The Swedish Comedian—An Oxymoron?

Even before we can begin to talk about the films of Swedish director Roy Andersson, you need to look at the images. They are of such uniqueness that I don’t know how to begin to describe them. This minute and a half montage is from his 2000 film “Songs from the Second Floor”. It can easily spawn an hour-long critical exegesis.

I understand that this clip could strike you as no more than the indulgence of an auteur cineaste, par excellence. The film did win a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, a sure marker of critical cachet. But then, there are some (that would include me) who think it should have won the Palme d’Or. However, if you are inclined already to dismiss him as a navel gazing introvert, understand that Roy Andersson is also one of the most sought after directors of commercials in Europe. Here are seven of his commercials:

On a visual level you will note that Andersson’s work is quite static. Any rare camera move demands a near forensic scrutiny. And even beyond that, most of the scenes are executed with a single setup. Each of the shots from the Songs trailer represents a fragment of a whole vignette that may last as much as five minutes.  There are about 60 shots in the entire film. No filmmaker working today, that I can think of, has a style that runs so counter to the manic tics of a visually ADD society.

And yet, Andersson is a comedy director. I know it doesn’t look like it from the content of the images. But maybe this will help. Imagine (if this doesn’t warp your credibility) Ingmar Bergman in conversation with Buster Keaton, in conversation with Luis Buñuel. That’s the closest I can come to describing Andersson’s “style” both in visual and narrative terms. I don’t know if it helps or confuses this question of style to know that Andersson’s favorite painters are both from the Weimar Republic, Otto Dix and George Grosz.

There is a painterly cast to his work, no doubt about it. And this is reinforced by the stylized, even abstracted, quality of the set design.  The environments are not “real”. Andersson’s characters inhabit a visually alien space that looks dissonant as backdrop to their earthbound bodies. These denizens of a near apocalyptic city move sluggishly through rigidly framed rooms and streets much in the way that Edward Hopper’s often-solitary characters are frozen in theirs. Hopper is not a painter that Andersson overtly references but I can’t help but feel there is a shared vision between them. I know this is a slight parenthesis from the direction of this piece (one of the indulgences of a blogspace) but take a few minutes to look at this delicate video, which captures the isolation of Hopper’s world.

I first encountered Andersson’s “Songs” at a screening for the Foreign Film Nominating Committee of the Academy. I remember that it was a weekday night and Songs was scheduled as the second, later, film of the evening. This meant that if the film were a dog, members could sneak out after about half an hour and still qualify as having seen it.  When the film began there were not much more than a dozen of us in the spacious Goldwyn Theater. At the end of the screening there were, I think, three. One was the great art director and production designer Robert Boyle, who at that time was still teaching at the AFI after having had a long and distinguished career in Hollywood. I had worked with Boyle on my final job as camera operator, Winter Kills, photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond. Between 1958 and 1963 Boyle had designed three films for Alfred Hitchcock. The most famous of them is North by Northwest which recently has been beautifully restored in digital 4K by WB’s MPI facility, under the aegis of Jan Yarbrough.

I am not certain what it was that Bob Boyle found as riveting in Songs as I did. Other than the pure strangeness of the characters and the dramatic line, I suspect it was the sophistication of the production design that appealed to him. How could it not? This is a worldview totally defined within the highly art directed confines of a frozen “frame”— the antithesis of Fellini’s manic energy.

But both that evening (Songs did not go on to receive a best foreign film nomination—no surprise) and subsequently, Andersson’s cinematic sensibilities have remained elusive to most Americans. So, it was with a great deal of interest and delight that I read recently that MOMA in NYC is going to have a full retrospective of Andersson’s work mid-Sept. in its “Filmmakers in Focus” series. Roy Andersson himself will be in attendance for several days to introduce the screenings. I will be there to meet him in MOMA’s Titus Theater.

Andersson does not travel very much and he is a private person. It is not easy to find out much about his working method, though MOMA will show a short film documenting the production of his most recent feature You, the Living. I have lots of questions to ask when I do talk to him. Since 1981, when he founded his production company, Studio 24, Andersson has made his films almost totally in his own studio. One of the things I want to discuss is the widely held rumor that his commercials are largely the source of the sets he uses in his features. It is said that he builds sets for the commercials, many of them in a rapidly retreating false perspective and when he has saved enough of them, he is able to recycle multiple sets for the features. This could explain how ambitious the sets are for what must be a very modest feature film budget: commerce unintentionally subsidizing art in the 21st century, Swedish style.

Further, Andersson, like some other auteur European directors (think Bresson and the Dardenne Bros.) does not hire professional actors.  The characters of Andersson’s films have lived-in faces and bodies, not the faces of actors accustomed to the indulgence of spending large parts of their day being tweaked by a team of “vanities”. Even the stooped posture of many of his “actors” traces the engraved lines of life’s travails.

Subtle humor is everywhere in the work, an intangible commodity at best, and the humor of pathos and irony is even more elusive. Look at how few Samuel Becketts there have been in the critical canon. And in film, I think you can make a case that Roy Andersson is sui generis. There is certainly no American director who plows the same terrain.

Although Andersson’s visual style flirts with early 20th century Surrealism (think of the paintings of the Belgians Paul Delvaux and Rene Magritte rather than the word games of the French) he insists that the actions and behavioral vignettes of his characters reflect the quiet desperation of real life. What he says about the seeming agon of his favored painters can be said also of his own cinematic characters. In an interview in the NY Times, Dave Kehr seeks out the simple truth of Andersson’s vision.

“ On the surface you can regard them as cruel sometimes. But behind the surface, there is a very, very sad heart.”  And often a sweetly funny one, I am tempted to add.

As a visual endnote (thank you David Foster Wallace) I point you to two beautiful Youtube videos on the paintings of Otto Dix and George Grosz, Andersson’s iconic referents. These videos are no academic art lectures, just images with music. Yet, the soul-searing trauma of the war with its attendant anger is an insistent theme throughout both artists’ work; it is covered by an empathic cloak, just as in Andersson’s films.

This first video below is a montage of Dix’s WWI images and illustrates the defining scars, literal and metaphoric, that beset Germany as the weak Weimar Republic struggled to stave off the rise of National Socialism. Caveat: some of these images are graphic, disturbing.

And this is a moving montage of Grosz’ societal traumas.

Both of these videos give us a window into the haunting tragedy of Germany during the Weimar Republic with a gutsy immediacy never to be had by historical or literary accounts. These videos are also a richly supporting context in which to approach the singular vision of contemporary life as limned by Swedish director Roy Andersson.

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