The Cinema of Aki Kaurismäki

Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö (Das Mädchen aus der Streichholzfabrik), 1990, Aki Kaurismäki
April 6 to May 3, 2018
The Film Museum devotes the month of April to one of the contemporary greats: Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki (*1957) made a name for himself in the 1980s with works such as the laconic road movie Ariel, proving his exceptional talent far beyond the borders of Finland and becoming an international audience favorite. From the very beginning, he showed his hand in the unmistakable minimalist style as well as the humanist approach combining dry, often deadpan humor with a depth of feeling that comes into full bloom only when conveyed in an understatement. In short, great modesty is what gives Kaurismäki's cinema its unperturbed, irresistible drive.
Adamantly telling stories of class struggle focused on outsiders and social outcasts, mostly proletarians thrown off the track by capitalism, Kaurismäki is an exceptionally political director – one who does not argue tendentiously, but with a fundamental understanding for human dignity and grace. Especially so in his late work, such as his new film Toivon tuolla puolen (The Other Side of Hope), where Kaurismäki places the long-running refugee crisis center stage in order to tell a tale of social solidarity shaken by economic pressure and ideological hardening. All the while, Kaurismäki's argument (even in the details of the milieu he depicts) remains practical: Despite the consistent understatedness and charming eccentricities, these are popular stories with a sense of humor and feeling – giving rise to cinema as an education of the heart.
The taciturnity (and fondness for drink) of his protagonists is often, by no means unjustly, understood as an amusing expression of Finnish mentality, but this paring down to the essentials is also a result of passionate cinephilia. Masters such as Buster Keaton, Luis Buñuel, Robert Bresson and Yasujirō Ozu, American B-movies and French melodramas make up the groundwork for the consolidation of Kaurismäki's equal parts original and classically informed cinema. A personally selected Carte Blanche illuminates Kaurismäki's most important cinematic affinities and influences in dialogue with the filmmaker's complete works.
Kaurismäki's profound knowledge of cinema history as well as the precision of his socially conscious narratives stem from his youth in the 1970s, when he eked out a living as a postman or construction worker only to make the most of cinema and television film repertoires in his spare time. The then head of the Finnish Film Archive, Peter von Bagh, whom the Film Museum devoted a posthumous tribute in 2014, became a kind of mentor to him: In 1986, the duo founded the legendary Midnight Sun Film Festival. At that point, Kaurismäki was about to get his first break as film director, having already made notable films as actor, scriptwriter and co-director together with his brother Mika in the early 1980s.
In 1983, Kaurismäki's solo debut Rikos ja rangaistus (Crime and Punishment) launched a series of unpretentious and free (in every sense of the word) literary adaptations which demonstrate that Kaurismäki, an avid reader, is just as shaped by literature as he is by cinema. In 1985, the surreal cult film Calamari Union laid the foundation for a set of unconventional road movies: successful films featuring "the worst rock-and-roll band in the world," the Leningrad Cowboys. The following year, the tragicomedy Varjoja paratiisissa (Shadows in Paradise) already saw the Kaurismäki style perfected. In a love story between a garbage man and a supermarker check-out girl (played by Kaurismäki icon Kati Outinen and Matti Pellonpää, who passed away in 1995), the most commonplace becomes universal and the world of ordinary people is writ large as great cinema à la Kaurismäki. Utterly direct and free of all false sentiments, artful in its rigorously stylized artlessness, and, despite all the melancholy and lack of illusions in its perspective on social reality, deeply utopian in its faith in human kind. For where there are shadows, there is light - such is the nature of cinema and the soul of Aki Kaurismäki's art.
Aki Kaurismäki's selection features the films of: Ernst Lubitsch, Edward M. Sedgwick jr. & Buster Keaton, Marcel Carné, Teuvo Tulio, Robert Wise, Luis Buñuel, Ozu Yasujirō, Kurosawa Akira, Robert Bresson, Vasilij Šukšin, Jim Jarmusch, Abbas Kiarostami.

The retrospective is presented with the kind support of the Embassy of Finland (Vienna).