The Man Without a Past (2002) – Aki Kaurismaki’s finest film

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Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past opens with a distressing sequence but it doesn’t stay that way for long. Unlike other directors who set up the tone of their entire film in the opening scene, Kaurismaki does something different.An unnamed, middle-aged welder gets off the train, decides to take a rest at a deserted park, is beaten viciously and left for dead by a gang of thugs. He gets up, bleeding from head to toe, walks over to a train station restroom and collapses. He is taken to a hospital and is pronounced dead. They cover up his body and is left alone. Sometime later, he wakes up miraculously.

He realizes that his nose is twisted sideways so he fixes it and gets it back to it’s proper position. There must be a reason why he is given a second chance at life by the unknown powers-that-be “up there”. And it doesn’t look as if something supernatural is happening here. It’s definitely some sort of miracle. He gets out of the hospital and is soon found by a middle-aged couple and their children and is fed and cared for. He is lucky to have come under the care of such compassionate human beings. The couple lives in an old metal cargo container. We can see that they survive on meager earnings. The husband works as a watchman somewhere in the city. But they seem happy.

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Over the course of the film, he comes across several such characters and none of them seem to have any ill intentions. They help him out regardless of the fact that he has lost his memory and doesn’t remember his name or what he did before. The most special of these people is Irma, a middle-aged woman who works for the Salvation Army. She helps him out by giving him a new set of decent-looking clothes. In the meantime, he has found a place for himself to stay. A tough and intimidating looking security guard finds him another one of those metal cargo containers to stay. This security guard doesn’t seem as considerate as some of the others and demands that he pay a sum as rent.

This man has a dog named Hannibal and threatens to unleash him upon him in case he forgets to pay. The dog doesn’t look very threatening and is later revealed to be a female dog which happens to be quite sweet-natured. The man puts himself to good use. He cleans up the inside of the container, plants potatoes and even manages to find an old jukebox which he places in a corner. He is also looking for a job but is continually rejected due to the lack of any identification papers and above all, a name. When he sees the male Salvation Army band, he comes up with a proposition. We’ll find out about this man’s past later but before that, he is put through some comical situations that is trademark Kaurismaki.

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After the film ended, I wondered if the man would’ve found the urge to fix up his life hadn’t he been struck in the head. We’ve heard of near-death experiences changing the lives of some people. The film stars Kaurismaki regulars Markuu Peltola and Kati Outinen and they had previously starred together in another significant Kaurismaki film, Drifting Clouds (which I had reviewed here earlier). The Man Without a Past is Kaurismaki’s most optimistic film. It’s also his most humanistic. Kaurismaki wants his characters to succeed and his sole aim seems to be to make films that inspire us and re-affirm our faith in humanity. In most of his films, he shows us a world that is chaotic and messy but the characters lead a hopeful life and find joy in the smallest things.

They are resilient despite the hard and depressing circumstances they are put through and somehow find a way out of all their troubles. And I’ve observed that people who have less are more compassionate than those who have more than enough. People like these do exist in the real world and you would know if you’ve looked hard enough. Also, his characters doesn’t look like matinee idols and the relationship between the nameless man and Irma is rooted in reality. His trademark deadpan humor is present here as well and there are several scenes and lines that lift your spirit. I especially loved one exchange in particular where the nameless man has organized a rock concert of sorts presented by the Salvation Army and his “landlord” (the security guard) comes out of nowhere asking him to pay for the tickets. The exchange goes like this:

Landlord: Tickets.
The man: What do you mean?
Landlord: You haven’t paid.
The man: But I organized this.
Landlord: That’s what you think.
The man: Is that so?
Landlord: Yes.
The man: Fancy that.
Landlord: That’s outrageous!
The man: It is, isn’t it?

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