PRINT May 2003


Geoffrey O’Brien on The Man Without a Past

Aki Kaurismäki, The Man Without a Past, 2002, production still. Irma (Kati Outinen) and the Man (Markku Peltola).

“MY HEAD’S DAMAGED somehow. I don’t even remember who I am.”

“My, that’s bad. Care for a cup of coffee?”

This snatch of dialogue sums up quite well the clipped and unflappable tone of Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s sixteenth feature, The Man Without a Past, a movie where, within the first three minutes, the worst has already happened: After a few tranquil establishing shots just detailed enough to let us surmise that a stranger is arriving in a city by train, the unknown man whose acquaintance we have only just made sits on a bench and without a pause is accosted by skinheads, who knock him down, beat him savagely, and leave him for dead.

We encounter him next as a bandaged near-mummy in a hospital ward, his death already confirmed by a none-too-attentive doctor on night duty. Tearing loose from the plastic tubes attached to him, the bemused patient lurches Boris Karloff–style into the unknown, finding his way to the seaside, where he will be once again despoiled—his boots stolen by a tramp—so that he can begin anew from the bottom: a postindustrial Kaspar Hauser without a name or a memory or a possession, dependent on the generosity of those who themselves scarcely have anything.

The events unfold with the generic, parable-like cadence of certain classic films of the silent period—The Immigrant (1917) or The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) or The Docks of New York (1928)—a quality endangered from the moment movies started talking. Indeed, one of Kaurismäki’s recent films, Juha (1999), was a literal attempt to revive silent melodrama. In The Man Without a Past it is as if we were going to begin from zero, aesthetically and in every other way, in a shantytown by an industrialized river, in a world constructed out of debris, fed by evangelical soup kitchens, and entertained by accordion-playing fringe-dwellers, a world where as a matter of course every bucket has a hole in it. Story persists in a robustly tentative fashion: The fact that merely getting fed and finding shelter are such epic undertakings leaves relatively little room for narrative complication. The simplest things—working out a deal to sublet a derelict shipping container from a night watchman, registering with the local unemployment office—take long enough that impatience is no longer part of the vocabulary. It’s hard to be impatient when everything is happening for the first time.

A quick exchange of glances with a Salvation Army officer—the weathered, vulnerable Kati Outinen, Ophelia in Kaurismäki’s memorably depoeticized Hamlet Goes Business (1987)—is nothing less than love at first sight. (The Salvation Army atmosphere is tuned so precisely that you can practically smell the mothballs in the back room where they store the donated suits.) The salvaging of a discarded jukebox, conveniently stocked with magnificent blues and rockabilly records, becomes the means of introducing rock ’n’ roll to an earnest evangelical combo (guitar, bass, and parade drum) whose tentative foot-tapping on their first encounter with the Big Beat is registered with great comic delicacy. Before long the evangelicals are regaling their audience of homeless drifters with a homemade brand of apocalyptic rock ’n’ roll: “I’m haunted by the devil, every day and every night.” The scene, brief as it is, ranks among the great rock numbers on film.

Kaurismäki’s films are often, with good reason, described as “deadpan”; they reinforce an impression of Finland as a place where cracking a smile is unheard of. His characters—whether preachers, bums, government bureaucrats, amateur bank robbers, or dissatisfied housewives—discuss the pros and cons of their various existential dilemmas in the same low, measured tones, and with the same poker-faced demeanor: They will never burst into the screams or moans or maniacal laughter that some situations seem to call for, not even if they’re locked in a bank vault and the oxygen is slowly being depleted. If social institutions like welfare offices and police departments and industrial personnel divisions seem to serve more as obstructions or occlusions—especially since not having a name makes government assistance all but impossible—the response will not be violent resistance but a discreet sidling away into the more anonymous spaces appreciated by drunkards, wanderers, and musicians.

The story goes somewhere because it must, even if the resolution is so unsatisfying to the central character (forever nameless) that he turns his back on it and walks, as it were, back into the picture’s opening reels. Having found his identity, he is quick to discard it again, finding his way to that marginal zone of rusted metal and cracked concrete where identities are still permitted to remain undefined—and free from bureaucratic paperwork. “Can’t you pay me in cash like the old days?” he had asked earlier on, while still trying to find a way back into the system he was knocked out of. The film’s distinct landscape—a landscape without monuments other than the expressions of more or less eroded faces, above all that of the lead actor, Markku Peltola—suggests a continent without a past, a place at the water’s edge where history dissolves into mere survival. Like the silent movies whose mood it evokes, The Man Without a Past stays fixed inescapably on the present moment.

Geoffrey O’Brien is editor in chief of the Library of America.