AKI’S CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The next post will be on before Monday 20th August

AKI’S CRIME AND PUNISHMENT

The Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (born 1957) is one of the world’s most acclaimed and original cinema talents, who has reaped numerous Cannes accolades and also controversially refused various US Academy Awards on political grounds (in 2002 when George W Bush was in power he said he did not wish to receive an award from a country that was waging an unjust war). He says he has been influenced by Bresson, Jean-Pierre Melville and the Japanese director Ozu, though others have detected possibly Fassbinder and Jim Jarmusch. He is described as minimalistic, a mixture of drollery and deadpan, and there is a small but detectable amount of the deadpan comic in this his solemn and disturbing debut feature, his 1983 version of Dostoievksy’s Crime and Punishment. I would say it is a subtle miniature masterpiece, and that it is absolutely remarkable that Kaurismaki was only 26 when he made it. Note also that apropos literary classics, he was to go on to make his own black and baleful version of Hamlet as in Hamlet Goes Business (1987) and by contrast a wonderfully comic and poignant update of Henri Murger’s 1850s novel La Vie de Boheme (1992)

The original 1866 novel had an impoverished St Petersburg student Raskolnikov who murdered an old pawnbroker lady in order to steal her money. The 80s Finnish version has a loner of a young man with an ironically angelic and beautiful face called Antti Rahikainen, played brilliantly if chillingly by the stand-up comedian and actor, Markku Toikka (born 1955). Antti works appropriately in a Helsinki meat processing factory and the film starts with his sawing and chopping massive flanks of beef where the din is appalling and the men work in necessary silence. That extended dialogue-free scene finishes with the focus on a slaughtered pig on a hook, its nose pathetically dripping blood on the floor. Antti then leaves his work and we see him on a busy city thoroughfare watching a middle-aged man exiting an expensive car and entering a smart block of flats. He follows him inside, knocks on the door and pretends to be delivering a telegram. He then informs the baffled puffy-eyed tenant that he needs it signed, and hesitantly follows him inside where he has gone to find a pen. The man looks suspicious whereupon Antti pulls out a gun, his victim quails and offers him any amount of money, and asks him why he wants to shoot him.

“Wouldn’t you love to know!” the meat factory worker taunts him.

After he has shot him, he stoops down and without expression rubs his fingers in the blood, then pulls out a bit of cloth and wipes his fingers clean. He stuffs the cloth in a bag and is about to leave when suddenly an attractive young woman Eiva (played by Finnish TV star Aini Seppo, born 1958) walks through the door and stares in wonder at the scene. It turns out she works for a catering firm and today is the dead businessman’s 50th birthday, and her firm was providing the party food. Antti stares at her unafraid and she tells him to get out before she rings the police, and already you detect a vestigial attraction as well as revulsion that she has towards the killer. Before long the police are on the scene and they are 2 unglamorous middle-aged detectives in shabby suits, the senior Inspector Pennanen, being the mordant and moustachioed Kaurismaki veteran, Esko Nikkari (1938-2006). They soon unearth the fact that the dead man had once been tried for drunken driving where a young woman had been killed, and that the woman was the fiancée of Antti Rahikainen. After that they rapidly pull in Eiva who can only give the vaguest description of the killer, other than the singular detail that he had a kind of lunatic look about him. Pennanen then remarks with infinite dryness that that leaves the net even wider as there are so many loonies abroad in Helsinki these days.

Back at work, in the presence of her boss, a manipulative man in an immaculate suit who is jealously watching her all the time (played very ably by Hannu Lauri, born 1945) Eiva is startled when Antti boldly walks into the catering business and inquires about the police interrogation. He then asks her to meet him that evening when she has finished work. She agrees to a five minute talk, and once he’s gone her boss interrogates her about the oddball, then immediately invites her to the theatre that night. She accepts and even has Lauri waiting for her in the car while she has a brief and grudging interview with Antti. It is odd she sees no serious danger in third parties observing the two of them together, and even odder the next day when she is summoned to the police station to identify Antti as the man she saw at the scene of the murder. After a long silence she says no, Rahikainen is not the man and Antti affectlessly smirks his satisfaction at Pennanen. He has already told Eiva he feels no guilt whatever about what he has done, and moreover he and his fiancée were well over their relationship before she was killed in the hit and run. However, pathologically calm and fearless as he seems, he is keen to escape justice and sets about acquiring a false passport thanks to a barman friend with criminal connections. That involves him taking passport photos at the train station, and here he does the unspeakable by trying to shift the blame onto an innocent man. Immediately after the murder he had stuffed the incriminating bloody cloth and the victim’s wallet in a railway station locker, and he now drops the key to it onto a cloth which a homeless man has spread in front of him outside the station. The man who is an alcoholic is puzzled but scents possible riches and Antti mocks him haughtily apropos the taxing business of choosing alternatives, and says that he will take the key back if he likes.  Eventually the beggar decides to chance his luck with the key, whereupon he is nabbed by the police for Rahikainen had immediately gone and rung them from a callbox to tell them the locker was about to be opened by the businessman’s murderer. The mentally ill alcoholic is carted off and grilled for hours and sure enough confesses to anything and everything even though Pennanen knows well enough who is the likely culprit.

There are surprise twists all the way along this cleverly paced film and one of them is when Eiva visits Antti in his drab hostel room, unaware she is being trailed by her jealous boss. Lauri has enough money and casual influence to hire an adjacent room for a few hours, and he hides in there and eavesdrops on the pair of them, so that he learns soon enough that Antti is a murderer and Eiva is more or less abetting him. Rahikainen by the way is such an inept killer his notion of security is shoving the incriminating gun and various other things under his sofa’s cushion, and Eiva at one point unearths the weapon and puts it in her handbag as possible future precaution. After she has gone home she is soon telephoned by her boss ordering her to meet him in a posh Helsinki hotel, but he refuses to say why. She turns up warily and once inside he locks the door on them and tells her he knows all. He is however prepared to generously help them both, by getting Antti a passport if he needs one, and getting him safely out of the country. He will do that and not ring the police about them, but on one condition only.

“What’s that?” asks Eiva defiantly.

“You must give me what I want.”

“And what is that?”

“You…”

Eiva stonily refuses and he walks towards her threatening violence, whereupon she pulls out Antti’s gun. He mocks her bravado but as he approaches she pulls the trigger and it stalls. At that she looks the picture of pathetic helplessness and her boss soon relents and gives her the hotel room key to let her go. As it happens she had thrown down and abandoned the gun, and Lauri is chastened to see it was loaded after all, but now decides to take it with him as he leaves the hotel himself. By a fluke he bumps into Antti of all people in the street, and tells him he knows all about the murder and taunts him with his knowledge. The basilisk murderer looks at him with a bored expression, walks away calmly and then Lauri realises he is on a tram line and a tram is shooting towards him at unstoppable speed. Eiva’s boss is killed instantly and the gun goes flying, soon to be picked up by the police where eventually it ends up in the hands of Inspector Pennanen. The film then parallels the Russian novel when the detective hauls in Antti and tells him that though he cannot prove it yet he knows Rahikainen is the murderer, and that before long unable to bear it he will walk in and surrender himself to justice. Antti true to form mocks this morose arm of the law, and goes to see his friend and co-worker Nikander, the only light relief you might say in this unsettling and mesmerising film. Nikander is played by one of my favourite actors, the late great Matti Pellonpaa (1951-1995) who was also a successful rock musician. Pellonpaa is the last word in dour lugubriousness combined with a kind of anarchic comic resentment as witnessed in numerous Kaurismaki classics. Here he has a crazy haircut, short all round but with a huge fringe, and he is also studying English lessons on cassettes and keeps repeating the banal sentences in a deadly solemn echo. He knows Antti did the murder and that the gun was stolen from the meat factory nightwatchman, who had no license for it anyway. Antti is his friend though, and he suggest they take a ferry and go abroad together, now that Antti has his passport. The murderer agrees provisionally and they agree to rendezvous the next evening, but in the meantime he meets again with Eiva who urges him to give himself up and that she will wait for him while he does his time in jail. Antti makes no response to this, and the next day drives past the customs with his phony passport and meets up with Nikander at the docks. While Nikander goes inside the terminal, Antti then changes his mind and drives all the way back to town and parks opposite the police station. He enters and goes to the desk and is about to confess all when suddenly he changes his mind yet again.

“What do you want?” asks the duty policeman sourly.

“Nothing. Precisely nothing.”

Antti leaves the station looking very businesslike, but about a minute later turns tail and goes inside, and in a rapid rush confesses all. Pennanen’s deputy happens to be standing nearby and perhaps influenced by all the scorn he has had from Rahikainen, he karate chops him across the back and fells him to the floor. The scene then changes to a very desolate Helsinki prison where Antti has been put away for 8 years and where Eiva visits him one day. Again, she repeats her promise to wait till he is released but he stares at her bleakly and indicates that her faith and commitment are meaningless in his case. Cue the end of the movie which as ever with Kaurismaki tends to conclude with raunchy and defiant rock music with English rather than Finnish lyrics, as played in a smoky downtown Helsinki club.

Last year, 2017, Kaurismaki went public that from now on he intended to make no more movies. I’ve no idea why he made this decision, but I really hope he changes his mind. To quote the Dublin writer Flann O’ Brien (1910-1965) who was another master of deadpan and drollery, Aki Kaurismaki’s like will not be seen again.

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