The Finnish Director Making the Most-Interesting Movies About Immigration

As his country's biggest filmmaker, Aki Kaurismäki has long critiqued the government's refugee policy. But his art takes care not to treat it like a hot-button issue.

Antony Hare

A small man, a refugee, his face and clothes blackened by coal, emerges from the darkness of a ship’s hold at the beginning of Aki Kaurismäki’s new film, The Other Side of Hope, and although the coal dust gets showered off a little later, the grit of politics won’t wash away. The stowaway, a young Syrian named Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji), is not political himself—he neither knows nor especially cares who launched the missile that wiped out most of his family in Aleppo. “Government troops, rebels, U.S.A., Russia, Hezbollah, or isis,” he says, naming the suspects with a weary shake of his head.

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But as he discovers when he applies for asylum in Finland, he is no longer merely himself, an unassuming mechanic far from home and searching for the sister who was separated from him at one of the many borders he’s crossed. He is now a problem, something that requires the machinery of bureaucracy to creak into motion. There are photos to be taken, questions to be asked, forms to be completed, dormitories to be filled with those who, like Khaled, have the misfortune to come from dangerous places. Even before he presents himself at the police station on his first morning in Helsinki, Khaled has already learned that he will be looked at with suspicion by many Finns and with outright hostility by some; a bunch of goons calling themselves the Finnish Liberation Army threatens him almost as soon as he arrives on the unfamiliar city’s streets. For him, a Middle Eastern refugee in Europe in 2017, the ability simply to be himself—to enjoy a meal, a beer, a cigarette, a comfortable bed, some music every now and then, unencumbered by his refugee identity—feels like an impossible hope, a luxury. Politics has stuck to him, stained him like original sin. He is politics, now.

Aki Kaurismäki has not, until the past few years, seemed a terribly political man either (although he did boycott the 2003 Academy Awards as a protest against the war in Iraq). For most of his three-and-a-half-decade career as a filmmaker, he’s been content to turn his camera on the lives of taciturn working-class characters with modest pleasures and low expectations, wherever he finds them—usually in his native Finland, but sometimes in France or England or America or Estonia. Nobody in his pictures ever appears to feel quite at home anywhere; every Kaurismäki film, no matter where it’s set, has the what-the-hell restlessness of a road movie.

But everywhere, even in the direst circumstances, he and his comically stoic characters somehow manage to locate sources of comfort, of ordinary ease. Cheap cafés and bars, boxy old portable radios, record players, accordions, music of all kinds (especially country blues and rock and roll), cigarettes, booze, and dogs—these are the elements of the Kaurismäki Cinematic Universe, the things his characters savor, usually in silence. (In most of his films, people smoke a lot more than they talk.) All of these creature comforts are present in The Other Side of Hope, too. But Khaled, because he is no longer just himself, can’t find any solace in them, as Kaurismäki’s people are supposed to do. The wrongness of that state of affairs is pretty clearly what has turned this generally apolitical artist into a (dry, tight-lipped) firebrand. For Kaurismäki, the institutional denial of small pleasures is a call to arms.

His passion about the plight of today’s refugees is unmistakable, though American audiences, who are largely unfamiliar with his work, might be a little puzzled by the simplicity and apparent serenity of his cinematic manner. Kaurismäki doesn’t go in for big dramatic moments. And although immigration is a hot topic these days, in both Europe and the United States, and many moviegoers are rightly suspicious of filmmakers who feel the need to weigh in on current political issues, there isn’t a whiff of Oscar-seeking opportunism in this picture. Kaurismäki has been outraged about the situation of refugees and immigrants for a long time. In a 2007 interview with the film scholar Andrew Nestingen, he raised the issue practically out of the blue, and delivered this pithy rant:

The real disgrace here is Finland’s refugee policy, which is shameful. We refuse refugee status on the flimsiest of grounds and send people back to secure places like Darfur, Iraq, and Somalia. “It’s perfectly safe, go ahead.” Our policy is a stain among the Nordic nations. Shameful.

His first film on the issue, Le Havre, came out four years later. In that lovely movie, the beleaguered immigrant is a young teenage boy from Gabon named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), who arrives at the French port of Le Havre in a shipping container, packed in with about a dozen other desperate pilgrims. He’s hoping to make his way to his mother, in London. On the run, he has the good fortune to meet a peculiarly jaunty shoe-shine man named Marcel Marx (André Wilms), who’s something of a wanderer himself. He was once, he tells the boy, a bohemian in Paris, before washing up in Le Havre and settling down. (Those who have seen Kaurismäki’s gloriously funny 1992 comedy, La Vie de Bohème, will recognize Marcel as the spectacularly unsuccessful writer being evicted from his apartment in the movie’s opening scenes.) He takes Idrissa in and, with the help of friends and neighbors who might have been at home in a good populist French film of the 1930s, hides him from the authorities.

The realities that Le Havre addresses are grim, but the movie is at heart a fairy tale, of a sort that Kaurismäki has been known to make. The amnesiac hero of his Cannes-award-winning The Man Without a Past (2002) is also a kind of refugee—a person without papers or means of support who nonetheless manages to survive, to find love, and to live more or less happily ever after. “I always decide to put a sad ending,” Kaurismäki once said, “but then I feel pity for my characters and put at the last moment a happy ending.”

Actually, Kaurismäki’s endings tend to alternate between happy and sad from film to film, a darker one always following a sunnier one, as if to atone for unwarranted optimism. His next movie after The Man Without a Past, a noirish crime thriller called Lights in the Dusk (2006), tells the harsh story of a lonesome but hopeful security guard framed for a jewelry heist, sent to prison, and ultimately discarded by society—no fairy-tale resolution for him. Similarly, the final scenes of The Other Side of Hope leave Khaled with a far more uncertain future than Idrissa has at the conclusion of Le Havre. The African boy sails off like the lovers in Kaurismäki’s shaggy-dog romance, Ariel (1988); the last time we see the Syrian refugee, he’s still in Helsinki, with no prospects and only a scruffy stray mutt for company. The movie leaves us hanging, wondering what might lie on the other side of this unfortunate man’s dwindling hopes.

Le Havre, of course, is a vision of possibility, and its point of view is less that of the frightened fugitive than that of his resourceful, lapsed-bohemian savior. If the charming tale has a moral, it’s that we should all be more like Marcel. But the story of The Other Side of Hope is told primarily from the perspective of the refugee as he tries to navigate the treacherous waters of Finnish society. There’s human kindness here as well, mostly embodied by a beefy middle-aged restaurateur named Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen, a Kaurismäki regular), who gives Khaled a job and a place to sleep: a windowless storage space where Wikström, a former shirt salesman, used to keep his inventory.

Wikström is an unlikely-looking patron, but he’s embarking on a new life too. The restaurant, a dodgy establishment called the Golden Pint, is his hope for a better future. (The restaurant scenes in the second half of The Other Side of Hope—particularly a sequence in which Wikström and his frazzled staff attempt to reinvent the Golden Pint as a sushi bar—supply most of the movie’s distinctively Kaurismäkian comedy, and rescue it from the looming threat of pathos.) But throughout, the filmmaker’s focus is on Khaled, whose troubles are more consequential than Wikström’s and whose options are scanter. In the end, being like Marcel, or Wikström, might not be enough.

This is as close to despair as Kaurismäki gets, and although it’s not an entirely unaccustomed place for him to be—his first solo film as a director was a modern-day version of Crime and Punishment (1983), after all—it’s probably not where he thought he’d wind up at 60, after a long career as his country’s most famous filmmaker and international cinema’s drollest hipster comedian (sorry, Jim Jarmusch). Early in 2017, he announced that The Other Side of Hope, which he’d originally planned as the middle film of a trilogy he’d begun with Le Havre, would in fact be his last movie. A few months later he walked this back, with typical wry self-deprecation, in a Guardian interview: “I always say that.”

Part of Kaurismäki’s appeal is that the dark and light sides of his sensibility are in constant conflict in his movies—not a battle to the death, exactly, but something more like a messy, fumbling exchange of ineffectual punches at the end of a long night in a bar. One of his funniest pictures, I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), is about a man who is unable to kill himself and hires a hit man to do the deed for him. But he falls in love, suddenly and totally, before the contract has been fulfilled and, with something to live for now, goes on the lam from his lethal employee. Kaurismäki’s most tragic movie, the silent black-and-white melodrama Juha (1999), has moments of goofy humor and a tone that sustains a perilous balance of parody and homage (mostly to F. W. Murnau’s 1927 classic, Sunrise). He’s an artist who embraces his own contradictions.

And that’s why, improbable though it may seem, Aki Kaurismäki is the right filmmaker to take on this particular political issue, to find both the tragedy and the comedy in the subject of immigration and its discontents. The question for him, as it should be for all citizens of the civilized world, is how we assimilate different points of view, different ways of life, without losing ourselves. That’s a process he knows intimately, from his career-long skirmishes with himself in his films: his attempt to reconcile his vague, humanist politics with his temperamental anarchism; his austere visual style with his taste for dopey jokes; his emotional reserve with his desire to believe in romance; his general pessimism with his odd, bright flashes of optimism. (He once said, “I think the more pessimistic I feel about life, the more optimistic the films should be.”) If he can live with—and make art out of—all those wild discontinuities, surely his fellow Finns can live with a few displaced Iraqis and Syrians, his latest movie seems to say.

Sure, that’s simplistic, maybe even naive, but this is the kind of simplicity that political discourse sometimes needs, and the kind of naïveté that movies, from Murnau’s and Jean Renoir’s and Jean Vigo’s to Kaurismäki’s, are awfully good at. Artists aren’t always sophisticated thinkers about matters philosophical or political, and for the most part they don’t have to be. Which doesn’t mean that their work is completely innocent of philosophy or politics. Artists, filmmakers in particular, express their ideas on these subjects by means of the difficult act of being themselves—or rather, of finding themselves in the characters they dream up and the landscapes they move through, crossing border after border until they end up someplace they didn’t know they’d been heading for.

Kaurismäki made the choice, when he picked up a camera for the first time, long ago, to spend his life looking for himself that way, the artist’s way. In The Other Side of Hope he extends a hand to those who, like Khaled, are involuntary pilgrims—migrants to places where they are less, not more, themselves. It’s a gesture, small but meaningful, like Khaled’s Iraqi roommate offering him a (stolen) cigarette on his first day in Helsinki. Khaled has a fleeting moment of pleasure, irreducibly personal; the smoke goes in and out of his lungs, and no one else’s. Such small gestures, the movie makes us realize, are as political as human acts can be.

This article appears in the January/February 2018 print edition with the headline “Cinema’s Drollest Hipster.”