Loners in the Night – Aki Kaurismäki’s Lights in the Dusk

by Irmeli Hautamäki

Unlike the two previous films, ’Lights in the Dusk’ lacks almost completely the typical wry but reconciling Kaurismäki’s sense of humor due to its theme, which is loneliness. Loneliness, separateness, isolation is a curse in the modern society. The trilogy’s earlier films have pictured a little man, but their protagonists have been part of some living community, no matter how marginal.

In ’Lights in the Dusk’ the main character, security guard Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), is a quiet, decent young man, but completely alone in the city. Probably he has recently moved from the country, he does not yet know anybody, and it seems moreover impossible to make any acquaintances, because the place where he works and lives is not meant to be people’s meeting place.

This part of the city is a new, cold scene of technology and business. Trust and friendship are not possible there, but crime, nevertheless is. Security men are not generally liked; they are regarded as harsh protectors of property and capital, worse than police. Only because of this structural reason Koistinen is alone, outside the community.

The city and its lights

The city in the film is a dreadful place. New glittering glass and steel towers and sky scrapers are shining together with the lights of the ongoing traffic day and night. The Finnish name of the film, ’Laitakaupungin valot’; literally ’Lights in the Periphery’ or ’Lights in the Outskirts of City’ feels odd and of course, ironic. The English translation ’Lights in the Dusk’ is not accurate or even telling. The word periphery or outskirts refers to a distant part of city, but the scene of the film is located in Ruoholahti in Helsinki, which at the moment is a real centre of new technology business and capital investment, in no way periphery or even far of the city center.

I was wondering at the name until I realized that 15 years ago Ruoholahti really was some kind of outskirts. The city had grown and spread all around the Ruoholahti area, which had preserved as a quiet area full of stocks, little businesses and most importantly a location of the then legendary “Bats’ Cave”, a shelter for the homeless. Having remained abandoned for some time, Bats’ Cave was occupied by ELMU an association of living music, who prepared and transformed it for the young people to meet.

The modest outskirts have had an important role in many of Aki Kaurismäki’s films. As no one’s land they have protected the little man, the tramp, the homeless and the bohemian. The nameless and homeless character in ’Man without the Past’ found a living place in such outskirts. He settled down and started to grow potatoes. Moreover, the periphery contains potential for change, it can be transformed into a scene of civil society activities. This is what took place in ’Man without the Past’, the film ended in a concert in an old, abandoned railway hall in downtown Helsinki.

Neither the old railway halls nor the Bats’ Cave exist any more. They have been and will soon be replaced by glittering business and culture palaces. These remarks help to show how Kaurismäki’s films are connected to rapid changes in Helsinki and the urban development.

Aki Kaurismäki maintains that he does not like the present Helsinki, nor the present London or present Paris. He has also said that he makes his films as memories for cities. ’Bohemian life’ (1991) was a memory for French culture, in order to film it Kaurismäki had to go far away from the city centre to the peripheries where he found some authentic Parisian bars.

’Lights in the Dusk’ does not tell about Finland or especially about Helsinki. Similar business cities keep growing quickly in other countries and cities, as well, where the marginal wasteland is taken under control and subjected to productive purposes. The city of Tallinn, on the other side of the Gulf of Finland south to Helsinki, is also building a new business city in the former harbor and stock area next to the old city center. ’Lights in the Dusk’ could tell as well about Tallinn as any other site of quick development and hard business. The film could be seen as Aki Kaurismäki’s view of globalization, birth of sites and places, which are changing, without resistance and hardly anyone noticing.

People in the dusk

The lights, bombastic towers and glass facades of the new city are signs of success at a great cost. Illegal immigrants and criminals populate the film’s neighborhood. The situation of the main character, the decent and even ambitious young man, Koistinen, is even worse than that of some immigrants. In the beginning of the film, while Koistinen is making his security rounds, a group of Russian speaking men is walking by. Their mutual solidarity is a sharp contrast to Koistinen’s sense of loneliness. The Russians have in addition to their vodka drinking, their culture, their novelists and artists about which they are talking when passing by. Koistinen, on the other hand, does not have anyone in his back round, no family, relatives or community. He is a victim of bullying, violence and betrayal.

There is humanity in ’The Lights of Dusk’, too. In the shade of the brave technology centre there stands a single trailer, where a kind woman, Aila (Maria Heiskanen) runs a hamburger kiosk. She cares for the lonely wanderers. Night guard Koistinen comes to this kiosk in the end of almost every day. Aila feels sympathy for Koistinen, only to learn drunken Koistinen boasting about his little affair with a woman.

Koistinen has virtually succeeded to break his loneliness when he met a beautiful woman whom he took the movies. Koistinen is, however so naïve, that he does not notice that his conquest, Mirja (Maria Järvenheimo) is only planning a deceit. Mirja is criminals’ decoy and her task is to betray Koistinen.

The true and sincere Koistinen, who probably finds out the deceit, does not, however, report the woman to the police, but voluntarily accepts the sentence. Follows an episode, where Koistinen, the guard is lead from the court to prison by numerous guards. The old prison is, in another human place in the film. A group of prisoners is passing time in the sunny yard chatting restfully.

The main character is seen to laugh in the prison episode once, and only once during the entire film. The prison is shown as a place of freedom and peace in contrast to the outside world. There one can have a rest and have even meaningful work. This is, of course, a strong statement. The scene reminds evidently of Chaplin’s film ’Modern Times’ (1936), whose protagonist, the little tramp also enjoyed when he was allowed to live behind the bars. The film like many other films of Kaurismäki can be regarded as homage to Chaplin, even its name alludes to one of Chaplin’s films: ’City Lights’ (1931). At the same time it is an independent critical comment of the dark side of modernity.

“Why am I doing this? “

Koistinen’s infatuation with Mirja is diluted. No fire is lighted between them. Mirja is sad, for her everything is indifferent. When the criminal boss Lindholm (Ilkka Koivula) tries to cheer her up with a trip, she answers that for her “it is a matter of utter indifference whether she is in Rome or in Paris”. All the cities are the same. It is Koistinen’s fate to desire a woman who wants nothing. This woman is lacking even an appetite. When Koistinen offers her a steak, which he has prepared, it remains untouched on the plate. Mirja’s conscience bothers her and she flees from his home.

Mirja speaks slightly broken Finnish, which implies that this treacherous beauty is an immigrant. She herself is a victim of criminals and from her position as a victim feels faint pity for Koistinen, whom she is asked to deceit. She questions herself “Why am I doing this?” but cannot answer. The rhetoric question remains, however, open waiting to be answered.

There is no enjoyment for Mirja when she spends an evening with the criminal boss in an expensive restaurant. She hates herself, but all the same forks delicates impassionedly from her plate. Koistinen, who meanwhile was released from the prison, is working in the same restaurant. When Mirja’s and Koistinen’s eyes meet in the restaurant, Mirja does not show any emotion on her dull, painted face. Eventually she is going to cheat again by informing the chief of the restaurant, that Koistinen is a convicted criminal. Koistinen is fired.

The setting in ’Lights in the Dusk’ resembles that of Chaplin’s ’City Lights’, where an honest and innocent little man is sentenced to prison when he is trying to help a blind woman in trouble. The setting is similar with the exception that Mirja does not show him gratitude, she is and stays treacherous till the end.

The criminal boss could take Koistinen’s life but does not, instead he asserts that “I am not a murderer, I’m a businessman”. The line sums up the spirit of the film; the boss who is familiar with the world of crime believes that Koistinen is not going to have any chance. Unlike in Chaplin’s ’Modern Times’, where the little man, who in spite of having been in prison, had new chances, in ’Lights in the Dusk’ there are no more possibilities for a someone once convicted.

Kaurismäki’s film does not, however, end hopelessly; rather it ends with an open question that Mirja presented to herself. Mirja, who probably is an immigrant, is the key character in the film. She must resolve the moral question of the film. Mirja is different than the usual female characters in Kaurismäki’s films; these women help and support the community where they live. Aila who represents the familiar female type will help Koistinen to begin a new life.

Evidently the couple Aila and Koistinen will survive and walk together hand in hand toward the sunset. What kind of future is waiting for Mirja? In the end of ’City Lights’ the blind woman gets her sight back. What would open Mirja’s eyes?

Peter von Bagh (2006): Aki Kaurismäki, Helsinki.