Aki Kaurismaki (1957-)

Aki Kaurismäki (1957 - )

"Aki Kaurismäki is Finland’s most famous director, and together with his older brother Mika, he once accounted for a third of the country’s film output. His films are characterized by laconic humour, detached irony and smoking – he could be considered the Nordic cousin of Jim Jarmusch." [2] "Aki Kaurismäki was born on 4 April 1957 in the town of Orimattila in southcentral Finland, the third of four children. The Kaurismäkis lived in Orimattila at the time because of Kaurismäki’s father’s career, which caused the family to move frequently. Jorma Kaurismäki (1931–1991) earned a degree in business (ekonomi) and spent his career in sales and management in the textile industry of southern Finland. His mother Leena trained as a cosmetologist. In Orimattila, Jorma Kaurismäki worked in the financial offices of the textile company Villayhtymä. Later, the family relocated to Lahti, where Aki Kaurismäki began school. They then lived in Toijala and Kuusankoski, after which they moved several hundred kilometres northwest to Kankaanpää. Kaurismäki completed secondary school there in 1976. The family also travelled outside Finland a good deal, which was exceptional for Finnish families during the 1960s. On one summer trip they drove through the USSR from Leningrad to Odessa. On another they drove from Finland to Spain.

Kaurismäki left his compulsory military service in Finland’s army incomplete, and applied to Finland’s film school in 1977. The school denied him admission. Admissions committee member Professsor Juha Rosma says: "I got the impression that Aki had a good imagination, but that he was an introverted personality. He managed as a writer, but fared more poorly with cinema’s visual elements and in working with actors." Kaurismäki explains the rejection differently. "I was so cynical and arrogant, and emotionally immature that they didn’t want me there. It’s of course true. The worst thing is to realise it yourself."

Aki (left) & Mika Kaurismäki (right), Helsinki, Finland (mid-80's)

Kaurismäki studied journalism for several years at the University of Tampere, but did not complete the degree. A second and more important element in Kaurismäki’s entry into professional filmmaking was his brother Mika. Between 1978 and 1981 his older brother Mika studied filmmaking at Munich’s University of Film and Television. Aki visited Mika in Munich, acquainting himself with cultural and cinematic life there. Mika’s studies in Munich also introduced him to figures of the New German Cinema, such as Wim Wenders, as well as rising names in German cinema, such as Toni Sulzman, who served as cinematographer for The Liar and later went on to work in Hollywood. These acquaintances helped develop a model for connecting with filmmakers abroad without the assistance of an official Finnish network. They also established a set of contacts who would be helpful in establishing the brothers commercially outside Finland later in their careers. Mika’s studies also provided Aki with an opportunity to pursue filmmaking.

Ville Alfa (Aki Kaurismäki) attending Leskinen’s performance in The Liar

Mika’s final project required help. He invited his brother, Pauli Pentti, and others in the Kaurismäki crowd in Helsinki to make The Liar with him during the summer of 1980. Mika returned to Helsinki to make the film, and shooting was completed in fifteen days during June that year. Aki co-wrote the screenplay with Pentti; Veikko Aaltonen is also credited in the Finnish Film Archives’ database, although critics at the time only mention Aki and Pentti as screenwriters. The film also included Matti Pellonpää and Markku Peltola, who would later play leading roles in Aki’s films. The film won the Risto Jarva Prize at Tampere’s short film festival in 1981. Although the film sold only some five hundred tickets in its theatrical run, it made an impact on Finland’s intelligentsia. The Liar signalled the Kaurismäki brothers’ distinct style. They parlayed the prize money and prestige of their prize into financing for three further projects during 1981 and 1982 (The Saimaa Gesture (1981), Jackpot 2 (1981) and The Worthless (1982).

Kaurismäki twisting on the red carpet as he arrives at the Palais des festivals to attend the screening of The Man Without a Past during the 55th Cannes Film Festival, 22 May 2002

Aki Kaurismäki made his directorial debut in 1983 with an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He followed up at a prolific pace, writing, directing, editing, and producing four more shorts and six more features by the end of the 1980s. His third feature, Varjoja paratiisissa (Shadows in Paradise, 1986), was selected for the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in the spring of 1987 as well as for the Toronto International Film Festival later in the year. Subsequent films were selected for prestigious festivals, and since 1992 all of Kaurismäki’s features have screened at the Toronto, Berlin, or Cannes film festivals. Nominations and awards received for The Man Without a Past secured the director’s status as a leading figure in contemporary auteur cinema." [1]

"Film critic Tytti Soila points out that the director "has painstakingly worked on creating a public persona in line with his cinematic universe." Crucial to Kaurismäki’s persona is the image of a reluctant interviewee, a would-be hermit. Despite the hundreds of interviews the director has given over the years, the popular perception is of him as a man who avoids publicity at all cost. The image of a reluctant celebrity combines with that of a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, bad-tempered enfant terrible. Kaurismäki is also well-known for his cinephilia, and his films include references to the work of many other film-makers. Kaurismäki was also instrumental in founding the formality-free Midnight Sun Film Festival in a small town north of the Arctic Circle in 1986, and has worked as a producer and distributor for other people’s films.

In recent years, Kaurismäki’s public profile has increased and he has become further identified as a national figure. In addition to receiving numerous awards for his films, in 2008 he was named Academician of Cinema, a lifetime honorary title conferred by the president. Kaurismäki has also gained some notoriety with high profile political protests: for example, he declined to attend the New York Film Festival in 2002 as a protest following Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami being denied a visa by the United States. Kaurismäki also boycotted the 2003 Oscar gala, even though The Man Without a Past had been nominated as Best Foreign Language Film, because of the United States’ foreign policy. For the same reason, Kaurismäki refused to submit Lights in the Dusk for consideration for the Academy Awards after it had been selected as the Finnish candidate." [3]

The Auteur

Aki Kaurismäki

"The auteur categorisation fits Kaurismäki easily, as viewers, critics, and scholars have identified a consistency of style, theme, and vision across his body of work. He has exercised authorial control over all aspects of his film production from the beginning of his directorial career, and as the producer of his films, Kaurismäki has exercised total control over the films, including control of copyright. For example, he has used his control of his films’ rights to refuse distribution of them in the People’s Republic of China, protesting against China’s record on human rights. His auteurship has also meant that Kaurismäki himself makes all aesthetic and budget decisions about production.

For many critics and scholars both in Finland and beyond her borders Kaurismäki is not only a European auteur, but also a Finnish one. Their interpretations find support in the films’ silent, plain anti-heroes and old-fashioned aesthetics, which critics contrast to the determined achievers, acrobatic camera movements, and glossy look of mainstream cinema produced in Europe and the US. Kaurismäki’s auteur identity is also the result of specific publications’ enthusiasm for his work. Kaurismäki’s films have received much attention on the pages of Cahiers du cinéma, Positif, Sight and Sound, Filmihullu, and other auteurist magazines. Critics at influential dailies, such as Die Zeit, Parisien, The New York Times, Dagens Nyheter, and Helsingin Sanomat have also favoured his films. Critics writing on these pages have often interpreted his films’ idiosyncrasies as an expression of exotic Finnishness. High visibility on the international festival circuit, prestigious nominations and awards, and broad theatrical distribution have consolidated Kaurismäki’s critical reputation as Finland’s greatest filmmaker and one of the bearer’s of the Scandinavian auteur legacy.

Aki Kaurismäki

Yet if Kaurismäki has become known as Finland’s greatest filmmaker, his greatness derives in part from the methods and critical agendas of his interpreters. Most critics and scholars have interpreted Kaurismäki’s films by way of close reading and biographical criticism, methods that have come down from Cahiers du cinéma’s ‘great man’ theory of auteurism. Kaurismäki makes evident in his films and in comments that he is a devotee of the French New Wave, and critics have repeatedly emphasised the intertextual connections of his films to those of Jean-Luc Godard, among others. Kaurismäki has encouraged this, suggesting that his intense viewing of films during his twenties was modelled after "Jean-Luc Godard during the early 1960s, only I didn’t have a sports car." Kaurismäki’s "working-class" films combine a realist depiction of the everyday experiences of average Finns with cinephilic inspiration from the French New Wave as well as Robert Bresson, Mikko Niskanen, Yasujiro Ozu, Douglas Sirk, Teuvo Tulio, and other auteurs.

The national interpretation of Kaurismäki has proved influential, as Finnish critics have disseminated it and the director himself has given it support through cryptic remarks about Finland in interviews. Commentators outside Finland have also noticed the lower-class characters and cinephilia, and while they give more emphasis to Kaurismäki’s cinephilia and nostalgia for the cinematic past, they have also often construed the films’ Finnish identity in an exoticising manner. Within this critical methodology, Kaurismäki is presented as a national auteur whose original engagement with the history of Western art cinema and culture transcends national identity, at the same time as the films powerfully express a specific ‘Finnish-ness’." [1]

The Cinema of Aki Kaurismaki

"Kaurismaki's films display a continuity of narrative, style, and mode. They are largely built on the same narrative structure: typically, the protagonist is displaced and isolated by a trip, a conflict, or other unexpected but not unusual events; the character struggles unsuccessfully in this new context to establish him - or herself; finally, the character experiences a weak, secular redemption. Stylistically, the films draw eclectically on the art-film tradition, but also borrow music and mise-en-scene from the history of cinema and post-war popular culture. Kaurismäki’s Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö (The Match Factory Girl, 1990) is modelled on Bresson’s Mouchette (1965), for example. Intertextual links to Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Jean-Luc Godard, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Yasujiru Ozu, and others are recurrent. Stylistic consistency is also evident in the films’ static camera, anachronistic mise-enscene, colour design, lighting, and darkly ironic humour. While the films are realist in a sense, depicting quotidian problems of working and family life, they also exaggerate their realist details into melodramatic revelations about the moral underpinnings of everyday struggles and problems. In this sense, the films share more than a little with the nineteenth-century literature that combines realism and melodrama, and which has fascinated Kaurismäki. Indeed, adaptations of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henri Murger, Juhani Aho, and an earlier interrogator of moral conflicts, William Shakespeare, figure in Kaurismäki’s oeuvre. Kaurismäki’s characters are misfits, his style is an amalgam of postmodernist eclecticism, and he is a deeply, if oddly, political filmmaker." [1]

The Match Factory Girl, 1990

"The protagonists in Kaurismäki’s films generally occupy positions of low social status: when not in prison or unemployed they are industrial butchers, garbage collectors, dish washers, etc. Some are utterly friendless. They operate within the norms of society to the best of their abilities, often thwarted in their efforts by unfortunate personal circumstances that lead them into violence and, consequently, further into the margins of society. Death, suicide, shame and loneliness are recurring themes, and protagonists’ efforts at improving their social standing usually fail or are aborted.

The dialogue in Kaurismäki’s films is highly stylized and archaic, and often also lends a subtle humour to the narrative. The marriage of short and functional phrases with old fashioned, even romantic imagery, draws deliberate attention to the way characters communicate with each other and creates a sense of whimsy. Silence is also important in Kaurismäkian film, and the acting style is distinctive in its minimalism: it accommodates long pauses and resists expressions of emotion. Kaurismäki has explained that his approach to acting is consciously similar to Brecht’s: he too believes "that 'acting' should be avoided in films [and] the actor should regard himself as a narrator who only quotes the character he is playing."

The socially marginal status of the characters is emphasized by the films’ spatial and temporal defamiliarization: for example, while Kaurismäkian films are predominately urban their cityscape has few obvious landmarks that would indicate where the action takes place. a sense of nostalgia complicates the sense of past and present in the films: while the problems faced by the protagonists reflect the time in which the films were made, the settings and visual style of the films recall a range of past time periods. The concurrent representation of several time periods foregrounds the continual changes in Finnish society, and many commentators see Kaurismäkian melancholy and nostalgia as reactions to the changes in Finnish society since the 1960s." [3]

Exile, Community, Music

Reijo Tapale performing the Satumaa Tango in The Match Factory Girl

"At the heart of every one of Aki Kaurismäki’s feature films, including the early films he made with his brother Mika, is a live musical performance. The diegetic performances included in the films are not trivial; they often span several minutes in films that are ninety minutes or less. They feature overlooked, forgotten, and underappreciated performers, archival because of their pop-cultural relevance yet lack of commercial status. The performances valorise vital, do-it-yourself, communally experienced, subversive musical experiences. The vitality present in the musical performances lies in an ethos that contrasts with the commercial, popular, and aesthetic notions on which much popular and cinematic music often rests. Performance and musical expression articulate characters’ emotions and moral reasoning, glossing central conflicts in the films, rather than serving as showcases for musical stars, commercial hits, or the display of attitudes. At the same time, music functions to create strange juxtapositions with other material in the film, producing contrasts that destabilise typical associations and expectations about contemporary places, character types, and institutions." [1]

Literary Adaptations

La vie de bohème (1992)

"Kaurismäki’s literary adaptations all concern the relationship between the protagonists’ moral convictions and the order of community and society with which they come into conflict. In The Bohemian Life, Murger’s artists constitute a subculture, which seeks to negotiate a relationship to the social order that surrounds them, represented by bourgeois aspiration, sensibility, and profitable business practice. These bohemian artists have been popularised and interpreted by Puccini, by the New York theatrical production Rent (1996) and its film adaptation (2005), and by Sally Potter in her short Thriller (1979), among others; in each case the bohemian artists have given voice to a critique of bourgeois order and its values. Another of Kaurismäki’s literary adaptations is of the Finnish author Juhani Aho’s novel Juha (1911). In the novel, the eponymous protagonist is a cuckold, as well as a moral hero, who pursues his notion of justice to its logical end. Kaurismki has adapted Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and also Shakespeare’s Hamlet, titled Hamlet Goes Business. Both adaptations focus on the protagonist’s efforts to tally his moral reasoning with the tasks it calls for, which lead him to differentiate himself from his society." [1]

The Journey Films

Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)

"Aki Kaurismäki’s five journey films narrate the moral dissent of outsiders, a theme to which the journey narrative lends itself. The journey films also shed further light on the cinematic and cultural positioning of Kaurismäki’s cinema, not least on the notion of innocence. The journey films include Calamari Union, Ariel, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses, and Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana. These are all road movies, with the exception of Calamari Union. While Calamari Union may not technically deal with the semantics of the road movie (a narrative built around a trip by motor vehicle with recurrent shots of landscape seen from the vehicle), it does employ the syntax of the road movie (conflict among the travellers and with the strangers and institutions they encounter in the effort to reach some final destination).

Calamari Union, Leningrad Cowboys Go America, and Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses link the journey narrative to music, and music often conveys pivotal semantic content in Kaurismäki’s films. With musicians making up the lion’s share of the cast in all three films, Kaurismäki creates a tone of bohemian insouciance punctuated by occasional musical performances, which display emotional energy. All three films also share ridiculous premises. The three films are built on improvisation, and indeed Calamari Union never had a script. Kaurismäki would write dialogue for the characters on the set, as he followed a map of Helsinki he had drawn up as a plan for the film. Improvisation and a self-reflexive embrace of low production values are not only the mark of underground cinema, but also associated with the French New Wave, to which tradition the film belongs. Yet the narrative structure of these journey films locates them squarely within Kaurismäki’s storytelling method, which can be summed up as: isolate and alienate the protagonist/s; watch him or her try to get somewhere better. The journey creates protagonists, outsiders, and a destination, and also stages a series of juxtapositions and conflicts through which the films engage in cultural-political debate." [1]

The Losers

The Man Without a Past (2002)

"The loser melodramas are also built around narratives of alienation, but in these films Kaurismäki does not stage exile by adapting well-known literary examples of it, or by adapting genre conventions of the journey, but by alienating characters through traumatic experiences that change their lives. The loser films are built around quotidian traumas: the death of a friend in Shadows in Paradise, unemployment in Ariel and Drifting Clouds, parental abuse and unplanned pregnancy in The Match Factory Girl, assault in The Man Without a Past, and workplace bullying in Lights in the Dusk. The loser melodramas include Shadows in Paradise, I Hired a Contract Killer, The Match Factory Girl, Drifting Clouds, The Man Without a Past, and Lights in the Dusk. Some critics have called the films the Proletarian films, and indeed the trilogy of Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, and The Match-Factory Girl is commonly called the Proletarian or Workers’ trilogy in Finnish, English, and otherwise. Kaurismäki points out in an interview that the term worker or proletarian is a mistake, for it constructs the films’ protagonists as class subjects, which they are not in his view. Their alienation tends to make them either unaware of their class status or indifferent to the politics of class. These films are the most clearly melodramatic of Kaurismäki’s body of work – although all of his work belongs to the melodramatic mode." [1]

The Concert Films

Total Balalaika Show (1994)

"Aki Kaurismäki’s cinema might feature the most scenes of live musical performances of any filmmaker making feature films – and perhaps more than some making music videos. Every film he has made includes a live-music sequence, Sometimes stretching to minutes. The fixation finds its fullest expression in Kaurismäki’s two concert films, The Saimaa Gesture, which he made with his brother Mika, and Total Balalaika Show, which he directed and produced. Both films depict live concert performances. The former chronicles a summer-time tour of three bands on Lake Saimaa, Finland’s largest body of fresh water. The latter features the Leningrad Cowboys performing with the Red Army Alexandra Ensemble before an audience of seventy thousand in Helsinki’s Senate Square – the square built by Czar Alexander I and surrounded by neoclassical, Russian Imperial architecture, including the University of Helsinki main building, the Helsinki Cathedral and the Senate Building (Valtioneuvoston linna, which houses the Prime Minister’s offices, the Ministry of State, and parts of the Ministry of Finance). These concert films show the importance of music in Kaurismäki’s cinema, and in doing so raise the question: how do music and live performance relate to some of the concerns we have been tracing in Kaurismäki’s body of work? The concert films would appear to privilege a notion of authentic performance, a perception which would correlate with views of Kaurismäki’s cinema as one of musical nostalgia for an earlier, more innocent age of cultural and artistic expression.

The ostensible authenticity of the concert films (and other live performances in his films) is built on a complex historical and aesthetic contradiction. On the one hand, they embrace a notion of authenticity in musical presentation, which understands music and art in essentialist, non-performative terms. On the other, musical performance is part of a self-reflexive pastiche of aesthetic and historical role playing – the Leningrad Cowboys, no less – which disrupts any notion of authenticity and simultaneously mocks and exploits the commodification of music as entertainment. The live performances valorise a notion of vital cultural interaction, while eschewing commodification, expressing a doubtful, utopian aspiration. We might take this as an allegory of cinema’s predicament, as well." [1]


  • Centro Histórico (2012) (segment "Tavern Man")
  • Juice Leskinen & Grand Slam: Bluesia Pieksämäen asemalla (2012)
  • Le Havre (2011)
  • Chacun son cinéma ou Ce petit coup au coeur quand la lumière s'éteint et que le film commence (2007) (segment "La Fonderie") ... aka To Each His Own Cinema
  • Laitakaupungin valot (2006) ... aka Lights in the Dusk
  • Bico (2004)
  • Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet (2002) (segment "Dogs Have No Hell")
  • Mies vailla menneisyyttä (2002) ... aka The Man Without a Past
  • Juha (1999)
  • Kauas pilvet karkaavat (1996) ... aka Drifting Clouds
  • Oo aina ihminen (1996) ... aka Always Be a Human
  • Välittäjä (1996) ... aka Employment Agent
  • Total Balalaika Show (1994)
  • Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994)
  • Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana (1994) ... aka Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana
  • These Boots (1993)
  • La vie de bohème (1992) ... aka The Bohemian Life
  • Those Were the Days (1992)
  • I Hired a Contract Killer (1990)
  • Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö (1990) ... aka The Match Factory Girl
  • Likaiset kädet (1989) (TV)
  • Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989)
  • Ariel (1988)
  • Hamlet liikemaailmassa (1987) ... aka Hamlet Goes Business
  • Rich Little Bitch (1987)
  • Thru the Wire (1987)
  • Varjoja paratiisissa (1986) ... aka Shadows in Paradise
  • Rocky VI (1986)
  • Calamari Union (1985)
  • Rikos ja rangaistus (1983) ... aka Crime and Punishment
  • Saimaa-ilmiö (1981) ... aka The Saimaa Gesture