A Portrait of Grief and Mourning
by John Kerkhoven

©Photo by Maryse Latulippe

John Kerkhoven

Writer, editor, and document designer living in Montreal
Working on a book of stories
Plays blues harmonica

For the Living and the Dead
Director and Scriptwriter: Karl Paljakka
2005, 95 minutes, Finland

The Montreal World Film Festival
North American Premiere

Matti is a five-year-old who dies on a summer day when he is inside the family car and a fire accidentally starts and consumes the car’s interior. His father, Jaakko (Hannu-Pekka Björkman), tries to save him, but cannot. Appropriately, we never see Matti before the accident. His absence dominates the film.

"For the Living and the Dead" is a dramatized account of how one family comes to terms, over the course of a year, with the loss of their younger son. It is based on a true story which became the subject of a book by Gustav Karf, "En junisöndag kvart över tolv" (A Sunday in June, a Quarter Past Twelve). Karf is the father who lost his son. The film was made in consultation with the Karf family,  and it is certainly this connection that gives the film its uncanny ring of truth.

One of the overwhelming strengths of "For the Living and the Dead" is its clarity of focus on the subject: it is a portrait of grief and mourning. The family consists of Marja (Katja Kukkola) and Jaakko, their son Timo (Johannes Paljakka), and the deceased Matti. Jaakko’s father, Henrik (Risto Salmi), lives close by, but it is the parents and the remaining son who are deeply unbalanced by Matti’s death. The film shows us their individual responses to their loss and also their response as a family. 

On another dimension, we see how they function among themselves and how they function in the world beyond their home: Marja and Jaakko at their jobs and Timo at school. We get glimpses also of the inappropriate and inadequate support they receive from others. Marja’s brother-in-law is a doctor who prescribes pills for her and, later, writes a referral for a psychologist for Jaakko, though both of these measures are no more than the well-intentioned offerings of someone who, in truth, is unable to help, though by vocation, he feels compelled to try. Timo’s increasing problems at school are not reported for a long time. His teachers finally recommend that he be placed in a special needs class, but Marja, quite self-possessed by this time, insists that he receive counseling instead. According to the director, the real family’s story “was the case that gradually launched the concept of nationwide crisis therapy” - making short-term, intensive therapy available for people in extreme circumstances.

Marja Grieving

Following Matti’s death, Marja is deeply withdrawn, so much so that it is possible to wonder if this will be the story of a woman’s struggle with depression. At the funeral, she can barely stand; she has difficulty getting out of bed; she sits still, in a chair in the living room, remote and unresponsive. Her husband, Jaakko is, at this stage, in a kind of ongoing panic. He believes that he is responsible for the fire because he left a cigarette lighter on the front seat of the car, but there is no way to determine if the lighter exploded in the heat of the sun or if Matti played with it, or if the fuel in it leaked out and then caught fire … or if anything else caused the fire. At the same time, with his wife in a deep depression, he finds himself having to keep the family going. He preserves the daily routine, waking his wife and their surviving son, Timo, in the mornings, cooking the oatmeal, driving his son to school and his wife to work. Among other things, he becomes preoccupied with Timo’s safety and with protection against any potential fire, checking the stove burners before he goes to bed, buying extra smoke detectors for the house, and installing a hefty fire extinguisher next to the front door.

Marja is on medication the whole time, prescribed by her brother-in-law doctor, Kaitsu (Tommi Korpela). Her sister Leena (Mari Rantasila), with whom she works, encourages her to take her pills. Marja becomes conflicted: her sister’s influence hinders more than helps her in her grieving. At Leena’s birthday dinner, Marja weeps and raises the issue of a sister they had who died young when she was hit by a car. This is a part of their shared history that is never discussed. This scene marks a change in Marja’s relationship with her sister, and it also marks the beginning of Marja’s healing. She has by now stopped taking her medication for a few weeks, refuses to be ashamed of her tears, and is, thus, prepared to acknowledge, before others, the reality of her son's death.

Marja and Leena

In time, Marja quits her job to take another as a clerk in a music school. It becomes clear that, though she is no great musician, music is important to her. In a scene that is profound, she has returned to Matti’s day care to collect his things. It is Christmas and they are having a kind of pageant with songs and costumes and skits. Marja agrees to accompany on the piano one of the girls who plays cello. The girl plays slowly, very methodically, and with errors; Marja accompanies her slowly, accurately playing the notes. It is a brief and simple piece of music that in the context has the beauty of a requiem.


At the family's Christmas dinner, Henrik, Jaakko’s grandfather, tells a war story of being in a bunker under attack and hearing a German girl praying to Jesus. He says her words became his own, and they became the words of everyone there. A peacefulness flowed through them, and they had lost their fear. Jaakko, under pretense of getting a fever, leaves the table, taking Timo with him. Marja walks Henrik home. His words reached her, and she thanks him. She has stopped hoping for Matti’s return, and she is not afraid.

For months Marja has set a fourth place for meals, but soon stops this practice. The first time there are only three place settings at breakfast, young Timo sets the fourth place. It may be just in the manner of preserving what he perceives to be the order of things, but he, too, is troubled and needs to find his way through the loss of his younger brother. Naturally, he is responsive to how his parents are, and he is living in an environment of profound change and difficulty. The family, which has been a family of four, must now be a family of three, and all three, somehow, must live out their love and sorrow for Matti. Marja is emerging from her grief as the new year begins, but Timo and Jaakko are still disoriented.

Every day when he leaves the house to join his parents in the car, Timo obsessively checks the doors to be sure they are properly shut. He also calls his parents each day from school, finding elaborate excuses to do so and using his savings from his piggy bank to call from pay phones. One day he accidentally forgets his coin for the phone and cannot call his parents; in a panic, he bolts from the classroom. One of his teachers catches him in the schoolyard. At last his parents are called in and told he should be put, temporarily, in a special class. Marja stands up for him and he begins to receive the kind of attention that he needs in the form of counseling.

Timo at School

Much of the film focuses on Jaakko, who has tremendous difficulty accepting Matti’s death. He is obsessed with guilt, and with the pain Matti no doubt suffered. His brother-in-law, the doctor, assures him that Matti would have suffered pain for no more than ten seconds. Jaakko seeks to inflict pain on himself, but his own true pain is the pain of not knowing how to proceed.

Jaakko, Marja and Timo

At one time, Marja tells Jaakko that he needs to be weak so that they can be weak together. She is right that he needs to be weak, but the truth is that they cannot be weak together. It is by some logic of their relationship that, without understanding this, they manage to take turns for each other. Jaakko kept the family going in the first weeks after Matti’s death, but now Marja is stronger and newly confident. On the surface, Jaakko is now falling apart, but it is his defenses that are slowly but surely giving way. He almost takes a job in another city, so far has he failed to come to terms with his son’s death, so far has he failed to grieve.

There is an important scene between Jaakko and his father when he tells his father he is going to take a job in another city, and he will be at home only on weekends. Henrik tells him that God will forgive him, but that he must also forgive himself. Jaakko replies articulately and forcefully that all is chance and meaninglessness, and that his guilt is his mind. He cannot hope for forgiveness from such a god as would permit such a thing to happen. And here we understand why he left the table at Christmastime. He was offended by his father’s talk of peacefulness, offended to the pit of his stomach. But his father now answers him, “Matti is dead. He is not in the bunker; you are.”

Henrik and Jaakko

A number of things bring Jaakko to his grief. He tells Marja that he has accepted the job. Later that evening she says that he will have to tell Timo. It is clear that he will have difficulty doing this. At this time, Jaakko confronts the possible loss of his father when Henrik collapses and is taken to hospital. At last Jaakko goes to Matti’s gravesite. It has been a year since Matti’s death. He has trouble finding the grave. He wants to cry, tries to cry, and cannot. It is not until he leaves the cemetery and feels the sunshine hot upon him and hears the wind in the trees, that the weight of the past year begins to lift from him. Something has let go.

Jaakko at the Cemetery

Back home, in a scene that is powerful for its starkness, Jaakko reenacts the events of the day of Matti’s death. There is no one around. We have heard his description of these events in the opening scene of the film when he gives his report to the police. It is a year later and he is now, with a psychological urgency, acting them out.

When Marja comes home, she finds him sitting in the chair she was sitting in very early in the film, when she was at her worst and he was holding things together. Now it is her turn to be strong for him.

Jaakko and Marja

"For the Living and the Dead" captures several aspects of the complexities of adjusting to the loss of a loved one. It is elegant and completely without sentiment. Sounds are used to good effect. And the passage of the seasons is beautifully marked with images of trees with colorful leaves in autumn, and foliage coming to life in spring, This motif is combined at the end of the film with a final scene of Timo who has, himself, come to a place of peace.

Kari Paljakka
 Director’s Word

The story of the Karf family caught my interest during an interview documentary on the TV1/FST channel in Finland. In a surprisingly frank and coherent manner Gösta and Marita Karf described their feelings and the phases of their year of mourning, having lost their youngest son in a shocking accident.

I contacted the family and told them I wanted to make a film about their experiences. A long, rewarding scriptwriting process together with the family commenced. They described their story individually, as well as all of them together. I wrote, visited their hometown, Pietarsaari, on the west coast of Finland to read them the different versions of the script, listened to their comments, wrote again. All this was four years ago.

It was obvious from the very beginning that everything they had gone through would not fit into the film. Already at an early stage I had a decision to make: Should I concentrate on depicting the family's internal psychological processes of grieving or the failure of society's every imaginable safety net the family had to face after the accident. The accident that befell the Karf family in Pietarsaari in 1986 was the case that gradually launched the concept of nationwide crisis therapy.

I chose to focus on the family's internal psychological processes of grieving. I have myself lost two brothers in separate accidents. Perhaps one of the reasons I wanted to grasp the subject was the desire and attempt to understand the loss my parents had suffered. The story of the Karf family is the story of each of us. A loss and the necessity of letting go will, sooner or later, touch every one of us.

My wish as the director  of "For the Living and the Dead" is that our film might encourage people to face life in its all-encompassing diversity, in joy and in sorrow.

Note: For many years, Lois Siegel taught at John Abbott College (Montreal).
Once upon a time, John Kerkhoven was one of her English Literature students.

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