Man without a Past follows the noirish travails of its protagonist M, who, in the film’s first sequence, arrives in the city on the train with a modest suitcase in tow, only to be mugged and beaten in a city park. Having sustained a gruesome head injury, M suffers from amnesia that has him forgetting both his personal identity and profession. He is taken in by a community of unemployed and underemployed container-dwellers near the city’s harbour, highlighting the film’s economic themes. With a budding relationship with the deadpan Irma and his career finally remembered, he happens to witness a bank robbery, which belatedly interests the police in his curious case. When they run his picture in the newspaper asking if anyone can identify him, his estranged/now ex-wife reveals he headed to the city after they had separated. A potential reconciliation with her funnily falls flat, and he opts for Irma and the harbour community. A climactic confrontation has that community overcoming the thugs who had mugged M and commenced his struggles. Much music and harbour-side merriment follows.
Man without a Past is the probably most acclaimed Finnish film of all time, made by Finland’s most famous director, Aki Kaurismäki. Aki and his brother Mika are both prolific filmmakers and together have been responsible for about one-fifth of the total output of the Finnish film industry since the early 1980s. It is Aki’s films, however, that have broken through to international notoriety: like his fellow small-country Scandinavians Ingmar Bergman and Lars von Trier – though with a thoroughly different sensibility – Kaurismäki has managed to put his nation’s minor cinema on the global artcinema map. Man without a Past won the Grand Prix at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival (usually seen as the second prize, behind Polanski’s controversial win with The Pianist and ahead of a strong field that also included Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami); Man without a Past also won the Cannes Prize of the Ecumenical Jury as well as a surprise acting prize for Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen. Man without a Past, Kaurismäki’s most famous film to date, was also, in 2003, Finland’s first ever finalist for the foreign language Oscar. Despite this critical acclaim and Academy honour, Kaurismäki notoriously refused to attend the ceremony because he said he was, as he put it, ‘not in a party mood’ due to the (second) US–Iraq war, which had begun just days before Hollywood feted itself.1 Such deliberate, even cultivated, ambivalence toward Hollywood and the USA is a leitmotif running throughout Kaurismäki’s films. European art cinema often holds itself at arm’s length from classical and blockbuster Hollywood but rarely does it reach the ironic, even sardonic, heights of Kaurismäki’s cinema in general and Man without a Past in particular.
This fundamentally ambivalent posture toward Hollywood is manifest in the film’s memorable opening. Like many a classic noir – cf. Strangers on a Train – the camera first finds its protagonist, dubbed simply M, on a train, arriving from a place unknown in the big city (in Finland’s biggest city of Helsinki, which figures in many of Kaurismäki’s films). From there, toting a suitcase, M (Markku Peltola) proceeds to a park where he is summarily and brutally attacked, robbed, and left for dead by a trio of younger thugs. A drifter discovering violence in the big-city park away from the moneyed, urban masses recalls other noirs as well, like Welles’s similarly stylised opening in Lady from Shanghai, as does the unusual long take, point-of-view tracking shot of M’s wounded stumbling for help, invoking the consistently heightened subjectivity of noir (cf. Lady in the Lake).
Yet, even while invoking these venerable noir traditions, Kaurismäki is quick to simultaneously, and ironically, distance himself from them. Kaurismäki has emphasised in interviews how uncomfortable he was with the violence in Man without a Past’s memorable and effective opening, offering that he wanted to make this violence ‘honest’, because, ‘if people want to see violence looking good, there is something wrong with their heads. So I make it look as it really is, fast and ugly’. 2 The adjective ‘ugly’ characterising his stylised version of violence recurs as well in his self-conscious contrast of his casting to Hollywood’s, with his preference clearly for ‘ugly’ characters and actors.3 Even while the plot parameters draw close to noirish syntax, his style pulls in another direction, away from the Hollywood mantle he simultaneously foregrounds and rejects.
Man without a Past belongs to a trio of films usually known as the ‘loser trilogy’ (sometimes, more precisely, termed the ‘second loser trilogy’ or the ‘Finland trilogy’), with which Kaurismäki greeted the severe financial crisis that hit Finland in the 1990s.4 At that point, the break-up of the eastern bloc reverberated throughout the small country (the USSR was a main trading partner, positioned as Finland is between east and west). Trilogies, of course, lend any group of films a certain marketable coherence and useful auteurist imprimatur, although Kaurismäki also cites his lack of motivation to justify organising his work this way: ‘I’m so bloody lazy that I have to tell everybody I make trilogies. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do anything but play cards’. 5 Kaurismäki has, with the 2011 Le Havre, since commenced a yet another trilogy, lending a certain symmetry to his now over 22 features, which also include his breakthrough road movie Leningrad Cowboys Go America (which he rates as ‘the worst film in the history of cinema, unless you count Sylvester Stallone films’ 6 ) as well as literary adaptations (Crime and Punishment or Hamlet Goes Business), that likewise underscore his art-satirical approach to the sort of high-cultural products often featured in European art cinema.
In the Finnish financial crisis inspiring the late 1990s–early 2000s trilogy, unemployment hit 16 per cent in some corners of the country, and there was a general concern with retooling the nation’s identity, certainly a key theme in Man without a Past, in which the main protagonist is compelled to completely reinvent himself, leaving an ineluctably lost past behind. Kaurismäki said he felt compelled to make films about unemployment at that point.7 But he also noted that he had long been inclined to focus on the Finnish working class, because he prefers the ‘people who are hidden’ (Leigh 2003) to the upper classes, in which he is simply not interested: ‘I don’t know how to write dialogue for them, I don’t know how they talk’. 8 This perhaps owes in part to Kaurismäki’s own financial struggles at early moments in his career (he was, among other things, a dishwasher and postman) – he says there were ‘some years when I only had a sleeping bag. So I like losers. I am a loser myself’. 9 Even though Man without a Past bears clearly stylised genre markings as well as an ironically dreamlike atmosphere, it was largely shot on location in shipping containers in a harbour shanty town and many of the film’s extras were actually homeless. Such location shooting and nonprofessional actors underscore the film’s clear links to neorealist aesthetics, a tradition invoked but also overturned by the film’s sardonic tone and self-reflexive stylisation.
Memory-loss films are almost always about identity, both its inherited and performative aspects, but Man without a Past tends to generalise M’s personal identity in a number of spare sequences that collectivise its protagonist’s rather fragmentary, episodic experiences. For example, per Kaurismäki’s assiduous criticisms of the Finnish state, the police only get involved in M’s case (after having ignored his severe beating) when it intersects with a bank robbery that he coincidentally witnessed. M happens to be in the bank for the robbery because he has gone there to try to open an account: wandering around the harbour, he suddenly realises he was an industrial welder in his past life (skills to which the audience was cued when his muggers played with his welding helmet and placed it over his face as a premature death mask). Restored to his old and forgotten vocation, he is informed that there is plenty of work at the shipyard for a skilled welder, but that he will need a bank account to be paid. When at the bank trying to open an account – difficult without a name – a jowly and dour middle-aged man comes in with a shotgun and demands a withdrawal from his own business’s account, which the bank has punitively (and self-servingly) frozen. The clearly inexperienced robber, however, is insisting on the money not for himself, but to pay his workers who have been denied their wages for work done. These details – and the distrust of banks, at the heart of Finland’s 1990s crisis – underscore the trilogy’s economic concerns as well as the solution that Kaurismäki seems to long for in an ethics of simple and abiding solidarity between small business bosses and workers, pitted as they are against the larger institutional bureaucracies of corrupt banks and apathetic police.
The key to Kaurismäki’s work with genre, both noir and melodrama, is his consistent de-dramatisation of charged and even climactic moments, tipping tense scenes over into deadpan irony. The police consider M an accessory to the bank robbery since he will/cannot give his name, and the film reaches its de-dramatised high point when the police run M’s photo in the paper asking if anyone knows this man. M’s long-lost wife surprisingly comes forth, her never reporting him as missing explained away with her unhappiness at his gambling and at their impending divorce. When he meets her to learn about his former self, the encounter unfolds in the affectively flat style of all of Kaurismäki’s scenes, any histrionic sentiment drained from this arch melodramatic moment. Similarly, his wife’s new lover, hovering protectively nearby, asks M to step outside, ready to fight him on the doorstep of the house that once belonged to our protagonist. M asks why they should bother and offers instead to have a cigarette with him, defusing the conflict that one would expect at the heart of a memory-loss plot and the sundry genre forms with which Kaurismäki is playing. Gratefully liberated from the (conventional) past about which he just learns, M chooses his homeless friends and container life instead. He returns to the harbour and his newfound lover Irma, though the three thugs from the beginning return to greet him back to the big city. This time M braces for a fight, but again, the duel is defused when an army of homeless people, who have been harassed by these youths, appear to back M, sending the thugs running.
This sort of consistent, ironic de-dramatisation throughout the film is augmented by Kaurismäki’s signature still camera, his stilted blocking, and especially by the performances of the actors, who almost all recur from film to film. The Brechtian overtones of the beggar’s army seem confirmed in the modernist acting style Kaurismäki deploys, one he shares with major influences like Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu, both of whom would rehearse actors to remove what they regarded as excess, and useless, affect from performances. Whereas both Bresson and Ozu would have actors rehearse lines until they had drained them of superfluous emotion, Kaurismäki allegedly gives actors the relevant bits of script right before shooting, so the lines are unfamiliar and their performances subsequently defamiliarising. He allows the actors minimal rehearsals and takes, so they cannot limn the line for emotional subtly. Such flat and vaguely surprised performances tend to augment the overarching deadpan humour.
The lines that the actors end up delivering typically mix very formal, often somewhat antiquated speaking styles with humble surroundings and a working-class milieu. For example, Irma remains coldly formal with M throughout their relationship, even as we realise that M will help her realise the fantasy and longing she manifests in her surprising, secret listening to songs like ‘Do the Shake’ before going to bed at night. As with Irma’s musical tastes, Kaurismäki has alternated throughout his career between classical and (often) popular forms, especially of early rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly of the sort M comes to coax out of the Salvation Army band he then manages to local and lucrative success. Such constant alternation of high and low corresponds to one of Kaurismäki’s trademark visual strategies, again influenced by Ozu, namely, the placing of a noticeable streak of bright red in almost every image of this dreary world. Like his use of seemingly out-of-context, upbeat music, these curious and surprising splashes of colour illuminate and even enchant Kaurismäki’s engagement with a modest, downtrodden world from which many films simply avert their gaze.
1. Krohn and Kaurismäki, ‘Interview’.
2. Leigh, ‘I am a lousy ﬁlmmaker’.
4. Van Bagh, ‘Aki Kaurismäki’.
5. Krohn and Kaurismäki, ‘Interview’.
6. Coslovich, ‘The Finnish Touch’.
7. ‘I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror until I made a ﬁlm about unemployment’. Van Bagh, ‘Aki Kaurismäki’.
8. Leigh, ‘I am a lousy ﬁlmmaker’.
9. Coslovich, ‘The Finnish Touch’.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Germany, France, Finland. Production Company: Sputnik, Pyramide Productions, Pandora Filmproduktion, Bavaria Film, YLE-TV. Director: Aki Kaurismäki. Producers: Aki Kaurismäki, Ella Werning. Screenwriter: Aki Kaurismäki. Cinematographer: Timo Salminen. Music: Olli Kykkänen. Editor: Timo Linnasalo. Cast: Markku Peltola (M), Kati Outinen (Irma), Juhani Niemelä (Nieminen), Kaija Pakarinen (Kaisa Nieminen), Annikki Tähti (Manager of Flea Market), Sakari Kuosmanen (Anttila), Esko Nikkari (Bank Robber), Aino Seppo (Ex-wife).]
Peter van Bagh, ‘Aki Kaurismäki: The Uncut Interview’, Film Comment, 2011. Available at www. ﬁlmcomment.com/article/aki-kaurismaki/. Gabriella Coslovich, ‘The Finnish Touch’, Euroscreenwriters, March 14, 2003. Available at http://zakka.dk/euroscreenwriters/interviews/aki_ kaurismaki.htm.
Peter Cowie, Finnish Cinema, London, The Tantivy Press, 1976.
Aki Kaurismäki, ‘Robert Bresson – a Wolf’, in James Quandt (ed.), Robert Bresson, Toronto, Cinematheque Ontario, 1998, pp. 561–62.
Eric Krohn and Aki Kaurismäki, ‘Interview: I am not interested in the upper classes’, IndieWire, 20 October 2011. Available at www.indiewire. com/article/interview_le_havre_director_aki_ kaurismaeki_im_not_interested_in_the_upper_.
Danny Leigh, ‘I am lousy ﬁlmmaker’, Guardian, January 16, 2003. Available at www.guardian. co.uk/culture/2003/jan/17/artsfeatures1.
Andrew Nestingen, ‘Why Nation? Globalization and National Culture in Finland, 1980–2001’, PhD, University of Washington, 2001.
Lana Wilson, ‘Great Directors: Aki Kaurismäki’, Senses of Cinema, July 09, 2009. Available at http://sensesofcinema.com/2009/great-directors/ aki-kaurismaki/.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.