Gracious Night / Eine Nacht in Helsinki

Director: Mika Kaurismäki (Finland). Year of Release: 2021

Helsinki, 1 May. News reports are full of Covid and an attack in the town centre which has left a man fighting for his life. It might be the virus, might be the holiday, but everything is closed. Inside a bar the owner, Heikki, is sitting down to eat. He’s lit candles and uncorked the best wine – maybe his daughter will come, but she probably won’t turn up.

There’s a knock on the door. Outside stands Risto, a regular customer and a friend of Heikki. Risto is in a bad state. Although Heikki assures him that the bar is closed and he’s not allowed to serve drinks, Risto inveigles himself through the door. He looks so sad and disorientated that Heikki offers him a glass of the good wine.

Risto is a doctor who has just been informed that one of his patients has died. She was a 14-year old girl, and wrote him a letter before she died. Risto has been overcome with existential doubt and is not sure whether he can carry on in the medical profession. The two old friends stand and drink wine, and generally moan about how shitty life has become.

After a while, there’s another knock on the door. This time, it’s Juhani – but everyone calls me Juha –who neither of them knows. Juha says that his daughter is about to give birth, but his mobile battery is dead and he needs to recharge it in case she calls. At first Heikki is reluctant to let him in – Risto and he are a bit busy working through their own troubles – but eventually he concedes. That wine bottle is starting to get empty.

Juha explains that he’s a social worker, and that with constant cuts the job is going to hell in a handcart. Since the last recession, governments of all colours are just ignoring the bottom 10% of society and people like him to pick up the pieces. Agitated, he asks if he can smoke, and Heikki sends him outside. Then his phone rings. Heikki answers, expecting news of an imminent birth.

The woman on the other end of the phone is not Juha’s daughter – it turns out that he doesn’t have a daughter – but a woman ringing to tell him that the police are looking for him. It turns out that he is responsible for the attack on the news and that the victim has died. It’s time for Juha to explain what really has happened. Shortly afterwards, Heikki makes his own confession.

What’s it all about? Well, on one level this is a film about three middle aged men meeting and talking in a bar. As long as they hold our attention, there’s no need for it to be about anything more than this. But it also holds quite a bit of Zeitgeist. In between scenes, the camera pulls back to show the electric light for Corona beer in the bar window.

Director Mika Kaurismäki has insisted that “I don’t want people to think it’s a coronavirus film. … It’s anchored in this time but the problems they have could be anytime.” Well, yes and no. Although analogous problems crop up all the time, there is a specific reason why these three people are holed up in an empty bar at this particular moment.

Covid has also accentuated a whole horde of existing problems – from ill health to poverty to problems with relationships. Gracious Night could have been filmed during a different period of history, but it feels like the extra stress of living under Covid is able to turn what could have been minor inconveniences into life-changing problems.

There is also a practical reason why this should be seen as a Covid film. It is not just bar owners, doctors and social workers whose work has been made more difficult by the current Unpleasantness. It’s not been so easy to make low-budget independent films if all your actors and technical people have to observe social distancing. But necessity has proved the mother of invention, hence this stripped down piece which has all the dramatic impact of much bigger works.

Gracious Night could easily work as a play. For most of the time it is a three-hander, which generally observes the unities of time, place and action. A few extra characters roll up towards the end, and while they add to the depth of the piece, they are just part of the backing music. This film is mainly about the individual trouble of Heikki, Risto and Juha, and how they collectively deal with them.

Once more, Mika Kaurismäki has produced a film which is not as explicitly political as the recent efforts of his more famous brother Aki, but is every bit as humane. It is kind of apt that it’s all filmed in the Corona bar (which was named 30 years ago) which the pair own in Helskini. While Glorious Night does not try to address the big problems caused by Covid (and why should it?) it does shine a keen spotlight on how ordinary people have suffered as a result of the implications of the virus.

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