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  And, indeed, I will ask on my own account here, an idle question: which is better—cheap happiness or exalted sufferings? Well, which is better?---Fyodor Dostoevsky ---Notes from Underground There are certain people of whom it is difficult to say anything which will at once throw them into relief—in other words, describe them graphically in their typical characteristics. These are they who are generally known as “commonplace people,” and this class comprises, of course, the immense majority of mankind. Authors, as a rule, attempt to select and portray types rarely met with in their entirety, but these types are nevertheless more real than real life itself. For instance, when the whole essence of an ordinary person’s nature lies in his perpetual and unchangeable commonplaceness; and when in spite of all his endeavours to do something out of the common, this person ends, eventually, by remaining in his unbroken line of routine—. I think such an individual really does become a type of hi


“Cinema is dead. It died 1962, I think it was in October!"


“I don’t see most movies, very seldom, once or twice a year. Except at festivals. I saw everything when I was young, five, six movies a day. But now, I watch old films, silent films. Behind my very rough cover, I am a sentimental old sheep.”

film school reject

Kaurismäki left his compulsory military service in Finland’s army incomplete, and applied to Finland’s film school in 1977. The school denied him admission. Admissions committee member Professsor Juha Rosma said: 
"I got the impression that Aki had a good imagination, but that he was an introverted personality. He managed as a writer, but fared more poorly with cinema’s visual elements and in working with actors." 
Kaurismäki explains the rejection differently. 
"I was so cynical and arrogant, and emotionally immature that they didn’t want me there. It’s of course true. The worst thing is to realize it yourself."

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.

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’sVarjoja paratiisissa (Shadows in Paradise, 1986)]

In 1986, Kaurismäki made Varjoja paratiisissa Shadows in Paradise (1986), 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.

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.

 (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.

One of the special qualities of the movie is the physical clumsiness of most of the characters. They move like real people, not like the smoothly choreographed athletes we see on TV and in American movies. When the hero runs, he looks like he's not accustomed to running. When cops race up to nab somebody, they run flat-footed, and grab him in an awkward and uncoordinated tussle.A similar clumsiness adds conviction to the action. Events occur in a stark and naive way. A bank robbery ends with money being dropped all over the sidewalk. Conversations are blunt. Motives are simple. The movie's lack of physical and social finesse is a positive quality; it makes the characters seem touchingly real. Watching their clumsiness, I became aware of how actions sometimes don't seem spontaneous in Hollywood films. Nobody ever seems to be performing an action for the first time, and the moves all seem practiced and familiar.
Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö (The Match Factory Girl, 1990) is one of Kaurismäki’s darkest films, but it is also one of his best. 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.

The Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki fascinates me. I am never sure if he intends us to laugh or cry with his characters--both, I suppose. He often portrays unremarkable lives of unrelenting grimness, sadness, desolation. When his characters are not tragic, he elevates them to such levels as stupidity, cluelessness, self-delusion or mental illness. Iris, the match factory girl, incorporates all of these attributes.


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.

Kaurismäki himself deemed Leningrad Cowboys Go America “the worst film in the history of cinema, unless you count Sylvester Stallone’s films 
"Leningrad Cowboys Go America was such a sensation that it brought the fictional band a major real-life following."


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.”  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 (1996) 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

One misfortune follows another. The restaurant closes. The husband loses his job by drawing the wrong card in an office lottery. Ilona gets another job, in a restaurant where the owner is a tax cheat. Desperate to keep up appearances, she calls each order loudly into the kitchen before sneaking around a corner to cook it herself. The cook from the former restaurant appears, announcing, "I am on a journey to the end of vodka." And then, improbably, there is a happy ending, which I will not reveal except to observe that it involves a reservation for 30 from the perfectly titled Helsinki Workers' Wrestlers.
Kaurismäki’s visual and storytelling abilities reached their apex with 2002’s Mies vailla menneisyyttä The Man Without a Past (2002, 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.
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.”

At the end of "The Man Without a Past," I felt a deep but indefinable contentment. I'd seen a comedy that found its humor in the paradoxes of existence, in the way that things may work out strangely, but they do work out. I felt a real affection for the man, and for the Salvation Army officer, and for the former wife who is not too happy to see her onetime husband again, and even for the poor sap who thinks he has to fight to preserve appearances.


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.

other work

La Havre (2001)

It is seductively funny, offbeat and warm-hearted, like the rest of his films, but with a new heartfelt urgency on the subject of northern Europe's attitude to desperate refugees from the developing world. The movie is set in the port city of Le Havre, maybe summoning a distant ghost of L'Atalante, and it has a solid, old-fashioned look; but for the contemporary theme, it could have been made at any time in the last 50 years. André Wilms is Marcel, a phlegmatic shoe-shine guy who plies his trade around the streets as best he can. 
He discovers a young boy called Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), an illegal immigrant on the run, and hides him from the authorities, including the tough Inspector Monet, superbly played by Jean-Pierre Darroussin. It's a drama that plays out in parallel with private heartbreak: Marcel's gentle wife Arletty, played by Kati Outinen, is in hospital. The drollery and deadpan in Kaurismäki's style in no way undermine the emotional force of this tale; they give it a sweetness and an ingenuous, Chaplinesque simplicity. It's a satisfying and distinctively lovable film.

"A feel-good story with clear eyes and a level gaze"
Here is the sunniest film I've seen by Aki Kaurismaki, and he reveals a lot of sunshine inside for a director whose world is usually filled with deadpan losers. His dour films are comedies, too, and baffle some viewers while others grow unreasonably fond of them. Apprehensive loners fail at unpromising enterprises and their hopes are crushed by an uncaring society, but it's piled on so deep, you're pretty sure Kaurismaki is grinning. Who else could run, along with his brother Maki, a summer film festival so far north in Finland that the sun never sets?


The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen 2017)

Syrian refugee Kahled (Haji) turns himself into police after covertly boarding a cargo ship and ending up in Finland. Consigned to a Helsinki reception centre while he seeks asylum, he’s as warily self-contained as would conceivably be anyone who has lost most of his family and any semblance of a home and a future.

Meanwhile, morose, middle-aged travelling salesman Wilkström (Kuosmanen) takes leave of his silent, vodka-sodden wife, sells his stock of shirts and purchases an unprepossessing restaurant with his winnings from a poker game. The only initial connection between these two walled-off men is their joyless fixity of purpose, detailed by writer-director Aki Kurismäki (Le Havre) with his habitual businesslike finesse.

The movie expands upon Kaurismäki’s central mode of observation and delivers some trenchant, upsetting truths about the immigration experience from the side of those seeking asylum. While in the detaining center awaiting a ruling on his case, Khaled is told by a friend not to appear too cheerful, as people will take him for mentally disturbed. Of course a serious mien may lead some to react with fear. As for the skinheads, they consistently get Khaled’s ethnicity wrong as they spew hate at him.


Fallen Leaves (2023)

Ansa (Alma Pöysti) is a woman who works in a supermarket on an exploitative zero-hours contract, and resents that part of her job is to throw away perfectly good food at the end of the day; a sullen security guard clocks her giving stuff like this to desperate hungry people, and she is fired for trying to take home an expired sandwich.

Later Ansa finds herself in a karaoke bar where she meets a construction worker called Holappa (Jussi Vatanen), and there is a heartmelting connection between these two lonely people. They go on a very successful date to the cinema, although a subsequent series of terrible mishaps means that their relationship could be doomed – and here Kaurismäki may intend us to appreciate a filmic echo with An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. Moreover, Holappa is a drinker, perhaps an alcoholic, and the booze brings out a nasty side.

  1. FALLEN LEAVES (2023) >>>

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