Aki Kaurismaki’s 1999 film “Juha” has the unique distinction of being the century’s final silent film made; a century which saw the art-form reach its zenith before sadly being snuffed out by “talking” features well before its time. Since their demise in the early 1930’s, very few silent films have been made at all, making the style of film all but a dead form but Aki Kaurismaki has revived it perfectly with “Juha”; a film that suffers no comparison with the classics of that era.
“Juha” is a simple tale of a happy couple living and working off the country. The married couple are Juha and Marja, simple folk who lead simple lives working on their cabbage farm. To most outsiders, their lives could be considered dull or boring, but this is all the couple know and importantly they are very happy. One day a stranger enters town when his automobile breaks down near Juha’s property. Juha helps the stranger out (whose name is Shemeikka) but explains it will take him a day to get the required parts, and he offers Shemeikka a room to stay for the night. Shemeikka’s eye is immediately captured by Juha’s wife, Marja, and the stranger sets about seducing her and trying to convince her to leave Juha. Amazingly, Marja is intrigued by the stranger’s city style and his perceived fast and exciting way of life. She suddenly finds her own life to be dull and looks to have more fun and Marja ends up leaving with Shemeikka (after Juha has passed out from a night of drinking), smitten by the handsome stranger. However as soon as she leaves her old life for something new, she comes to realise that she has made a terrible mistake, as Shemeikka is not at all the man he appeared to be. In fact he ends up enslaving the poor Marja in the brothel he runs, where she is expected to “work” to earn her keep. All Marja can do is wait and hope the man she betrayed will come look for her and save her from this living hell.
This is such an easy film to watch and enjoy even though the themes within it are quite dark. The film is basically a three-hander but surprisingly for a film titled “Juha”, he is the character that is featured the least. It is really Marja’s story that we follow through until the end, with Juha only being present at the beginning and towards the end. As I mentioned above, Kaurismaki has done a fabulous job of capturing the spirit of silent films without ever totally aping the style. Thankfully this is not a nostalgia piece in the fact that Kaurismaki has not just made a pastiche of silent films past, rather this is just like any other film, with the exception that it is told in this old style. Apparently, Kaurismaki chose to film “Juha” silently because the only actor he could see in the part of Sheeikka, Andre Wilms, spoke no Finnish at all. Even though this is unlike anything Kaurismaki had done before or since and was in a completely different style, the signature of its author is prevalent throughout. There is no mistaking who made this film. Kaurismaki’s very deliberate and precise visual style is on show here, as is his economic direction, not to mention his famous deadpan humour, although this is less pronounced here due to the dark themes.
All of the performances within the film are very stylised but if you are familiar with Aki Kaurismaki’s previous work, this shouldn’t come as a shock to you. There is a sense of artificiality within the performances as directed by Kaurismaki but amazingly through said performances is the actors ability to reproduce honest human emotions. With “Juha” though, this acting style has been inflated even more to accommodate the lack of dialogue and if there was one thing I was critical of, in regards to the performances, is that I think at times, the pantomime is sometimes a little too broad. Filling out the three main roles in “Juha” are all long time and repeated Kaurismaki regulars with Sakari Kuosmanen playing the titular Juha, the always fantastic Kati Outinen playing his suffering wife, Marja, and the aforementioned Andre Wilms being the villain of the film. Wilms is absolutely vile in the film and I was surprised at just how convincing he was at being evil. With his sinister grin and uncaring cackle, Shemeikka is a long way from the kind and caring Marcel Marx, the character he played in Kaurismaki’s latest “Le Havre”. This is the first time I had seen Kuosmanen, and he does a fabulous job of portraying the big hearted, cripple Juha, and expertly convinces the heartache and emptiness he feels (and the betrayal) after the love of his life leaves him for another man. It is actually a heartbreaking performance. While it is easy to be critical of Marja’s decisions early on in the film, through Outinen’s performance we do feel empathetic towards her and the situation she ultimately finds herself in. It is always a sad event to witness naivety and innocence ultimately being perverted.
While the film is no doubt a silent film, there are moments in the film where Kaurismaki allows sound to enter the film (but never dialogue). Sounds such as doors closing, or wind blowing are added out of the blue, and while I am not sure about the reason for their inclusions, it never feels out of place or odd. There is one entire sequence that features sound which is when Juha decides to find his wife and bring her home. It is during his preparations that we hear sounds of his shaving and the like, and it gives the scene a sense of importance and makes it stand out from the rest of the film, even though Juha is doing mundane tasks; it is the fact that he has finally decided to act that is the big thing. Silent films, more than most films, rely a lot on their music score and the score for “Juha” by Anssi Tikanmaki is just sublime. I am hopeless at talking about music because it is not my strong point, but the score has a timeless feel to it while at the same time feeling very modern and of the place the film is set. It is just perfect and complements the images Kaurismaki has created. Tikanmaki also has a very brief acting role within the film.
I must admit that after all the praise and accolades “The Artist” received just a few years back, I am a little stunned that Kaurismaki’s silent effort is barely known at all. It is just as good at bringing the old art-form back to life, particularly with its stunning black and white images. While it is not the first time Kaurismaki has worked with black and white, one of his great strengths within his visual style is with his bold and distinct use of colour and it is great to see that even without this strength at his disposal, he is able (along with the help of his director of photography, TimoSalminnen) to create stunning and interesting images to tell his story; obvious the most important aspect of a silent film.
Overall, I really enjoyed “Juha” but was surprised by how dark it went after its very happy opening. Kaurismaki’s regular actors all put in great performances to create an entertaining and dramatic three-hander. This is a sad tale of love, loss and revenge that is well worth seeking out if you get the chance, and is further evidence of just how great a range Aki Kaurismaki has as director. He is a unique cinematic talent.