The Magic Box: An Introduction to Roy Andersson’s World

From Maupassant to Fellini

It all began in the summer of 1969 with a twenty-six-year-old young director just barely out of the Swedish Film Institute who got the opportunity to direct his first feature-length film, En kärlekshistoria that in the US was distributed under the title A Swedish Love Story. Little did he know that his film debut – a story of rare beauty inspired by the French and Czech New Wave – would soon turn out to be major popular success and remain on the shelves of video stores just as much as in the memories of Swedish people even for the next forty years. The courtship and budding relationship of the two affectionate fourteen-year-old teenagers, Pär (Rolf Sohlman) and Annika (Ann-Sofie Kylin) is narrated in a unique way not only becasue it bears the marks of Roy Andersson’s personal style but also as the love story of the protagonists is portrayed with such an incredible, touching innocence against the background of their disillusioned parents and relatives struggling with their shattered dreams, stagnating relationships and the harsh reality of everyday life, that it strikes a chord even with present days viewers who are able to recognize the characteristic patterns of their own adolescence.

As the film’s plot is deliberately lacking the usual structure and elements unfolds with a graceful, natural flow, it touches upon the most common yet the most poignant features and events of two amorous young people’s lives.

The shy attempts of trying to approach each other, hanging out with the ever-smoking moped gang dressed in leather jackets, the vibrant summer parties and visiting each other’s parents all contribute to a brilliant setting in a way that for the younger generations who were not around yet at the time of the production entering the film’s atmosphere may feel like stepping into a time machine and witness this remarkable Swedish version of the „swinging sixties”. The audience and several critics claim though that the pureness of the youngsters in the shadow of their arguing, disappointed parents, the rather trivial snapshots of their everyday lives are merely providing a shell for the storyline, and by illustrating the underlying deeply-rooted tensions, the social climate of the era the creator conveys a subtle but rather strong criticism directed at both the welfare society of Sweden and the selfishness of human society in general, allowing this masterpiece to function on a more complex level as well.

Just as in the other four major productions of the director labeled with the nickname ‘slapstick Bergman’ by Village Voice, this work contains all the hallmarks of his later films even though they may seem quite different from each other at first gaze: the elements of the bizarre or grotesque influenced by Italian director Fellini, the subtle humour, a caricature of Swedish culture and society, a sharp critical tone are all present in each of his works, as well as the traces of his literary education moving on an impressively broad scale and his longtime ambition to become a professional writer. Among his masters he lists Maupassant, Hjalmar Söderberg, Stig Dagerman, Dostoevsky, Beckett and O’Neill but he also admires the works of the contemporary directors – for instance the films of Fellini – and draws his inspiration from the Czech and Russian films made during the sixties that he admits to have blown his mind. As it has been revealed in several of the interviews made with him throughout the years – including the one he gave for SVT Filmkrönika around 1970 -, he prefers working with non-professional actors and spends a lot of time trying to find the most fitting characters for the specific scenes. The script is never hundred percent finished as he enjoys to leave some ’white pages’ and tends to re-write the dialogues after spending some time rehearsing with his actors. These dialogues are often rather short and require a great amount of craft and skills to be delivered in a proper manner. As he has shared in an interview, during his earlier years, during the time of his growing interest in theatre and acting, he had the marvellous opportunity to direct Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekov during which he had the chance of working with well-known names in the theatre’s realm. As he was already then making attempts to lean away from the outdated, traditional kind of Swedish acting schools and establish his own distinctive style – just as much as Chekov is considered to be one of the earliest representations of modern literature -, his curiosity led him to intentionally look for those instinctive reactions from his actors’ part that did not have to do anything with professional artistic education or previously mastered acting techniques – strangely, his endeavors were more often than not were met with astonishment and disapproval from the members of his crew.

While wading through the selection process for En kärlekshistoria Andersson was actively searching for young actors, ordinary but naturally talented people possessing an extremely strong presence, a quality he thought to be essential to be able to form the characters of the film with great authenticity.      

Vignettes of the Absurd

Following the unexpectedly huge success of multiple award-winner A Swedish Love Story, Andersson found that the naturalism and realism introduced in his very first feature film did not prove to be sufficiently exciting and could not be continued anymore despite the fact that he was constantly urged by the producers to make sequels which only made him depressed and induced him to cancel his original plans. Refusing to get stuck with the old formula and starting to experiment with new styles and ideas instead, the director who became drawn to the abstract and planned in the field of visual arts as well, realized that inside he had always preserved a condense, abstract side of himself that now he could bring to the surface. As a result of this process, his second film drama about a man who takes a job at a run-down hotel, Giliap was born in 1975. Although he managed to substitute light humour with black comedy, it soon became obvious that the audience was not yet ready for the reception of the new voice he had just found and the piece turned out to be a financial failure with seemingly fatal effect on his career that made him take a break for over twenty-five years. During this time he dedicated himself to the production of hundreds of commercials that helped him shaping his unique technique and find an activity of more creative freedom.

In 1981 he established his own studio and film company, Studio 24 in Central Stockholm where he up to this very day continues to pursue his commercial works.

A quarter-of-a-century after Gilliap, in 2000 Andersson came back from his artistic exile with his third feature film, Sånger från andra våningen (Songs From the Second Floor), partly influenced by avant-garde Peruvian poet César Vallejo (1892-1938), which he had been working on since 1996. The production managed to win the Jury Prize at Cannes and became an international critical hit, the first piece of a trilogy written and directed by him. Here Roy Andersson repeats the structural features of A Swedish Love Story and exaggerates the absurd nature of the characters who once were gazed upon through the looking glass of Pär and Annika in his debut film and now through an endless snake of surreal corridors, metro wagons, dreamlike landscapes and traffic jams in his third feature-length work. An atmosphere of deep anxiety is added to the tragi-comical layer as the viewers imagine themselves sitting next to the worn-out middle-aged man haunted by a Russian boy killed in World War 2 or experience the last moments of a little girl who is about to be sacrificed in some kind of mysterious rite for the well-being of the surrounding world.

Having said this, listening to the robotic, cliché-like phrases, watching these brief scenes with no real beginning or end, all taken with a static camera – this weird, stylised tableau of clown-like, weather-beaten, dead-pale figures wearing grey coats and dealing with sadly humorous situations – one cannot help but giggle from time to time even though it is clear from the beginning that these human wrecks, wretched, suffocating products of modern everyday life serve for anything but to trigger laughter. We may experience a similar feeling of guilt haunting us as we read certain short stories by Anton Chekov, just as if we were about to meet the modern version of the civil servant so familiar from the fiction of the Russian writer or the unlucky John Hellberg (Bertil Norström), Annika’s dad in En kärlekshistoria whose laments over his unsuccessful life at the refrigerator company, his wasted years and never materialised dreams are delivered in a strangely comical way during the crayfish party scene where under the influence of alcohol he finally admits his deepest sorrow in a form of a lengthy rant. Despite the soft humour sweeping through the film, Andersson still preserves a touch of sympathy, an obvious humanism towards his protagonists whom he portrays with a great deal of seriousness and loving care. It is enough to think of Pär’s old widower grandfather (Gunnar Hossiander) feeling isolated in modern day Swedish society and at the same time tearfully declaring the heartbreaking truth that “world is not constructed for lonely people” while the  nurses accompanying him smilingly pretend to listen to his detailed account of his fifteen-year-old grandson. On that day, a woman in her early thirties, Annika’s aunt (Anita Lindblom) gets discharged from the very same hospital, probably following an episode of depression. Later on, in a monologue to her niece she elborates on the mistaken career choices she has made throughout her life along with her growing anxiety over the feeling of being single and rootless while the camera is mainly focusing on Annika’s fresh face reflecting a sort of strange immunity to the complicated problems of grown-ups.

Decades later, in the seemingly different Songs From the Second Floor the same miserabilism repeats itself on a larger scale and with a merciless depiction of modern day aspects of life. According to the opinions of certain critics, the film basically envisions our everyday apocalypse where misery, guilt and frustration become so universal that they are impossible to avoid.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

The Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Songs From the Second Floor was followed by the second and third part of the trilogy, Du levande (You, the Living) in 2007, consisting of a series of dark comical sketches, and En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (The Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence), a comedy-drama made in 2014. As several of his other movies, the latest one is also said to have been inspired by a painting from 1565 depicting a wintertime landscape with birds sitting on tree branches, The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Andersson interpreted the birds’ activity as watching the humans below, wondering about what they may be doing. At the 71st Venice International Film Festival the movie was awarded with the Golden Lion for the best film. The work has also admittedly been influenced by the neorealist film entitled Bicycle Thieves (1948) by Italian director Vittorio de Sica.

In this eccentric mixture of burlesque and tragedy – starring Holger Andersson and Nils Westblom – the sketches are centered around a salesman visiting Andersson’s home town, Göteborg, short encounters with death. Juggling with pain and laughter, coating the pictures in otherworldly colours, the director’s clear message and everlasting longing for „a society where one shares, and feels responsibility towards others”, his wishing to show „what it means to be a human being”once again shines through and reaches out to future generations of cinema aficionados.


CategoriesFeatures Issue 8
Judit Hollos

Judit Katalin Hollos is a Hungarian teacher, writer, translator and freelance actress. She was educated at Budapest University, majoring in Swedish literature and language. Her articles, short stories, poems and translations have been featured in Hungarian and in English in anthologies and literary magazines both in Hungary and abroad.