Laconic humor, melodrama and the language of silence

HUB 1/2009

What happens when A Clockwork Orange meets Hamlet? An American researcher encourages
people to acquaint themselves with Finland’s number one film director.

Finns see themselves, or their hearts, in the films directed by their muchadmired countryman Aki Kaurismäki. His films have the silence, the melancholy, the Finnish tango. They reflect the essence of the Finnish soul.

To Andrew Nestigen, who has studied Kaurismäki’s work, things are not this simple.

“Outside Finland, Aki Kaurismäki is seen rather as a follower of the old film tradition. His films fit into the melodramatic tradition, with silence and music playing
an important role. It is not, therefore, just about being Finnish.”

The differences in how his films are received are one of the issues that Nestigen’s study The Contrarian Cinema of Aki Kaurismäki wants to shed light on.

Ski coach turning the wheel of destiny

Let us rewind a bit, to the beginning of the story. It’s a long way from the American
Mid-West to here, the social premises of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, where we discuss Kaurismäki – in Finnish. How did Nestigen get here?

The story begins with a belief.

“I think it’s a bit of a nonsense, but my family believes in our Norwegian roots. For me, this quest for identity is rather a source of amusement.”

In any case, their supposed Norwegian background got Nestigen’s parents interested
in the Nordic countries and even extending their travels to Finland. A Finnish family used to live in Nestigen’s home town, Minneapolis, which was why he came to Finland in 1989 as an exchange student. And learned to speak Finnish.

“I was very into cross-country
skiing. I really wanted to compete and my trainer, an older man from the northern
city of Oulu, spoke practically no English. I had to speak Finnish, then.”

It was thus his experiences, not academic interest, that brought him to Finland.

“I have sometimes said that if we had been framefriends with an Italian family instead, I
suppose I would have gone to Italy,” Nestingen says, laughing.

Later, he began his studies at the Department of Scandinavian Studies of the University of Washington. Nestingen focused on Finnish literature and culture and spent
part of the time studying in Finland, at the Department of Finnish Language and Literature of the University of Helsinki. His doctoral thesis completed eight years ago, entitled Why Nation? Globalization and National Culture in Finland 1980–2000,
already contained a chapter on Aki Kaurismäki.

Hollywood through a blender

Nestigen’s own interest in Kaurismäki’s films was not the only reason for his choice of research area.

“His films are also known abroad. Who would understand a word of any fancy study I did in English on the author Ilmari Kianto, for example?”

Many scholars writing papers on Kaurismäki outside Finland don’t speak Finnish. Nestingen hopes to be able to connect
the discourses carried out in English and in Finnish – like Kaurismäki tying strings
together in his films.

“The films have a heavy charge of Finnish culture, but a very international frame work. The stories are direct descendants of old Hollywood films.”

Let us take a look at the basic storyline of Kaurismäki’s best-known film, The Man Without a Past. A man comes to an evil city from the country, he is immediately beaten up and robbed, and things go from bad to worse. Finally, with help from others, he pulls through.

“Coming from the country to town, looking for work, is a very common experience in post-war Finland. Still, when you look at how the film recounts this characteristically
Finnish story, you may notice
that, for example, the crooks in the story resemble Alex’s gang in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. They also resonate old Hollywood films.”

According to Nestigen, Kaurismäki’s film is a hybrid, combining elements in a
very original way. Kaurismäki’s aesthetic is created from conflicting elements. Plenty of more straightforward aesthetic
rulings have also been given with reference to Kaurismäki.

“He is used as a benchmark
when opinions are expressed on what a Finnish film should be like: no Hollywood, but original auteur cinema instead.

Taciturnity is a sign of respect

On the other hand, it’s not easy to try to forge an icon of Finland out of Kaurismäki. He
has strong critical opinions and doesn’t shy away from attacking his own country with

“Kaurismäki targets Finnish institutions, such as the government and the authorities, in both his films and interviews.”

Nestingen’s study will be completed during the spring and will appear next year in book form in the Directors’ Cuts series of Wallflower Press. In the summer, he will return to the United States with his family to take up his office as an associate professor at the Department of Scandinavian Studies of the University of Washington.

This doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t have felt at home at the Collegium for Advanced
Studies. The community of forty scholars has been a good place to take a rest from his
teaching duties at his home university and to focus on research work. The position was for a fixed period to begin with.

“Research work can get a little lonely after a while. It will be nice to get back to working
with students for a change.”

Nestingen has also made friends among Finns, who are generally considered a taciturn
people. “I get defensive if anyone calls Finns unfriendly.”

That’s right. In Finland, silence should not be considered a sign of unfriendliness. On the contrary, Finns respect the other person’s space – also by being quiet.

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