Death in Helsinki

By Klawans, Stuart | The Nation, April 21, 2003 | Go to article overview

Death in Helsinki


Klawans, Stuart, The Nation


The Man Without a Past*Stevie*Dreamcatcher*The Guys

OK, let's say that life goes on. That's what the authors of Ecclesiastes and Murphy thought: "The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new." And Aki Kaurismaki seems to think so, too, in The Man Without a Past, a gentle, wistful comedy about being bludgeoned to death, then building a satisfying new existence for yourself in an abandoned shipping container.

Shot in both sound and color--elements that should not be taken for granted when Kaurismaki is behind the camera--The Man Without a Past reveals how rich the world can be, even when the screen-jolting red pours from your skull, even when the soundtrack's orchestral harmonies swell from a boom box that was wrested from you in the park, then turned up to cover the thuds of your mugging. If you're like the title character (Markku Peltola), you die soon after the attack. Or else you don't: You jerk upright in a hospital bed, stagger to the mirror (where you see yourself bandaged like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man) and then wander blindly to Helsinki's waterfront, where squatters rescue your paperless, penniless, amnesiac body.

For moviegoers who know Kaurismaki's work, what follows will fall into the category of the nothing new. So much the better. Each motif is as welcome as sunshine: the Finnish "rhythm music" (performed here by a Salvation Army band); the dust-mop dog (played by the suggestively named Tahti); the principal set, which resembles a 1950s cocktail lounge assembled from a junkyard; and the deadpan sarcasm against capitalists and cops, who at one point arrest our hero for the crime of having witnessed a holdup at a defunct bank. Most familiar of all in the Kaurismakian scheme, and most welcome, is the romance between the hero and Irma, a Salvation Army foot soldier. Played with endlessly touching minimalism by Kati Outinen (The Match Factory Girl), Irma conducts her love affair by means of pauses, silences, blinks, stares, the mute proffering of various hand-held objects and a millimeter's worth of a smile.

Although the movie incorporates a resurrection and the Salvation Army, God does not make an appearance. The film's nearest approximation to a redeemer is a lawyer in a cheap suit, who talks as if his mouth were full of mashed potatoes but still gets the hero out of jail. Brains and persistence can pay off, sometimes, among people who are damaged. So can a sense of community, which our hero helps foster in this landscape that ought to look bleak, with its leftover metal and industrious water, but instead shines like a pastel postcard. And forgiveness pays off, too, up to a point. Our hero likes to pull silently on his cigarette and gaze into the middle distance, like most Kaurismaki protagonists, as his way of letting sinners pass. Even so, he's willing to see justice done to the men who beat in his head. He's not a wimp; Markku Peltola looks like a cross between Sami Frey and Frankenstein's monster.

How little this man needs to be happy! A worker in Basra might get by with no more. And how he aches--how Irma aches, too--when what little he's got might be taken away! A timeless subject, yet one that somehow seems of the moment.

I've been reading a new book about Abbas Kiarostami, written by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, and admiring in particular the latter's thoughts about the politics of image-gathering. As Rosenbaum notes, all of Kiarostami's mature films present us with encounters between a relatively affluent, sophisticated character and people who have significantly less money, education and power. The privileged one pumps the others for information about themselves, while offering little or nothing personal in return. Often this collector of lives is a filmmaker. Sometimes, in a gesture of explicit self-questioning, the figure is Kiarostami himself.

These reflections, too, seem of the moment, since Steve James's new documentary, Stevie, deals with them in depth. …

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