My Side of the Sandbox: Finland’s Film Director Aki Kaurismäki

Film Director Aki Kaurismäki

I have maintained for a long time that I tend to appreciate and enjoy films from Central and Eastern Europeans more than I ever did from those big juggernauts of Western Europe. Filmmakers like Jaromil Jires, Frantisek Vlacil, Bela Tarr, Yorgos Lanthimos, Vera Chytilova, and Christian Mungiu have turned me inside out with their cinema, given me regard for patience in art, and an appreciation of comedy that is hard to laugh at because it is so discomforting. Their cinema is the reject’s European Cinema, the weird kids in their corner of the sandbox smelling, tasting, and flinging the sand around while the Fellini’s, Wender’s, David Lean’s, and Truffaut’s from the West build their pristine castles from it.

Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki falls into the this corner of the sandbox. Here is a very eclectic, fascinating European filmmaker, who’s films, despite being filmed outside, still seem like they are set atop an indoor theater stage with spotlights shining on the actors. Perhaps it is a side-effect of Kaurismaki’s adoration for musical stage performances. His rock-umentary Total Balalaika Show heavily relied on lighting and atmosphere, which showcased the rocking rollicking Leningrad Cowboys as deities of the Finnish musical scene. Even in his narrative films, music and performance play a major role in setting not only the mood of scene at hand, but also foreshadowing a character’s future actions. In The Match Factory Girl, each song which plays, either on radio, on a jukebox, or simply as non-diegetic background, is accompanied by the wonderfully wry facial expressions of Kati Outinen, making us anticipate her next, awkward and silent move.

Total Balalaika Show (1994)
The Match Factory Girl (1990)

Kaurismäki’s characters are droll and speak in abrupt one or two word answers, hardly a style that gives way to entertaining theater. The fact that M in The Man Without a Past rarely ever speaks for the duration of the film doesn’t make him any less of a theatrical character. He is a stage performer as all actors are in Kaurismäki’s cinema, and his lack of words gives way to letting us appreciate all the nuances of the scene, from its richly contrasting hot and cool colors, to abrupt patches of light and dark, to the still positions of its actors. Like a Norman Rockwell painting remastered in HD, Kaurismäki’s camera centers on people and surrounds them with an atmosphere relevant of the time and place, hinting at a satire of the social construct of contemporary Finland.

The Man Without a Past (2002)

His most ‘traditional’ film (and appropriately French), Le Havre, has no shortage of the eclectic Finnish ‘touch’. It is perhaps even more comical to see Kaurismäki’s characters scurrying and awkwardly positioned around Le Havre, France (which he declares the Memphis, Tennessee of Europe) doing almost no talking and behaving as background furniture trying to be not be noticed rather than walking with smooth stride or charming each other with cinematic language.

Le Havre (2011)

Finland is an interesting place because people know so little about it outside of Europe, its a country tucked away in the north east, one which the Scandinavians deny any relation to, the Russians try to ignore, and Europe in general tends to forget about. A country who’s language (of Uralic roots) is so strange, only having slight resemblances to Hungarian and Estonian, that no one outside of the country can even try to understand its grammatical structure. Perhaps then Finland, and its flag-bearer filmmaker Kaurismäki are a perfect example of that little corner of the sandbox I have come to love so much in European cinema.