Watching an Aki Kaurismäki film can feel like dropping in on a world just out of step with our own. All the elements are there—the streets, the buildings, the people (and their docile dogs). But something is always off. A man’s desk is taken away while he’s still sitting at it to indicate he’s been laid off. A woman asks a pharmacist what rat poison does. “It kills,” the pharmacist says blankly. It’s as if the Finnish filmmaker is recreating a version of planet Earth with all the nuance removed. These highly orchestrated facsimiles should feel foreign, but their simplicity and dry humor instead allows for a familiarity to sink in. His universe is in fact far more relatable—and far more human—than meets the eye.
Although he’s gained a reputation as a comically cynical auteur, Kaurismäki has in fact been earnestly cataloguing commonalities among people throughout his nearly 40-year career, which New York’s Metrograph will be highlighting March 29–April 10. Kaurismäki has said that his goal is to make films that can be understood across cultures without any subtitles. His characters are often stripped of everything belonging to them at a moment’s notice—their jobs, their money, their memories. What remains when all this disappears are the simple indicators of what constitutes a life: the way bus doors close, how to light a cigarette, the sound of a music filling the room. When it seems all is lost, Kaurismäki throws out a life raft to his characters, and to his audience, no matter what country they’re in.
Kaurismäki’s work focuses on society’s rejects: the outcasts and loners, the criminals and refugees. The director himself grew up working a long list of “honest jobs,” including stints as a mailman and a dishwasher, before starting his first production company in Helsinki in 1980. He’s always been more interested in the have-nots than the haves, saying, in a 1990 interview with Cinéma cinémas, “I lose the rest of my little talent when I go in a bourgeois place.” If anything, his work has only sunk deeper into the depths of Europe’s invisible classes in recent years, portraying those impacted by the growing refugee crisis in his films Le Havre (2011) and The Other Side of Hope (2017).
But no matter how dark Kaurismäki gets, he never takes himself too seriously. His set design alone is nearly impossible to see without smiling, with its bright, contrasting color palate and whimsically sparse prop arrangement. While his penchant for telling underdog stories may invite some to say he makes “realist” films, he disagrees. “I would call it melodrama more than realism,” he told Cinéma cinémas. “Melodrama is cruel and comical at the same time.” And it’s clear the director admires more than the technicolor interiors of auteurs like Douglas Sirk and Rainer Werner Fassbinder—his stories share the romance and fatalism that set these directors apart, with an added smirk.
His work is in a category all its own, but the director takes it upon himself to further divide his films into trilogies. “I’m so bloody lazy that I have to tell everybody I make trilogies,” the director explained in his typically droll tone in 2011. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do anything but play cards.” Perhaps his most well-known, “The Proletariat Trilogy,” documents the lives of several people barely hanging on to their meager existences. Shadows in Paradise (1986) tells the shaky love story between a garbage collector and a grocery store clerk, played by two of Kaurismäki’s formidable troupe of regulars, Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen. In Ariel (1988), out-of work miner Taisto (Turo Pajala) navigates a frigid Helsinki with nothing but a convertible with a soft-top roof that won’t open. In The Match Factory Girl (1990), eponymous antihero Iris (again played by a magnificently dour Outinen) spends her days at her tedious low-paying job, and her nights waiting for someone to notice her at the local nightclub.
Here we see what people reach for when they have nothing left. While suicide is an ever-present theme in his work, his characters eschew the temptation to end their suffering in one fell swoop, seeking out a level of dignity in the midst of desperation. In Ariel, Taisto checks in to a homeless shelter as if it’s a hotel, grabbing a free newspaper on his way in and adorning his bedside with a portrait of then-president Urho Kekkonen. In The Match Factory Girl, Iris chooses to spend most of her paycheck on an extravagant pink dress in the hopes of attracting some attention. And in Shadows in Paradise, even when sitting alone in his apartment, Nikander will don sunglasses.
It’s these small choices that come to define these characters, and that end up forming a universal language that echoes across Kaurismäki’s work. Just as putting on a pair of sunglasses can transform your mood, so can putting on the right song. Music is Kaurismäki’s global currency, one that transcends time, place and state of mind to alter one’s circumstances, at least for the length of a song. In The Man without a Past (2002), “M” (Markku Peltola), a man suffering from amnesia, recognizes the need for a jukebox in the shipping container that’s become his makeshift home. Jukeboxes pop up all over Kaurismäki’s world, from bars to bedrooms, playing everything from Elmore James to Finnish polka. A character like Iris in The Match Factory Girl may come to a key decision as she sits alone beside a jukebox belting out a song by The Renegades. And in Hamlet Goes Business (1987), part of Kaurismäki’s trilogy of classic literature adaptations, including Crime and Punishment (1983) and La vie de bohème (1992), Hamlet shuts off the classical music on his record player after Ophelia rejects his sexual advances, kicking his personal jukebox awake in frustration to play Lowell Fulson’s “Talkin’ Woman”: Now honey hush. You know you’re talkin’ too much. / Just listenin’ to your conversation, just about to separate us.
Live music, too, features largely in Kaurismäki’s universe. The storylines will pause for interludes from real-life musicians like Joe Strummer and Anniki Tähti, in case the audience, too, needs a respite from the barrage of bad luck his characters are dealt. His trio of films about the Leningrad Cowboys, “the world’s worst rock n’ roll band,” (Leningrad Cowboys Go America , Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses  and Total Balalaika Show ) are somewhere between road movies and mockumentaries, following the group as they travel to the United States and back to their native Siberia, charming audiences with their aggressively long faux-hawks, winklepicker boots, and American-inspired sound.
The only things that loom larger than music in Kaurismäki’s world may be alcohol and cigarettes, which are paired neatly together in most scenes. These globally understood commodities take the place of conversation in many cases, allowing characters to stare off into space, or into their glass, instead of engaging with another human. When conversations between characters do take place, they’re stilted and aloof, often avoiding eye contact. Bars and restaurants become safe havens, especially when Kaurismäki transposes the action of his films to locales other than Finland. In I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), Henri, a French expat in London (played by the perfectly cast Jean-Pierre Léaud, who has frequently portrayed the outsider since beginning his career in The 400 Blows), tries to call-off his plan to have a hitman kill him after visiting his local pub. Here, he’s introduced to beer, cigarettes, and women, for what seems to be the first time.
While the scenery may occasionally shift from Helsinki to places like London, Paris, and Le Havre, Kaurismäki’s stories remain largely the same. It makes sense that a director who began his career by adapting Crime and Punishment would continue to portray variations on common themes throughout his work. The “Loser Trilogy” (Drifting Clouds , The Man without a Past  and Lights in the Dusk ) picks up where the “Proletariat Trilogy” left off, focusing on the growing issue of unemployment in Finland. Kaurismäki’s not afraid of typecasting either, with his actors often maintaining similar characteristics across multiple roles. Outinen’s character names alone are hard to distinguish, as she goes from playing Iris in The Match Factory Girl, to Ilona in Drifting Clouds, to Irma in The Man without a Past. And the same Marcel Marx (André Wilms), the writer and lovable lush from La vie de bohème, reappears again twenty years later in Le Havre. He’s just as jovial, if a little worn down, as he scrapes by as a shoe shiner in northern France.
These little points of familiarity are everywhere in Kaurismäki’s world, and are fun to pick up on when watching his films in sequence. Within his works, characters are confronted with a different kind of familiarity, that of recognizing others’ suffering—turning on the TV will likely yield a news story about horrors taking place on the other side of the world. In The Match Factory Girl, Iris and her family watch the news of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and in Drifting Clouds, Ilona learns of a storm in the Philippines that “forced 250,000 people out of their homes,” and a “Nigerian civil rights leader” who was executed. No matter how bad his characters have it, they’re reminded that others have it worse.
In his two most recent films, Kaurismäki decides to take up the point of view of those actually living these nightmares. In Le Havre, Marcel Marx tries to help a young African refugee, Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), escape the French port city and join his mother in London. And in The Other Side of Hope, Khaled (Sherwan Haji) escapes warfare in Syria, seeking asylum in Finland while trying to locate his sister with the help of fellow refugees and a struggling restaurant owner (Sakari Kuosmanen). It’s perhaps the first time Kaurismäki has depicted what it’s like to escape to Finland instead of showing those trying to escape from the country (usually to Mexico). Here, as in all of Kaurismäki’s work, desperation recognizes desperation, and two people in dire circumstances help pull the other up. It’s a bold political statement on his part, one that encourages us to recognize what we have in common when all the nuances are stripped away, and we all speak the same language.
"Total Kaurismäki Show" runs March 29 – April 10, 2019 at the Metrograph in New York.