The Man without a Past
Directed by Aki Kaurismaki
Starring: Marku Pettola, Kate Outinen,
Sakari Kuosmanen, Esko Nikkari, Tähti
Within the first ten minutes into Aki Kaurismaki’s ‘Mies Vailla Menniesyyttä', the eponymous protagonist (Markku Peltola) has stepped off a train, fallen asleep on a bench, been mugged and beaten within an inch of his life, and is laid up in hospital where some kind soul has taken him. When he wakes up, it is with no memory of who he was. Or is.
When he walks out of the hospital, he is not only a man without a past, he’s also a man without a name. The man had discharged himself, but soon after he leaves the hospital, he collapses. He’s found by two little urchins. Their parents nurse the man back to health. Despite having very little to call their own, they generously share their quarters and their food.
The man is slowly getting better when the local security guard, Antilla (Sakari Kuosmanen) accosts him and his host – there’s been talk of a stranger in town, and the guard wants to know who he is, and where he’s living. One thing leads to another, and Antilla ends up ‘renting’ him a container (the ones used to transport goods) to live in. His earlier ‘tenant’ had frozen to death, he says laconically. And, ‘If you don’t pay the rent on time,’ Antilla tells the man, ‘my killer dog (Tähti) will bite off your nose.’
S is in splits. ‘Come watch this,’ he calls to where I’m putting the final touches to our dinner. Neither the title nor the synopsis had interested me enough to watch the film with him, and ‘Finnish film’ had given rise to my worst fears that it would be another depressing film. I really wasn’t in the mood. But for reasons of marital harmony, I yielded to the call. One look at Hannibal, the ‘killer dog’ (Tähti) and I was hooked. It is – hands down – the most humorous scene I’ve watched in a long time.
Because the ‘killer dog’ sighs deeply, proceeds to lie on the floor, look phlegmatically up at the man before sinking his head onto his paws and going to sleep.
He is the most unlikely ‘killer’ there is. The man agrees to the terms of the rental, however, and the guard leaves, not before admonishing Hannibal to ‘guard him’. The man and dog look at each other silently.
The next morning, he goes to the local Salvation Army office to look for any help they can give him. He needs a job to pay the rent. They can only pay him daily wages, the lady behind the desk warns him. They are a charity; they cannot afford to pay corporate wages. The man nods. He is grateful for any help they give him.
Slowly, the man settles in. His neighbours (the families living in the other containers) are friendly; he’s planted a few potatoes in his ‘garden’ and they have taken well; Irma (Kate Outinen), the woman who had helped him find some clothes when he first went to the Salvation Army store, is friendly, and while the lack of a name or his past bothers him off and on, he’s relatively content pottering around his garden, Hannibal the Killer Dog in tow.
The only ‘problem’ with his lack of a name occurs when he goes to open a bank account. His employer has insisted that without a bank account, he cannot be paid. They no longer deal in cash. The lady at the bank couldn’t be more helpful – pick a name, any name, she says. She doesn’t care if it’s Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
While they are figuring out how to fill the forms (which he cannot since he doesn’t remember the answers), the bank is robbed – the robber (Esko Nikkari) gets away with 257,000 euros after locking the bank clerk and the man inside the vault.
When the police eventually come – after some intelligent use of the sprinklers by the clerk; the bank has no alarm system – the man discovers to his shock that he is arrested. The police can’t believe a word of his story, especially the ‘no memory’ part of it.
Eventually, however, he’s bailed out by the Salvation Army’s lawyer. On his way home, he goes to a bar where he gets reacquainted with the bank robber. The latter had followed him from the bank to the police station, and from thence to the bar. He wanted to apologise for his actions that had led to the man being inconvenienced.
And oh, he has a favour to ask…
Back ‘home’, the man is relatively content with his life. He had done as the erstwhile robber had asked him to; Irma and he were discovering an affinity to each other; Hannibal the Killer Dog was a faithful companion (even if Hannibal turned out to be a ‘she’, instead of a ‘he’); and the potato plants he planted had given him a bumper crop – eight spuds. What’s more, he had discovered an old jukebox that helps inspire local musicians, and learnt serendipitously that in his previous life, he knew welding. Now he had a ‘proper’ job. Life was good.
Until the police come visiting. Again.
I had never heard of Kaurismaki before; from what I read, this film is part of his Finland trilogy. [My husband is quick to inform me that I’m wrong; he had made me watch a French film by Kaurismaki a couple of years ago; apparently, my memory has deteriorated – I have no recollection of it. Obviously, a mugging is not necessary for short-term amnesia - especially for films recommended by film-snob husband. 😁] If the other films are like this one, I would like to watch them. Mies Vailla Menniesyyttä is a wry, humorous, affectionate look at those people who often find themselves on the fringes of society. Kaurismaki frames their lives without condescension or patronage, allowing them a voice of their own. His gaze is both intimate and detached at the same time, not judging, not commenting; he allows us to make of it what we will.
This is a strangely melancholy film leavened by deep vein of droll humour – a wicked humour that arises not from the plot, but from the characters who use dry wit and gentle sarcasm to make fun of everything, including their own miserable existence. The plot, such as it is, unfolds slowly; nothing really happens, yet one is nudged towards a resolution – of sorts. The story focuses on the man in his present; the past is largely irrelevant. Neither the man nor Irma waste much time wondering who he was, or where he came from. And the resolution, when it comes, sends him in search of his past, and we discover that it is not as welcome as it should have been. Questions that arose earlier are answered in the denouement; just not the way one would suppose.
Much like the potato plants that give eight potatoes - though rather small – in that harsh soil, the protagonists’ lives too are a miracle – they don’t just survive; they find, if not joy, at least contentment, in the little things. At the end of the film, despite being aware of a strain of melancholy, I was smiling too.