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Aki Kaurismäki by Peter van Bagh

"My soul could not tolerate the kind of rough realism necessary to depict the modern city of Helsinki - I am as if forced against the stonewall. I am as well forced to redesign all the towns behind several decades. I can't show a modern car, as they are so ugly and impersonal. I managed to photograph London and Paris without showing one single car, and in spite of that my films were in modern times. I'm for a camera that gets identified with the sets of the epoch it is depicting - and represents that epoch in all its savagery."
(Aki Kaurismäki)

The vision of Aki Kaurismäki is always two-fold. Both time and places - Ariel was "dedicated to the memory of Finnish reality" - are dreamlike, dense cityscapes that Aki Kaurismäki manages to create in his films and that basically do not have an equivalent in "real life". This basic fact goes through all his films that can be roughly divided into three or four genres.

The first category consists of "literary classics"; instead of being pretentious "translations" these films are animated dialogues with the author colleagues of the past as if they were live conversation partners. The almost megalomaniac start of a modern-ized Crime and Punishment (1983) was followed by Hamlet Goes Business (1987), a nearly prophetic film about the Finland of the 80's soon to collapse in a wild circle of financial speculation, and his version of Murger's La vie de Bohème (1992), a genteel and poetic vision of France, filmed in the outskirts of Paris and in French (Kaurismäki made his other ‘foreign' film, I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), in London and in English, with Jean-Pierre Léaud, the alter ego of his youth). Juha (1998), a Finnish classic previously filmed three times, got its toughest and most lucid treatment in his version and is his ultimate interpretation about silence (it is the "last silent film of 20th century") in the country living in the pseudo-communication of portable phones and internet (both of which have the highest user numbers in Finland).

Then comes a group of strange road movies, the charming "cheapies" that have attained a cult status in many countries. Calamari Union (1985), according to Jean-Pierre Gorin "I Vitelloni filmed by Dreyer", is based on an absurd anecdote and shows the odyssey of a group of guys (played by the most luminous rock'n'roll musicians of the day) from the poor part of Helsinki to the rich downtown environments. All the characters are called Frank, several of them die along the way ... Take care of Your Scarf - Tatjana (1994) is another stroke of genius, a film about a weekend of two Finnish workingmen. It takes place simultaneously in imaginary past, in the 60's', and in a most realistic world, where the efforts of the very Finnish heroes to be themselves in their manic loneliness dominated by Koskenkorva vodka and Finnish tango are much affected by the presence and mentality of our eastern (Russian, Estonian) neighbours.

The films about Leningrad Cowboys introduce "the world's worst rock'n'roll band" complete with their incredible cone-shaped hairstyles and spiked shoes. Two full-length films (one deeply entertaining, another a look at the margins of Europe that is worlds apart from the brave new Europe of Brussels and Strasbourg) were complemented by half a dozen (superb) short films, and Total Balalaika Show (1993), a documentation of the amazing meeting of East and West in the concert given by Leningrad Cowboys together with Red Army Ensemble (with its 200 singers and musicians). These are the words of Chris Marker about "that milestone in post-modern kitsch": "There are moments of pure emotion, and when historians will look for a
vignette to encompass the brief autumn of utopia that followed the fall of the Empire, I doubt they can find a more significant and poignant one".

The third category, the films about underdog. The "working class trilogy" consists of Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990) - the laconic, almost cruel masterpiece that yet it radiates suppressed tenderness -belongs even under international consideration to recent most sensitive descriptions of working class milieu and proletarian identity that are done with true insight. They unfold some kind of colonial Finland, a third-world Finland found in the depths and outskirts of towns, where resilient, authentic humanity prevails spiced by biting humour and healthy contempt of bureaucracy and the official way of life and their con men and speculators.

The follow-up Drifting Clouds (1996) was the start of a new trilogy ("losers" trilogy), complemented by Man without a Past (2002) and Lights in the Dusk (2006), respectively based on the themes of unemployment ("I wouldn't have the nerve to look at my face in the mirror if I would not make a film about unemployment now" Aki Kaurismäki said at the time when Finland had been for years suffering from a dramatic, structural and - as many saw it - "terminal" unemployment), homelessness, and solitude. Their protagonists, have-nots or "loosers", will not give up, even if the pressures bring them to the brink of human endurance. A ray of optimism shines through all this gloom (a vision that many have compared to the tradition of a Capra or a De Sica) - in the two first films. The third breaks the niceties of human fable. And might be, after consideration, the most optimist of all, as it is so mercilessly centered on the realities, and on the theme of dignity of man as the foremost value.

(Peter von Bagh, 2006)

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