The Man Without A Past Review

An amnesiac man tried to rebuild his life in Aki Kaurismäki’s wonderfully absurd but touching 2002 comedy drama. Noel Megahey reviews the ICA Projects DVD release.

Aki Kaurismäki isn’t fooling anyone with his “Losers Trilogy” of films that include Drifting Clouds (1996), The Man Without A Past (2002) and Lights In The Dusk (2006) – they’re all basically the same film, and he’d probably be the first to admit as much. Collectively however, they consolidate the themes that are prevalent throughout the Finnish director’s work showing all the humour, compassion and sensitivity that they are capable of, and expressing it in a manner that has been refined down to its purest essence over the years. As the middle part of this trilogy, but working completely as a standalone film, The Man Without A Past is perhaps the most perfect and enjoyable expression of the director’s work.

In fact, the “Losers Trilogy” is scarcely that much different either from Kaurismäki’s “Worker’s Trilogy” (collected in The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 1) in that all his losers are little men in ordinary working-class professions and all his workers are hopeless dreamers, unrealistically expecting to get the girl and live their lives the way it’s lived in the movies. And even though we aren’t given any background on the man here who steps off the train in Helsinki and is promptly beaten by thugs and left for dead in an alley, awakening later with no memory of his name or background, a few clues – a welding mask and a suitcase filled with not much else make it clear that our mystery man fits into the same category at the lowest rungs of society as many of Kaurismäki’s previous victims of fate.

What is wonderful about the situation in The Man Without A Past, and what makes this slightly different from other Kaurismäki films is that our amnesiac man is not the simple naïve and gullible characters of his previous works who inadvertently, or stupidly, get into a mess when their ambitions exceed their capabilities to achieve them. The man here rather provides the director with a complete blank slate upon which to explore his ideas and views on humanity, and not being encumbered by the limitations imposed on him by himself or his place in society, he has perhaps more chance of finding his purest essence and, with his life reduced to nothing and expectations consequently lowered, he may even be capable of finding some measure of happiness.

The notion of rebirth is evident throughout The Man Without A Past from the moment our heavily bandaged mystery man is reanimated on the hospital bed only moments after being declared dead by the doctor. Waking up among the detritus of the port of Helsinki, without even retaining the shoes on his feet, everything thereafter in the film expresses his attempt to rebuild himself in a new and ideal image. What is wonderful about how Kaurismäki does this here is in incongruous choice of environment for this new model of humanity to be reborn, among the have-nothings and the do-nothings, living in a container and gradually building up a new life around himself in his modest “home” with a few potatoes planted in the ground. There’s nothing idealised about his circumstances and there’s nothing idealised either about the encounters and sometimes absurd adventures he has with people from different parts of society, finding some willing to help and share the little they have, while others hide behind the law and rules to disengage themselves from any sense of social responsibility.

These little adventures of a man with no name and no past bring out the essential basic nature of people – the good and the bad – but as usual in a Kaurismäki film, there is a yearning for something more, something that elevates humanity, and as usual that is expressed in music – usually rock’n’roll – and the search for love. Both those elements come together beautifully in The Man Without A Past, again through the notion of rebirth. His basic needs met in the most simple of means through the Salvation Army and the acceptance of his new friends, our protagonist installs a repaired discarded jukebox in his container trailer to bring little comfort, solace and encouragement into his life, but he spreads the rock’n’roll gospel to add another dimension to the expression of their lives, hopes and ambitions.

Most delightfully however, the ever-present Kati Outinen provides the romantic interest, and as unlikely the union of the stiff Salvation Army soup kitchen worker and homeless amnesiac, as unglamorous as their situation may be, and as flatly as their dialogue is delivered, Kaurismäki scripts it nonetheless like a grand Bette Davis melodrama, all straight-faced sincere romantic declarations and pauses to light another in an endless series of cigarettes. To anyone unfamiliar with Kaurismäki’s films, this is all likely to be completely bewildering, but for fans of the director’s work or those willing to approach it with an open mind and a sense of humour, it’s absolutely enchanting.


The Man Without A Past is released in the UK by ICA Projects. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.

Originally released in 2003 by Optimum, this new release of the film is by ICA Projects. I don’t have the original release to compare, but I suspect that there hadn’t been any remastering of the title. That’s fine, as by and large, this is a more than acceptable transfer and occasionally even quite impressive. The colouration is very strong, perhaps even slightly over-boosted to the extent that finer detail is lost. This is most evident in the treatment of blacks, which are rich and heavy, but almost impenetrable. That’s a minor complaint however, if it is a complaint at all – the only other recent transfer of a colour Kaurismäki film on Artificial Eye’s Lights In The Dusk, was similarly deeply and richly coloured, so it could well be the director and cinematographer’s preference. Other than that and a slight softness that comes with it, there is nothing really to fault here – the image is clean, the transfer progressive and stable without a mark or flicker.

The audio track is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. It doesn’t lift you up and shake you, but it’s clear and more than meets the demands placed on it. It’s of course best utilised in the film’s wonderful score and there’s a beautiful tone to the rock’n’roll compositions and the Finnish ballads.

English subtitles are unfortunately fixed and slightly on the large side, but are quite readable.

Extras are the bare minimum. There isn’t even a trailer for the film itself, but the Biographies of the director, cinematographer and cast are useful and informative, covering the content and themes of Kaurismäki’s career, and including some facts and information about the soundtrack. The only other extra features are trailers for other releases from ICA Projects in conjunction with Optimum Releasing.

Your favourite Aki Kaurismäki film is often your first one, and that’s the case for me with The Man Without A Past. It might not necessarily be the director’s best film and there are plenty of others that could justifiably lay claim to the title (Drifting Clouds, Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatyana and Ariel at least), but it is one of the director’s most effortless, charming and delightfully witty films, sticking close to his favourite themes and finding in the character of a man with no name and no memory a perfect and a funny way to express them. This edition has been out before from Optimum, so you may already have it, but if not, I can recommend The Man Without A Past as a perfect place to explore the weird and wacky world of Aki Kaurismäki.


Updated: Sep 15, 2009

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