Humour is a Serious Thing, and the Scandinavians Know It

First it was Man without a Past. It knocked me out. Then I cried with laughter. Please note that I rarely cry at films except for profound love stories set in wartime or movies with animals. This followed by Drifting Clouds, The Match Factory Girl, Ariel and the zany voyages of Leningrad Cowboys. Experiencing cinema should be always radical in the constant change of the perspectives, both optical and cerebral. Aki Kaurismäki’s visual stories involve characters, often with a hard-to-maintain hairdo, facing hardship; minimal language and some technicolor feeling resembling the Golden Hollywood. Wacky existential atmosphere that, above all, is awfully funny. 

Humour refers to a territory still to be explored. However, there is one thing certain – the comic does not exist outside of what is strictly human. Even though Kaurismäki claims his cinema is dreadful, it is not necessary for us to be highly sensitive to get the warm humanism bursting out of these cinematographic pieces. Being isolated and completely alone, Kaurismäki’s people are mainstream dropouts; the hidden ones or the ugly people, as some critics have called them. Garbage men, miners, factory girls, amnesia sufferers, mediocre talents, refugees and the worst rock’n’roll band from the Finnish tundra, all of them – losers in search of a new life. Still it is impossible not to like them. Messed up and wretched, they don’t have any vague inclination for dramatization or complaints. Faces remain serious; life is accepted as it is and happy endings are sought amid the gray surroundings. Cinema is a straightforward affair. No mumbo jumbo. No ornamentation; the basis for all art is reduction, says Aki Kaurismäki, you go from an initial idea or narrative that you progressively reduce until it is sufficiently bare enough to be true. Then, and only then, are you finished. If the film is tuned on a minimalist level, even the sound of a cough will be dramatic. The rule is one and simple – no shouting, no laughing, no extra information. And this is how humour works here. Indifference is its natural environment, for laughter has no greater foe than emotion. All you need is a mixture of desperate situations, nonsense dialogue and some Baltik pop music.  Aki Kaurismäki has become proficient in the deadpan and sardonic techniques to go straight for the heart. Life is short and miserable. And let’s at least die laughing.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 5
Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.