Written and Directed by: Aki Kaurismaki
Starring: Markku Peltola, Kati Outinen
I first heard of Aki Kaurismaki when a friend recommended I watch The Man Without A Past. I promptly ordered a copy from eBay, put it on my shelf and there it sat for…5 years? I went on to watch some of Kaurismaki’s other films, Ariel (1988), Shadows in Paradise (1986), Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) but somehow The Man Without A Past went unseen. I finally came around to it recently and was pleased to find it a more polished version of what Kaurismaki does in those other films. His thing, at least in my experience, is to portray the low- or no-income, scrawny, stoney-faced sad-sack outsiders as comically deadpan while still gesturing towards their desperate situation. I have not seen him do it better than in The Man Without A Past.
A man (Markku Peltola) arrives one night in Helsinki and falls asleep on a park bench, where he is beaten within an inch of his life by three hoodlums who pick through his pockets and suitcase in search of the few dollars he’s carrying. In the hospital he is declared dead, but he springs to life and runs away, soon collapsing on a shoreline near a shipping yard. He is taken in by the community of people who live there in abandoned shipping containers and I cannot say they treat him warmly but… with something resembling warmth. The man can’t remember anything about his past, his life, or even what happened to him. He has no idea where he comes from or how to get in contact with his family, he has no money, no social insurance number and no identity so he gets a shipping container to call his own, finds a small job at the local Salvation Army thrift store and begins to put his life back together. Over time he is able to furnish his little home, plant a small potato garden, get a girlfriend and turn the SA band into a weird rockabilly band (Marko Haavisto & Poutahaukat). I wouldn’t go so far as to call him charismatic, but he’s certainly a mover among these poor, sad folks.
Kaurismaki’s amazing ability to infuse humour into this world is stunning; sometimes he uses strange juxtaposition of energetic, semi-goofy music with the joyless way these people move through their lives, at other times Kaurismaki simply pauses on quiet, simple moments long enough to expose them as comical. Even though I was watching the impossibly poor be impossibly sad I found myself often choking with laughter and always grinning, and yet there is nothing sadistic or cruel about this film. Kaurismaki loves these people, he feels for the weight of their sadness and admires them for trying, admires the tiny (almost non-existent) joy they seldom allow themselves to even acknowledge. The characters in The Man Without A Past are so rigid and po-faced that their frequent attempts to say something tender or passionate come across as bizarre and disingenuous, yet still somehow sweet as though the gesture is in trying and not necessarily in meaning it. Through a combination of characteristically odd musical choices, a stunning colour palette, relentlessly deadpan performances and tongue-in-cheek camera movements, Kaurismaki constructs his charming and singular vision.
The Man Without A Past is a phenomenal film. It’s the sort that, once watched, changes the rest of the day. Performances here are stern but betray a wonderful sweetness. Kaurismaki is the kind of director that seems to achieve the impossible by not having to do anything; he is presenting the sort insight into human nature that is so easy to look at without seeing. The Man Without A Face feels like a strange fairy tale as characters say and do bizarre things, seemingly as though they are being moved from without, and all the while there is just so much tenderness in the way that Kaurismaki points his camera at such dejected people. These people have been abandoned by the world and Kaurismaki is the champion of their worth.