*Songs from the Second Floor*: Occupy Stockholm

I recommend this film (from 2000) which I somehow completely missed until now; had never heard about it and the name of the director rang no bells.   Roy Andersson’s first film, A Swedish Love Story, was a hit & won several prizes at the Berlin Film Festival in 1970.   Subsequently his second movie was less successful and he spent the next 25 years as a successful director of commerical ads.  Songs from the Second Floor, his long-delayed third movie, won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000.

The movie is difficult to describe.  Terry Gilliam’s Brazil comes to mind, maybe Lars von Trier’s Zentropa (although I don’t recall that being at all funny).  It doesn’t have a plot, exactly, though does have a few central characters who inhabit what seems to be a nameless contemporary European city within a society undergoing apocalyptic collapse.  Traffic jams last for days, and businessmen stride in unison through the streets, flagellating themselves and one another in rhythm.  The government’s financial technocrats take recourse in soothsayers’ crystal balls and eventually to child sacrifice, which is presented as a thoroughly rational (albeit desperate) last recourse.

Each of the film’s scenes is a kind of stylized tableau that looks very much like a still life.  Here are a few factoids about the film’s creation (taken from this piece, which is good and includes several clips): “The film consists of 46 scenes, all rendered in static tableaux (the camera moves once), and it took about four years to produce;” “None of the scenes were scripted or storyboarded. They were constructed under Andersson’s direction, on two giant soundstages, with non-professional actors;” “Some scenes took as much as five weeks to set up and required as many as 100 takes.”

Our protagonist Palle has cheated his best friend and has burned down his own furniture store for the insurance money.  He moves through the city and the subways with his face streaked with soot from the fire.  His son is a poet who has been hospitalized for catatonic depression. Palle is followed the the ghost not only of his friend (dead of suicide) but of several others, somewhat plaintively trailing him through the city.

He now tries to get by selling crucifixes, but no one is buying.  In the final scene, a fellow salesman angrily unloads his unsold collection, throwing them on a garbage pile, asking “what made me think I could make money on a crucified loser?”  In a sense many of the film’s character can be seen as “crucified losers” within a stagnating European economy that has left them stranded and hopeless.  In an early scene, a man who has been laid off simply grasps his boss’s ankles, repeating “but I’ve been here thirty years…” as his boss awkwardly moves away from our perspective in a long hallway, dragging his burden.

“Ingmar Bergman meets Monty Python” is a line that people keep citing about the film (from the Village Voice I believe) and it does capture the feeling well.  On the one hand, this is challenging foreign film art, with austere style, grim themes, and a forbiddingly erudite range of reference and allusion to film, visual art, and literature (the film begins with a dedication to the Peruvian poet César Vallejo and this line of his is a recurring manta: “beloved is he who can sit down”– his work is given to Palle’s hospitalized, catatonic son.)  But, it is also often quite hilarious and filled with deadpan physical humor and absurdist wit.

I will admit that although I loved it, I started to fall asleep on Friday night and had to stop halfway through, then we finished it on my laptop the next night; I think I preferred it with the greater intimacy and closeness of the laptop in bed.

As the author of the Onion article I cite above suggests, the film, although made 11 years ago, feels very of the moment, very Occupy Stockholm, a depiction of a world/Europe collapsing under the strain of capitalist shock-doctrine tactics, greed, failed economic plans, mass underemployment, magical thinking of a sometimes pernicious kind.  Many of the characters are pasty, overweight white men with pancake makeup that can make them look either or alternately like vampires, or silent-film or theater clowns.  Mechanical rats scurry through the streets.

This was one of our favorite scenes, as inhabitants flee the city, trying to make a train, burdened by their enormous piles of their possessions.  The film is filled with  spectacular set-pieces like this one, in highly artificial, sterile, painstakingly constructed stages.  The laid-off businessmen in their suits struggle, grunting and heaving, to move their piles of junk as their own golf clubs fall down on them.

In what seems an allegory of panicked 21st century neo-liberalism, one of Pelle’s fellow displaced workers, shuffling his possessions like an injured turtle towards escape, shouts to him, “There’s a time for misery… But it’ll soon be over.  Just a few more yards, and we’ll have left this damned dump under the clouds for good!  As free men… Free at last!  And then we’ll only have ourselves to think about.  And we’ll do what we feel like.  Do we not deserve that?  Aren’t we worth it, when we’ve worked so hard?”

Meanwhile the uniformed railway employees wait silently.  We doubt Pelle and his friends will make it.

It is a pretty one-of-a-kind movie!  And, I have a feeling I did not capture this, but hilarious.

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