Loathing European Bourgeois Society: the Films of Kaurismaki and Haneke

Still from “The Other Side of Hope.”

The films of Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki and Austria’s Michael Haneke have nothing in common stylistically but do share a loathing for European bourgeois society. Their latest films additionally share a concern about one particular aspect of that decaying world, namely the persecution of immigrants. Kauriskmaki’s “The Other Side of Hope” that opens today at the Film Forum in New York is about the struggle of a Syrian refugee from Aleppo to survive on the hostile streets of Helsinki. Haneke’s “Happy End” is mostly about a bourgeois household coming apart at the seams but the climax of the film includes African immigrants from the refugee camp near the Calais entrance to the Eurotunnel crashing a fancy banquet. The effect is the same that Buñuel sought in “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”, an attack on the complacency and moral rot of the rich. “Happy End” opens on January 22nd at the Film Forum as well as the Lincoln Plaza in New York. Both films are artistic triumphs as well as devastating blows against a world that is rapidly going mad.

Kaurismaki’s films are distinguished by their deadpan humor, evoking oddly enough those of Buster Keaton’s but without the slapstick. There are no conventional plots as such. Instead you get something that amounts to a shaggy dog story, typified by his best-known film, the 1989 “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” that depicts a fictional rock band on tour in the USA.

“The Other Side of Hope” is a follow-up to the 2011 “Le Havre”, a powerful protest against the treatment of undocumented immigrants dramatized through the bonds forged between the mostly elderly citizens of a seaside neighborhood and a young West African boy eluding the cops.

Like the people of Le Havre, his latest film features an unlikely senior citizen who comes to the aid of an undocumented immigrant, this time a man named Khalid who we see emerging out of a small mountain of coal on a cargo ship that is moored at a Helsinki pier. He digs himself out, dusts himself off, and walks off the ship in search of the nearest police station where he can register as an asylum seeker.

His eventual savior is a traveling shirt salesman named Waldemar Wikström who after winning a small fortune playing poker has bought a shabby restaurant called the Golden Pint. Not long after it has opened, he spots Khalid waking up next to the garbage bins behind the restaurant and orders him to move along. Khalid, who is outweighed by Wikström by about 50 pounds but sick and tired of being hassled by the authorities, responds with a jab to his nose. After getting one back in return, he is welcomed into the restaurant by the forgiving Finn to get a free meal and a sympathetic ear. After Wikström and his three employees hear about his Job-like suffering as a Syrian living in Aleppo, they decide to bring him abroad as a fellow worker and to protect him from the authorities just as happened in “Le Havre”. They are the kinds of people that Kaurismaki regards as true Finns, not the cops who have been anxious to arrest Khalid or the skinheads who plan to kill him. Just as they were about to attack Khalid in a parking lot behind a nightclub he had visited, the fascists are chased off by a group of elderly but scrappy Finns defending traditional values.

Wikström is played by Sakari Kuosmanen, who was one of the Leningrad Cowboy musicians and a favorite of Kaurismaki’s. While he does not perform in “The Other Side of Hope”, the film is graced by performances by a number of sixty-somethings like Wikström (and the director) in cabarets or on the streets. The songs are Finnish versions of American country and western or folk tunes and serve as a soundtrack to remind the audience of the country’s decidedly uncommercial values.

Sherwan Haji, a Syrian-Finnish actor, filmmaker, and writer, plays Khalid. While he came to Finland before the war started, he is obviously familiar enough with his country’s tragedy to lend an authenticity to his performance. His character is the essence of stoicism. His only hope is to stay alive and be reunited with his sister who is somewhere in a refugee camp in Eastern Europe. We learn from testimony he gives at a hearing on his asylum request that a missile blew up his house and killed everybody in it except him and his sister. He also lost his fiancée in an earlier bombing attack. When asked who fired the missile, he shrugs his shoulders and says he had no idea. It might have been the government or the rebels (he lived in the no man’s land between East and West Aleppo). Like many refugees, Khalid is not an activist. He was an auto mechanic who simply wanted to live a normal life. Despite Khalid’s agnostic reply to the interrogators, Kaurismaki leaves little doubt about the source of most of the casualties in Aleppo through video footage of Syrian jets dropping bunker-buster bombs on tenements.

In a profile on the director occasioned by the release of “The Other Side of Hope” in the Guardian, he spoke passionately about the message he was trying to deliver, even if the minimalist, deadpan style of the film might have been assumed to undermine it. One can only conclude that he as wedded to this style as he is to the need for treating the real-life Khalid’s with dignity and compassion:

In The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki returns to the refugee crisis, which was the subject of his previous picture, Le Havre. There is a sense, by depicting altruism in desperate times, that he is trying to foster kindness in his audience: you cannot help but emerge from his films with more faith in humanity. “That’s why I rushed this one out. I wanted everyone to see that refugees are human too. Cinema can influence a tiny bit. One penny makes a big river.”

He stops. “No, that’s not it. One penny makes a Bill Gates.” His hangdog look is interrupted by a sudden grin. Then it’s back to seriousness. “Some countries don’t take anyone. It is the biggest shame in Europe right now.” Brexit, he thinks, will only exacerbate the problem. “Europe going to pieces again is not a good idea, especially because of the extreme right-wing governments in Poland and Hungary. The Brexit propaganda worked very well and then the propaganda guys vanished like a fart in the Sahara.” He gives a grim smile. “Old Finnish saying.”

In a film career that began in 1974, the 75-year old Michael Haneke has made only a handful of feature films but each one has been considered an artistic success as well as deeply controversial. For controversy, nothing can top the 1997 “Funny Games” that depicts a home-invasion of a wealthy family that results in torture and murder. Unlike the conventional horror film of this genre, the two invaders are well-dressed white youths who come knocking on the door to borrow four eggs and who by all appearances seemed like the kids next door. Haneke stated that the intention was not to make a horror film but one about violence in the media.

I found the 2009 “White Ribbon” much more socially relevant since it was a probing study of the suffocating religious and economic institutions of a small farming town in pre-WWI Germany that foreshadowed Nazism.

As another critique of class society, the ironically titled “Happy End” is the story of the French family that owns a construction company that while miles ahead of the Trumps in terms of taste is about on their level ethically.

I could not help but think of Maurice Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” as I watched this morbid take-down of France’s one-percent. Just as Proust evokes the social decay of pre-WWI France, so does “Happy End” capture the feeling of futility, foreboding and waste we encounter today. While I doubt that Haneke, who wrote the screenplay, had any intention of paying homage to Eugene O’Neill, I also was reminded of his “Long Day’s Journey into Night” that portrayed the disintegration of a middle-class household, one that was based on his own.

Like the Addams family, several generations of the Laurents live in an opulent mansion near the seaside in Calais. George Laurent, the patriarch and founder of the company, is now in his 80s and in the early stages of dementia. He is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, the 87-year old actor who deserves the supporting actor of the year award. He oscillates between forgetful and obtuse replies to family members and searing appraisals of their faulty characters.

The company is now run by his daughter Anne, who is played by Isabelle Huppert. While my reviews tend to be focused more on ideas than performance, I can say that it does not get any better than Trintignant and Huppert. Anne is perfectly suited to running a construction company since she cares more about meeting deadlines and staying within budget than she does about the workers. Early in the film, we see a construction accident that costs the life of a worker. Her only worry is how it will impact the bottom line.

Her son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is in his 20s and being groomed to take over the company but he appears as feckless as the Trump kids (not that their dad is anything to write home about). Not only is he an alcoholic, he lacks both ambition and entrepreneurial talent. When he goes to the apartment building to consult with the family of the dead worker, the son meets him at the door and beats him up. Later in the film, when Anne Laurent meets with the family, she tells them to settle for a measly 35,000 Euros or else she will have the son arrested for assault and battery.

Anne’s brother Thomas, a successful physician, and his wife Anaïs also live in the mansion. Played by Mathieu Kassovitz and Laura Verlinden, they have the outward appearance of bourgeois normalcy but we soon discover that Thomas goes through women like a surgeon goes through rubber gloves. They have welcomed his 13-year old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) from his first marriage into the mansion to live with them. We will learn that she is a deadly serious version of an Addams family kid capable of both murder and suicide.

Probably the only member of the family that has both a soul and a grasp of reality is the loser Pierre who understands that everybody else is scum, starting with his mother who constantly reminds him of his weaknesses. Long before the breathtaking climax of the film, we see Pierre referring bitterly to Laurent values. Guests who have come to the patriarch’s birthday party are stunned to hear him yell out that the husband-and-wife Moroccan butler and cook that are considered “part of the family” are nothing more than slaves.

While Haneke is cagey about his intentions on this or any other film he has made, he was open enough about the refugee crisis to add his name to the appeal made about 5,500 film industry professionals in October 2015 titled “For a Thousand Lives: Be Human.” The petition urged European leaders to take action to help refugees and, among other things, to offer “legal ways for people fleeing war, terror, or political persecution to seek protection in the EU by setting up infrastructures in their countries of origin, and in third party countries, where they can apply for asylum. This will stop forcing them to take illegal routes and risk their lives.”

Kaurismaki and Haneke are exemplary filmmakers conscious of their social responsibilities. My strong advice is to see both of their films when they open in New York and to look for them in your local theaters nationally.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.