In 2003, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki received an Oscar nomination for his film The Man Without a Past. In an interview for a Danish website, the director was upfront, stating: “If I say it’s the greatest thing in my life, I lie. Let’s say, politely… this nomination does not mean for me as much as it might mean for some other director.” He went on to say that this time he was trying to make it easy on the audience. The film may not exactly be a crowd-pleaser, but Kaurismäki gave it his best shot.
A man (Markku Peltola) arrives in Helsinki. He goes to Kaisaniemi Park where he’s attacked by a trio of thugs who beat him senseless with a baseball bat and steal everything he has of value. The man eventually comes to life and staggers into a public bathroom where he passes out once again. Doctors barely manage to save his life, but when he awakes for the second time, the heavily bandaged man simply walks out from the hospital and disappears.
He ends up with a poor couple that nurse him back to health, but one thing they can’t help him do is remember anything about what happened prior to the moment when he regained consciousness at the hospital. He doesn’t know his name or his past. The man begins to rebuild his life, but realizes that most institutions in society require citizens to know their name and number…
Embracing the working class
The reason why Kaurismäki and his most ardent followers may have been surprised to learn back in 2002 that this film was becoming a worldwide art-house hit is that it doesn’t really stand out from the previous best works of his career, Ariel (1988) and Drifting Clouds (1996) – it is equally good. The Man Without a Past is the second part of his “Finland” trilogy (which started with Drifting Clouds and ended with Lights in the Dusk (2006)) and if you know your Kaurismäki you know what you’re in for. Having described himself as a “loser”, the director fondly embraces the working class and addresses its woes in a humorous, stark yet colorful way. That may seem like a contradiction, but Kaurismäki clearly wants to be in full control of his sets, creating a milieu that is both artificial and realistic at the same time, populated by a cast of quiet, thoughtful characters with faces that sometimes express more than words.
Scenes are as always accompanied by either 1950s style rockabilly or traditional Finnish accordion music – and a sense of humor that is just as modest as the characters, but sometimes turns drastic in unexpected ways. Kaurismäki veteran Outinen plays a role she should know by heart now and Peltola is a perfect replacement for another of the director’s regulars, Matti Pellonpää (who passed away in 1995). The story addresses working-class suffering in a blunt way, but also makes fun of society’s inability to understand (and accept) people who may or may not choose to live outside its traditional structure.
This may all sound terribly depressing, but it really isn’t. Having no past still means that you do have a future. A clean slate offers new possibilities to create a good life – and in the end, this man is ready to do that.
The Man Without a Past 2002-Finland-Germany-France. 97 min. Color. Produced, written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. Cast: Markku Peltola (M), Kati Outinen (Irma), Juhani Niemelä (Nieminen), Kaija Pakarinen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Esko Nikkari.
Trivia: Original title: Mies vailla menneisyyttä. Later a stage play.
Cannes: Grand Prize of the Jury, Best Actress (Outinen).
Last word: “Before it won several prizes at Cannes, it wasn’t that popular in Finland. After the festival, people at home went to see it and loved it. The humour is a little bit lighter than in some of Aki’s other films, and the story is easier to understand. Normally Finns wait for a couple of years and watch Aki’s films on television. But it is as though the international reputation of ‘The Man Without a Past’ caused them to go and see it at the cinema. You have to remember that Finnish people hate art. If you say, ‘This is an art film,’ they say, ‘Show me the next James Bond.’ If it doesn’t have an art-house reputation, then they will go and see it.” (Outinen, BBC)