When thinking of Swedish films, the first name that comes to mind is Ingmar Bergman—and his films reflect the generally somber attitudes displayed in Scandinavian mythology and literature. Think of a depressed Odin contemplating his inevitable demise and trying to figure out why the hell he should continue to fight the good fight. Now imagine a scenario where Bergman approaches Swedish fatalism using Gary Larson's Far Side humor in a script acted by the Monty Python troop. That's what we get in Roy Andersson's Songs from the Second Floor (Sånger från andra våningen). Swedes really can be hilarious, in a melancholy way!
Like the old days of silent film, the camera is statically placed in the center, and the actors come in and out of frame in each scene. Adding to the deadpan humor, virtually every scene begins with at least one character blankly staring straight ahead as if waiting for Fate to overtake and overwhelm him. Even the camera and its wide-angle lens gets into the act, optimally using only long and medium shots that give the entire film a feeling of detachment to make scenes like an errant magic trick and a sacrificial child sketch darkly humorous.
“Blessed be the one who sits down.”
Repeated numerous times throughout the ninety-eight minute film, it becomes a mantra to counter the modern world that no longer works—an eight-hour traffic jam has frozen the city and businesses are failing on all sides. One individual owner sets fire to his business, while a corporation's only solution involves human sacrifice. Meanwhile a foreign messenger is pummeled in the street, a poet has gone catatonic in a mental institution while his clueless father rants, and yawns on a subway train turn into an operatic chorus.
Taken individually, each sketch may not make a lot of sense, but collectively they bring a stinging indictment about the human condition and the folly of capitalism. Take the case of the businessman who borrows a large sum of money from a friend. Initially happy that he doesn't need to pay off the debt when his friend commits suicide, the businessman can gain no peace of mind because the dead man continues to follow him ceaselessly. Surreal indeed, but Andersson makes his point. What good are worldly goods without love, without purpose? “It's not easy being human,” remarks one character, and indeed blessed is the one that takes stock of his situation and realizes that Fate is against him.
Blessed also is the one that watches this quirky comedy. Called the world's greatest television commercial filmmaker by Ingmar Bergman, Andersson took four years to film Songs from the Second Floor using non-professional actors in the loosely constructed series of skits that take advantage of his television commercial expertise. Each set piece stands on its own, like an offbeat Python sketch, yet characters reappear in subsequent scenes and build upon their situation—Andersson clearly is in control of the project and gives it his vision.
What he achieves is a memorable film that won't play to the masses, but cognoscenti will acknowledge his work, realizing that its humor isn't mean-spirited and actually incorporates a great deal of humanity. Fortunately, New Yorker Films has picked it up, but screenings will still be hard to come by. The lucky few who check out the film will forget many of the sight gags, but will be haunted by the serious thoughts behind the comedy—that slavish addiction to daily routines only leads to inevitable doom and gloom. Better to take stock of Life and appreciate what's important: “Blessed be the one who sits down.”