Kaurismäki-Land: A Sad and Beautiful World

The films of Aki Kaurismäki, whether about working-class romantics or the refugee crisis, are devoted to what it means to be human.
WW Jones

How to be a Human: Three Films by Aki Kaurismäki is showing September 18 - October 9, 2020 on MUBI in the United Kingdom.

Above: The Other Side of Hope.

As Finland’s most successful cinematic export, Aki Kaurismäki is a one-man studio system and potentially a genre unto himself. An auteur in the truest sense, Kaurismäki exercises almost complete control over all elements of his work: from designing his own sets to a distinctly pared-down and deadpan approach to dialogue, along with command over the production and distribution of his films. While Kaurismäki’s films are in many ways innately Finnish, the cinematic worlds which he has created are distinctly his own and could take place anywhere. “Kaurismäki-land” is a land governed by its own rules, a parallel universe that overlaps with our own. The citizens of Kaurismäki-land are mostly working-class romantics and dreamers. Prone to depression, they drink and smoke their way through lonely nights in rented rooms, yet they maintain resolute resilience in the face of adversity. 

The Finnish auteur’s most recent two films, Le Havre (2011) and The Other Side of Hope (2017), explore and ultimately humanize the refugee crisis. This shift to confronting such a complex and globalized subject might at first seem at odds with Kaurismäki’s oeuvre, but it should not be seen as a complete departure. Rather, it is a direct distillation of themes that have been present throughout his career. Due to Kaurismäki’s idiosyncratic combination of absurdist humor, melodrama, and social realism, it is easy to overlook the overt politics on display in his work. The world’s problems often permeate the hermetically sealed lives of his characters, who even in moments of quiet desperation, take time to engage with the global disasters that beam into homes and bars through the light of television screens. The citizens of Kaurismäki-land are rarely solipsistic: however badly the world treats them, their hearts are always open with a sense of common humanity. While Kaurismäki’s personal worldview appears to hold little hope for mankind, he continues to tell humanist stories about small and seemingly forgotten lives.


Above: Le Havre.

It is a testament to the expansiveness and inclusivity of Kaurismäki-land, already populated with outsiders and transient figures, that opening its cinematic borders to the asylum seekers of Le Havre and The Other Side of Hope is a natural continuation. In Kaurismäki-land, the laws of reality can be reconfigured: death can be overcome by unlikely resurrections, and terminal illnesses disappear overnight. Fate may be cruel or kind: a character’s life savings can be lost in a game of cards or the gamble might pay off. The forces that cannot be overcome, and which might derail the lives of his characters, are far more mundane: petty bureaucrats, the small print of the law, and bank loans that lead to destitution. Even in Kaurismäki-land, capitalism’s relentless expansion pushes barely surviving menial workers to a life of poverty on the margins of society. 

Kaurismäki-land is a fundamentally manic-depressive place in which happiness and sadness coexist interchangeably and often simultaneously. This polarity of emotion achieves a mischievous symbiosis, producing something that is both measured and anarchic. Each film contains a whole spectrum of feeling, a shifting of registers that upends moments of tragedy and loss with a sight gag or killer one-liner. Comedy does not neuter these emotional moments, but rather heightens them. Similarly, the sentimental and overtly emotional elements of his melodramas are never disingenuous or pejorative. Unlike traditional melodramas from his beloved studio-system era, Kaurismäki inverts the exaggerated performance style and replaces its lurid, sensational narratives with small and distinctly humane stories. By stripping down ornamentation and eliminating all but the essential elements of his cinematic worlds, Kaurismäki creates the space for elusive feelings to manifest.


There are two terms which offer an entry point into Kaurismäki’s overarching creative project, one which has been consistent for nearly forty years. The first is the Finnish concept of sisu, which roughly translates as having excessive resilience and determination to continue, when others would give up or consider a task impossible. This is a stoicism that verges on madness and is a concept that many Finns see as part of the national character. Kaurismäki’s characters are infused with sisu. They operate in an impossible world and resiliently persevere through whatever obstacles they encounter, maintaining a level of dignity and humanity, and often managing to be quite cool in the process.

The other term, from Kaurismäki’s long-term home of Portugal, is the concept of saudade. Saudade is a melancholic yearning for something lost, be it a loved one or a homeland which cannot be returned to. It originally related to a mourning for those lost onjourneys or shipwrecked. In Kaurismäki-land, the shore becomes a hinterland marking characters’ desire to return to nowhere in particular, or perhaps some idealized or vanished place. Saudade is also an absence, a longing to be whole and complete. In Kaurismäki’s films, this sense of incompleteness is a hole usually filled by love, alcohol, music, and dogs, and it is a feeling inherently conveyed by the soundtracks to the films(apart from the occasional upbeat rock ‘n’ roll number—we all need to dance sometimes). Saudade is woven into the fabric of his beloved Finnish tango, a staple in every film. Finnish tango is a variation on traditional Argentine tango that became hugely popular in Finland in the first half of the twentieth century (although Kaurismäki insists that the Finns spawned the genre, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary). The Finnish version differs from its more upbeat counterparts: performed almost entirely in minor keys, the lyrics deal primarily with a melancholic longing for the past and lost lovers—perfectly articulating the heartfelt nostalgia at the core of Kaurismäki’s work.


Above: Lights in the Dusk.

Kaurismäki claims he makes trilogies out of laziness: why come up with three different ideas when a single idea can be spread out over three films? It is the trilogy films which define his ongoing creative project, which deals predominantly with class politics from the bottom up. This absurdist and melodramatic take on social realism—shall we call it social unrealism or screwball tragedy? —shapes compassionate and universal narratives about the working classes and other ostracized members of society. When asked why his films don’t feature the middle- or upper- classes, Kaurismäki replied that they simply weren’t interesting enough; the real drama plays out in the lives of his proletariats and losers. 

While difficult to separate stylistically from his larger body of work, the trilogies stand distinctly apart from his comedies, literary adaptations, and stand-alone genre films through their pattern of themes. The “Proletariat” and “Loser” trilogies—the former comprising Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990), the latter Drifting Clouds (1996), The Man without a Past (2002) and Lights in the Dusk (2006)—work as a cohesive whole, with the first installment of each trilogy featuring couples in economic or legal trouble. The second in each series deals with displaced migrant workers who find themselves washed up in an unforgiving city due to factors outside of their control. The final films in the trilogies are minimalist interpretations of crime films. These are some of the bleakest in his back catalogue, dealing with isolated characters operating without love. The cruelty and torment they experience does not come from social or economic factors, but—unusually for Kaurismäki—from the actions of other people. 

Kaurismäki followed up his Cannes Grand Prix-winning and Oscar-nominated film Man without a Past with Lights in the Dusk. The final instalment of the “Loser” trilogy, the film is Aki’s first foray into film noir since his 1990 film, I Hired a Contract Killer. Lights in the Dusk feels particularly austere by comparison to both these films, pushing the cynicism and existential anti-morality of noir to potent and unrelenting extremes. 

The central lead Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) is an unlikely noir character. One of life’s passive victims, this lonely security guard nurtures an unrealistic dream of opening his own security firm. The femme fatale Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) seduces Koistinen into unknowingly becoming part of a criminal enterprise that ultimately leads to his downfall (although, to be honest, he doesn’t have far to fall.) While the familiar elements are still in place—a stylistically impeccable mise en scène, fronted by a cool and lonely loser—the overtly joyous elements of his earlier films have been stripped away. The tone is relentlessly unforgiving, even cold. Lights in the Dusk feels like a final coffin nail in the “Loser” trilogy, like getting a deadpan cinematic suicide note when you were hoping for a love letter. Kaurismäki’s minimalist approach renders the film’s palpable sadness almost unbearable, its stillness and lack of visual distractions leaving the viewer with little space to look away. Almost entirely devoid of hope, the title can only refer to the finalshots of the film, in which the thinnest slice of hope may be possible. If there is light at the end of this tunnel, it’s probably an oncoming train. 


Above: The Other Side of Hope.

Kaurismäki’s characters often feel like human cargo devoid of agency and this is especially pronounced in the figures of Idrissa in Le Havre and Khaled in The Other Side of Hope: both have been “unloaded” and displaced by an uncaring society. Le Havre is the story of Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a failed playwright who we last encountered living the bohemian low-life in La vie de bohème. Washed up in the port city of Le Havre, Marcel scrapes a meagre living as a shoeshine in a world where most people wear trainers. Having lunch by the harbor, Marcel encounters a young African refugee called Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) and instinctively decides to shield Idrissa from the authorities, later attempting to reunite the displaced boy with his family. This is classic Kaurismäki: the skin-deep cynicism of his characters masks a generosity of spirit in which acts of kindness are automatic and instinctive—it doesn’t occur to them not to be kind.

The Other Side of Hope tells the story of Syrian refugee Khaled, who finds himself washed up in Helsinki. The narrative structure is unusual for Kaurismäki in having a split framework. As we follow Khaled in his attempt to seek refugee status, we are introduced to the traveling salesman Waldemar Wikstrom, who sells off his failing business to follow his dream of opening a restaurant. After an unlikely meeting, the restauranteur gives the homeless Syrian a job and a temporary home, and sets about helping to locate his sister whilst shielding him from the authorities. The Other Side of Hope features Kaurismäki’s longest piece of continuous dialogue, as Khaled recounts the tragedies that have led him to Finland. This is particularly poignant sitting in the middle of Kaurismäki’s stripped-down and sparse cinematic world and gives us no opportunity to avoid what we are being shown.

Both films consolidate the more positive, innocent, and generous aspects of Kaurismäki’s filmmaking. The fortitude of sisu and the melancholic yearning of saudade are found here in their purest form. Each features a beautiful musical moment that illustrates the profound longing at the heart of the human condition: Idrissa listening to Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues,” a song about the loss of family and having no place in the world. Meanwhile, Khaled’s performance of a mournful lament during his last night in the detention center makes his specific sense of displacement palpable. Both films also feature, by Kaurismäki’s standards, remarkably happy endings—particularly the unexpected miracle that occurs in Le Havre. This isn’t Kaurismäki offering up a traditional morality, but simply showing us that good things can happen to good people. 

Playing for higher stakes than Aki’s other films, these are stories of life or death, where the characters’ goals—to reunite with their families—are ultimately more urgent. In the Refugee Trilogy, Kaurismäki localizes the global by humanizing a crisis that is usually framed in detached statistics and narratives of Otherness. By reframing the refugee narrative in individual terms, Kaurismäki makes us face society’s prejudices head-on and acknowledge the terrible cost of displacement. Kaurismäki-land at its finest captures the small, intangible moments of transcendence that remind us just what it is to be a human being in a sad and beautiful world. In a world becoming increasingly homogenized by the day, it is perhaps one of Kaurismäki’s greatest achievements that he has created a universe where each visit feels like coming home.

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