“Beloved be those who sit down.”
“People have wondered how to classify my film. Absurdism or surrealism? What the hell is it?… This film introduces a style that I’d like to call ‘trivialism.’ Life is portrayed as a series of trivial components. My intention is to touch on bigger, more philosophical issues at the same time.”–Roy Andersson, DVD commentary to Songs from the Second Floor
DIRECTED BY: Roy Andersson
FEATURING: Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson
PLOT: Set at the dawn of the millennium in a nameless city that seems to be undergoing an apocalyptic panic—traffic is at a standstill as people try to leave all at once, parades of flagellants march down the street, and the Church considers returning to human sacrifice—Songs unfolds as a series of brief, seemingly unrelated, vaguely surreal scenes. Eventually a main thread emerges involving a family: the father’s furniture business has just burnt down, one son has gone insane from writing poetry, and the other son is a melancholy cab driver. The father enters the retail crucifix business and begins seeing ghosts.
- The film was inspired by the verse of the relatively obscure avant-garde Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892-1938), whose poem “Stumble between to stars” is quoted in the film. Anyone who thinks Andersson is obscure would do well to avoid Vallejo, whose work—with its invented words and grammar and difficult symbolism—recalls James Joyce at his most impenetrable.
- Songs from the Second Floor was Andersson’s third feature film, and his first since 1975’s Giliap. He spent most of the intervening time directing commercials, although he did complete two highly regarded short films.
- Andersson discovered Lars Nordh shopping for furniture at an IKEA.
- Many of the exterior shots were actually shot inside Andersson’s studio with trompe l’oeil paintings or three-dimensional models as backgrounds .
- All scenes are completed in one take. The camera only moves once (a calm tracking shot in the railway station).
- At the time of the film’s release reviewers consistently marveled that none of the scenes had been scripted or storyboarded beforehand. The method here shouldn’t suggest that Andersson simply made up the film as he went along, however, as unused footage shows that each scene was meticulously rehearsed and refined dozens of times, often on incomplete sets with stand-ins for the actors, over what must have been a period of weeks or months. Andersson says they sometimes shot twenty to twenty five takes per scene to achieve the perfect performance.
- The film took four years to complete.
- Songs from the Second Floor tied for the jury prize at Cannes in 2000 (the jury prize is the third most prestigious award after the Palme D’Or and the Grand Prix).
- Andersson followed up Songs with You, the Living [Du Levande] (2007) (also Certified Weird). The two movies are extremely similar both thematically (the comically apocalyptic mood) and stylistically (made up of intricately composed, brief vignettes). Andersson has said he intends to create a trilogy; however, he has suggested that the third film may not follow the same style as the first two.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Fat Kalle standing at a deserted crossroads by the pile of discarded crucifixes, gazing at the figures approaching on the horizon, is an image worthy of European arthouse greats like Buñuel or Fellini.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: There are a few moments of magical realism in Songs from
Scene from Songs from the Second Floor
the Second Floor, involving subway commuters bursting into classical verse and the matter-of-fact appearance of ghosts, but even if these interludes hadn’t been included, the movie would feel strange because of the high artificiality of Andersson’s style: the static camera, the constant crowds of expressionless figurants gazing dispassionately at the action in the foreground, the carefully controlled compositions filled with background detail. Adding deadpan absurd black humor, bleak existentialism, and a sense of looming catastrophe into the mix produces a singular concoction, one that captured Sweden’s—and the West’s—mood of anxious despair as the new millennium dawned.
COMMENTS: Songs from the Second Floor uses deep focus—the photographic technique that ensures that what’s happening in the background of a scene is as crisply rendered as what goes on in the foreground—as innovatively as any movie since Citizen Kane. In Songs, what is happening way off in the distance is frequently more interesting than what’s transpiring right before our eyes (as when the parade of flagellants in three piece suits passes by outside a window while the main character is discussing relatively mundane insurance arrangements). Andersson draws our attention to the “front” of a scene, but before we know it something from the “back” of the scene bursts forth and amaze us. We realize we didn’t notice it, while it’s been sneaking up on us all along. The film seems meandering, random, and frequently obsessed with trivialities, but by the end it adds up to a complete vision of human life in all its silliness and sadness. It builds to an unforgettable existential climax that ties together the movie’s themes and imagery, leaving one lone man railing helplessly against the mysterious spirits of the universe.
Many of the scenes, even those set on city streets, were filmed in a studio, with perspectives forced to make them look like they extend to a vast horizon. Even interiors are frequently shot in long hallways that appear to extend forever. (One such hallway is an airport or railway terminal where lines of people struggling with huge racks of luggage struggle to cross the short space where the ticket takers calmly wait to pass them through the turnstiles—the exodus almost disappears to a point on the horizon). Every shot, each of which is held for several minutes, is meticulously composed like a painting. Songs‘ visual depth of field mirrors the depth of its ideas. On the surface, it appears to be about ordinary people—businessmen, taxi drivers—in an extraordinary historical situation—some sort of national financial collapse and mass exodus. But the themes roaming about like barely visible ghosts off in the distance are massive and universal. The movie addresses the loss of tradition and the possibility that the past may mislead us, loss of faith in the modern world and the dangers of superstition, the fragility of social structures that may fray and snap when faced with economic challenges, the way individual and communal guilt becomes an almost metaphysical burden, the divinity hidden in the ordinariness of life and the humanity of Jesus, consumerism’s power to disembowel spirituality, and adds a sharp critique of the then-current Social Democratic Swedish government that will go over most viewer’s heads (Andersson tells us in the commentary that certain characters are based on members of the Swedish parliament).
With so many themes, so many possible meanings for the film, what impresses me most about Songs is its structure; in particular, the way it mixes randomness and order. It begins with a man discussing downsizing with his boss (hidden inside a glowing tanning booth), followed by a man leaving for work while his naked wife tries to convince him to take a day off. We next see the second man holding on to the first man’s leg as he drags him down the hallway, begging to keep his job, and then we follow an immigrant who tries to deliver a message to an unknown man in the corporate complex and winds up taking a beating for his trouble. Then a magician tries and fails to saw a man in half, followed by a visit to a hospital where a nurse impatiently asks a doctor when he’s going to leave his wife… and this all occurs before we meet Kalle, the furniture salesman-cum-arsonist who will turn out to be the film’s main character. The movie appears to be wandering around in a set of barely connected incidents united mostly by a consistent deadpan style, but Andersson draws connections between images and themes and segues one scene into the next in such a way that we’re aware there’s an underlying order and purpose to it all—although it’s one we have difficulty putting into words.
Andersson has arranged the movie the way he sees life—as a series of bewildering anecdotes, and at the end comes the horror. Themes, images and characters recur and interweave throughout the story, giving it a sense of coherence and a mysterious purpose. (For one thing, you’ve never seen any movie before with so many scenes of crowds of people standing in the background, silently and dispassionately gazing at the action before them. After a while, it turns into quite a creepy trope). Andersson’s artistry is the hum of an unseen engine. Using a common motif or playing off a closing line or theme, he guides us from each of the individual segments, many of which would otherwise seem disconnected. The movie’s music, a calm, melancholy waltz, often strikes up at the very end of one scene and fades into the next, quietly assisting the transition from one scene to another. Never is this technique more apparent than in the “singing on the subway” scene, where the scene cuts in mid-note from a woman on a train and is picked up by a woman on the telephone in a bar. Then, there’s the moment where Kalle ends a scene by quoting a line of his son’s poetry—“beloved is the one who sits down”—and we are treated to a montage of many of the minor characters of the film, who take a seat at a bus stop, a park bench, a table in a restaurant. Much later, a man gets his hand caught in the sliding doors of a train, recalling another of the son’s stanzas: “beloved be the one who catches a finger in the door.” (These incantations remind us of Andersson’s essential humanism, the fact that he loves his characters even as he torments and laughs at them).
Although the artistry on display is masterful and the issues it raises deep, Songs from the Second Floor is far from a perfect film. The pace is slow, the static camera takes some getting used to, and it takes the movie quite a while to build up a store of connections: the lack of initial correspondences will make many sympathize with the masses clogging the highways to flee this depressing Scandinavian burgh. Though Songs is technically a comedy, the characters inside the film do not realize it; there are no punchlines, no mugging for the camera here. When the stage magician’s trick fails and he accidentally saws into the volunteer, its funny intellectually, but its awkward onscreen, because no one in the audience reacts at all—they all sit and star blank faced at the scene. The funniest parts are delivered slyly and without comment, as when a crucifix salesman turns the Golden Rule on its head to shame a customer who’s short of funds; you may laugh with your head, but not with your belly. Not all scenes work equally, and there are many scenes—often in bedrooms—that are simply, and possibly deliberately, banal, lacking in the cinematic magic that Andersson seems able to conjure up so effortlessly at other times. His dry, deadpan take on the human comedy, and his tendency to raise questions without suggesting answers, won’t sit well with all—well, with most—viewers. But there are just enough great moments to pull you through to the ending, and if you can go the distance, it’s extremely rewarding.
It all comes together in a magnificent ending that ties up the film and for many will redeems it from being a dour, rambling arthouse bore—albeit one with some memorable imagery—into a complete, if mysterious, artistic statement. Kalle, our paunchy putative hero, stands alone next to a pile of discarded crucifixes as tall as a man, attempting to liquidate his inventory after having misjudged the public’s millennial demand for religious icons. Kalle’s been a figure of satire throughout the movie—he’s a cheat (he burned down his own business) and a boor (he can’t comprehend his comatose son’s love of poetry). But, since he’s begun to be haunted by ghosts—spirits whom he can’t possibly help, and who acknowledge that there’s nothing he can do for the dead anymore—he’s gained a bit of our sympathy. Kalle, too, has his cross to bear, and it may not be a simple matter to throw it into the dump like unsold merchandise. As he tries to dispose of his burden, he notices something in the background of the scene, something that has been there all along. He grows angry and lashes out, yelling into the blank horizon, “What can I do? I can’t take it anymore! How much can you ask of a person?” He lashes out, but only makes things worse. Andersson has a chilling and mysterious surprise up his sleeve. It echoes a memorable, but seemingly random, sequence from much earlier in the film, and it gives us further assurances that there is an order and symmetry behind it all, a meaning to the seemingly meaningless; but though we can glimpse an organization and arrangement at work here, we still can’t guess the ultimate purpose or plan—just like human life.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…an ideologically ambitious and cleverly stylish film, with many scenes that linger in the mind – like those of David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – thanks to the economic precision of their ability to disturb. But as Kalle’s world breaks down and horror is added to horror, the film’s purpose – a lugubrious danse macabre stifling hope at every step – appears to drown in its own misery.”–Sight and Sound (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Songs from the Second Floor (2000)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
The New Cult Canon: Songs from the Second Floor (2000) – Another in Scott Tobias’ excellent series for the Onion A.V. club of expanded reviews analyzing the most polarizing films of recent time
Songs from the Second Floor (2000) at Mubi – synopsis, director’s bio, and a few links to reviews and message board discussions
Roy Andersson Filmproduktion – Roy Andersson’s official site (in Swedish) contains an overview of his films
DVD INFO: The out-of-print but widely available New Yorker Video release (buy) comes packed with numerous extras. Besides the original trailer and production notes, there’s an informative subtitled commentary with director Roy Andersson (don’t expect all the film’s mysteries to be revealed, however). There’s also a behind the scenes glimpse at the making of the “rat” scene, three deleted scenes and an alternate take complete with director’s commentary, and three reels of unused footage showing the evolution of three key scenes—the bar scene, the railway scene, and the airport scene.
(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Richard L.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)