The Man without a Past: heart-warming comedy about need for “identity” to survive in modern society

Aki Kaurismäki, “The Man without a Past” (2002)

A heart-warming comedy about a man who is beaten up and left for dead but survives only to find he has no memory of his name or of his previous life, “The Man without a Past” is a showcase of Finnish stoicism, wry deadpan humour and eccentricity beneath an apparently conformist veneer. The unnamed everyman hero, played by Markku Peltola, has just got off a train with a large case and goes to sit in a city park. He dozes off and while asleep, is attacked and viciously beaten by thugs who take his wallet. The victim, whom we’ll call M, is taken to hospital where the medical staff pronounce him dead and leave him alone in bed. At that point, M springs up and leaves the hospital, bandaged face and all, and ventures out into the city streets and along the harbour front where he is found by two boys. They take him home which turns out to be an old shipping container where they and their parents have had to live while waiting to join the queue for public housing. So begins the new life of M among a community of homeless city people in a world that operates under the radar of mainstream society and visited only by charities like the Salvation Army, one of whose members, Irma (Kati Ouitnen), forms a romantic relationship with M.

The visual style of the film looks very clear and clean, almost innocent even; it shows a world where everything is taken at face value and any search for meaning or logic to the things that destiny dishes out to you is fruitless. The absurdism of M’s world is reflected in his encounters with representatives of mainstream society: the office manager at the construction site where M tries to apply for work tells him he can’t be paid in cash but must have a bank account so the banks can keep tabs on his spending; the bank clerk tells him he can have a Swiss bank account with just a number but he must still give his name and address details; the bank robber shoots out the CCTV camera (which wasn’t working anyway) but steals money only from his own account; and the police inspector and the lawyer appointed to defend M pull out large tomes, flip thin pages and argue over detailed technical aspects and exemptions to the law that requires M to be detained as a vagrant or possible trouble-maker. The comedy arising from these incidents is very dry and poker-faced, slightly sinister and satirical, and may say something pointed and terse about the nature of bureaucracy in Finland or bureaucracy generally.

Characters as directed have a calm, even slightly robotic, nature to them with deadpan voices and facial expressions. People accept disappointment and disaster stoically and if and when good luck comes to them, their reaction is hardly more expressive. What dialogue there is, is in the form of speeches or statements of fact; rarely do people express what and how they feel. Even in intimate scenes between M and Irma, the emotion tends to be sensed in the mood of the scene and in the characters’ very minimal body language; there is a kissing scene but the camera doesn’t hold it for long and the actions are very matter-of-fact. The scene in which M is reunited with his wife, who informs him of the divorce while he was missing, and meets her new beau is amazingly (though logical given the kind of universe the film operates in) calm and civilised; the two men debate whether they should get upset and punch each other’s lights out, then make their decision, shake hands and depart on friendly terms. Perhaps the measure of acting skill lies in actors’ ability not to crack up or smirk while delivering funny lines in comic situations and in this, the whole cast including two small boys and a dog passes the test with ease.

Some viewers might see a strong if pedantic Christian message in the film: among other things, Irma persuades M to go back to his wife even though M doesn’t remember the woman and Irma herself would become a lonely singleton again. Those passages in the movie that deal with Salvation Army characters fall in line with the absurdist nature of the universe presented: the SA members on the whole act very much like the secular characters in the film, winking at ideas and practices that possibly conflict with SA ideals and beliefs but which do no harm to others or bring non-believers into the SA fold. Scenes in which M persuades the SA musicians to update their repertoire of songs to include more rock and pop standards and to use electric guitars and a full drum-kit are droll and touching. The music in “The Man …” is very eclectic and whimsical, going from Christian hymns to rockabilly, and though the eclecticism of music choice and the result might seem weird to people outside Finland, as a proud owner of a stack of Finnish rock and pop albums ranging from electronic folk pop to black metal, I can vouch for the music soundtrack being the kind of creature Finnish society and culture accept as within the range of normal music.

The message that most viewers will go away with is that life continually goes forward and you do what you can to keep going in the face of official indifference but there is a deeper, perhaps more sinister theme. In a way, “The Man …” is a sad film: it emphasises that without an official identity, people don’t exist. M is forced by circumstances to make a new life for himself in an underground community that accepts him with no hesitation and whose values make it more alive than mainstream society where you are “alive” only because you have a name, a social security number or ongoing credit card transactions that your bank can trace. In the film, everything becomes inverted to reflect the contrast between the two societies: cold becomes warm, lack of outward emotion demonstrates inner warmth and Hannibal the fierce guardian dog is really just a friendly pooch. By the same token, outward warmth and expressiveness mask inner cold and inhumanity. Venturing into mainstream society in order to get a job and earn money to pay his rent for his own shipping container home, M falls into a world more completely Kafkaesque than anything the famous Czech writer wrote.

Perhaps not a film for everyone, and not very realistic, but in its modest way this is a very optimistic film of hope and salvation in which a character undergoes a major change and rediscovers life and humanity.

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