Kaurismäki’s first feature follows the descent into crime of Rahikainen, a slaughterhouse worker and former lawstudent, who murders a businessman and then begins a tense game of cat and mouse with the police.
Effectively updating Dostoevsky’s great novel to 1980s Helsinki, this remarkably assured debut offers a sharp critique of Finnish society. In 1984, it received two Jussi Awards: for the best début film and for the best script.
From “Senses of Cinema”
“In 1983, Aki Kaurismäki made his directorial debut with an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Prestuplenie I nakazanie (Crime and Punishment), reset in contemporary Helsinki, featuring a law-school dropout-turned-slaughterhouse-worker as Raskolnikov. Kaurismäki says he decided to make a film version of the imposing Dostoyevsky novel because,
“[Alfred] Hitchcock said he would never be able to touch that book, and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll show you, old man.’ Later I realized that he was right. It was not my style, but I had no style then – it came later.”
The protagonist of a Kaurismäki film is almost always the same character: a lonely, working-class underdog of few words in search of love and a steady job. In a way, Raskolnikov seems like a logical point of reference for beginning a career devoted to sympathizing with these “loser” characters. Kaurismäki himself recognizes that Rikos ja rangaistus (Crime and Punishment) was
“the first time I started to develop the loser character Nikander [the protagonist of Kaurismäki’s Varjoja paratiisissa (Shadows in Paradise, 1986)]. Right up to [Pidä huivista kiinni, Tatjana (Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana, 1994)] he’s the same character.”
The first shot of Crime and Punishment – a close-up of a butcher’s cleaver smashing a bug on the cutting board and then continuing to chop meat – is further evidence of how Kaurismäki’s worldview – of small, defenceless individuals being crushed by large and uncaring forces beyond their control – was present from the start.
Also there from the beginning was Kaurismäki’s ridicule of the seriousness and inscrutability of the art house tradition. After Crime and Punishment, which explicitly mocked the pretensions of highbrow literary adaptations, Kaurismäki decided to try to make “the lousiest film ever made” – and so Calamari Union (1985) was born. The absurd premise of this film – in which ten ordinary men, all named Frank, try, unsuccessfully, to walk from one end of Helsinki to the other without getting killed – mocks the metaphysical implications traditionally associated with the episodic plotlines and mundane narrative detailing found in the work of art cinema masters like Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman. The film’s most frequently noted sketch involves the Franks (who, like many Kaurismäki characters, are fans of large black sunglasses) performing an impromptu rock number at a club with lyrics such as “Bad boys are coming to break your toys” – and so begins the Kaurismäki tradition of featuring rock-and-roll concerts in nearly every film. Unlikely rock band as crucial narrative element and a deep-seated delight in tweaking the tenets of art cinema would both be taken even further in the late ’80s and early ’90s with Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys films. Ironically, by this point Kaurismäki would become the darling of the contemporary art cinema establishment, a cult favourite among film festival-goers around the world.”