Aki Kaurismäki Biography

By Jari Paavonheimo

In his childhood, “the sun was always shining, even at night.”

Aki Kaurismäki (born April 4, 1957, in Orimattila) is a Finnish film director, screenwriter, and producer.

Kaurismäki had his first encounter with film at Orimattilan Kino, the cinema in Orimattila, in the early 1960s. “I don’t remember much of the film except that Arab-looking guys were chasing Tarzan,” Kaurismäki has reminisced about the experience. “It is probably just the other way around, but as we know, a child does not understand anything about film editing.” Aki Kaurismäki made his film debut as a co-screenwriter and the lead actor in The Liar (1981), directed by his brother Mika Kaurismäki. The co-operation between the brothers continued in Saimaa-ilmiö (1981), a documentary about Finnish rock music, and in The Worthless (1982), directed by Mika Kaurismäki. Aki Kaurismäki made his directorial debut with Crime and Punishment (1983), an adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s classic novel. Crime and Punishment was followed by Calamari Union (1985), Shadows in Paradise (1986), and Ariel (1988), among others.

The most successful of Aki Kaurismäki’s films so far has been The Man Without a Past (2002), which was awarded the Grand Prix at the Festival de Cannes in 2002, among other prizes and awards. The director’s acceptance speech was short: “First of all, I would thank myself and second, the jury.” His latest film, Lights in the Dusk (2006), was submitted as Finland’s Oscar nominee for the Best foreign language film, but the director subsequently withdrew the film from the competition.

According to Sakari Toiviainen (2006), Lights in the Dusk is “a film about the crimes committed in our society and the challenges we will face in the future. It is a story about a human being, one of us, who bears all the characteristics of humanity and who, amid lights and shadows, shows us the way toward a brighter future.”

When asked about the meaning of life by a grade schooler in a Helsingin Sanomat monthly magazine interview in 1994, Kaurismäki answered: “The meaning of life is to acquire personal moral principles that respect the nature and other human beings and then follow them.” A simple phrase and a demanding goal. The way he replied to the question supposedly reflects the world in his films. Kaurismäki’s social statements have also got him plenty of attention over the years.

In addition to the prizes given by the film industry, Aki Kaurismäki has also received awards from several organizations outside the field: Animalia – Federation for the Protection of Animals (Finland), Amnesty International, and the Finnish Sociopolitical Association, among others, have awarded him. The Man Without a Past also received the Ecumenical Jury Prize in Cannes. In its statement, the jury found the film to be “full of tenderness and humour and a parabole about the rebirth of a person and the birth of a community.”

Aki Kaurismäki knew early on that he wanted to express himself through art: “I was very young when I decided that I would do something creative for a living. I had, however, decided to become a writer. . . . Film was meant to be just a side step, but I have walked on the same path for over twenty years now,” he recently said in an interview with Parnasso, a Finnish art magazine. He has named the Finnish language as the home of his thinking, and his dreams of writing seem to be alive and well.

Kaurismäki has often declared his love for books; in an interview with Peter von Bagh, a Finnish film scholar and director, he said, as if joking with a friend: “On average, they [books] don’t let you down and they allow more freedom of imagination than films, for example, which you, of course, won’t admit.” The dialogue in his films, the scripts published as books, his sharp statements in interviews, and his experiments towards literature clearly show that he is a true master of the Finnish language.

With Kaurismäki, the choice between film and literature does not seem a natural one; he is fond of them both. He has said of the relations between different art forms: “My head is full of books and films, but when asked what my influences are, I would have to say that I have been influenced by all the different types of literature, visual arts, comics, and films.”

Peter von Bagh (2006) thinks Aki Kaurismäki’s originality lies in his ability “to melt and absorb.” Lauri Timonen (2006) also emphasizes this side of his talent in his essay, titled “The Memory of the Camera,” and considers Aki Kaurismäki to be the most skillful filmmaker of our times in respect of combining different elements and styles.

The first years of his life in Orimattila have merged into a web of experiences, memories, and details. The director has said that his “early years were happy and that he spent them reaching for pea pods in the neighbor’s field. The sun was always shining, even at night.”

President of Finland Tarja Halonen nominated Aki Kaurismäki as Academician of Art on May 23, 2008, in a ceremony held at the Government Banquet Hall. Requested by Kaurismäki, accordionist Matti Rantanen played “Siks oon mä suruinen,” a Finnish tango by Toivo Kärki. In his thank you speech, Kaurismäki said: “I want to thank all parties concerned for your trust. I can only think of one sentence. It can be found at the end of Henri Murger’s novel: “We’re only young once.”

Bagh, Peter von (2006): Aki Kaurismäki. Helsinki: WSOY.
Bagh, Peter von (2005): Suomalaisen elokuvan uusi kultainen kirja. Helsinki: Otava.
Forss, Timo (2005): Väsynyt susi. Voima, 10, 17-18.
Puukko, Martti (2000): Keskustelu Aki Kaurismäen kanssa. Parnasso, 4, 468-474.
Timonen, Lauri (2006): The Memory of the Camera—Aki Kaurismäki’s films with reference to leading characters, the method and the history of cinema, Aki Kaurismäki website created and maintained by Orimattila Town Library.
Toiviainen, Sakari (2006): Laitakaupungin poesia ja politiikka. Filmihullu, 3, 5-7.