One of the great pleasures of being an aficionado of auteur cinema lies in the process of gradually discovering a new world—a world created, brick by brick, film by film, by a director over time. The Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, who made his first narrative feature thirty-five years ago, is a model auteur: from the very start, his films have been firmly marked by a strong directorial personality. Despite the fact that each of his movies is singular and distinct, Aki World (as some have dubbed it) has a compelling coherence, in both content and form. The critic Jonathan Romney once discussed a phenomenon he called the “Kaurismäki effect”: encountering just one film by the director invariably leaves a viewer puzzled by his style and sensibility, but, upon seeing two or three, things gratifyingly begin to click and fall into place. Because his movies supply both the comfort of familiarity and the thrill of surprise, it is especially rewarding to engage with each new Kaurismäki film against the background of his large and rich body of work—thus multiplying the pleasure of appreciation. In addition to this guarantee of interest, Kaurismäki’s seventeenth fiction feature, The Other Side of Hope (2017), which was awarded the best director prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, is also one of his most affecting.
Travel has long been one of Kaurismäki’s favorite themes. Many of his early films center on Finnish men—often alienated from society—who find a way to escape to romantic or utopian destinations, frequently by ship, as in Shadows in Paradise (1986) and Ariel (1988). But these white men, even if they are outsiders on the bottom rungs of society, still possess freedoms that most of the world lacks. Starting with Le Havre (2011) and continuing with The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki switched course by associating travel not with native Finns but with migrants who are people of color. This has been a timely and apt choice on his part, given that we are in the middle of a global displacement crisis on a scale comparable to that of World War II. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that there are now almost sixty-six million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Of those, refugees number over twenty-two million, more than half of whom are under the age of eighteen. (Kaurismäki centered Le Havre on a displaced African child hiding from the authorities in France.) The country that is the leading source of refugees in the world is Syria; twelve million people—half of its prewar population—have been forced from their homes since 2011.
As The Other Side of Hope begins, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee, arrives in Helsinki, hidden on a coal ship. Having fled his home in Aleppo after losing most of his family in a bomb attack, he has crossed by foot into Turkey, hazarded travel through eastern Europe, and stowed away after being beaten by skinheads. Once in Finland, he chooses to turn himself over to the police, is placed in a detention center, and applies for asylum. He is denied for no good reason—and goes on the lam.
In a parallel, crosscut narrative, a middle-aged shirt wholesaler, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), sells his business and purchases the Golden Pint, an unpromising, run-down restaurant. With much comic bumbling, he and his staff try to make a success of it. When he discovers Khaled sleeping behind a dumpster near the restaurant, he takes him in—after a mock-macho fistfight—and gives him both shelter and employment. He also engineers a reunion between Khaled and his sister Miriam, who were separated during their perilous flight from Syria. Even so, the film ends on a note of suspension: the future remains uncertain for the siblings, as it does for countless refugees like them in the world.
One of Kaurismäki’s enduring sources of appeal is the fact that he is a die-hard cinephile, a fact telegraphed in The Other Side of Hope’s striking, nearly wordless opening sequence. As day turns to night at a port (a recurrent location in his films even before they focused on immigrants), we see in close-up a mound of coal on the deck of a ship; something stirs, revealing itself as Khaled’s head and body, coated in black dust, rising eerily out of the heap. It is an image that could have been plucked from a century-old silent comedy. Khaled, all his possessions in a bag slung over his shoulder, disembarks in the dark and heads for a railway-station bathroom to clean up. As he showers, we see another close-up: of water circling the drain, black from the coal. It’s an unmistakable and witty reference to the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), in whose black-and-white images the bloodred water appears dark.
A more sustained cinephilic homage is the basis of an uproarious scene in which Wikström, using poor judgment, makes over the restaurant as a sushi establishment with waitstaff in Japanese garb, a passage that is likely a tip of the hat to Japanese cinema. Interviewed in the early nineties for a documentary on the filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, Kaurismäki confessed sardonically to a photograph of his Japanese idol: “I’ve made eleven lousy films—and it’s all your fault.” He also recounted how his life was changed when, at the insistence of his brother, Mika (also a filmmaker), he saw Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953) in London as a young man in the midseventies. “After that, I gave up my dreams about literature,” he said, and “decided to begin my search for a red teakettle,” referring to Ozu’s practice of meticulously placing everyday household objects in the cinematic frame. Kaurismäki’s sense of visual composition and color palette owe a great debt to Ozu in their precision, spareness, and use of accents. The humble teakettle sitting in the corner of the image in an Ozu film can carry a surprisingly potent visual frisson; both Le Havre and The Other Side of Hope nod knowingly to this kettle but replace it humorously with red fire extinguishers because, in Kaurismäki’s dry words, Finland’s “tea ceremony is so underdeveloped.” The optimistic final image of Le Havre is of cherry blossoms, a Japanese national symbol; the director has described it as “a perfect Ozu shot.” The Other Side of Hope also bears a moving dedication to Peter von Bagh, the critic, curator, filmmaker, and supercinephile who was a cultural institution in Finland and died in 2014.
“Kaurismäki is one of fictional cinema’s most respectful chroniclers of labor—from factory work to garbage collection to live musical performance.”
If there is one central theme that dominates the Kaurismäki oeuvre, it is the lives of people at the margins of society. Present from his 1983 narrative debut, an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, it finds full expression a few years later in his “Proletariat Trilogy”: Shadows in Paradise, Ariel, and The Match Factory Girl (1990). The focus in these films is usually on an individual outsider, though it occasionally expands to include a romantic partner. But with La vie de bohème (1992), which adapts the nineteenth-century episodic novel by Henri Murger that was also the basis of Giacomo Puccini’s famous opera La bohème, we begin to see a concern for friendship and camaraderie—in this case, among a group of down-at-the-heels artists in Paris. This concern blossoms into a full paean to communal solidarity in Drifting Clouds (1996), one of the director’s masterpieces, and a key precursor to The Other Side of Hope. Kaurismäki is one of fictional cinema’s most respectful chroniclers of labor—from factory work to garbage collection to live musical performance—and both films capture, in revealing, often comic detail, the day-to-day operation of a restaurant as a collective endeavor. Also in both films, the protagonists are memorably accompanied in their labors as well as their lives by dogs.“No director in the entire history of motion pictures,” Luc Sante once wrote of Kaurismäki, “has understood and showcased dogs as effectively as he does.” In The Other Side of Hope, the restaurant staff secretly takes in a female stray and dubs it Koistinen—a name shared by the male protagonist of Lights in the Dusk (2006), thus signaling the director’s comradely view of canines. Even though she appears for less than a minute of screen time, she is featured prominently in promotional images for the film, and even shares the final shot with Khaled.
Dogs cut a fascinating trajectory across Kaurismäki’s filmography. In the early period of the eighties, they appear as vehicles of symbolic import, such as the Tarkovskian dog that dashes across an urban wasteland at the moment of a trash collector’s death in Shadows in Paradise, or the German shepherds that are released during a prison break (and stand in for the power of the state) in Ariel. In the middle period of the nineties, they graduate to membership in the family unit: La vie de bohème gives the pooch Baudelaire the romantic happy ending it denies its human protagonists, for example, and a dog serves as a couple’s substitute for their deceased child in Drifting Clouds. Finally, in the late period, which kicks off at the turn of the twenty-first century, dogs become established as companion figures identified with displaced people of color, as in Le Havre or The Other Side of Hope.
There is a genuineness to the presence of dogs in Kaurismäki’s cinema that owes something to his personal roots in the ethos of punk culture, which has long guided the looseness of his shooting methods. Barring technical gaffes, he rarely does more than one or two takes of each scene, which means that he spends little effort training the dogs that appear in his films. In fact, rather than going to the trouble of hiring “performer” animals, he simply features his own pets in his movies.
For all its unforced charm, though, Kaurismäki’s work also draws a special strength from its deft framing of a play of opposites. He is, on the one hand, a committed humanist whose attitude toward his characters is one of love and generosity. His films trace an ongoing commitment to figures of otherness—introverted loners, nonconformist bohemians, the unemployed. In the latter part of his career, these characters are often damaged or cut adrift by society. As a solace, the films bestow them with the friendship of kindly humans and canines. But the threat of nihilism is never far away. It is de rigueur for a Kaurismäki film to feature a scene in which the protagonist is severely beaten by white male thugs—usually for no reason at all. In The Other Side of Hope, however, it turns out there is a (vile) reason: Khaled is savagely attacked, twice, by white supremacists whose black leather jackets are emblazoned with the words “Liberation Army Finland.” While this organization is fictional, it stands in for an assortment of real-life far-right, anti-immigrant groups—such as Finland’s Soldiers of Odin or Greece’s Golden Dawn—whose alarming rise in Europe has been concurrent with the worldwide refugee crisis.
The cinema of Kaurismäki embodies another duality: while being repeatedly drawn to nostalgia, it simultaneously remains present-rooted. The nostalgia shows up most insistently in his anachronistic and singular mise-en-scène, in which the past and the present often exist side by side. In the opening moments of The Other Side of Hope, when we are introduced to Wikström, we also get a loving close-up of his mid-twentieth-century clock, followed by his vintage car. After Khaled turns himself in at a police station, an officer records his request for asylum on a typewriter—while a laptop computer sits idle next to it. The many songs that populate the soundtracks of the director’s movies have one thing in common: they almost always reach back to older genres such as blues, rockabilly, tango, and jazz, even when the recordings happen to be contemporary. If the nostalgia in the films is primarily cultural, the economic and political world that presses down upon the characters is inescapably that of present-day reality, with the field of vision expanding from Finland in the early films to a greater global awareness in the later ones.Kaurismäki’s films often feature white men who, despite being taciturn, feel no particular need to make a secret of their disaffection and alienation. At one of the best moments in The Other Side of Hope, Khaled tells his Iraqi friend and fellow refugee Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon) that he appears happy and satisfied. Mazdak replies: “I pretend. The melancholy ones are the first they send back.” Kaurismäki understands that the luxury of open disaffection—or even sadness—is not available to the refugee. It is this feeling of utter powerlessness and silencing, of the abject dehumanization of displaced people today, that haunts us long after the film has ended.