Alma Pöysti and Jussi Vatanen in Fallen Leaves (Image courtesy of The Match Factory)

Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki was once asked why there is so little camera movement in his films. “That’s a nuisance when you have a hangover,” he responded. His joke captures three elements of the prolific director’s latest feature, Fallen Leaves: wry humor, a spare style stripped of any distraction or nuisance (not to say nuance), and alcoholic depression.

Fallen Leaves—which won the prestigious Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and was recently screened at the New York Film Festival ahead of a November U.S. release—is, as Kaurismäki put it, the “fourth part of a trilogy”—namely, his “Proletariat” series, dealing with despair and hope among Finland’s working class. These films, along with many others by Kaurismäki, share a number of plot elements: at least one character loses a dead-end job; there is at least one act of random violence; a lot of the action takes place in dive bars; and there’s often a dog—in this case named “Chaplin” after the filmmaker Kaurismäki idolizes. Lastly, there’s typically a sweet but awkward, nearly mute courtship, in this case between two struggling forty-somethings: Holappa, a sandblaster and construction worker who keeps losing jobs because of his alcoholism, and Ansa, a grocery-store stock clerk. Their romance is tenuous from the beginning—Holappa immediately loses Ansa’s number after their first date—and threatened by their deteriorating circumstances and Holappa’s drinking.

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Kaurismäki’s style is minimalist and sometimes absurdist. Apart from their bold color scheme—teals, mustard yellows, and maroons—his sets are almost comically spare and populated with anachronistic technology and furniture that make contemporary Helsinki look like East Berlin at the height of the Cold War. This distinctive style, sometimes referred to as “Aki World,” finds parallels in the work of American directors like Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson, who traffic in similar deadpan humor and stylized mise en scène and who have both been influenced by Kaurismäki.

This absurdism and humor might seem at odds with a social realism that tracks the deprivation of working-class characters, but Kaurismäki follows both Charlie Chaplin and Bertolt Brecht in distancing his characters from strict naturalistic reality in order to bring intellectual and political ideas to the fore. In an interview, Kaurismäki said, “I like Brecht’s idea that the actor should regard himself as a narrator who only quotes the character he is playing. In this way, audiences are provoked to draw intellectual conclusions instead of just becoming emotionally attached to what they see.” In one example of this kind of distancing, Holappa broods over yet another beer while he tells his friend Huotari he’s depressed because he drinks so much. So why, Huotari asks, does he drink so much? “Because I’m depressed.” The wry detachment of the actors from their characters, along with the eccentric sets, eases our distress at their penury while also providing a distance that invites us to reflect on it. In another scene, after a sad dinner of eggs and potatoes, Ansa informs Holappa that her dreary one-room apartment was passed down to her by an aunt. “So you’re an heiress,” he replies.

Human lives, like Ansa’s, are used up and thrown away, too, all while being meticulously surveilled to ensure the highest degree of efficiency and obedience.

Early in the film, Ansa loses her job at the grocery store when an overbearing security guard catches her giving expired food to a homeless man and taking some home for herself. “It belongs in the waste bin,” her boss tells her when he fires her and two friends who stand up with her in solidarity. “I suppose I do, too,” Ansa responds, establishing disposal as a central motif of the film. What Pope Francis has called a “throwaway culture” insists that we waste food and other goods in the service of an exploitative system of production and consumption that thrives on our renewable dissatisfaction as it damages the global environment and local communities alike. But it doesn’t stop there: human lives, like Ansa’s, are used up and thrown away, too, all while being meticulously surveilled to ensure the highest degree of efficiency and obedience. (At least, in Kaurismäki’s low-tech world, that surveillance still has a human face.)

Ansa shuts off her electricity when she realizes how much trouble she’ll have paying the bill, but Kaurismäki doesn’t wallow in characters’ victimhood, nor, as film scholar Thomas Austin writes, does he “elevat[e] them to simplistic icons of heroic labour or ‘authentic’ folk culture.” Instead, Ansa busies herself with what Brecht, as Austin notes, called “the greatest art of all: Lebenskunst, the art of getting through life.” She picks up work, first as a dishwasher at a bar and then sweeping the rubble from a factory floor. Kaurismäki shoots these scenes at length with an unemotional camera that conveys the subordination of workers to vast mechanized forces beyond their control. (“Ansa” means “trapped” in Finnish.)

Ansa gets out, too. She meets Holappa at a karaoke night after the older and much more outgoing Huotari drags him there. After Ansa’s friend Liisa compliments Huotari on his singing, he starts flirting with her, unsuccessfully. As they banter, Ansa and Holappa engage in a silent dialogue of shy, expectant glances. It’s not till he meets her outside the bar where she’s been working (and where her boss is being arrested for dealing drugs) that Holappa works up the nerve to ask her out, first to coffee, which Ansa catches him supplementing with vodka, and then to a movie, which turns out, not accidentally, to be Jim Jarmusch’s zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die.

Kaurismäki’s films are rich in quotation and allusions to film history.

Kaurismäki’s films are rich in quotation and allusions to film history—along with Charlie Chaplin, David Lean, Robert Bresson, and Jean-Luc Godard all get nods—but rarely are the references as explicit and meaningful as the one to Jarmusch. Kaurismäki’s use of this film-within-the-film is not just a humorous wink to a friend and kindred spirit; it’s also a playful counterpoint to the themes of his own film. In The Dead Don’t Die, Jarmusch’s zombies are symbols of mindless consumerism—at one point zombie caffeine junkies attack a coffee shop—and a consequence of environmental degradation: “polar fracking” has sent the earth off its axis, somehow causing a zombie apocalypse. By placing his protagonists—the “dead leaves” (a more literal translation of the title)—in the audience of The Dead Don’t Die, Kaurismäki makes a sly reference to their resilience and a somewhat more hopeful modification to Jarmusch’s symbolism. What better analogy for a resilient working class left for dead by an uncaring society than zombies? Ansa’s wry reaction to the Jarmusch film can be read almost as a warning to that society. “There’s no way the police could have handled it,” she says. “There were simply too many zombies.”

To left-leaning American viewers, it may be surprising to find that the leading filmmaker in Finland, sometimes represented as a quasi-socialist paradise, is so preoccupied with economic inequality and the depredations of capital. But despite a robust welfare state, a workforce that is 90 percent unionized, and high degree public ownership, especially compared to the United States, Finland has had its own downturns. During the 1990s, its poorly regulated banking industry fell into crisis, causing a depression and mass unemployment. Full employment never returned. As elsewhere in Europe, recent years in Finland have seen battles between labor unions and welfare advocates, on the one hand, and austerity-minded neoliberal reformers on the other. Finland’s current government, formed over the summer, is led by the conservative National Coalition Party, which promises to cut spending and crack down on unions. The governing coalition also includes the far-right, anti-immigration Finns Party. Recent Kaurismäki films, Le Havre and The Other Side of Hope, have taken European hostility to immigration head-on.

In April, spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland joined NATO (a move Kaurismäki opposed). The war in Ukraine plays a constant background role in Fallen Leaves. Every time one of many old-fashioned analog radios comes on, reports of Russia’s vicious assault blare. Clashing with the film’s otherworldly aesthetic, these blasts of death and destruction serve as another Brechtian interruption, challenging us to see the story in a wider social and historical context. In Finland, which shares a border and an imperial history with Russia, the war looms especially large. Arriving as they do on the outmoded medium of radio, these reports both distance us from and highlight the intrusive, almost compulsory nature of our own tech-facilitated consumption of crisis after crisis. At one point, Ansa, looking for music to play and finding only news of war, uncharacteristically explodes: “That bloody war!”

The characters in Fallen Leaves do find music eventually, and, through it, a kind of upside-down hope. At his lowest point, at the end of a days-long bender, Holappa is at a bar when two young women with blank expressions and dead eyes start playing the guitar and keyboard. They’re the Finnish synth-pop duo Maustetytöt (literally “Spice Girls”), and the song is called “Born to sadness and clothed in disappointments.” As Holappa watches, transfixed, the Spice Girls sing the bleak chorus: “I’m a prisoner here forever / Even the cemetery is surrounded by fences / When my earthly assignment is finally over / You can just dig me deeper into the ground.” It’s not a ballad one would expect to bring hope to a down-and-out, lovesick alcoholic. But in Aki World, where even the zombie apocalypse can become a symbol for renewal, genuine hope springs from the deepest despair, just as life eventually springs from death, no matter how deeply buried. It’s the role of art, for Kaurismäki, to locate hope in the dimmest places, often by the light of humor. “Life is intolerable without humor,” Kaurismäki has said. “It’s intolerable with humor, too.”

Alexander Stern is Commonweal’s features editor.

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Published in the November 2023 issue: View Contents
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