The Man Without A Past (2002)

This Cannes jury awardee is a story about second chances and the power of love to transcend one even in the direst circumstances.

2/11/20245 min read

Markku Peltola in Aki Kaurismaki's 'The Man W
Markku Peltola in Aki Kaurismaki's 'The Man W

Finnish, 97 mins, 2002

Director: Aki Kaurismaki

Cast: Markku Peltola, Kati Outinen, Juhani Niemelä, Kaija Pakarinen, Sakari Kuosmanen

Awards: Won Grand Jury Prize, Best Actress (Kati Outinen) and Prize of Ecumenical Jury, and Nominated for Palme d’Or, Cannes Film festival, 2002; Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, Academy Awards, 2003; Won Best Screenplay and Best Actress, Bangkok International Film festival, 2003; Nominated for Best European Union Film, Cesar Awards, 2002; Received 8 nominations at the European Film Awards 2002 including Best Film, best Director, Best screenwriter, Best Cinematographer, Best Actor and Actress.

A man (Markku Peltola) exits a train station with his suitcase in the middle of the night, walks into a nearby park and falls asleep. Three goons come there, hit him hard on head, bash him up for no reason, take his money and leave him for dead. Next morning he walks, beaten up and bleeding, into the railway station and collapses in the bathroom. Soon he is admitted to hospital and bandaged from head to toe. The attending doctor and nurse watch his fading pulse and heart. Doctor remarks, “he is better dead than a vegetable for life”. The line flattens on the hospital monitor and he is recorded as dead.

Few minutes later, he wakes up mysteriously- all awake and looking strong enough. He rips off the sensors attached to his body, straightens the twisted nose and walks out. How? Perhaps, Aki Kaurismaki knows. Two kids fetching a pale of water find him collapsed at a river bank and report to their father. The family comes to his aid and he is given shelter in their house. The house actually is an abandoned container which houses this family of four plus the injured guest now. The husband (Juhani Niemela) works as a watchman but wife (Kaija Pakarinen) handles money and as husband says, she is the boss. She feeds him, nurses him and soon he is up on his feet. As he gets well, he discovers that he doesn’t remember who he is, how he landed up here and most importantly, what his name is!

Come Friday, the husband and the man go to a community dinner organised by the Salvation Army. There he notices a worker looking closely at him. She is Irma (Kati Outinen) who lives alone in a hostel. The man is healthy enough now and seeks a home or container of his own. Enter Anttila ( Sakari Kuosmanen), a watchman of the loft who rents out containers. The Man rents a container and starts setting it up. An electrician connects his container to main pole and they bring in an abandoned juke box and a cot. The electrician repairs the juke box and it is good to go. With this this task done he goes to Irma and She recommends him to come and take clothes from the office as his appearance is too shabby. He then goes to employment office but is turned away because he can’t tell them his name and does not have necessary documents. He goes to Salvation Army office and is helped by Irma. She gives him donated clothes and learns about his situation. She then finds work for him at the office itself. So now he is employed, has a home and knows a lady but sadly doesn’t know his name and his past. He and Irma warm up to each other. He invites Irma to dinner at his home and cooks for themselves. She comes, they eat and listen to music. While talking to her he remembers that he used to do something with a bright flame. That he is a skilled welder is suggested to us in the beginning when we see goons rummaging through his belongings.

Next day in the office basement he notices a band rehearsing. He urges them to play rhythm music like rock and roll. They agree to experiment but say that music code is “pretty strict here”. But he talks to superior officer who herself had been a singer once and she allows. At next community dinner, they play different music and crowd takes to slow dancing. The band starts playing rhythm music and become popular. The man dreams of becoming their manager.

One day at his working site he notices someone welding. He tries his hand the chief tells him that they can have a job for him. Promptly he presents himself in the office where the lady in-charge tells him that she doesn’t care if his name is legendary FDR but she just wants a name and a bank account number. In search of a bank account number, the man goes to a bank and to his misfortune an elderly looking bank robber arrives. The bank has a lone employee and lone customer. The robber (Outi Maenpaa) is armed with a shotgun. He asks for money. All the three go into vault, the clerk hands him over money and robber goes away after locking both in the vault. The cleark tell the man that today was the last day of the bank. She hits fire alarm and both are saved. At police station the man is again faced with same problem- he doesn’t know his name. The police hence advertise his name with photograph. Soon his identity is discovered. His wife, actually his earlier wife had identified him. On learning this Irma come to the man and asks him to go back to his wife as she must be waiting. Unsure and reluctant, the man goes to his wife where she informs him that they were not a happy couple and had filed for divorce and it just came through. The wife’s now partner too arrives on scene and in a hilarious conversation he agrees to not to fight the man over the girl. The man requests him to take good care of her. Satisfied, that his business is done here, the man returns back to his life with Irma, where she is waiting for him.

The film is different in every sense of the word. The dialogues are spoken in Kaurismäki's style of plain matter-of-factly manner. His signature deadpan poker faced humor infuses every scene, creating a unique blend of melancholy and absurdity that keeps viewers engaged throughout. He choses to house his protagonist with Helsinki’s poor people rather than wealthy gentry thereby directing focus at their living conditions.

I was surprised by the man’s hasty departure from hospital? Why? Where did he want to go if he doesn’t remember anything? Why he did not try to find out who he really is because we did not know earlier that he was unhappy from his first marriage. But Aki Kaurismaki chose to ignore these vitals and proceed in other direction - of rehabilitating him in his new life- The one without a past, because come what may, one should chase satisfaction and happiness.

About the director, Aki Kaurismaki

Born in April, 1957 in the town of Orimattila, Finland, Aki Kaurismaki graduated in media studies from University of Tampere and started working as a writer. His debut was with his brother, Mika Kaurismaki. Aki was the lead actor and co-screenwriter of the film, ‘The Liar’ directed by his brother in 1981.

Aki Kaurismaki’s directorial debut, ‘Crime and Punishment’, based on Dostoevsky’s famous novel, came in 1983 which was set in modern day Helsinki. It was followed by ‘Calamari Union’ (1985), ‘Shadows in Paradise’ (1986), ‘Hamlet Goes Business’ (1987) and ‘Ariel’ (1988) in quick succession. However, his next film, ‘Leningrad Cowboys Go America’, made in 1989, can be said as the film which gave him some recognition. The film is a road movie where a music band called ‘Leningrad Cowboys’ go to America gain success and fame.

He continued to write, direct and also edit many films after 1989 but his crowning glory came with the present film, made in 2002. The film was awarded ‘Grand Prix’, the second most prestigious award at the Cannes Film Festival, 2002. This film is regarded as second film in the “Finland Trilogy”, the other two being ‘Drifting Clouds’ (1996) and ‘Lights in the Dusk’ (2006). This film was also nominated for ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ at Academy Awards.