‘Concrete Night,’ Finland’s official entry into the 87th Annual Academy Awards‘ foreign language film category, is a dreamlike odyssey through beautiful Helsinki over the course of one night. The film, based on a 1981 novel by Finnish author Pirkko Saisio, centers on a 14-year-old boy named Simo (Johannes Brotherus), who is still searching for a sense of self and the ability to protect himself from his surroundings. He lacks his own identity. Simo and his big brother Ilkka (Jari Virman) are the sons of a helpless and unpredictable single mother (Anneli Karppinen). Their chaotic home is located deep in the heart of a concrete jungle in Helsinki. Ilkka has one day of freedom left before starting his prison sentence. The mother persuades Simo to spend the last night with his brother.
During the course of the day and night spent roaming around Helsinki, the brothers witness incidents they would rather not see. To Simo, the unfiltered world seems unbearable. Finally a casual encounter with a photographer, whose intentions Simo misreads, launches him into blind fear. In the panic-stricken violence that ensues, Simo finds his missing identity, his true face.
David Teich spoke to “Concrete Night” director Pirjo Honkasalo about her film’s unique visual aesthetic, her long history in documentary filmmaking, and much more.
For more info about “Concrete Night” – HERE
What drew you to Pirkko Saisio’s novel? What about this story fascinates you?
The novel came out 1981. Saisio was young but already well-known, and I read the book right away. I was impressed. This 170 page book painted the strongest image of an adolescent mind I had ever come across. Its combination of dream and harsh reality flowed into my senses in crisp images. When Simo, the fourteen-year-old protagonist, wakes up from a nightmare about drowning and looks into a mirror, he finds nobody; he does not have a face. He understands that you do not get a face as a gift of birth—you start with a fragile identity. And you have to deserve a face. You have to make it yourself. After 30 years, I finally turned the book into a film.
Ilkka, Simo’s older brother, is very psychologically manipulative toward him. Why do you think that is?
We are all alert to power, to the possibility of controlling another human being. It is intoxicating to use this power. And the bigger a loser you are, the better it tastes. Ilkka is a petty criminal , kicked around by many. “Concrete Night” takes place the night before he begins a prison sentence. It’s a night of fear, despair and loneliness. Simo is probably the only creature he is still able to love. And Simo is forced into his company. As the night goes on, Simo becomes a target of Ilkka’s despair, his apocalyptic visions. His ability to manipulate his little brother’s young mind is like a psychedelic, expanding Ilkka’s consciousness and creating borderline hallucinations. Ilkka has apocalyptic thoughts—he says humanity is doomed, and talks about the total destruction of the world. And Simo swallows everything Ilkka says. It becomes a truth to him. It’s part of Simo’s road to gaining a face. His older brother has used his power, unaware of its consequences. Looking at the Internet posts of many young people right now, it’s clear that these apocalyptic ideas are not rare. And we know what the consequences can be. Unfortunately, Pirkko Saisio was a prophet.
The film has an extremely unique visual aesthetic. What made you decide to give this world this particular look, and in what ways do the visuals contribute to the film’s story and themes?
The film is about the poetry and music of images and sounds. Those elements are even more important than the drama. Aesthetics is the most beautiful language mankind has invented, and can speak what cannot be spoken of in language. I’m a cinematographer myself, and I was very definite about what Simo’s world should look like. Black and White and its 260 grades of grey: That was an obvious choice from the beginning. And I knew the dream sequences could have some tones of color. Cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg, gaffer Jani Lehtinen and I were a united troika. We worked off of my original vision. We only had 21 shooting days, plus two underwater, so had to know what we were doing. We only shot what we needed.
What did cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg bring to the film?
Peter Flinckenberg is a very sensitive and skillful cinematographer. He gave his all to this film. There is an aura of light around him, and he makes things easy for the actors. As I mentioned earlier, he, Jani Lehtinen and I we were a firm troika—it’s not so easy so divide things up and say which decisions came from
In what ways does your long history in documentary filmmaking affect your approach as a narrative filmmaker?
I had a long history in fiction films before I started my long history in documentary. Now I’ve returned to fiction again. This [supposedly] tremendous gap between documentary and fiction has been invented by critics and others. Whether you’re making documentary or fiction, you bring your own angle when you look at the world of the film—your childhood, your history, certain themes and obsessions, your beliefs and skepticism, your phobias, and maybe some insight. When you start a fiction fiction film after having made documentaries, you don’t take your head off and screw on a new one. In Finland we have a phrase: “same head be it winter or summer.” Though one obvious effect of working in documentary is that, after having seen hundreds of hours of footage of real people, you cannot demand less from actors—you become allergic to phony acting.
You use underwater images and the threat of drowning as a running motif. What made you decide to use those images, and how do those images reflect on the emotional and psychological state of the characters?
The very first post-screening Q&A for the film took place during the Toronto Film Festival, as part of the Masters Series. The first question was: “Why is there so much water?” That struck me as a funny question, and I answered: “We are all 90% water.” The film starts and ends underwater. So does the novel. And over the course of the movie, the meaning of being underwater transforms—that’s the journey of the film. In the beginning it is a nightmare, an omen, which leaves a strange sense of alarm in Simo’s mind. This sense lasts throughout the day and the following night, when the omen redeems itself through violence. By the end, [the space] underwater is like a cradle where nothing evil can touch you anymore—some might say a salvation.
— Interview conducted and edited by David Teich