For Aki Kaurismäki, Class Politics Shape Everyday Life

From Shadows in Paradise to Fallen Leaves, Aki Kaurismäki’s films show ordinary Finns in minimalist, near-timeless settings. But they’re also a response to changes in working-class life since the 1980s, as consumerist values edge out Finland’s social model.

Aki Kaurismäki at the 76th Cannes Film Festival. (Marc Piasecki / FilmMagic via Getty Images)

A slovenly man makes himself a meal of sausage, liver casserole and eggs, seasoning it with salt and pepper. He sits up and eats the finished dish while watching the city darkening through the blinds — his gaze full of sadness, empathy, and concern.

This scene from Shadows in Paradise, focusing on the melancholic everyday reality of a garbage collector played by Matti Pellonpää, is probably one of the most iconic in Aki Kaurismäki’s early filmography. But already lurking in the background here was the beginning of a new Finnish cinema. With a few exceptions, cinema in this country had been plagued by a lack of ambition in both content and technique. Cinemas were mainly kept open by ungainly folk comedies. But in the second half of the 1980s, things changed. The technical quality of Finnish films grew, and the content became more serious. This turnaround would perhaps not have happened at this stage without Kaurismäki.

Few have dared to copy Kaurismäki’s style directly. Yet, he had a powerful influence on his homeland’s cineastes, especially as a portrayer of grim realism. He continues in the tradition of Mikko Niskanen and Risto Jarva, whose films depicted the ruthless human condition in Finnish society. Leading man Pellonpää, known as a bohemian, gave a face to this new tendency to tell stories about people who have failed or been marginalized in their lives.

Kaurismäki has directed movie adaptations of literature classics and humorous films but is probably best known for his dramas about ordinary working people. Film by film, his style as an auteur has evolved into a complete whole, best expressed in the so-called “Proletariat Trilogy”: Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988), and The Match Factory Girl (1990). Minimalist expression, a world stuck in a nonspecific recent past and old-fashioned music — pop, 1950s rock, European art music — are at the heart of Kaurismäki’s work.

But beyond these easily parodied stylistic features, it’s also worth noting that Kaurismäki’s works are bound together by left-wing politics. He does not tell or show us anything unless it has an intrinsic social significance. Even his most absurd film, Calamari Union (1985), tells a sociologically interesting tale about the fateful journey of fifteen men named Frank (and one going by Pekka) from working-class Kallio to bourgeois Eira.

In real terms, the distance between the two boroughs of Helsinki is only a few miles, but socially, the chasm is enormous. While the film itself seems cheap, improvized and incomprehensible because of its strange twists and turns — such as murders, subway hijackings, and cafe takeovers — we get our bearings from the observations about people’s social roles. Each of the Franks (and Pekka) have their own history, their own beliefs and, through this, their own destiny. One of them has a family and gives up the trip right at the start. One has a tendency to self-destruct, another has a strong and eventually fateful sex drive. Only two of the men achieve their goals — but only temporarily. They discover that Eira is already occupied and continue their journey by rowing toward the open sea.

The director has made his most direct political statements in various interviews, but he is probably at his most class-oriented in the Proletariat Trilogy. It is in these three films that his political accents emerge most clearly and fully. The recent success of Fallen Leaves (2023) offers an opportunity to also put the politics of his earlier films under the lens. The film presents a simple love story, punctuated by the protagonists’ struggles at work and their personal, but very class-based problems. Kaurismäki may have softened in his older years, but the basics are still strongly present.

To the Memory of Finnish Reality

But before dealing with the trilogy proper, it’s worth posing the question of the “essence” of Kaurismäki. What is he?

The director has often described himself as a romantic. This manifests itself most clearly through the melancholic music used in his films. They often feature Slavic songs or even translations of more famous tunes. One is heard in the end of Ariel: a Finnish version of the famous “Over the Rainbow” by tango legend Olavi Virta. But why does this music mostly seem to come from the ’50s and ’60s? Later decades have provided their own examples in this regard (it would be a shame not to mention the gig scene in the latest film with the band Maustetytöt (the Finnish version of the Spice Girls). But it all comes down to Kaurismäki’s nature as a nostalgic. He is one of those Finnish artists who, even at a young age, reached the conclusion that things used to be better. Like his contemporaries Peter von Bagh and Paavo Haavikko, he was clearly opposed to the casino economy and newer trends in film and music.

In the 1980s, Finnish cinema was searching for itself, just like the rest of the country. It was a time when society was clearly liberalizing: President Urho Kekkonen’s over-quarter-century reign was over. Kekkonen’s policy was guided by military nonalignment, but in its foreign relations, Finland was heavily dependent on the Soviet view of things. Kekkonen’s personal relations with the Soviet leadership were a guarantee of stability and peace. While he was elected repeatedly, for the last ten years his presidency was extended by exceptional laws approved by parliament.

As political life gradually became less rigid, social attitudes also changed. The politicization of cultural life had subsided as the pro-Soviet factions of the Finnish Communist Party lost their influence, and many things had become more permissive, such as environmental thinking, divorce, and leaving the state church. Finland was also taking significant steps toward the Western economy, for instance with an influx of new pop culture. Rock, jeans, disco, and punk had been around already, but the turbocharged phenomena of the 1980s came to every household thanks to video cassettes and MTV.

Kaurismäki also saw the downsides of change. He welcomed Finland’s internationalization and social liberalization, but the tsunami of pop culture and the hard values of neoliberalism weren’t to his liking. While the mainstream cinema of the ’80s could be epitomized by the characters of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and thudding action-movie theme songs, Kaurismäki deliberately used people and music as far away from the pulse of this decade as possible. It’s one reason for the use of old, Eastern European music in films.

The focus on portraying working-class life was a conscious choice, even defiant in the spirit of the era, moving away from the “working-class cinema” of the 1960s and the ’70s. The director’s attitude is at its most extreme in the short film Rocky VI (1986), in which the shy and shabby protagonist (musician Silu Seppälä, known for his small stature) gets the beating of his life from the powerful Soviet boxer Igor (the director’s trusted actor Sakari Kuosmanen). This was pure mockery of the American entertainment industry and its invincible heroes. At the same time, Kaurismäki usually gave the main roles to people like Pellonpää, who were a bit messy and who paid little attention to Arnie’s bodily instructions.

Everyday Life Is Radical

Anyone who looks to Kaurismäki’s films for self-truths, answers to ease the burden of life or direct solutions to society’s problems may easily end up disappointed. Kaurismäki is a political artist, but this side often hovers more at the thematic level of events or of the filmmaking itself, which is difficult to align with the politics of the day. Probably the most direct political statement in the Proletariat Trilogy is the photograph of Kekkonen — no longer president when the films were made — hanging on the walls.

Many Finns have a very nostalgic longing for the simple and fairly straightforward way of doing things of the Kekkonen era. His presidency is remembered above all as a period of building up the welfare state, whereas later eras are seen — especially on the Left — in terms of its long dismantling. Kaurismäki does not particularly deviate from this line. Of Kekkonen’s successors, only the portrait of left-wing social democrat Tarja Halonen has since made it into Kaurismäki’s film, which can be seen as reflecting his attitude to the prevailing political winds.

But politics is present in the images and settings. The contradiction between the nature of the films’ stories and the society surrounding them is a message of its own.

The stories are themselves simple. A trash collector falls in love with a grocery store checkout girl, has a run-in and eventually escapes with his chosen one toward Soviet-occupied Estonia. A laid-off miner travels in his dead father’s convertible from Lapland to Helsinki, finds love, robs a bank, and flees to Mexico with his lover and her son. Oppressed by her family, the young woman gets pregnant by an indifferent man, takes revenge on all her wrongdoers, and ends up in jail.

The hopes and grim realism of neoliberalism are ever-present. Shadows in Paradise begins when one of two colleagues with dreams of entrepreneurship dies of a heart attack in the middle of a workday — resulting in the other abandoning the whole idea, apparently to avoid stress and vain hopes. At some point in each film, we also see how big money is always hidden in bank vaults or in the hands of gentlemen estranged from ordinary life — the rest of us get to enjoy the leftovers. While the ’80s are painted in many people’s nostalgic memories, or in series like Stranger Things as a decade of commodities and entertainment, Kaurismäki’s characters have little money to spare. The same tendency can be seen in Fallen Leaves, with its simple dwellings and personal possessions limited to the necessities of life. The only clear sign of a consumer society in the apartment is a tube radio reporting on the war in Ukraine.

Although the characters are often left face down on the ground — maybe with someone pressing them down — they always maintain their innate strength. In Kaurismäki’s world, workers can be selfish, stupid, or thoughtless — even break the law — but they still have a genuine desire to be themselves and possibly even to evolve and help others. Each of the trilogy’s protagonists has at least someone who understands them and helps them move forward.

Kaurismäki has never included, in his oeuvre, a worker so reckless that he cannot, when necessary, be revealed to be a true gentleman. Usually, the stories end with the worker taking his fate into his own hands and leaping toward the unknown. These situations also contain Kaurismäki’s absurdism: the flight to Soviet Estonia seems a bit miscalculated (why go from a welfare state to a region that was considered completely backward in Finland?), the journey to Mexico a pastiche of classic film noir, and the abyssal misery of The Match Factory Girl, the final film of the Proletariat Trilogy, could be a conscious parody of his own work, were it not for the seriousness of the events that eat away at laughter. The message for the viewer is, perhaps, that emancipation is a harsh process, even when it is leavened by romance.

A Valued Distraction

Since the Proletariat Trilogy, Kaurismäki has tackled other themes in his films, such as unemployment, homelessness, and immigration. Alcoholism is a central theme in his latest work. A certain development can be seen here, with social realism extended to ever-more marginal groups and, in the end, the filmmaker himself also having to deal with painful themes.

Kaurismäki’s position in Finnish cinema is somewhat ambivalent. There is great respect for him — and sympathy — and his popularity abroad is also appreciated. Many are alienated by what his films look like and how the characters speak — though this style has also won him a loyal audience. This audience enjoys seeing certain actors and cameos on screen, hearing laconic statements spoken in an “official” Finnish, and discovering the statements hidden in the nuances.

Kaurismäki often makes his opinions known in public, with a strong inclination to take the left-wing side in political debates. He has rarely been involved in party politics, seeing this as something that gives him a freedom to maneuver. If he had clear party-political connections, he could not have made a move like forbidding the distribution of his latest film in Israel and Turkey.

Still, this is not only a negative for Finland’s parties, as Kaurismäki has a tendency to stir the pot in embarrassing ways. The ostensibly drunken proposal some years ago to “kill off all the rich” in an interview published in the Guardian was one such case. In Finland, there had been a debate about political violence following individual attacks by the far right against the Left, while the Right wanted to point to the 2011 London riots as somehow an example of left-wing violence. Many on the Finnish left remember how social media commentators mocked politician Li Andersson’s view of “better violence,” in fact the result of a misquotation. Around the same time, Kaurismäki was interviewed while in an apparently confused state of mind, casually berating a journalist and talking about his own suicide. In the same breath, he declared that terrorism was the salvation of humanity and that killing the richest 1 percent was the solution. This statement was a weapon gladly taken up by right-wingers. Although the statement was seemingly fueled by frustration (and alcohol) rather than bloodlust, in a consensus-based politics like Finland’s, such harsh opinions are always condemned by his comrades, too.

It might be said that Kaurismäki is one of those artists and intellectuals in Finland who are appreciated regardless of what they think. Natural attrition is today thinning its ranks of this small group. But I would not yet like to give the director the last role of his kind. For other characters are bound to emerge, regardless of the circumstances. Finnish society suffers from a certain lack of intelligent criticism, which is mainly to be found in the libraries of humanities departments. Public life needs figures like Kaurismäki who dare to swim against the current.