Kaurismäki in Karkkila: How Finland’s most famous film director and a writer started a small-town cinema

One year when the acclaimed film director Aki Kaurismäki made his annual return to Finland from his winter home in Portugal, he wound up creating a cinema in a disused industrial building.

In the spring of 2021, Aki Kaurismäki met with local writer Mika Lätti to look at an abandoned factory hall in Karkkila, about an hour northwest of Helsinki.

While shops and businesses were slowly breathing new life into other parts of the old Ala-Emali enamelling plant next to the Karjaa River, the large space that interested Lätti and Kaurismäki had been neglected over time. Birds flew in and out of broken windows in brick walls still coated with thick soot from the days when the factory produced bathtubs, pans and engine parts.

Kaurismäki, internationally known for his sparse-dialogue approach to filmmaking, turned to his soon-to-be business partner and said, “An optimal place for a cinema. Let’s build one.”

Down-to-earth arthouse

Tables and chairs are grouped in a room with a high ceiling and a bar counter.

The bar at Kino Laika boasts exposed brick walls and the La Moderne sign from the café in Aki Kaurismäki’s film Le Havre.Photo: Camilla Bloom

The following autumn, Kino Laika opened for business. Artfully remodelled, the industrial-chic space features some of the high-ceilinged factory’s original architectural details, including a massive brick chimney.

It has a bar, a conference room, and a movie theatre that seats about 100. The airy décor features cinema memorabilia and classic movie posters. Kaurismäki fans might recognise the bar counter, which appeared in two of his films, Take Care of Your Scarf, Tatiana (1994) and Juha (1999).

“We built Kino Laika with the intention of honouring the sense of history in the area,” says Lätti, who has written six books and now spends most of his professional time managing the theatre and bar.

“This industrial feel is combined with Aki’s decades of experience in cinematic set design. The walls are adorned in familiar blues and yellows, and the cinema space is filled with references to other movies and creators.”

Hometown feel

A woman, two men and a dog sit around an outdoor table with several beers on it.

In the summer, visitors can sit on a patio overlooking the river.Photo: Camilla Bloom

The name of the theatre also has connections to Kaurismäki’s film career. The late Finnish director and film historian Peter von Bagh once insisted to Kaurismäki that he someday open a cinema called Laika. Von Bagh cofounded the Midnight Sun Film Festival, held every June in the far-northern town of Sodankylä, together with Aki Kaurismäki, his brother Mika Kaurismäki and another director and producer, Anssi Mänttäri.

The name is famous because of the Soviet space dog that became the first creature to orbit Earth in 1957, but Laika is also the name Kaurismäki gave to two family dogs that appeared in his films Le Havre (2011) and The Bohemian Life (1992). Photos of both dogs feature prominently on the cinema’s walls.

Kaurismäki (born in 1957), who grew up in the southern Finnish town of Orimattila and filmed many of his movies in Helsinki, chose Karkkila as the home of the cinema primarily because he now lives part-time in the village of 8,700. Kino Laika, which also offers live music, has become a cultural centre in an area known as an artist enclave. Lätti estimates that 30 percent of his customers travel from capital region.

“We wanted to give something back to our home in Karkkila for all the grace it has given us,” Kaurismäki says. “This is a new checkmark on the list of things that could make a town into a city.”

A man with a past

Sunlight shines through the windows into a room where a painting of a summer scene hangs on the wall above a table and a couple chairs.

Sunlight streams into a meeting room at Kino Laika.Photo: Camilla Bloom

Years ago, Kaurismäki opened a movie theatre called Andorra as part of a complex in Helsinki that included two bars, Corona Bar and Kafe Moskva. Losing the lease on those premises in 2019 contributed to his inspiration to try it again.

“There is no doubt that these events played a part in the birth of Kino Laika,” Lätti says. “Karkkila had never had a proper cinema, so we decided the time was right to build one.” Kaurismäki, a self-taught auteur and the first Finnish director to win the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival (in 2002, for The Man without a Past), is apparently a hands-on owner.

“He also leads the charge in clearing tables and washing dishes in the hectic summer season,” Lätti says. “No wonder – one of Aki’s first jobs was as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Stockholm.”

The other Finnish director to win the Grand Prix at Cannes was Juho Kuosmanen, in 2021 for Compartment No. 6. That movie was also the first film screened at Kino Laika when the cinema opened in October 2021.

Broad cinematic selection

The interior of a cinema contains rows of plush red seats and a large screen flanked by red curtains.

Kino Laika’s cosy movie theatre seats about 100 people.Photo: Camilla Bloom

Kino Laika offers a wide range of movies, from Hollywood blockbusters to arthouse cinema, and features works by local directors such as Mikko Myllylahti and Aleksi Salmenperä. Patrons may also visit a restaurant, a sauna and boutique shops in the complex, as well as an outdoor deck overlooking the river.

At the time of writing, Kaurismäki’s newest movie, Dead Leaves (2023), is scheduled for a preview screening at Kino Laika, together with a live performance by indie pop duo Maustetytöt, which appears in the film.

“We are overjoyed to see that the people of Karkkila have taken to visiting the cinema with such enthusiasm,” says Lätti.

By Michael Hunt, April 2023