This Human Life

in 14th Palm Springs International Film Festival

by Robert Koehler

The face of Markku Peltola, who plays the title character of Aki Kaurismäki’s brilliant, droll “The Man Without a Past”, first appears to us like a craggy visage that could belong to Captain Ahab’s twin brother—or, perhaps, Ahab himself. Beneath the leathery surface of the skin, the first indication that we’re dealing with a full-fledged member of the working class, is something more vulnerable, a sadness perhaps, a sense of something lost. And yet, at the same time, Peltola’s face is endowed with the qualities of granite, an impregnable solidity that would make Robert Mitchum shudder.

It turns out that Peltola’s Man—no more complete name is ever provided by Kaurismäki, nor is one needed—is embarking, very much like Ahab, on an impossible task; but very much unlike Ahab, it has nothing to do with a suicidal hunt. When the Man arrives by train in Helsinki, he makes the mistake of walking through the park at night, where a trio of thugs pummels him to a pulp and rob him. It can’t be possible, we’re thinking, that Kaurismäki’s hero is dead in his hospital bed, as his attending doctor officially declares. No, he has to go on, and he does, with the sort of shockingly absurd efficiency that makes Kaurismäki one of the few sound-era filmmakers who understands the ironic humor of silent film acting.

The Man’s stark rise from his bed is the film’s true beginning, and establishes the film’s central meaning: “The Man Without a Past” creates a world in which death is simply not possible, because the people living in it (not only the Man) are in the middle of a search for their identities, and they’re not done yet. This makes Kaurismäki’s Man some kind of ultimate counter-response to the Ahab syndrome of a man so thoroughly convinced that he knows himself that he’s convinced of his self-made myth, leaving him with no further option than to chart a course that leads toward death.

Everything about Peltola’s Man is about navigating back toward life, which begins with the significant act of slowly removing the bandages that completely cover his all-important face, and that for a brief running time have made him resemble The Invisible Man. It’s one of the quietest yet most dramatic acts of re-birth on screen in several years. Now, the Man’s face still retains the granite, but it’s been punctured and bruised and dented, and, just to complete this Face of Humanity, it’s on the mend.

I think this is the key behind why “The Man Without a Past” has been more widely embraced than any of Kaurismäki’s previous 22 films. There’s nothing on the film’s surface, nor in the inner comic pulse, nor in the direction, to explain it. That’s because this latest film is completely of a piece with most of Kaurismäki’s major work over the past fifteen years, starting perhaps with “Hamlet Goes Business” Although it’s a return to color and dialogue after his black-and-white silent, “Juha” (1999), it’s also a return to the ground he long ago tilled: aplace of working-class despair and marginalization, of folks barely keeping it together in Helsinki’s forlorn outskirts, finding strength in the sheer act of standing up straight and walking forward, or standing up to some perceived insult and returning the volley with lethal deadpan wit. His people live in an alternate but closely related world to our own, heightened for those us who don’t live in the far northern Finnish climes by an especially sharp light and a crown of daytime azure sky topping character’s heads that can only exist in the movies.

And, like “The Match Factory Girl” (1989), “I Hired a Contract Killer” (1990), “La Vie de Boheme” (1992) and “Drifting Clouds” (1996), to cite a few, the tone of “Man” is an extraordinary balancing of complete hopelessness and unlimited possibilities, of inky black tragedy and hilariously dry comedy. Many of his actors—such as Kati Outinen as Irma, a Salvation Army soup kitchen “soldier” who grudgingly falls in love with the Man—are the ones he’s always used, as is his crew, led by Timo Salminen, who does more with a simple key and fill light than any other cinematographer on the planet.

So, what is different this time? Why the sudden rush to acknowledge Kaurismaki as, in the favored festival parlance, “a living master”? Why the outrage when Kaurismaki was passed over at Cannes (in favor of Polanski’s well-regarded but far more conventional “The Pianist”) for the Palme d’Or? Or, to put it more caustically if more unfairly, where was the love when earlier great works like “Match Factory Girl” or “Contract Killer” came and went without barely a ripple of interest?

The quick answer is that this kind of delayed response happens all the time in art. Audiences went nuts for Jasper Johns right off the bat, but it took them longer to get close to Richard Diebenkorn. Fellini was a hit as early as “I Vitelloni”; Antonioni was a much more slowly acquired taste. Whether the artist catches up to time, or the times to the artist, is one of those quicksilver phenomena that nobody can really grasp: like the wind, it just bursts on in, and there it is. And so…here is Kaurismäki, same as he ever was, but now, everybody is watching.

But to give “The Man Without a Past” the full due it richly deserves, it has to be said that Kaurismäki has now so completely mastered his own distinct voice and style that every minute of this film feels and looks and sounds exactly as he intended. At any given moment in an art form’s history, there are never more than a few cases of such mastery, which is to say that there are always at least those few. Even when American movies had reached the skids in the ‘80s, for example, Scorsese reached a kind of zenith; even when the French Nouvelle Vague had became a dry shell, Jean Eustache made his one great statement with “The Mother and The Whore”. Kaurismäki shares the unfortunate and misguided view of some aging filmmakers and slowly burning-out critics that cinema’s death is upon us, and then he makes this, a movie that emphatically denies death’s possibility. Of all people, he must appreciate the irony.

There are several examples of this mastered voice sprinkled from start to finish in “Man”, and here are two.

The Man, not remembering a thing about himself before his mugging, is simply trying to find a shelter to sleep in, and comes to an uneasy arrangement with Anttila (Sakari Kuosmanen), a security guard and self-glorified “landlord” of a bunch of empty transport containers, which he rents to the homeless for a price. Note the similarity of the landlord’s name to Attila the Hun, and the added gag that his “attack dog” is a sweet, gentle mutt named “Hannibal”. It takes this grasping conqueror of Helsinki’s wastelands to compel the Man to find his true self, which he does in a series of comic exchanges where the Man’s down-to-Earth, broad-shouldered solidity interacts with Anttilla’s bloated, blow-hard façade of threat and violence capped with a habit of citing the Bible at every juncture. Part of how we discover ourselves is facing our opposite, a wise formula Kaurismäki has long dramatized but which he refines here so completely that it realizes it’s full comic potential.

Another case is when the Man enters a bank to make a deposit—a crucial step on his quest to self-identity since, even in this particular world where death can’t enter, money continues to define who people are. Nothing can possibly go wrong, it seems, because up to now, the Man’s re-birth has been a course of steady progress, like the building of a house from its foundation. But Kaurismäki remains a social critic and realist, which means that progress has to be interrupted from time to time. In this bland, nearly furniture-less bank (it turns out that it’s not even functioning, since the bank owners have gone belly-up) the Man finds himself in the middle of a robbery by a man (Esko Nikkari) whose own desperation in the face of economic decay becomes a mini-story in itself, even it’s own drama within the drama. The robber is left more or less high and dry, caught in the absurd situation of stealing back the money he previously deposited in the bank. Later, stuck in the vault by the robber, the Man and the bank clerk (Outi Maenpaa) seem to have no way out; she’s resigned to die.

But, of course, they don’t, because, of course, they can’t. Kaurismäki isn’t interested in how they’re freed: his jump-cuts over major dilemmas in the story, like this one, are where much of his cinematic comedy stems from. Rather, he’s interested in how the Man keeps going on, even against some dense cops who assume that he was behind the robbery.

Thus follows the crucial end to this section, which toys with the audience’s weakness for metaphysical solutions. If there’s a spiritual possibility with Kaurismäki, it’s heavily larded with the stuff of planet Earth or the business of humans. His own piquant summary of “Man” suggests this, when he cheekily refers to “this epic drama, this film—or should we say a dream?—of lonely hearts with empty pockets under the big sky of the Lord—or should we say birds?” The hint of a guardian angel, care of the deeply Christian Salvation Army brethren, coming to rescue the Man from the cops is secularized into the form of a defense lawyer (Matti Wuori) who engages the cops in a nearly satirical jousting match of legal statutes. A little soup at the soup kitchen may stave off the hunger, but the law saves your ass.

The final phase of the Man’s progress and Kaurismäki’s comedy is that as the Man comes back to life and slowly learns who he is (a just-divorced welder coming to Helsinki to find work), he helps humanize those around him, especially all those Christians. He encourages the Salvation Army band to take up rock n’ roll, and it brings in the crowds. He makes Hannibal, who probably instantly senses that here’s a better master than Anttila, his own pet dog. He turns a humble bit of soil just outside his container home into a potato garden. And he patiently waits until the rigidly firm but not uncaring Irma realizes that someone (he) is actually interested in her, to the point of his stoically respecting her need to remain chaste with him until he confirms whether he’s married or not. (Love can be hard with a man without a past.) Kaurismäki observes all of this, in return, with the proper stoicism. His camera is almost always at least a few feet or yards away from his actors, usually denying himself close-ups so that we can see the reaction of the actor who isn’t speaking. He cuts precisely and without the kind of nervousness that has infected too much filmmaking around the world. (One can imagine Kaurismäki blanching, and then walking out, on a movie like “City of God”.) Like Hawks and other Hollywood directors he admires, he shoots at shoulder level, without cranes, low or high angles or the hand-held framing so adored by his Scandinavian brethren to his west. He produces a Technicolor range and depth of hues in an era where Technicolor stock is extinct. He has with rare exceptions maintained this style for years, but because so many other filmmakers change styles like their clothes, his discipline now appears radical. It also, I think, provides a lesson, which is summed up in the final shot of “The Man Without a Past”. Much of Hollywood has forgotten how to make real movies—what’s made instead can be called advertising—and, above all, much of Hollywood has forgotten how to make the kind of movies Hollywood used to make. But to a degree that has not been commented on enough, filmmakers outside of America have not forgotten, and are proceeding to make movies that are—though they can’t be termed “Hollywood”—aware of the movies’ classic power to capture an audience in the combination of intelligent filmmaking form and characters who we want to travel with. Some of these filmmakers are more concerned with storytelling than others (storytelling isn’t the religious fetish abroad that it is in Hollywood, which continues to lose its grip on genuine storytelling even as the how-to gurus rake in the student fees), but they are all deeply committed to observing and following their characters, within an expressive cinematic framework, through this human life. There is more of this sense of Hollywood moviemaking in “The Son”, or “Japon”, or “The Man Without a Past”, than there is in almost anything coming out of Hollywood.

Kaurismäki may be as complete a practitioner of this art-craft as any working today, and in his finale, he makes the perfectly rounded declaration of his practice. The Man has returned from his former home, having confirmed that he’s now divorced. Irma, hardly needing to utter a word, now realizes that the Man is free, and that she is free to fully love him. He’s now no longer a man without a past, but a man with a future. Near the end of another night, when some music has been played and a little justice has been meted out, the Man and Irma walk home together, further and further away and from left to right across the camera’s view. They cross some train tracks, and recede to the vanishing point of their new life. But before they get there, our view of them is cut off by a train passing by from right to left. The train is made up of the very containers that the Man only recently lived in. It’s his recent past—the past he lived and that we saw after he had no conscious past at all—exiting screen left, where things go to die. This is the kind of shot that Michael Curtiz or other Hollywood studio craftsmen would have admired for its sense of ideal closure, but which never rings of nostalgia or even romance. It’s a complete shot, a total summation of everything that’s come before it, but done without the slightest whiff of effort. It’s better, in fact, than Hollywood, because it’s a shot that may have been dreamt about in Hollywood, the desire of some fearful and frustrated director, but it’s actually made in Helsinki.

Robert Koehler