THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST belongs in your future if you haven’t seen it yet. This Arctic-dry deadpan comedy from 2002 was written, produced & directed by Finland’s gift to absurdist social observation, Aki Kaurismäki. It’s the second in what’s dubbed his ‘Finland Trilogy’, or ‘Loser Trilogy’, flanked by Drifting Clouds from 1996 and Lights In The Dusk, released in 2006. This 97-minute gem was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Film. *
‘M’ (Markku Peltola) arrives in Helsinki only to barely survive a vicious beating that leaves him with amnesia. Taken in by fatalist ‘Niemenen’ (Juhani Niemelä), who lives with his family in a shipping container, M recovers enough to secure his own below-shabby digs thanks to the threatening benevolence of ‘Anttila’ (Sakari Kousmenen). Latching work with the local Salvation Army, he strikes up a relationship with taciturn ‘Irma’ (Kati Outinen) and becomes one with the underclass in the economically blighted city. What if he regains his memory?
As M pieces together a new life among the down & out, eking what they can from a dire urban landscape, the deeply funny yet at-heart compassionate script and direction has a choice cast convey the resilient power of irony through just the barest flickers of expression. We end up caring more for these cast-adrift lost souls through a lens of quiet philosophical sarcasm than we would if the same scenario was presented as a guilt-laden drama. Adding resonant slivers of poignancy are just-right soundtrack selections from Marko Haavisto & Poutahaukat (“Paha Vaanii” and “Stay”) and The Renegades (“My Heart Must Do The Crying” and “Do The Shake”). **
Done for €1,206,000 (around $1,371,000 back then), it won over critics and scored big on the awards circuit. Those lucky enough to stumble on it in the US put down $922,000 toward a worldwide gross of $9,564,000. With Outi Mäenpää (the bank clerk), Esko Kikkari (the bank robber) and Matti Wuori as the lawyer (Wuori a notable real-life politician–one of the good ones).
* Kaurismäki boycotted the Oscars over disgust with US foreign policy. A few sample quotes from the fellow….”I like dogs, mankind I don’t care for too much. You’re supposed to like mankind because you’re part of it, but I prefer dogs. They are honest and they don’t lie.” ……..”Hollywood has melted everyone’s brains. In the old days you had one murder and that was enough for a story. Now you have to kill 300,000 people just to get the audience’s attention. And in Helsinki the violence is not glamorous. It is nameless. There, someone hits you just because they are in a bad mood.”……….”When I was young, I would sit in the bath and ideas would come to me. But I’m not young any more, so now I just sit in the bath.”
** Watching this brought to mind a classic anecdote related by a dear and lifelong friend, once an American athlete competing abroad (in the javelin–ahoy, Duncan!) who quizzed a Finnish competitor “So, what do you do in Finland during your long winters?” The succinct answer: “We drink. We fight.” It’s a given that various ethnic or national groups have dealt with historic oppression or bleak environments through countering attempts to trample their dignity by wielding the weapon of humor: Jews, the Irish, etc. Filipinos, in a situation that would have Americans froth, will chuckle–“Of course the bus will break down…” One of my fondest travel smiles came from enduring an 18-hour train ride in Zambia, akin to alternately lurching or languishing in a refrigerated roller coaster. My compartment mates were three young Zambian guys in their 20s, who dealt with the siege by having a running back & forth commentary on the miserable state of Zambia Railways—and things in general: it was like sitting with a young African version of George Burns, Jack Benny and Groucho Marx.
This disarming study of Finns-fighting-Fate may not make you want to pack up and move to Helsinki in February, but it serves well to chide and warm a spirit, one that needs the occasional reminder to Not Let The Bastards Get You Down.