Aki Kaurismäki is one of the most famous contemporary Finnish movie
directors. He is also one of the most appreciated, both in Finland and
abroad. In 2003 Kaurismäki became the first Finn whose movie (The Man
without a Past) was nominated for an Oscar. He has won numerous awards
both in Finland and in international film festivals. Since the early 1980s
Kaurismäki has directed 15 full-length movies, several short movies and
even a few documentaries, many of which are known for criticizing Finnish
society. What are the common characteristics in his movies? How is he
different from other Finnish directors? How do his movies criticize
Why is it important to study Finnish cinema and Kaurismäki in
It may be self-evident that Finnish movies would have something essential
to say about what it is like to be Finnish. Finnish movies are an
essential part of the national culture. Thus by studying the Finnish
cinema industry something can be learned about Finns and Finnish society.
In the spring of 2008 Finland’s President Tarja Halonen awarded Aki
Kaurismäki the prestigious title of Academician of Art. “Academician of
Art” is a title that only eight Finnish artists can carry at the same
time. As the Arts Council of Finland explained,
first work, Aki Kaurismäki has had a recognisable cinematic style of his
own. An essential feature of this style, which could even be described as
minimalist, is its link to Finland and Finnishness. Aki Kaurismäki's
"working class trilogy" and "Finland trilogy" portray Finland in a
completely novel, coarse and reduced way. [...] Aki Kaurismäki is
internationally known as a Finnish filmmaker who, in spite of his
international career, is deeply linked with Finnish society and cultural
life through his films and otherwise. (Film)
There is also another famous Kaurismäki, Aki’s brother Mika. The
Kaurismäki brothers have been the most visible Finnish directors both in
Finland and abroad since the 1980s (Cinema). This paper will concentrate
solely on the works of Aki, which are seen particularly as depicting
Finnish society. The films of Mika Kaurismäki, by comparison, are
perceived as being more international.
Aki Kaurismäki has won numerous awards not only in Finland but also
internationally at film festivals, for example in Berlin and Cannes. Two
of his movies (Lights in the Dusk and The Man without a
Past) have been nominated for Oscars, even if he himself doesn’t
care for this kind of attention (Aki, Coslovitch). The multiple awards and
nominations are clear signs that his work is valued and appreciated both
in Finland and abroad.
Finns as underdogs
In Kaurismäki’s movies the cinematic conception of "reality" is closely
entwined with the lives of blue-collar workers (Kyösola 168). The heroes
and heroines in his movies are bus drivers, welders and restaurant
workers. As Kaurismäki puts it, ”I describe the reality that’s familiar to
me. I started making movies from a gutter and I have not gotten very far
from it, and frankly don’t even want to. I have nothing to say about an
assistant manager at an exchange-listed company and his troubles with
marriage or choices in cars” (Forss). The workers in his movies face many
difficulties, most of which are not their own fault. The enemy is usually
invisible or might become visible only via an absurd bureaucracy.
Depicting working class Finns in art is far from a new trend.
Upper-class poets and writers were already doing this in the 1800s. In
those days it was common for the educated classes to be the ones
describing the lives of the working class in an idealized manner (Kyösola
169-170). One could argue that, considering Kaurismäki’s own background as
a blue-collar worker (Hernes describes him as having worked, for example,
as a postman and a dishwasher) he has a better basis for his descriptions.
Kaurismäki has said about his characters, "I had some years when I only
had a sleeping bag. So I like losers. I am a loser myself" (Coslovitch).
The Finland trilogy: stories about the unemployed, the homeless and
The Finland trilogy (sometimes called the Suomi trilogy) consists of
movies that handle unemployment, homelessness and loneliness, which have
been difficult problems in Finnish society in the past two decades
(Asunnottomuuden, Holm, Pokkinen). The movies in the trilogy are
Drifting Clouds [Kauas pilvet karkaavat] (1996), The Man
without a Past [Mies vailla menneisyyttä] (2002) and Lights in the
Dusk [Laitakaupungin valot] (2006). Some critics have called this
trilogy the ”loser trilogy” (Marttila). However, "Finland trilogy" is the
most common name used by both critics and fans. Therefore it will also be
used in this paper.
Kaurismäki has produced two trilogies. The trilogies consist of
independent movies revolving around the same theme. The Finland trilogy is
the more recent one. The first trilogy consisted of Shadows in
Paradise [Varjoja paratiisissa] (1986), Ariel [Ariel] (1988),
and The Match Factory Girl [Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö] (1990) and it
has been called the ”proletariat trilogy”, the ”workers’ trilogy” and the
”working-class trilogy”. 1
The Finland trilogy is particularly interesting because it was a
breakthrough for Kaurismäki both in Finland and abroad. Drifting
Clouds got only 49,691 viewers in 1996 (Kotimaiset) but 142,026 Finns
saw The Man without a Past in 2002. By contrast, 136,112 went to
see Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone the same year
(Katsotuimmat). The Harry Potter movies have been a commercial
success around the world, so these numbers prove that The Man without a
Past was very popular in Finland. The fact that the critics nicknamed
the movies “the Finland trilogy” suggests that the movies are perceived
above all as stories of Finland. It must be that the movies not only
depict Kaurismäki’s own special world but also the Finland seen through
the viewer’s eyes. The Finnish audience can identify with the struggles of
the working-class characters and the overall melancholic atmosphere. The
audience can recognize the long pauses between the lines, the apparent
lack of emotion and the subtle pitch-black humour as essentially Finnish.
Drifting Clouds tells a story about a couple called Lauri and
llona. Lauri is a tram driver and Ilona is a butler at a fine dining
restaurant in Helsinki called Dubrovnik. 2
Lauri’s supervisor needs to lay off a few men, and Lauri is chosen. Soon
afterwards Ilona hears that Dubrovnik is going to be sold and the new
owners will change the whole concept – as well as the staff. Ilona and
Lauri are then both unemployed and struggle to find new jobs, but many
difficulties arise in the 1990s depression-era Finland. In the end
collaboration and solidarity prove to be a solution to their predicament.
Other Finnish directors have hesitated to depict the 1990s depression.
It might still be a difficult subject for many Finns. Unemployment rose
from 3.5% up to 18.9% in just a few years (Holm), and few Finnish families
were not affected. Even if they did not lose their jobs the overall
atmosphere was very gloomy. The atmosphere is the same in Drifting
Clouds, there is a feeling of impending and inevitable doom until the
very end. Kaurismäki has said that he could not look in the mirror if he
hadn’t done a movie about the depression (in Bagh 163-164). He was
courageous in grabbing a difficult, tender subject that no one else was
willing to depict.
The Man without a Past starts with a scene of a man arriving in
Helsinki by train. The man, M, gets mugged in a park and loses
consciousness. He wakes up alone at a hospital and leaves immediately upon
wakening, only to realize that he has lost his memory. He can’t even
recall his own name. The bureaucrats don’t take M seriously, but he finds
new friends from other homeless wretches and from the Salvation Army. He
struggles to find a new life in Helsinki and a new destiny for himself,
but he has to climb many barriers before succeeding. The Man without a
Past revolves around the same themes as Drifting Clouds, taking
it a bit further with the added theme of homelessness.
Lights in the Dusk is a movie about loneliness. Koistinen is a
night guard who is bullied by his co-workers and who has no friends
outside his work. He yearns for human contact, and because of this ends
up being dragged into a robbery against his will. He goes to prison for a
crime he didn’t commit because he wants to protect the femme fatale who
betrayed him. Whereas the first two movies of the trilogy feature a lot of
the dry, black humour which is typical of Kaurismäki, there is less humour
in Lights in the Dusk. Even though a glimmering of hope is given at
the open end of the movie, the overall atmosphere makes it a particularly
gloomy film. Unlike in the two previous movies no one steps in to save
Koistinen from his jail sentence. It may be that Kaurismäki has lost hope
in the battle of the little guy against the system. The bureaucrats
sacrifice responsibility and courtesy for capitalism and profit. Therefore
the system can’t understand or support an honest, polite and responsible
individual (von Bagh, Aki 205).
The minimalistic aesthetics of Aki Kaurismäki
Kaurismäki is so dedicated to movie-making that he tries to keep his movie
budgets to a minimum to make sure that no outside producers are needed.
When he writes, directs and produces the movies himself he doesn’t have to
give control to anyone else (Forss). In an interview with the noted film
critic Helena Ylänen Kaurismäki admitted that there is no in-between
format for him. If he is using a script he wants to follow it right down
to the smallest detail in dialogue. His methods are extreme; the actors
are not allowed to rehearse the scenes before shooting and he uses only
one take for every scene. This might be of advantage when searching for
genuine reactions in the actors.
Kaurismäki has such a style of intimacy and utter minimalism that some
critics have compared him to Robert Bresson (von Bagh, Drifting 105),
whose movies were ”the most severe and controlled works in the history of
cinema both ethically and aesthetically” (Bacon, Toiviainen). Aesthetics
are indeed very important to Kaurismäki. He has even mentioned that the
set design is the most important thing, and only then come the actors and
the dialogue (Ylänen). Kaurismäki wants to be in full control of all the
sets. All the walls are re-painted according to colour charts he chooses
(von Bagh, Aki 184). This way he can be in total control of the atmosphere
in every scene. A typical scene is described in the next paragraph.
Scene from Lights in the Dusk, 2006.
Mirja is visiting Koistinen at his home.
Koistinen is trying to approach her but she has other plans.
Image courtesy of Strand
The importance of aesthetics can be seen from the screenshot at right.
In this scene Koistinen is trying to approach the distant Mirja. He is in
love and has not yet realized that Mirja is only using him. Koistinen’s
body is turned towards Mirja, whereas Mirja is facing forwards, making no
contact with him. Strong colours indicate strong emotions. The combination
of reds and blues could be seen as depicting a conflict in emotion or
motivation. Blue is a cool, distant colour, whereas red is passionate and
warm. This is only one example of how Kaurismäki uses visual contrasts in
When set design is as polished as Kaurismäki’s, it is obvious that no
excessive dialogue is needed. Finns are generally not very talkative
compared to other nationalities. Taciturnity is not necessarily considered
a negative feature in Finnish culture; it might rather be regarded as
being polite to others and respecting their space.
In addition to aesthetics, other distinctive characteristics in
Kaurismäki’s movies are the insightful depictions of the lives of
blue-collar-workers, or ”losers” as Kaurismäki tenderly calls them (von
Bagh, Aki 184). Humanism is a recurrent theme in his movies (von Bagh,
Drifting 105). As is common in the movies of the famous director Luis
Buñuel, the “losers” in Kaurismäki’s films are as complicated as normal
humans are but the bureaucrats are described as simplistic and wooden (von
Bagh, Aki 194).
The many aspects of Kaurismäki's works
Even if the existence of an actual working class could be questioned in
today’s Finland, it is self-evident that there are still workers. Or in
Kaurismäki’s words, “there are those who have money and those who don’t”
(Forss). The Finland trilogy may have become so popular because it depicts
the problems and emotions, the frustration and the hope that many Finns
(and non-Finns as well) still go through in their everyday lives.
There is also the humorous aspect. Finns are often seen as carrying a
dark, dry sense of humour. This is especially true in Kaurismäki’s movies.
Kaurismäki’s humour is brought out with economy of expression in dry,
short sayings by his usually poker-faced characters. Kaurismäki is a
master of black humour (Coslovich).
Minimalism is an aspect that Kaurismäki wishes to take even further. He
says that minimalism was a natural choice of style for him, as back when
he started making movies in Finland there really were no alternatives, the
movie industry and its equipment were so undeveloped (Forss).
Kaurismäki sees himself as more of a craftsman; movies are only movies
if they are screened in the traditional analog (as opposed to the modern,
digital) way. He has said that if it became impossible to film and edit
movies in the traditional way he would quit making movies altogether (von
Bagh, Aki 185-186). 3 However, in winter
2008 Kaurismäki reluctantly gave in and let the Proletariat trilogy be
presented digitally in European cinemas. Digital screening is very
inexpensive compared to spinning traditional film reels, which is one of
the reasons digital is preferred in Europe nowadays. Kaurismäki explains
that he was forced to give in, because people’s ability to read movies
will suffer if they are not able to watch the film classics. According to
him, the most important thing in watching movies is the overall experience
that you only get in a movie theatre (Myllyoja).
Moreover, Kaurismäki also seems to be enamoured with the past in other
ways as well (Scott). The music in his movies is often far from modern and
up-to-date. He often mentions in interviews how he prefers old movies to
recent ones (Coslovich). Disappointment in current affairs easily leads to
romanticizing the past in the minds of the Finns.
Coincidence and necessity intrigue Kaurismäki (von Bagh, Aki 6). In the
trilogy all three movies start out with coincidences: losing your job at
the same time as your partner, getting mugged in the park or randomly
meeting a femme fatale at a café. These coincidences inevitably lead to
unfortunate chains of events. The heroes struggle to change their fates
but are faced with several obstacles. Kaurismäki’s heroes are not active
politically, but their destinies are strongly steered (or restricted) by
social conventions. It is a battle between the individual and the system
(von Bagh, Aki 165).
Kaurismäki's own moral values could be explained by a brief
dialogue in The Man without a Past. M tries to pay an electrician
who has helped him, but the electrician refuses and only asks for a
possible favour in the future: "If you see me lying face down in the
gutter," he says, "turn me on my back" (Scott). Kaurismäki is
politically on the left, and his movies criticize the free market economy
and 'affluent' western society. Money is not important to his characters;
it is only an obligatory means of surviving in today's world, and even
that is questioned in The Man without a Past. It seems that he
prefers exchanging favours to money. Kaurismäki has also claimed to
have exceptionally high morals in his personal life. He considers social
responsibility to be a civil duty, even though it doesn't appear to be a
common virtue in modern society. However Kaurismäki admits that even
he could have done more for society (Forss).
Communication in Kaurismäki's movies
The type of language in Kaurismäki’s movies has become legendary. The
dialogue in his movies is formal and even surreal by every-day standards.
There is usually a lot of dry humour. It is evident that Kaurismäki values
the Finnish language greatly; he has said that it is the home to his
thoughts. He also thinks that no person can exist without a language
(Forss). Thus the dialogue in his movies reveals quite a lot about the
characters. He keeps the very formal dialogue to a minimum, which gives
additional value to each sentence. This can be seen in the following
example from The Man without a Past in a scene where M decides to
move into an empty container dwelling by the shore:
M: ”When can I move in?”
The characters show little emotion on their faces, and the sophisticated
humour of this scene lies in the dialogue. The landlord Anttila sees no
need to be overly courteous; it is later revealed that he fancies himself
as a man with a tough image even though his personality is a lot softer.
Anttila: ”As soon as I turn my back.”
M: ”And the keys?”
Anttila: ”You see a lock anywhere?”
Anttila: ”Don't go splitting
hairs then or I'll take the door, too.”
Kaurismäki has also explained in interviews that he sometimes likes to
replace dialogue with music: ”it does the same job” (Lepistö). This is
evident in the Finland trilogy; several scenes contain little dialogue but
have a carefully selected song playing in the background. The song You
will not see a tear by Olavi Virta 4
appears relatively frequently in Kaurismäki’s films. It is featured both
in Drifting Clouds and in Lights in the Dusk, as well as in
one previous film. In Lights in the Dusk it is played as a
description of Koistinen’s feelings after Mirja has left him (Lepistö).
Koistinen does not describe his emotions verbally. Music can also be used
to depict characteristics: the calm and collected Irma in The Man
without a Past is shown listening to rock and roll privately in her
home, which gives additional edge to her character and reveals her “inner
rebel”. This is an attempt to show that there is more to Finnish workers
than the eye can see, perhaps a revolution building up.
Since You will not see a tear is used so often in Kaurismäki’s
films it must be looked into more deeply. The lyrics as described in
“You will not see a tear, even when my heart is crying
The lyrics could be interpreted as an analogue of Finnish mentality. It is
considered a virtue to be able to
hide one’s sorrows and carry on as if nothing has happened. You will also
not see a tear in Kaurismäki’s films,
not even when the characters are left homeless or when they have to say
the final goodbyes to their loved ones.
In Lights in the Dusk the last line of the lyrics even seems to be
quite literal, as the song is heard while
Koistinen is drinking alcohol. Attempting to drown one’s sorrows by
drinking is a big problem for Finns.
You will not see my longing, even though you went away
I wiped away the tears
I wish tomorrow brings me comfort
I have given you my heart, my everything
All you gave me was pain in the soul
You will not see a tear, even when my heart is crying
You will not see my longing, even though you went away
I was happy once
Happy because I had you
When you wish for happiness
You will drink the bitter cup of broken dreams”
The dialogue in Kaurismäki’s films differs from every-day language not
only with its formal nature but also with its logic. Another example from
The Man without a Past is from a scene where M and a bank teller
have been locked in a bank vault and might soon die of suffocation:
M:”Do you mind if I smoke?”
Neither character panics in the situation; instead they act like they
were chatting at a café on a perfectly normal afternoon. Repartee seems to
be their way of coping in a devastating situation. Even if the language
used in Kaurismäki’s films seems to have an odd logic that everyday
Finnish does not, it is still true that Finns often like to talk about
difficult subjects through a certain sarcastic, dry humour, as is also
shown in the dialogue.
Bank teller:”Does a tree mourn
its fallen leaves?” (Scott)
Hidden meanings in the Finland trilogy
There are certain aspects to Kaurismäki’s films that might not reveal
themselves to an international audience unless they have a very good
knowledge of Finnish culture. This is one of the reasons the movies are
considered very “Finnish”.
Kaurismäki often uses the same actors in his movies. He knows he can
trust actors with whom he has worked before. They require less
assistance from the director. Kati Outinen and Matti Pellonpää, both very
talented, have been among his favourites, having successfully acted
many different roles. Matti Pellonpää was supposed to act the role of the
butler in Drifting Clouds but his sudden death changed everything.
The filming hadn’t yet started, and at first Kaurismäki thought he
couldn’t make the movie. Pellonpää was a close friend to the cast, and
Kaurismäki didn’t think any other male actor could have been put into the
role he had specifically written for Pellonpää. However, knowing
Pellonpää’s work ethics, Kaurismäki realized that Pellonpää would have
been very angry if the film would not be made because of his death.
Eventually Kaurismäki came up with a solution. He switched the roles
around and Kati Outinen became the butler (von Bagh, Aki 159). The movie
was made as a tribute to Pellonpää (Timonen, 261). In one scene Ilona,
played by Outinen, visits a cemetery in Helsinki. The gravestone is not
shown to the audience, but it is in fact Pellonpää’s. Pellonpää also
emerges one last time in the movie when Ilona’s and her husband’s
bookshelf is filmed: there is a picture of a child (supposedly the
couple’s deceased child), which is actually a picture of Pellonpää as a
child (Timonen, 261).
There is a scene in Drifting Clouds where the supervisor divides
a set of playing cards among several tram drivers to see who is going to
get laid off. The subtle humour in this otherwise seemingly cruel scene
comes from the actor playing the supervisor; he is Solmu Mäkelä, one of
the best known Finnish magicians (von Bagh, Aki 164).
The late lawyer Matti Wuori has a cameo role in The Man without a
Past. Wuori was a radical intellectual who also had political
significance in Finland. After Wuori passed away, Kaurismäki said in an
interview that half of the Finnish intelligentsia had just disappeared and
the other half was just an assumption (Forss). Wuori’s role in the movie
is to come and save the hero, M, from jail. An arrogant policeman is
keeping M locked up under certain sections of law, but Wuori comes in and
starts quoting other sections of law in a very detailed and intellectual
manner. This leaves the policeman dumbfounded and M is released.
Annikki Tähti is a famous Finnish schlager 5 singer who has had a significant career since
the 1950s. She has a small role in The Man without a Past as a
Salvation Army officer. When the officer coyly reveals “I myself have done
some singing when I was younger”, the humour might go unnoticed by foreign
viewers who do not know Tähti’s background. She becomes the singer of the
Salvation Army rock band, and in one scene they play Do you remember
Monrepos?, which was Tähti’s own breakthrough song in the 1950s. The
song is a nostalgic memoir about the life in a park Finland lost to the
former Soviet Union in the 1940s.
Kaurismäki’s trusted actress Kati Outinen has an almost invisible role
in Lights in the Dusk. She portrays a cashier at a grocery store.
Her name tag says “Ilona”, which was the name of her character in
Drifting Clouds. This could be taken as a sign that Kaurismäki
didn’t believe in the movie’s original happy, hope-restoring ending.
Perhaps Ilona’s new restaurant that is shown at the end of Drifting
Clouds was not a success after all, and she was forced to become a
Kaurismäki as a teacher
Kaurismäki bases his films on one central theme: the working-class Finn.
He investigates the different sides of this theme and tries to bring back
the appreciation of the worker. This is an important subject, because the
1990s depression harmed the self-image of many Finns. Indeed, it still
affects them. This is also shown through Kaurismäki’s works.
The common characteristics in his movies are the uncompromising
cinematography, the breathtaking aesthetics and the eccentric dialogue.
The themes he has chosen are not common for Finnish directors and neither
are his strict methods. Kaurismäki is a unique moviemaker not only in
Finland but also internationally.
Kaurismäki himself might be pessimistic about the future, but through
his movies Finnish people can learn important aspects about themselves
that are hard to describe outside art. This is even more valuable now in
2009 when it would appear that Finns stand at the brink of worldwide
depression. Kaurismäki can help Finns understand their emotions, as
Finnish culture has never been about heart-to-heart conversations and many
Finns are baffled when faced with unforeseen feelings. He dares to discuss
subjects that are uncomfortable to Finns, such as homelessness, loneliness
and unemployment. Kaurismäki’s emphasis is on social interaction and
common humanity as solutions to societal problems.
- Kaurismäki himself offers little help with playful
sayings like "one is a working-class trilogy, and the other is a loser
trilogy, but I don't know which is which" (Marttila).
- Dubrovnik was not an actual restaurant at the time of
the filming, but later on Kaurismäki purchased a restaurant in Helsinki
which he named Dubrovnik. It is located on Eerikinkatu street.
- This might be compared with the on-going debate on
compact discs versus vinyl discs, where the compact discs are seen as
- Olavi Virta was a famous Finnish singer, who has
also been called “The king of Finnish tango”.
- Schlager is a style of pop music popular in
Finland. Schlager songs are often very sentimental or melancholic. The
melodies are light and catchy.
Kaurismäki refuses to allow Oscar nomination. 19 October 2006.
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