Ha! You thought I’d forgotten about my 50 films, didn’t you? What, sorry? You’d forgotten about them? Oh.
In January 2003 I was one of the ‘performers’ (and I can only use the word in its loosest possible sense) in a ‘performance’ (ditto) of Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique in the Dome at New Hall (now Murray Edwards College) in Cambridge. This is a work in which 100 metronomes are wound up and set off simultaneously, at different speeds. Initially cacophonous, it gradually becomes possible to discern individual metronomes as the others drop out one by one, until a single metronome is left, whose eventual silence signals the end. A fascinating piece, but a tricky one to stage, not least because of the practical impossibility of finding a reputable metronome hire company anywhere in the world, let alone in East Anglia. Still, we did some begging around and somehow got enough to make a performance viable (I confess I don’t remember as many as 100, though I feel sure we reached 50).
The reason I recall this is that I had planned to go to the cinema that same night to see the new Aki Kaurismäki, The Man Without a Past. I don’t think I’d seen any Kaurismäki before (perhaps Ariel and/or Hamlet Goes Business), but I’d read about it and it sounded absolutely my kind of thing. But the Ligeti dragged on interminably. The last few metronomes clung on … and on … and the minutes grew steadily longer. I have an unshakeable terror of turning up late for plays or films or concerts, but I could hardly leave this one before it had finished in order to go to the cinema. Finally, silence stole over us. The audience applauded the magnificent display of machinery arranged before them while presumably muttering things about an evening wasted, and I made my getaway. I rushed down Castle Hill and made it to the Arts Picturehouse in time to buy the last ticket available, in the leftmost seat of the front row.
This is Jaakko Antero Lujanen (Markku Peltola), though his name is not known until the end of the film, and in fact he is referred to in the end credits simply as ‘M’. The opening sequence shows him approaching Helsinki on a train from somewhere far away, looking in his stone-faced dejectedness not entirely unlike Cary Grant. On his arrival he sits down on a bench and falls asleep. Later that night, he is brutally beaten by thugs, who steal his money and dispose of his wallet – and, effectively, his identity, since when he regains consciousness in hospital he has no idea who he is.
My straightforward description of the setup omits a number of characteristic details one observes in the opening minutes, of the kind that give this film its magic. Take the director’s use of music, always thoughtful. The mournful bandoneon and piano track that accompanies M on his journey, or the victorious brass chords from the last movement of Leevi Madetoja’s 3rd symphony, which emanate from M’s radio, turned on by one of the thugs to accompany the beating, while he dons M’s welder’s mask – the only clue among the man’s possessions to his identity. After the beating, he covers M’s face with the mask, a beautifully symbolic representation of the loss of M’s identity, and exhilarating despite the violent tragedy that accompanies it. In hospital, M’s face is still covered, but by bandages. He dies, but then returns to life when the doctor and nurse have left his bedside, pausing only to straighten his crooked nose (one of a number of inspired and unexpected touches of humour) before discharging himself and returning to the world. I think this may be one of my favourite opening sequences in all cinema.
M is taken in by a poor but kind family. They help to set him up in a home of his own (it’s actually a shipping container, but he brightens it up by the addition of a jukebox which plays blues and rock and roll, and cultivates a small vegetable garden). His lack of identity and his ignorance of his former profession make it difficult for him to find work, but a visit to the Salvation Army for a free meal one Friday evening helps to give purpose to his life. Not only does he get some new clothes from their store, but he begins to fall in love with one of the workers, the unassuming Irma (Kati Outinen). He also has some suggestions for updating the music played by the Army band, and persuades them to abandon their insipid hymns in favour of blues, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. ‘We’ve heard about rock,’ says the drummer, who plays a single snare drum. M then puts a record on, and the band members start slowly to respond, like the queuing metalworkers in The Full Monty. The band’s transformation is impressive, and M becomes a small-time rock manager.
Just as M has started to be able to live again – a place to call his own, a girlfriend, a sort-of-job – he sees a man welding, which unlocks something in his mind. Presently, the police contact M to say that his wife has identified him. This throws his life into disarray, not that you’d know it from his eternally impassive facial expressions. He bids a tender farewell to Irma and travels back home to Nurmes. There is play with the shifting of the concepts of home and identity throughout the film. Which M is the real one? Does the discovery of his old life automatically invalidate his new one? He makes a final train journey at the end of the film, back to Helsinki, replicating his journey at the start. Is this a homecoming?
Thugs apart, the characters of the film are, almost without exception, kindly, taciturn and passive. There is a scene where a lugubrious robber locks M and a cashier in a bank vault. ‘I must close the door to give myself a head start,’ he apologises. ‘Perfectly understandable in your position,’ M replies. The sparse range of facial expressions on display, typical of Kaurismäki’s characters, heightens the tenderness of the scenes between M and Irma, these two lonely, unremarkable people who have established an unlikely emotional connection. When someone smiles in a Kaurismäki film, it really counts.
For me, there is one character who does possess genuine charisma, and that is Matti Wuori (above right), a noted Finnish lawyer and politician, who makes a cameo appearance as himself. Like an angel, he appears as though unbidden (in fact at the behest of the Salvation Army, it transpires) to help get M out of police custody. His brief scene is one of the most joyous I have ever seen, and gives the same thrill as when Marshall McLuhan pops up in Annie Hall. Outside the station they shake hands, Wuori gives M a cigar, and they go their separate ways.
This film was shortlisted for the Best Foreign Film Oscar but lost out to the comparatively sterile German/African film Nowhere in Africa, a decision which still rankles with me. Markku Peltola died in 2007 at the age of 51. This film is an fine monument to him as an actor, and a beautiful introduction to the bittersweet world of Aki Kaurismäki.