A man traverses a barren field in the mist, and tethers his donkey to a leafless, lifeless tree before advancing until he reaches the towering exterior of a brutalist building. Shot (by DP Jacob Sofussen) very wide, this opening to writer/director Jonas Kærup Hjort’s feature debut The Penultimate (Den Næstsidste) is a single take, tracking (and therefore centering) the humble Water Inspector (Joen Højerselv), while also reducing him to a tiny figure in a bleak, grey universe. It is one of very few sequences to take place outside – for once the Water Inspector has entered this building to read the meter, he will find himself trapped inside, and struggling for the rest of the film’s two-hour duration (years, in his time) to get out again. Yet the first, exterior scene is not really so very different from the following interior ones. The Water Inspector may initially be in an open space, but its drabness and lack of features match the locations to come, while the squared-off Academy ratio already makes him look boxed in.
The Penultimate is a film of boxes inside boxes. Within the 4:3 framing, there is the building, and within that, a series of plain, identical cubic rooms with metal doors and tiny square windows raised high on the cement-rendered walls. There is also a claustrophobic lift, and inside one room, another even smaller room – a water closet, really – which will later be used as a literal prison cell, much as the whole building is a metaphorical jail for its inmates. The Lady (Hanne Uldal) who keeps entering the building’s front door speaks of narrow spaces hidden behind the walls where Creatures crawl. Meanwhile the older woman (Anne Fletting) whom the Water Inspector half-heartedly makes his Bride and with whom he even eventually has a child, always has with her a little metal box which contains a small universe of entertainments and memories. Indeed, the whole film might be regarded as a small universe. For like the barrelling train in Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer (2013), the residential building in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise (2015) or the vertical penitentiary in Galder Gaztelu-Urrutia’s The Platform (2019), this irrational edifice is a microcosm – although Hjort is concerned less with class hierarchies than with the human condition more broadly.
“Do you think suffering is a necessary part of the human condition?”, asks a mute Boy (Silas Kappendrup) using sign language which the Water Inspector both understands and can himself use to respond. Certainly the Water Inspector suffers, not just from the psychological toll of his repeatedly frustrated attempts to escape, but also from the violent physical attacks of a woman who occasionally rains blows upon him, leaving him in bandages. This woman, known as The Tormented (Malene Melsen), also suffers in her desperate longing for love and family – yet when the Bride offers the Water Inspector precisely those two things, they bring him no satisfaction, so driven is he to leave. His determination leads him on a quest to find the building’s Caretaker, who is said to have a key to the front door, whose attention most of the building’s residents queue night and day to attract, and who – like God – may not exist. Meanwhile the Accountant (Joen Bille) also suffers, haunted – to the point of suicide – by an unresolved bookkeeping anomaly. The Lady, too, whose very name indicates propriety, in fact aches to join the intramural Creatures in all their naked filth.
Unfolding in a place whose barebones furnishings are positively Brechtian, all these characters’ surreal dramas are existential crises, exposing the desires, disappointments and despairs of the human experience. Some residents have found an accommodation with their surroundings – like the Bride, who craves the love of the Water Inspector, but when he withholds it from her, replaces him with their son, building from her love a house of contentment. Trapped as much in his own inability to commit as in the building, the Water Inspector is so distracted by his search for what he lacks that he is incapable of seeing what he has. He goes around in infernal circles, without ever realising that his profoundly selfish, even murderous actions are only making this world worse for him (and better for the next – indeed the ultimate – Water Inspector).
The Penultimate offers up a shabbily absurdist dystopia, somewhere in the grey area between Lewis Carroll and Franz Kafka. Indeed, from the former comes a dreamlike disorientation as our antsy antihero loses himself in a strange world, and a pair of Tweedle-like Twins (Anders and Niels Plougman) who encounter the Water Inspector shortly after he enters the Building and shadow him for the rest of the film as silent observers; and from the latter comes a wild goose chase in a hermetic system, and an actual trial. Hjort’s prologue, four Chapters and epilogue capture the vain human need for transcendence in life’s labyrinth. It is a dark, dour affair – with occasional moments of escapism and epiphany – and its meaning is deferred to a coda where none of the main players is in any position to understand, appreciate or even perceive the ultimate message.
strap: As Kafka-esque dystopian views of the human condition go, Jonas Kærup Hjort’s darkly surreal The Penultimate (Den Næstsidste) is proper (b)ananas.