Review first published by EyeforFilm
“Everything has its day,” says the CEO Lennart (Bengt CW Carlsson), concealed (but for his bare feet) beneath a sunbed, to his flustered sub-manager Pelle (Torbjörn Fahlström) in the opening scene of Roy Andersson’s Songs From The Second Floor. “This is a new day and age, Pelle – you have to realise that.”
Faced with the imminent collapse of his business empire and the mass unemployment that will inevitably result, this invisible mogul has already decided to take the money and run, contemplating a better life (or should that be afterlife?) abroad for himself in the future once he has put the past behind him. With blithe disregard for those that he is abandoning, he asks, “What’s the point of staying where there is only misery?” – and yet Andersson’s film offers a dystopian vision of the new millennium, where misery, pain, guilt and despair are the universal condition, where escape is impossible, and where, no matter how much anyone tries to turn their back on the past, somehow it always returns.
If everything has its day, then Songs From The Second Floor was certainly a long time in coming. Andersson first discovered the avant-garde Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892-1938) back in 1965, and first read his poem Stumble Between Two Stars while working on his second feature Gilliap (1975). In the early Eighties he began preparations for a documentary feature based around the poem, before concluding that the material would be better served by the medium of fiction. So he established an independent film studio in 1981, and devoted the next 15 years of work (in short films and commercials) to inventing and honing an aesthetic style that would make his unique vision for this third feature possible. Production proper began in 1996, and lasted four long years – but the results were well worth the wait, and would indeed win the Swedish writer/director a slew of international awards.
The film is told in a series of stylised, hyperreal tableaux, unfolding in indifferent wideshot before an unmoving camera whose very distance helps convert all the tragedy of human experience on display into a very singular brand of dark comedy. Hence the mannered grey makeup worn by the performers – for while this may reflect their status as spiritual zombies lost to their own moral damnation, it is also the familiar mask of clowns, and all these characters are both the living dead and comic chumps. So it is that when, in one sequence, a stage magician (Lucio Vucina) accidentally saws into the belly of his hapless volunteer (Per Jörnelius), eliciting immediate cries of pain, we share the fictive audience’s initial instinct to laugh, even as we are horrified.
Some of the film’s episodes are self-contained vignettes, while others feature an ensemble of recurring characters in the orbit of Kalle (Lars Nordh). Having just torched his own furniture business, this corpulent, middle-aged salesman must deal with sceptical insurance adjusters and find a new outlet (viz. crucifixes) for his flagging spirit of entrepreneurship, even as a strong sense of guilt, both personal and collective, keeps creeping up on him.
Meanwhile Kalle’s eldest son, the poet Thomas (Peter Roth), suffers in silence in a mental institution, leaving his sensitive younger brother Stefan (Stefan Larsson) to pick up the pieces and hear the depressed confessions of passengers in his taxi cab. In the background of all this grief and anxiety, Andersson reveals a grimly absurd vista of societal breakdown, where acts of racist violence go unchecked, traffic jams go on forever, suited flagellants mortify themselves in the street, the dead walk among the (almost) living, panicking financiers resort to crystal balls, and a virgin is publicly sacrificed in a last-ditch effort to fend off not just economic ruin but the end of days.
“Beloved be the ones who sit down,” reads on-screen text near the beginning of Songs From The Second Floor, cited from Vallejo’s Stumble Between Two Stars – and it will recur, along with other lines from the poem, several times within the film itself. At first there might seem little room for poetry in Andersson’s nightmarish picture of a venal, gloomy and bleakly prosaic metropolis whose only poet, Thomas, whether driven mad by his work or by the world, has been reduced to inarticulate muteness.
And yet, like the ghosts of the dead that continue to haunt Kalle’s heavy conscience, or like the buried Nazi past of the superannuated general (Nils-Åke Olsson) that resurfaces in a torrent of Tourette’s-style outbursts (à la Dr Strangelove), poetry just keeps coming back. Even in a setting as banal as a commuter train, Andersson’s drab characters are apt to burst into choral song (magisterially scored by none other than ABBA’s Benny Andersson).
Much of the film’s poetic humanism derives from the word ‘beloved’ that forms a refrain in Vallejo’s poem. For while Andersson may offer up a monstrous parade of vices and vulnerabilities, he invites us to love his gallery of rogues precisely for the flaws that make them – and all of us – so human. A key, repeating image in the film is of different characters perched on the end of their beds, making each and every one of them “the ones who sit down” – but it is a phrase that rather pointedly describes any viewer as well, ensconced in cinema or on sofa. After all, Andersson’s story of frailty and folly is our story too – and at the end of the extraordinary 10-minute single take that closes Songs From The Second Floor, the look that Kalle gives straight to camera implicates us all in the film’s haunting return of the repressed.
Put simply, the everyday apocalypse envisaged in Songs From The Second Floor is a wonder to behold, an idiosyncratic humanist allegory without parallel in cinema – unless, of course, you include Andersson’s equally astonishing follow-up You, The Living (2007), with which it forms the first two parts of a projected trilogy on the “inadequacy of man”.