Kaurismäki Brothers Take One for the Road as Their Bars Face Eviction

It’s time for last orders at Corona, Dubrovnik and Kafe Mockba, as the legendary Helsinki complex, co-owned by Finland’s best known directors, will close down for good in June. After undergoing complete renovation, the building on Eerikinkatu will then be turned into a hotel.

The decision to serve eviction notices to one of Helsinki’s most beloved spots provoked a general outcry. Sadly, it is now final, with Andorra Culture and Entertainment Center – consisting of Corona Bar, Dubrovnik and Kafe Mockba, as well as movie theatre Kino Andorra – shutting down its long-serving doors already in June. “There was nothing to be done” – explains Nuppu Koivu, who has been working there for 17 years. Scoring a part of a waitress in Aki Kaurismäki Berlin Silver Bear-winner “The Other Side of Hope” somewhere along the way. “The owners of the building decided not to renew our contract, there will be a hotel and we are not wanted back. Nobody wanted to leave.”

Starting in 1987 with Kino Andorra, the original idea expanded five years later with the addition of Corona Bar. Founded by Aki and Mika Kaurismäki, Erkki Lahti and Kari Pulkkinen, what was supposed to be just a small lounge bar soon evolved into a pool hall after the adjusting wallpaper shop vacated some space. “The premises were bigger than what we originally planned, so we added pool tables. But soon the bar became so crowded there was no room for us to sit down, let alone play ourselves” – jokes Mika Kaurismäki. “Corona was the first bar in Finland that didn’t have a doorman, which was obligatory at the time. The authorities gave us a special permission and soon, all the other bars followed. This place changed many things in Finland. It was avant-garde.” Dubrovnik, now known as a “public living room”, came shortly after, owing its name to a leftover sign from Aki Kaurismäki’s 1996 film “Drifting Clouds”.

“If you ask me, one of the reasons why it has been doing so well is that it hasn’t changed all that much,” says Koivu of the invariable interior. “There is nothing too fancy about it and everyone likes it this way. When we wanted to get some new chairs, Aki decided we should just take the ones from his last movie.” Needless to say, the staff appreciated such a laidback approach. “When my father died, we held his memorial in Dubrovnik. I think it says something about this place.” “It’s like Disneyland for happy decadents,” adds writer Lauri Timonen, whose love for the iconic watering hole culminated with the role of a Corona bartender in a never-released indie. “One can just spend the whole day moving from one spot to another, without having to deal with the family and Donald Ducks.”

Kafe Mockba, a Soviet-style bar brought to perfection by production designer John Ebden and spotted in the likes of “The Man Without a Past” and “Three Wise Men,” arrived in 1993. Once Corona became too popular for its owners. “We didn’t even put the name outside and there is still no sign today. During the first weeks we didn’t even bother to open the doors,” says Kaurismäki. “They wanted some peace and quiet, but that idea went haywire since it developed into a cult classic,” deadpans Timonen. That was mostly thanks to many attempts to make it horrible, experienced first-hand by the late Anthony Bourdain offered “sandwiches from yesterday” during one of his outings for “No Reservations.” “In the early days they had a printed list of instructions for the staff to be as rude as possible. But they are too wonderful, so it became a game where everybody’s smiling on the inside while performing a semi-cynical Lou Reed routine.” And as for that dreaded menu? “As dry and dusty as it is, it’s actually life-saving. It was a first-aid kit for the lost souls.”

With memories around every corner, from photos of actor Matti Pellonpää, the Jussi statue won by Silu Seppälä for Mika Kaurismäki’s “Zombie and the Ghost Train,” or a jukebox found during the making of “Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses,” it’s no wonder that the whole complex saw many cultural initiatives in its midst. Not to mention illustrious guests.

“There are photos of singer Rauli Badding too, as Aki and I have used a lot of his music. He appeared in my feature ‘The Worthless,’ says Kaurismäki. “As for Silu, he used to be a regular customer. When he moved to another city, we decided to hang the poster of the film to make it seem like he is still around.” “We made one movie in Germany [“Helsinki Napoli All Night Long”] and the Wall was still up. But there was this place called Café Belmont – always open, with people doing whatever they wanted. I think that was the idea behind it,” laughs Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen. “After a day of shooting, we would always go there and play pool.”

“That’s where I met Japanese tourists, coming just to see Matti’s photo, Irene Jacob, Bill Pullman or Michael Nyqvist. Jim Jarmusch used to hang out here when visiting Finland,” recounts the Finnish director.

“But one of the most memorable moments was when The Alexandrov Ensemble, also known as the Red Army Choir, came to baptise Kafe Mockba. They filled their mouths with vodka and then spurted it all over the walls, and sang traditional Russian songs. We never washed the walls after that.” “As far as best stories go, there are two kinds: the ones I can’t remember and the ones I can’t tell. It’s like in “Casablanca”: everybody comes to Rick’s,” adds Timonen. “It doesn’t even seem strange to spot international stars: “Oh, there is Werner Herzog” or ”that’s Stanley Kubrick’s brother-in-law, isn’t it?” It’s the ordinary madness of days drifting by, no Hollywood bullshit, just beer, art and humanity. The Holy Trinity, if you will.”

As the place enters its final days there is nothing left to do but reminiscence. But Mika Kaurismäki is adamant the story isn’t over just yet. “Of course it’s sad for us and our customers, but the good news is that we are going to continue. The bars and cinema will live on, just at a different address” – he says, assisted by Timonen: “The dark forces of profit-orientated neo-capitalism are always stronger than the faint voices of pure-hearted drunks. Modern times I guess, or maybe a more fitting movie reference would be the wrecking ball at the end of Fellini’s “Orchestra Rehearsal.”

But not to get too misty-eyed, I have an unfaltering faith in the Kaurismäki brothers and Erkki Lahti. They will find a new spot and the heart and soul of the bar will remain unaltered. That’s a “brand” nobody can break.”

Corona Bar and Kafe Mockba will close its doors on Eerikinkatu on June 16.