After serving up 30 years worth of deadpan Finnish humour to eager offbeat black comedy fans, Aki Kaurismäki claims he’s said everything he wanted to say – “three times”.
Nonetheless, he chose to return to France and to the protagonist of his earlier La vie de bohème (1992) for Le Havre, a film that takes on the subject of illegal immigration.
Describing himself as a chronic nostalgic suffering from vitamin D deficiency – the reason he spends his summers in Finland and winters in Portugal (Berliners can perhaps relate…) – Kaurismäki greets us at 11am with two bottles of wine (“Always white. Always cold.”) and a pack of cigarettes that he will have decimated by the end of the interview.
Why a film about illegal immigration?
It’s a serious topic, no? I’m not very good at this kind of film. It’s a political subject, and I don’t like political subjects. But this problem disturbed me for so long, that in the end I said, “Okay, then I’ll do it.”
Although it is a highly charged, very contemporary topic, you opted for very classical cinematography and production design – take the cars, for instance. Is this a way of underlining the timelessness of this problem?
Well, I’d say that I just don’t like modern cars. They all look the same, and they’re plastic… The good thing about problems is that they are timeless; they never go away, unless we solve them. Then we come to the bigger problem: who are we?
Are you a spiritual person?
Spiritual? In which sense?
You always celebrate the human being, celebrate life in the face of adversity. As with Bresson, I find that there is a spiritual, humanist feel to your films.
A French dandy once said, “Jesus is dead, Marx is dead, and I’m not feeling too good myself.” I’m an atheist, but I like the idea of Jesus, the ideas of the New Testament. Constitutional human rights for all was also a nice idea… but then money took over, as it always does.
Is this a political film?
This movie is a fairy tale…
But there are some direct jabs at the political establishment, especially the French Interior Ministry – the politics are more palpable than in your previous films.
This is not a French problem; it’s Europe’s problem, a problem of the European Union. It could take place in any country. I just happened to find a harbour in France. It could happen in any good harbour town. It’s a sign of my laziness.
Why is there always a dog in your films?
Ask my wife.
She’s a dog trainer?
No, but whenever I close my door and start to write, on the third day, she knocks. “Sorry, can I come in?” And I know what she’s going to say: “What about if you have a dog in your film? Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a little dog who’s chasing….” I say: “Yeah, yeah, close the door. I’ll write the dog in.”
What changed in your filmmaking over the last few years?
You used to shoot up to three films a year, whereas now you’re down to one every four to five years. What happened to me is what happens to everybody: I got older. And I can’t do that anymore. I have a limited amount of things to say, and I more or less said them all three times. Nothing changed – I just got slower. Even Jarmusch is faster than me now, and he was bloody hell slow!
Do you still enjoy making films?
I never liked it. Pure horror. Filming is stressful because you always have the feeling you are not good enough. You make a mistake, and now again, and now one more, and there are three mistakes. And I hate mistakes. I only enjoy editing music for the film; the rest of the job I hate. I dislike it because it forces me to work, and as a lazy person I don’t want to work.
And do you still enjoy watching movies?
I go more and more backwards through the history of cinema. I’m in 1911 now. I still haven’t seen The Great Train Robbery, which was made by [Edwin] Porter in 1905, but I’m nearly there.
Any must-see recommendations?
There are about 2000, but we don’t have time. The three best are: L’Atalante (Vigo, 1934), Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story, Ozu, 1953), L’Age d’Or (Buñuel, 1930) and Sunrise (Murnau, 1927). Of course I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t say four. And then Nanook [of the North] (Flaherty, 1921), and then… let’s stop. There are millions of good films. Well, not millions, but thousands.
These are all classics – what about contemporary cinema?
I don’t find modern cinema very interesting. Our daily bread is Hollywood, and this is totally uninteresting. Totally. It’s not even cinema anymore. Of course lots of good films are made here and there, but mostly in Tibet and not by the Yankees.
Still, Le Havre does contain many tropes recognisable from Hollywood cinema.
I love Hollywood – until 1962. Then it suddenly died. Mostly because of television I guess. Until then, it was professionals who made films… they’d seen the war; they’d been in the war, which kept everybody with a bit more serious attitude toward life.
And I think they made the best films. They made the best films in France, and Germany, and Italy, and everywhere… Somehow that generation went away and it became some kind of boys who are pursuing a hobby.
Of course the system helps: every Monday morning you get a new script and you have seven days to shoot it and so on… And someone else wrote it, and somebody else produces it and you don’t necessarily see the film you make.
When you discuss film you sound very nostalgic. Are you a nostalgic person?
You find anybody who’s more nostalgic, I’ll buy you a beer.
So in former times things were better?
Nowadays you buy a radio for €30, the next day you throw it away, because it is not interesting anymore. In the old days, the whole family didn’t eat for a year to buy a radio. And they were better made. It was before the consumerist times we are living in now.
Since you are an auteur, could you ever imagine not writing your own scripts, but finding scripts and just directing?
Well, writing no – that’s my business – but instead of directing, I could easily produce. Someone else could direct. They might be better than me. But as somebody said once, it was Bob Dylan: “the times they are a-changin’” – and you can’t go back because money took over, consumerism took over. And so…
…I need a beer, a cold one. There’re three left in the lobby.
La Havre opens in Berlin on September 8. Check our OV Film Search for movie times.