To describe the work of Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson as ‘quirky’ would be an understatement. His distinctive art style of long takes, static shots, greyed-out palette and a kind of visual stillness blended with absurd events, is the mark of a unique filmmaker. Andersson has himself spoken about his preference for “hyper-reality”, filming each set from a single camera position in order to create static vignettes packed with details. It’s an approach naturally informed by his creation of over 400 adverts.
Despite their distinctive appeal, Roy Andersson’s films are rarely screened in the UK, which made Flatpack’s showcase of his early commercials, shorts and feature film ‘living trilogy’ a very special experience. Two of the shorts, Something Happened (1987) and World Of Glory (1991) were shipped directly from Sweden and screened at Birmingham’s Electric, the UK’s oldest working cinema, on 35mm.
Somali Joshi, curator of the Nordic Film Festival and specialist lecturer at Birmingham City University, was on hand to introduce Andersson’s early work. Speaking about its inherent humanism and the director’s interest in the ordinary man, she described his approach to film “as a vehicle to instill social and moral conscience in the audience”.
After a feature film misfire in 1975 with Giliap, Andersson retreated to the world of advertising, amassing funds to buy his own production studio and gain ultimate control over his creative work. It proved the ideal testing ground for his unique style.
Andersson’s hilarious 1970s adverts for Trygg Hansa insurance could come from a Buster Keaton silent comedy, as moments of farcical slapstick appear suddenly from predictable day to day life. His Lotto commercials share a similar style and are surprisingly candid about the odds stacked against us.
In the 1990s, Andersson shifted his focus on the ordinary man, taking in social conventions. In his adverts for dairy company, Arla, a husband bemoans his wife’s decision to buy a new cheese slicer. It cuts too thickly. “This is a millionaire’s cheese slicer,” he says, “this will be the ruin of us”. It’s all in the straight, deadpan delivery.
In 1987 Andersson took on a more risky project, a public information film called Something Happened designed to stimulate debate about AIDS. It’s a bleak film that develops Andersson’s trademark static shots and long takes to disturbing effect. A misty, empty road lies before us as narration compares panicked public reactions to AIDS with those of the bubonic plague. Aside from the typical advice (abstinence, prolonged fidelity and sex education) all delivered in stark, atypical style, Andersson also challenges popular views about the origins of the disease. Ludicrous professors talking about monkeys and Africa sound like speculating racists with no clear, scientific basis for their views. Most shocking are scenes depicting human testing in the 1960s and 70s on patients who ‘could not say no’. Another long take shows a man being frozen to death in an ice bath as the naked, motionless bodies of earlier test subjects are dragged through a door in the background.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Swedish Medical Board shelved Something Happened (1987) account of its troubling and somber tone. It remained unseen until 1993. As a result, it was with World Of Glory (1991) that Andersson made his way back to cinema, but the short shares a comparable gloomy tone.
Concerned with Sweden’s past, namely the country’s complicity in the Holocaust, it begins with naked women and children being forced into a gas van. A crowd observes as a hose is connected to the exhaust and the van driven around in circles, apparently waiting for its victims to die. That the next scene, which gives us a son lamenting his mother’s terminal illness, underscores the value placed on life.
It also the start of one man’s explanation of his own existence, incorporating his job, car, brother and son, with each description consisting of a single static take. Scrutinising poverty, consumerism and capitalism, it’s both absurd and metaphorical. A son has VOLVO tattooed on his head. Later, the man tangles his business suit over his face, blinding himself. When his wife tells him to ‘let go’ of the screaming inside his head or he ‘won’t make it tomorrow,’ Andersson hammers home the uncomfortable truth that our present is carved from a bloodstained history but life inevitably goes on.
SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR
By the time of feature film, Songs From The Second Floor, in 2000, Andersson’s extraordinary style was well established. The first in an unplanned ‘living trilogy’ that explores what it means to be human, Songs From The Second Floor combines the domestic and financial woes of the ordinary man with society’s economic meltdown. In the background, an eight-hour traffic jam doesn’t move an inch and a parade of stockbrokers flagellate themselves in the street.
Arriving after Sweden’s financial crisis and eerily prophetic of our own economic crash, Andersson positions the camera at the end of an immense table of businessmen. While one flicks through a ream of papers looking for the ‘strategy’ – a document explaining ‘why we can’t afford to work’, something that’s ‘impossible’ to describe – the rest of the clueless executives pass around a crystal ball. They’re clutching at straws, appealing to fate and pandemonium inevitably ensues.
Songs From The Second Floor magnifies the distance between us and them but also takes in religion, death and Sweden’s history. Our main protagonist, Karl, has burnt down his business to claim the insurance money and dreams of selling products with ‘an extra zero’. At his wits end, he’s frequently on the brink of emotional collapse, played beautifully by first-time actor Lars Nordh who teases out both guilt and fear.
The film is strewn with other hapless souls, worn down by life with red eyelids and white painted faces. An immigrant is mugged, a magician’s trick goes horribly wrong and a man gets trapped in a train door. Another loses his girlfriend and winds up homeless while a rich, elderly gentleman finds himself imprisoned in a nursing home despite owning 240 million square-metres of land. Andersson’s is the Vantablack of black comedy, so dark it’s hard to comprehend.
If our own failure to understand the human condition lies at the centre of Songs From The Second Floor, Karl’s son, who ‘wrote poetry until he went mad’, reminds us to value the crusade.
Roy Andersson’s latest film, You, The Living, the final part of his ‘living trilogy’, screens at Flatpack on Sunday 29 March.
Flatpack Film Festival official site.