Leena Lepistö

“You Will Not See a Tear”— Music in Aki Kaurismäki's Films

The music Aki Kaurismäki has used in his films includes a variety of different genres. The films contain music from 18th and 19th century operas, classical symphony orchestra music from the 19th and 20th centuries, and traditional folk songs. There are plenty of old tangos, popular music, chansons, jazz, blues, rock, twist, and punk music. Music is mostly of the nostalgic kind and from an earlier time period than the one the film is set in. One can often find many different kinds of music in the same film, and the music does not have any particular connection to one another, but they still support the unity of the narration in the film.
    ©Sputnik. Photographer Marja-Leena Hukkanen

Different ways of using music in film

In traditional Hollywood films, music was consistent with the events in the film and it was used to support the fluency of the film and to paraphrase the events in it. Kaurismäki has used this traditional method rather seldom. Instead he prefers the other two methods of which I will give examples below.

Crime and Punishment, the first film Aki Kaurismäki directed by himself, begins with a scene of a slaughterhouse. A blow with an axe cuts a cockroach on the block in half; animal carcasses are being cut up, and the floor is covered in blood. The background music of the scene is Franz Schubert's beautiful “Serenade,” sung by Finnish singer Harri Marstio in English, and the lyrics tell of longing for the loved one and the hopes of a reunion. The mood of the scene is completely different from the mood of the background music. In this scene, music has been used as a counterpoint to the image.

The opposite moods of the image and the music are used well in Hamlet Goes Business. Ophelia misses Hamlet (although looking very bored) and kisses his photo but then throws it away and commits suicide. Soon a rhythmical song, titled “Kunhan palaan takaisin” (When I come back to you, original song titled “Things will turn out” by the Renegades) and sung by Topi Sorsakoski, starts playing in the background. The following lyrics are heard when Ophelia slowly drowns in the bath tub:

“I hear you calling me in my heart
Your longing is growing as well   
I will borrow wings from the morning wind   
I will rush to you flying   
I will do what you ask me to   
We will soon meet again and forget about the past   
My dreams will come true when I come back to you   
Wait until we meet   
Everything will be fine”

There is black humor in the scene just as there is black humor in the film. When Hamlet comes back, flying with the wings or not, everything is definitely not fine; and Ophelia is not there to miss him anymore.   

In Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana, there is a scene in which Valto and Klavdia spend the evening and night in the same hotel room. Valto is a Finnish man who does not say anything. A song, titled “Etkö uskalla mua rakastaa” (Do you dare to love me?) and sung by Helena Siltala, is playing on the radio. Music in this scene is used to express things and moods that are not expressed in the images. This way of using music to clarify different elements in the film is called polarizing. The lyrics in the scene substitute the dialogue and spell out the thoughts of one of the characters:

"Do you dare to love me
Why can’t you answer me? 
Is your heart not happy when you are with me?   
Do you dare to love me
Why are you behind a wall?   
Would you abandon my little heart
Now that it is burning for you?   
Let me take care of your worries
I will take away your sorrow   
The sun will shine again and light the way   
Do you dare to love me?   
My heart is waiting for a word   
That will tell me heaven and earth is mine”

Kaurismäki has said on many occasions that he uses music as a substitute for dialogue and as a counterpoint. British film journalist Jonathan Romney thinks it is hard to know whether Kaurismäki loves or hates the music he uses in his films. Kaurismäki’s answer to that is: “I never use music I don't like. I use songs partly to replace dialogue and partly as counterpoint. In Tatjana, I used The Renegades, an English band who were popular only in Finland. They were like the Beatles in Finland in the 60s.” In Gordon Sander’s interview in December 2002, Kaurismäki says: “In my films I have a habit of using music instead of dialogue. It does the same job. I have always respected Wim Wenders for the fact that he respects music enough not to fade away or cut away stupidly.” To Peter von Bagh he says: “I often use music to replace dialogue. It works just as well or even better; it creates the mood I want without too many words.” He continues on the same subject: “I don’t want the music to overshadow the image. . . . The function of the music in my films is similar to the function of the music at a dance where people are so shy that they cannot get a word out of their mouth and the music takes care of the dialogue.”

Kaurismäki rarely uses music composed specifically for his films; the only exceptions are Antti Tikanmäki’s music in Juha and Mauri Sumen’s music in the Leningrad Cowboys films. Most of the music in Kaurismäki’s films comes from records. In an interview Kaurismäki describes his method to Finnish journalist Minna Joenniemi: “The image comes first. At home, before going to the cutting room, I grab some records that I think might be right for the film. I only listen to Somerjoki, Virta, and Ots at home.” The method is basically still the same, but in von Bagh's interview Kaurismäki says that today there is music that he cannot use in his films as the rights are much too expensive. That is why in the last couple of his films he has not been able to use all the pieces of music he would have liked to.{mospagebreak}

Kaurismäki uses music both as background music but also as music that has a role in the events of the film. There are often authentic performances in the films; the singers and the bands perform in the film, either playing themselves or a role of a fictitious character. Such performances include singer Harri Marstio's and Pedro's Heavy Gentlemen's performance of “L'accordéoniste” (in Crime and Punishment); “Satumaa,” a Finnish tango, performed by singer Reijo Taipale (in The Match Factory Girl); Veikko Lavi's performance of “Tanssi, Anjushka” (in Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana); “Kuumat tuulet” and “Kohtalon tuulet” performed by Markus Allan (in Drifting Clouds); singer Annikki Tähti's performance of “Pieni sydän” and “Muistatko Monrepos'n” in a role (in The Man Without a Past); and the performances by Melrose, a Finnish rock band, in two films (Hamlet Goes Business and Lights in the Dusk). Performances of Finnish popular music have been recorded as if they were part of a documentary film. The performance of “Burning Light” by late Joe Strummer can also be seen in I Hired a Contract Killer. In his films Kaurismäki also often uses and shows old music equipment, such as jukeboxes, record players, transistor radios, and tape players. The most unique examples of these are the car record player in Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatjana and the music box key ring with a small handle, a gift from his father, that is attached to Ariel's leading character Taisto's car keys and which plays “The Internationale.”

Like the locations and the set designs of the film, music in Kaurismäki's films also creates feelings of longing and nostalgia and brings memories of certain eras. Dreams of a wonderland and the longing across the ocean away from the disappointments and the loneliness here are recurring themes. The most common words mentioned in the song lyrics are longing, yearning, happiness, dreams, wishes, and fantasies, but also memories, disappointments, loneliness, and pain. The characters of the film often sit and /or listen to music while being lost in thought and alone. The viewer is compelled to concentrate on the music because there is so little happening on the screen. This is how the songs and the lyrics highlight and depict the thoughts of the characters or the events in the film. Often the music also brings irony or counter emotions into the scene. Kaurismäki has admitted to “teasing the viewer” with the sudden stop of “Yyteri-Twist” in Hamlet Goes Business.

The most frequently used music in Kaurismäki's films

When compiling the most frequently used music in Kaurismäki's films, I have studied the music in his fiction films and excluded the music in his music documentaries and Leningrad Cowboys films, as the role of the music in them is different from the role they have in his drama films.

“You will not see a tear, even when my heart is crying
You will not see my longing, even though you went away  
I wiped away the tears   
I wish tomorrow brings me comfort  
I have given you my heart, my everything   
All you gave me was pain in the soul  
You will not see a tear, even when my heart is crying   
You will not see my longing, even though you went away  
I was happy once  
Happy because I had you
When you wish for happiness   
You will drink the bitter cup of broken dreams”

 These lyrics are familiar from three films. This song, titled “Sä et kyyneltä nää” (You will not see a tear) and composed, written, and performed by Olavi Virta, is the most frequently heard song in Aki Kaurismäki's films. It was used in Calamari Union (1985), Drifting Clouds (1996) and in Lights in the Dusk (2006), that is, approximately every ten years. Especially in Lights in the Dusk ikkuna the lyrics accurately describe the mood and thoughts of Koistinen, the leading character, after Mirja has left him. The scene is even comical in its sentimentality because Koistinen drowns his sorrow in a bottle of liquor in a true Finnish way, so he “drinks the bitter cup of broken dreams.” Songs that are heard in more than one film (although not in more than two) include “Cadillac,” “Les temps des cerises,” “My heart must do the crying” (both with English and Finnish lyrics), “Yksi ainoa” (with Finnish and Russian lyrics), “Rich little bitch,” “Valot,” and “Syyspihlajan alla,” which Kaurismäki has once said to be the best record there is.

The most frequently used classical music in Kaurismäki's films is, however, Pyotr Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique,” parts of which are heard at least in seven films. Dmitri Shostakovich's music is heard in at least five films. The most frequently heard rock music in the films comes from the Renegades (9 pieces, all composed and written by the members of the band). There are also Antero Jakoila's eight instrumental works in Kaurismäki's films. Of Finnish rock music composers, Tokela, the songwriter of Melrose, has the most works in Kaurismäki's films: a total of 7 pieces. There are also 5 works by Toivo Kärki and 4 works by Carlos Gardel, Marko Haavisto, Olavi Virta, and Rudolph Toombs and Henry Glover.
Not surprisingly, the most frequently heard singer is Olavi Virta with his 12 songs. The Renegades perform 9 songs and Melrose 7 pieces. Rauli Badding Somerjoki and Little Willie John both sing in 6 films. Marko Haavisto sings a total of 6 songs with three different bands. Carlos Gardel, Billie Holiday, and Georg Ots each sing 4 songs. Of the instrumental music, Antero Jakoila has a total of eight performances.

Kaurismäki has brought out artists that have been out of the spotlight for a while: Markus Allan, Annikki Tähti, Melrose, and Marko Haavisto and his bands, for example. Kaurismäki has traveled with them and taken them on international tours to the Cannes film festival. Performances in the films have brought the artists new publicity and concerts. Annikki Tähti (born 1929) still actively performs and has gotten plenty of new audiences during the last couple of years. Having been heard in Aki Kaurismäki's films must also have had an effect on the more recent popularity of Olavi Virta and Rauli Badding Somerjoki.

One should not forget, either, that Leningrad Cowboys Go America made the band very popular in Germany and Japan, for example. The success of the band culminated in a concert with the Red Army Choir at the Helsinki Senate Square. The concert was made into a documentary film, titled Total Balalaika Show; a TV documentary; and a record. The co-operation between the director and the band started with a short film with a music theme. Kaurismäki has directed several short films of which seven pieces resemble music videos: Rich Little Bitch by Melrose, Oo aina ihminen by Markus Allan, and five performances by Leningrad Cowboys ( Rocky VI, Thru the Wire, L.A. Woman, Those Were the Days, and These Boots.

Sputnik Oy, Aki Kaurismäki's production company, has also produced records under its record label Laika. The first record by the label was Japanilaisia lauluja (Songs from Japan) that came out in 1993. The singer on the record is Toshitake Shinohara, a Japanese living in Karkkila, Finland, whose performances are heard in two of Aki Kaurismäki's films. Sputnik has also produced two Markus Allan records: Tangon kotimaa (Homeland of Tango) and Kohtalon tuulet (Winds of Destiny). Sputnik has also published a book, written by Heikki Metsämäki and Juha Miettinen, about Rauli Badding Somerjoki's life and songs.

The author is a long time devotee of Kaurismäki films. She started studying the music in Aki Kaurismäki's films when she was studying culture and wrote her thesis on them. She is an active member of various film societies and cinematheques in Helsinki.

Translated from Finnish by Aretta Vähälä.


Bagh, Peter von (2006): Aki Kaurismäki. Helsinki: WSOY.
Gorbman Claudia (1987): Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. Indiana University Press.
Joenniemi Minna (1996): Aki astui pilvistä. Aviisi, 2. Juva Anu (1995): Valkokangas soi! -kirja elokuvamusiikista. Helsinki: Kirjastopalvelu Oy.
Lepistö, Leena (1999): Musiikin käyttö Aki Kaurismäen elokuvissa. Työväen Akatemian kulttuurisihteerilinja. Lopputyö.
Romney Jonathan (1997): The Kaurismäki Effect. Sight and Sound, 6, 10–14.
Sander Gordon (2002): Romantic as a Caterpillar. Interview: Aki Kaurismaki. Financial Times 28–29.12.2002.