Helsinki on Screen: Exploring the Town with Aki Kaurismäki

The critically acclaimed Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is often accused of deliberately presenting a Helsinki that does not really exist in reality (anymore). His films are regularly set in the underworld of town, far away from the crowded, very touristy areas. Whether Kaurismäki is nostalgic or only reluctant to show what is really going on in the Finnish capital, it’s quite probable that his rather peculiar characters wouldn’t integrate well into the fast-paced environment of today’s Helsinki. Of course, The Man without a Past is a fifteen-year-old film, but one could easily think that time had stopped in Helsinki at one point when rock and roll mesmerised – at least – a few percentages of the Finnish population such as M, the main character.

Kaurismäki’s M does hardly have anything in common with Fritz Lang’s character named Hans Beckert who is marked with the letter M (murderer) not to lose track of him in the crowded streets of Berlin. The Finn M, who is a very pleasant gentleman, guides the viewers to explore the darkest and saddest part of Helsinki, where the penniless occupy the streets, but where people still care about each other and help the one in need. And M is definitely one of them. Unlike Lang’s M, he is a beloved person, and he brings joy to other people’s life, especially Irma’s. Nonetheless, when it comes to starting a new life he finds himself hindered by bureaucracy similarly to Franz Kafka’s hero K. The Finn’s chances are probably worse, though, since he doesn’t remember anything from his life before Helsinki. He was attacked in a park and lost his memory.  

After a short period of recreation, M is ready to enter the labour market, but without a past and a name, it seems it is an impossible challenge to overcome. People tend to say that behind every great man there’s a great woman, and this applies to M’s life as well. His motivation to become an essential and relevant part of society again originates in the fact that he wants to prove himself to Irma, whom he regularly meets because she works for the Salvation Army the members of which feed the poor with dinner. Irma doesn’t let herself to be seduced so easily. ‘You look lousy, by the way. […] And try to pull yourself together’, she says. M follows her instruction, but he repeatedly hits the wall when aiming at getting things done: Without a name, he can’t register at the employment centre, he can’t open a bank account, etc. He is not allowed to start over and leave the foggy, forgotten area of Helsinki he now calls home behind.

Although it’s Helsinki where the film is set, the images of town avoid showing every part of it in a balanced way. While exterior scenes are used to present the life of the poor, the labour class, interior scenes are prevailing when M encounters life situations in which he is among people who are (still) part of society, even if some of those try to take advantage of other people or the system due to the belief that the system doesn’t let them flourish, especially in a dog eat dog world. Everyone has tricks which sometimes the source of humour in the film, but, in the end, one can’t do anything but realise that this is the sad reality everyone lives in, and the only way to escape is to become an artist or a band manager. In this case, M’s lifestyle needs to be taken seriously, and all the extraordinary have to be accepted.

Aki Kaurismäki is undeniably an extravagant person, whose films showcase banal plots at first sight, but they require their viewers to examine them in a more thoroughly way. M is a multilayered character, he is both an outcast and an artist, but he could be even more. He is no one and everyone and Helsinki for him is nothing and everything. With a bit of luck, confidence and goals, he decides on what Helsinki – and his life – can be.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.