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On Being Human: Roy Andersson Reflects the Dark Humor of Existing

Roy Andersson Filmproduktion AB

When I asked him the ridiculously broad question “When did your interest in capitalism begin?” filmmaker Roy Andersson, director of Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living furrowed his brow, admitted it was a difficult query, and offered an abstract answer. “What do I want, with all this filmmaking? I want to make something which gives respect to human beings,” he said. “One of the main themes in my work is humiliation. I don’t like it. I hate to see it.”

Andersson’s latest film, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, took top prize at the Venice Film Festival last year—one of the highest honors in film.1 With uneasy clarity, the film shows a twin universe that regularly humiliates its inhabitants; there is something recognizable about each character’s drabness and commonplace misery. These people—aged alcoholics, lonely tango instructors, maudlin ship captains—border on grotesque. Their apartments are painted in the same sepulchral tones as Andersson paints their faces: a range of colors, from expired butter to mildew and cheap plaster. It’s black Scandinavian comedy, stemming from Andersson’s unique grasp of aesthetics: Without being fantastic or surreal, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence manages to diverge enough from reality to let logic slip quietly out the door.

This bleakness stems from Andersson’s suspicion of the modern liberal state. Ten years ago, critiques of capitalism and modernity seemed quaint in light of the more immediate horrors of American imperialism, several intractable wars, and Dick Cheney. In the aftermath of the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street, though, when a dense work like Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century can break out of economic departments and onto the New York Times best sellers list, Andersson’s films feel like a necessary tonic.

This might explain the recent surge of interest in Roy Andersson’s work, both from audiences and his cinematic peers. Last week, Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan) and Alejandro Iñàrritu (Babel, Birdman) presented A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence at New York’s Film Forum, where it will show for several weeks. Andersson himself was visiting the city, and he kindly agreed to talk with me about his work.

In person, Roy Andersson is very unlike the characters that populate his films. His round, boyish face flushes when he talks about something that excites him, like the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas or the amazing depth of field digital cameras can convey. He’s constantly smiling or chuckling between anecdotes, and, at 72, isn’t weary or blasé. In fact, despite the gallows sensibility of his work, he is genuinely optimistic about the human condition.

After his critically acclaimed debut in 1970, A Swedish Love Story, Andersson made Giliap (1975), which, in his words, was “a big flop. ” “And so I was left out in the cold,” he told me.

While producers iced him out, he found a receptive audience in making commercials. For most filmmakers, advertising is either an unpleasant step on the ladder towards a feature, or a mercenary concession to capitalism. For Andersson, though, commercial work represents a significant part of his career and expresses his artistic and moral vision. A commercial for cheese features a miserly father who complains to his wife when she buys a thicker cheese slicer. His lottery commercials mock old men who inconvenience others to watch the numbers announced. When I asked if poking fun at people who might buy the products ever upset the companies he was working with, he shook his head. “Because people found them funny,” he said, “I was given very free hands.” 

After making commercials for fifteen years Andersson began to feel stagnant, and he contemplated leaving film entirely. Instead, though, he decided to develop a more abstract style, one in the vein of Fellini and Buñuel. “My commercials continued to be accepted, and that allowed me to build a studio, the one I used to produce my films. I was very fortunate,” he told me. 

The result of this transformation—crystallized in his “trilogy about being human” Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007), and A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2015)—are some of the most captivating, idiosyncratic moments that exist in cinema. Every element reflects Andersson’s worldview: The contemplative distance of his shots are equally drawn from Bruegel the Elder and Weimar-era Neue Sachlichkeit; the long takes are an attempt to give each character an equal share of our attention. Andersson’s dialog seems to derive as much from absurdists like Beckett and Stoppard as it does from poets like César Vallejo. The pale faces of the actors are an homage to classic European clowns and Noh theatre because, according to Andersson, they’re more universal. “They are individuals but they represent the audience,” he said. “When actors play with white masks and say words behind these masks, the dialogue becomes central.” There is something about these pallid faces, largely of non-professional actors—Sam is played by a man who used to work at a rehab clinic and as a sailor—that resists the fetishization of beauty. It charges the cinematic atmosphere. 

If the way a Roy Andersson film looks is what strikes you first, it’s their cryptic messages that linger. Although his work undeniably pokes fun at the way society is structured, it rarely does so directly, as in satires like Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). Rather, every visual choice, every strange, sad, miscommunication that takes place, draws our attention to capitalism’s shifting emotional and moral terrain. Jonathan, one of the two main characters in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, is a poor salesman in part because he fails at treating his customers as a means to an end: If they say they are poor, or they are not interested, he moves on. His companion, Sam, is tougher and brusquer, but is an equally poor salesman for his lack of charisma. They live together in a flophouse and their relationship recalls other fraternal comedy duos, like Laurel and Hardy, Vladimir and Estragon, and Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. 

Early in the film, before we’re introduced to Jonathan and Sam, there’s a scene where a man has died of a heart attack after buying lunch. The first question Andersson asks: What to do with the food? The way the film moves so quickly from death to food reminds us that the former is objectively mundane, and that life does go on. In the end, the captain decides to give the food away for free, an offer accepted sheepishly by an onlooker after a brief silence. In another vignette, a son wrestles his dying mother in a hospital bed for a purse full of family jewelry. It pokes fun at the desire to die with items that only the living can use, but it skewers the son’s avarice—he would deny his own mother’s dying wish for money. The cumulative effect: Andersson suggests that greed, materialism, and callousness are immoral, yes, but also risible.  

At least once in every Andersson film, the incisiveness of his critique stops our laughing cold; his need to look directly at the worst parts of our nature that leads to some of his most difficult scenes. In directorial ambition, they’re close to Catherine Breillat’s use of sexual violence in her films (expertly done in Fat Girl.) They grab the audience and unflinchingly portray an evil that exists and that continues to exist—unlike something like Game of Thrones, which uses rape or torture merely to make us feel bad for a character and show that some characters are evil. Andersson has a nobler goal, pointing out that violence is intrinsically a critique of the society that birthed it. In his most recent film, he presents us with a ghastly metaphor for slavery in the form of a nightmare: A crowd of khaki-clad white men with guns lead a chained group of black slaves into a machine which they then light a fire under. A crowd of well-dressed spectators drinking champagne listens to the ensuing peal of misery.

“When I read Martin Buber, he gave me hope that reconciliation is possible for such things”, Andersson told me, after I mentioned that scene. “If you committed a crime against existence, you must strive to do good, and this must continue in other times and places.” It made me wonder what concrete good could be done. What gestures could even come close to redeeming white Europeans for the sins of King Leopold or Hitler? Andersson doesn’t offer an answer.

The focus of the scene above feels more like an indictment of the audience’s apathy (both on and off screen) than an exhibition of suffering. It asks: Are you comfortable with letting great evil happen right in front of you? Andersson never tells you how you should act—he lights his fire and leaves you to scream. 

But he is aware of his limitations. Film is not philosophy or political science, and well-intentioned works are always in danger of sliding into pedantry. Andersson makes films that attempt to provoke skepticism in the audience and mount a critique of the way we live. “I don’t want to call myself an artist,” he admitted, “but I work with artistic tools, and art must be in the service of humanism. You can never create good art without that respect and ambition.” 

That kind of serious statement might fool you into forgetting the films are supposed to be funny. You’ll spend a lot of time laughing at situations and people you might normally feel bad for, but to call this Schadenfreude would be an injustice. We’re meant to laugh at other people’s suffering, but only out of recognition. It’s humor that comes from being reminded of your flaws and frailties, and their absurdity when observed from a distance.

  1. Winning a Golden Lion brought both Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray to international prominence.