal of meaning or intent behind his work. He often contradicts with his statements and mostly finishes an explanation with: “I don’t know who cares?” As a cinephile, you can either join in his pragmatic quest for political, national and gendered values or can just ask ‘why bother?’ and return to more conventional films. 


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