Judge Dan Mancini says the jerks upstairs don't even play Abba; it's just a bunch of Swedish pretentiousness.
Beloved be the one who sits down.—César Vallejo
Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson (A Swedish Love Story, Giliap) returns to feature filmmaking after a 25-year period of making innovative television commercials and a handful of short films. Four years in the making, Songs from the Second Floor is a complex, fascinating, and absurdist examination of the inscrutability of human existence and the perils of modern life.
Facts of the Case
On the cusp of the year 2000, a never-ending traffic jam seizes a bleak city.
Lasse, a pale and portly businessman, is abruptly fired from his job after 30 years of service and 14 years without a missed day. Devastated, he grovels at the feet of his boss, Pelle, who is just a bureaucratic cog with no power to restore Lasse's position.
A foreigner walks the streets of the city, seeking a man named Allan Svensson. He's accosted by a gaggle of Swedes and left for dead. Later, his wife and child visit him in the hospital.
Pelle and his lover, Robert, seek to escape the city.
A magician injures a volunteer from the audience when the old saw-a-man-in-half trick goes awry. Later, the volunteer, his stomach stitched, is jostled by his porcine wife's tossing and turning in bed, causing him great pain. Meanwhile, the magician suffers from insomnia as he's haunted by his error.
A pale and portly businessman named Kalle, covered in soot, rides a train. He's burned his own business to the ground.
Lovers Micke and Susanne screw.
Kalle's son, Thomas, is in an asylum. According to Kalle, "He wrote poetry until he went nuts."
A military speechwriter rides in a cab driven by Kalle's other son. He's just written a speech to celebrate the 100th birthday of an esteemed general. The speech declares that life is a road, and our compass and map are our traditions, culture, and history. Later, at the general's birthday celebration, the senile old man asks for Hermann Goering and performs a Nazi salute.
Kalle goes into business with a hard-nosed cynic named Uffe. They sell crucifixes of all sizes in order to cash in on Christ's rapidly approaching 2000th birthday.
An old man worries over a paper he's lost that explains why we can't afford to work. He knows it's important but can't remember its details. All he remembers is that we don't decide such things; fate does.
In his book, Mere Christianity, novelist and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis makes the following claim about the person of Christ: "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us."
Lewis' statement is helpful in understanding Songs from the Second Floor, because Roy Andersson's challenging film emerges out of a lapsed-Christian sensibility, and the writer-director claims the very middle ground whose existence Lewis denies. The results are intriguing. For Andersson, Jesus was not the Son of God; he was only a man who preached kindness; and then he was tortured and crucified. Granted, Andersson puts this formula—repeated at least four times—in the mouth of one of Thomas's fellow inmates at the asylum, but the director's comments on the DVD's commentary track and in the press material make it clear the patient was speaking on his behalf. The problem for Andersson is if Christ was only a man who preached kindness, what motive would anyone have to torture and crucify him? To Andersson's credit, he doesn't dodge the problem but faces it head on, and his solution infuses the picture with its nihilist, desperately tragicomic tone. Christ was tortured and crucified because human beings are congenitally incapable of kindness. Cruelty, in one form or another, mediates every aspect of our interaction with one another.
This bleak outlook emerges in part from Andersson's fascination with the Peruvian poet César Vallejo, who was fascinated generally with social injustice but more specifically with the question of human pain and suffering, often using Christ imagery as the central resonant symbol of man suffering at the hands of his fellow man. Vallejo's politics evolved from Marxism to Communism, and Andersson borrows from him the notion that the inflicting/experiencing of pain endemic in human existence is rooted in the numbing effect of capitalist systems. Stripped of personal autonomy, men become lifeless engines of cruelty toward one another, as when Pelle fires Lasse despite the man's humiliating pleas for a mercy Pelle has no power to grant. Hence Andersson's prominent placement of Vallejo's mysterious statement, "Blessed be the one who sits down," during the film's opening credits. It's a sentiment Andersson doesn't bother to elucidate intellectually, but that resonates throughout the film, suggesting an anarchic rejection—by way of a simple refusal to participate—of the systems of humiliation that govern human interaction. Songs from the Second Floor's pearls of wisdom (or, at least, the blunt statements of the director's own philosophical outlook) always fly from the mouths of characters in the margins: mental patients, vagrants, the dead. These are the folks who have chosen (or have been forced) to "sit down." Since one can't make the case their existence is more pleasant for it, Songs from the Second Floor can't be reduced to an anti-capitalist rant, but suggests instead that our cruelty is deeply ingrained in our natures. For Andersson, economic and political systems aren't the cause of our cruelty (as Vallejo probably believed) but a result of it. As such, there is no collectivist utopia at which the director grasps. The film is unrelentingly pessimistic.
Andersson populates his movie with non-professional actors, grotesques with lumpy bodies in ill-fitting clothes, their faces painted a ghastly pale, their eyes expressing a weary despair. The director doesn't need studied performers because the picture relies so little on dialogue, its intellectual and visceral impact grounded in his formal compositions. Each scene plays out in a single take, and the relative still of both actors and environments gives every shot in the film the precise compositional balance of a painting; freeze the frame and you'll probably be looking at a still that could pass as art photography or a photo-real painting. Visually inspired by the Post-Impressionism of Paul Cézanne, Andersson narrows his use of color to subtle variations of cool blues and greens to reinforce the film's bleak emotional landscape and cast the pale faces of his otherwise drab characters in stark relief. Within the context of this flat world with its economy of movement, the non-verbal portions of the actors' performances require little range. A resigned weariness is the dominant demeanor.
All of this formal precision is effective to the extent that the film does engage both the mind and heart (in a soul-numbing sort of way), provided one is willing and able to jettison any expectation of traditional narrative conceits and go with the flow. As a whole, the film is a collection of absurdist vignettes, connected only loosely or not at all, that refuse to build toward standard revelations of meaning or closure. Instead, the pieces form a whole by resonating against one another, often in a purely visceral way. Trying to parse scenes for symbolic or allegorical meaning will only bring on a headache as the movie's structure is far looser and, according to Andersson, "associative." The film is a masterpiece of tone, however, as nearly every moment conjures depression and black humor in equal measure, and coaxes our sympathy for the characters even as we find them physically and spiritually repulsive. If you're game, Songs from the Second Floor may provide a welcome relief from formula cinema; if you're not, it's liable to feel pretentious and pointless.
The film's one major flaw is its references to the beginning of the new millennium. Viewing it in the context of Y2K (or as a statement about it) has a reductive effect. Not only does it make the movie feel dated and irrelevant—yet another example of the silly doomsday hype littering popular culture in the months leading up to the non-event that was New Year's 2000—but it strips it of its universality. Seen as a parable of the new millennium, Songs from the Second Floor ceases to be a chaotic rumination on the dark nature of human existence, and becomes a science fiction tale of the final gasp of a cycle of entropy that began 1,000 years ago. And how many times have we heard that story?
New Yorker's DVD release of Songs from the Second Floor sports a decent transfer that frames the image at the European academy ratio of 1.66:1, enhanced for 16:9 displays. The cool, washed-out color palette is accurately reproduced, though the image is a tad soft despite an abundance of haloing from edge enhancement. The source print was also fairly dirty in isolated spots. The image quality isn't bad, but it's far from spectacular.
Audio is flat but clean Dolby stereo, in Swedish with optional English subtitles. Unfortunately, the sound design is robust enough to suggest that a surround treatment may have been more satisfying. The existing track is fine for what it is, though.
The disc's primary supplement is a feature-length commentary track by Andersson, in Swedish with a separate set of subtitles. The director proves himself as informative and fascinating as he is pretentious. This is a man who takes his work seriously. Whether you find that noble or grating will be a matter of personal taste.
Songs from the Second Floor was four years in production, and "Work In Progress Scenes" is an extra that gives us insight into Andersson's working methods by showing early attempts at various scenes from the movie. The supplement is a sort of theme-and-variation as each vignette is a recognizable cousin of its analog in the finished film, but is peopled with different actors and contains subtle differences in tone and effect.
The behind-the-scenes featurette is intriguing but poorly named. The piece amounts to two minutes of raw video footage that reveals how Andersson creates the illusion of his harsh cityscapes.
Finally, there is a handful of deleted scenes with commentary by the director, production notes, and a theatrical trailer.
Songs from the Second Floor is as intelligent and well-executed as it is pretentious. It's as mesmerizing as it is unsatisfying. I can't say I enjoyed it, but I wouldn't change a frame. See it for yourself.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Director's Commentary
Review content copyright © 2004 Dan Mancini; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.