Markku Koski

Aki Kaurismäki's Politics of Nostalgia

©Photographer Marja-Leena Hukkanen I once met Aki Kaurismäki. When he heard that I live in Lahti, he asked me, “Is the Möysä school still there?” After hearing my positive reply, I think I saw a trace of contentment in the director's austere face. Kaurismäki started school in Möysä.

For many of us, early memories from school have their special place in our minds, as they can be shared with more people than memories of the family and relatives. Everybody goes to elementary school, and that is why we can share memories from it more easily than we can share memories from the upper grades or the university. For men, the same applies to military service.

To some, nostalgic reminiscing of school days may not fit the originally sharp and rebellious image of Aki Kaurismäki. He became famous for being a cocky young man to whom only the present seemed to have some significance. As a matter of fact, the whole concept of nostalgia has traditionally had a bad reputation in the intellectual and artistic circles. Kaurismäki is, however, often characterized as a nostalgic of the worst kind.

Another epithet persistently used of Kaurismäki is melancholia. Modern Marxism especially has been critical of “leftist melancholia,” a phenomenon in which grieving over the losses extinguishes activity. The phenomenon is not, however, that simple. There are exceptions, though; Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1997), for example, is a classic in the discussion about modernity and the author beautifully combines the present with nostalgia about the past. The characters Berman uses as examples resemble Kaurismäki's characters. Baudelaire and Dostoyevsky, as well as Kierkegaard, felt that the modern world and the progress in it were painfully contradictory. It both fascinated and terrified them. It is the modernism of these artists that Berman suggests we return to.

It is this same paradox of modernity where one should seek the characteristic of Kaurismäki. A similar ethos can be found in Finnish film historian and director Peter von Bagh's works where the past and the present, the Finnish and the international, unaffectedly combine. It was no surprise that the people who were young in the 60s and who von Bagh also represents, immediately found Kaurismäki's films. An essential point of comparison to Kaurismäki could be Lars von Trier, our strange and conservative radical.

People used to say jokingly about the late Kalevi Sorsa, a Finnish politician and prime minister, that he came from nowhere. His family had to move around because of his father's work, and it is only logical that Sorsa became a true cosmopolitan to whom everything Finnish was of vital importance. The same can be said of the Kaurismäki brothers. They also had to move around Finland because of their father's work. Aki, who was born in Orimattila, soon found himself in towns like Toijala, Kuusankoski, and Kankaanpää. Just when he had gotten to know his school mates in one town, every spring he found himself alone in the empty school yard of a new town. All that is solid melts into air. One usually associates such experiences with a sense of belonging nowhere, but such experiences can also generate acute awareness of one's location. Kaurismäki felt that constantly moving from one town to another and changing schools was “a cruel game but at the same time beneficial for intellectual growth” (von Bagh 2005).

Lonely children and teenagers often find comfort in books and films. Arts are often a mere therapeutic pastime in the beginning. Literature brings comfort when one is feeling lonely, whereas films may provide substitute social stimuli. Kaurismäki associates most towns he has lived in with either a film or a library. He saw his first film, a Tarzan sequel, in Orimattila. In Toijala, at the adults section of the library, the 10-year-old Aki started reading the books in alphabetical order. In Kouvola, at a local cinematheque, he saw such classics as Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North, Luis Buñuel's The Age of Gold, and Jean Eustache's The Mother and the Whore. In Kurikka he saw Risto Jarva's Bensaa Suonissa, a Finnish car racing drama and a classic, and in military service he sneaked out of his barrack room through the window and down the drain pipe to see films at the barrack cinema.

In this sense one can regard Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana (1994), one of Kaurismäki’s lesser known films, as a key work. It is not a typical childhood or
youth- reminiscing genre film which we can find plenty of in the history of cinema. Kaurismäki’s films are not true genre films. Biographical elements have been filtered into the storyline and the scenes in a way characteristic of Kaurismäki, but at the same time details, which are always crucial to films, have been sprinkled into it. In Tatjana, for example, one of the leads wears a leather jacket with the logo “Orimattilan Jymy,” a sports club in Orimattila. It is no key to the secrets of the film, as in film, unlike in literature, the symbolism and personal references are mostly silent, a solid part of a whole, and thus do not necessarily attract particular attention. Just as Citizen Kane cannot be thoroughly explained by “Rosebud.” 

According to von Bagh (2006, 10), it is possible to find an “expanded landscape of childhood” in Tatjana’s images. The director agrees: “It says “Orimattila in my passport — so when people ask me where I am from, I say I am from Orimattila. I had a beautiful childhood. I have a nostalgic and idealized image of it which is shattered when I visit Orimattila and see the burning ruins of the house we lived in. It is better not to visit anymore.” (von Bagh 2005). For Kaurismäki, Tatjana was “a personal goodbye to the Finland I grew up in and to the country that sadly does not exist anymore.” {mospagebreak}

As one can conclude from above, Kaurismäki's films are on no account about pure and naïve nostalgia or melancholia. Nostalgia and melancholia have to do more with Kaurismäki's original way of stylizing and its solid cinematographic nature. In a way, having memories and dreams may be a way of stylizing. In them as well, a strong general feeling is interrupted by strange and often anachronistic details and transitions. Everything seems to be right, but at the same time everything is strange and distorted. In that sense, all dreams, even nightmares, are comically surrealistic. Buñuel's The Age of Gold has left an indelible impression on Kaurismäki's mind, as the camera is not a tool for picturesque visualization for him either but instead more like an instrument with which one can touch and make contact. Jean Renoir, the master of poetic realism and an important director for Kaurismäki, once said that a film director resembles a fisher. He does not create the fish; he just catches them.

Apart from the dialogue in Kaurismäki's films, it is the anachronisms that people seem to find difficult to digest. Above all things, the problem seems to be that a film that appeared to be so rugged and realistic proves to be something different. Conventional viewers will feel betrayed or as if they are being made fun of. They might feel the same if they were watching old films with projected backgrounds. “How naïve were the viewers then,” many film fans of the digital era might think to themselves.

Henry Bacon (2003, 88) has defined Kaurismäki’s style as “poetics of dislocation.” The images are from the everyday reality, but at the same time there is something missing or something extra. There are always “wrong” or “wild” elements from different time periods in the films. In Drifting Clouds, for example, the music is from a different time period than the one the film is set in, and the street cars and the cars are older models. Only the busses and the metro trains are modern.    

There are various interpretations of Kaurismäki’s way of stylizing. According to Pasi Väliaho (2003, 98-106), Kaurismäki’s films are built on the basis of “mental images.” Kaurismäki consciously creates “non-spaces.” According to Bacon (2003, 92–93), Kaurismäki’s city scenes are “metaphorically related to the reality of the cities.” “The paradox of metaphor” means that literal interpretation is not fully substituted by a metaphorical one but only gives in to it a bit. Only a bad artist will try to build pure metaphors.

All these interpretations can undoubtedly be seen as accurate. One should, however, add to them the sharp oppositional attitude to mainstream films that has been characteristic of Kaurismäki from the very beginning. That comes from Robert Bresson and Buñuel. Kaurismäki's films are completely different from the mainstream, even though usually films made in the same time period inevitably resemble each other in one way or the other. The same techniques, methods, and trends can be seen in the works of directors with very different styles. This is especially true today when the professionalism in Finnish film is more solid than ever. Filmmaking has become designing and branding, and the goal is to generate a synthetic and thoroughly credible overall impression. Both exterior and interior shots have been carefully constructed so that they match the time the film is set in, which even in period films means the time period when the film is made.

So it is no coincidence that in many interviews Kaurismäki has admitted to being repulsed by “modern design in all milieux, buildings, cars, and clothes.” But equally important is what he ads: “It is not so much hatred towards the modern but more love for the world that no longer exists — a world that I have only seen in films.” (1991).

According to Simmel, inviolate stylizing belongs to design and crafts. Each time period has its own distinctive styles. An office of a large company or of a government agency or a furniture company stand at an interior design fair has to be carefully styled, but similar unity of style at home would be a sign of bad taste or parvenuism. A thoroughly designed home is not a home; it is an official residence.

A well-designed chair will certainly provide us with rest and relaxation, but an art experience is something completely different. Naturally artists do stylize as well, but they do it in a different way. Michelangelo had his own personal style, but we cannot speak of a general Michelangelic style, except in a negative sense. Alfred Hitchcock left a deep imprint on the history of cinema, but as we have seen many times in Brian De Palma's case, for example, “Hitchcockism” is only troublesome.

It is quite impossible to be as aware of the creator of a design product as one is of the creator of an artwork. It would not be right to think that we are sitting “on Alvar Aalto” or “putting flowers into Timo Sarpaneva.” In art, however, the personality and individuality of the creator is a decisive factor.

The images in Kaurismäki's films, full of anachronisms and stylistic blunders, are, after all, only realism that has been colored in a unique way. Our homes, surroundings, and clothes are full of similar anachronisms. There must be a number of interior designers, architects, and fashion designers who take pride in their work and who must be horrified when they see the kitchy souvenirs in our book cases, our furniture that are all from different time periods, and the controversial diversity in the cityscape and in our wardrobe. For an artist, on the other hand, all that is a great source of inspiration. In that sense Aki Kaurismäki's films are a great lesson on the artistic method.

The author is a journalist and a lecturer at the Institute of Design at the Lahti University of Applied Sciences. His latest work is Beatles – erään yhtyeen anatomia (Beatles – The Anatomy of a Band) (2006).

Translated from Finnish by Aretta Vähälä.


Bacon, Henri (2003): Aki Kaurismäen sijoiltaan olon poetiikka. In Ahonen, Kimmo et al.: Taju kankaalle. Turku: Kirja-Aurora.
Bagh, Peter von (2005): An Interview with Aki Kaurismäki (unpublished).
Bagh, Peter von (2006): Aki Kaurismäki. Helsinki: WSOY.
Berman, Marshall (1983): All That Is Solid Melts into Air. The Experience of Modernity. London: Verso.
Frisby, David - Featherstone, Mike (ed.) (1997): Simmel On Culture. London: Sage.
An Interview with Aki Kaurismäki. Filmihullu 5/1991.
Väliaho, Pasi (2003): Siirtymävaiheen amnesia: Mies vailla menneisyyttä. In Ahonen, Kimmo et al.: Taju kankaalle. Turku: Kirja-Aurora.