For Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, there is immortality in art
Fragments of existence build the absurdist tableaux of esteemed Swedish director Roy Andersson. Each stand-alone vignette in his features over the last two decades evolved from impressions that kindled an emotion within him. Their origin varies. Some reconceptualize scenarios he’s witnessed, while others take cues from fine art.
Via their incisive slant, Andersson winks at the tragedy of mankind, the cruel and preposterous causes for our anguish, the fleeting moments of joy, the evil we do unto others, the relationships we procure, and our inescapable mortality. Inside his impeccably composed static frames our humanity is irreverently scrutinized.
Andersson’s 2014 film “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” which won the Golden Lion (top prize) from the Venice Film Festival, completed his critically revered trilogy on living that included 2000’s “Songs From the Second Floor” and 2007’s “You, the Living.”
Painstakingly crafted under absolute artistic liberty at Studio 24, the cinematic kingdom he erected as a temple to his creativity, they comprise a prodigiously unconventional body of work. Equally as idiosyncratic and existentialist as its predecessors, “About Endlessness,” quite possibly his final film, just opened theatrically in the U.S. from Magnolia Pictures.
Inspired by Scheherazade and the fairy tales in “The Thousand and One Nights,” Andersson’s most recent, darkly humorous, segmented meditation bets on life’s undeletable sources of pitfalls and glories. Like the king who couldn’t kill the Persian princess before hearing the conclusion of her well-spun yarn, the master filmmaker treads on ever-relevant topics to intrigue.
“That’s why I called my movie ‘About Endlessness.’ I wanted to make a movie like this collection of stories and situations that never end,” he said from Stockholm via video call.
Though a bit strenuous for him, and despite having an interpreter on hand to assist, Andersson prefers to communicate his thoughts, as best he can, directly in English. On rare instances, when a statement turns too difficult to articulate, he surrenders momentarily for translation to step in. There’s an implicit value to saying what he means on his own.
Underscoring the painterly scenes in “About Endlessness” there’s a female voice that describes what we see without judgment. And though it might seem easy to point to it as the voice of an ever-present God looking down on our messy ordinariness or as Scheherazade herself narrating, for Andersson there’s no clear significance.
If anything, his narrative decisions, such as dedicating multiple chapters to a priest haunted by his loss of faith, point to a renouncement of organized doctrines. Andersson grew up in a Lutheran household and through this character he sketches an unflattering portrait of a spiritual leader.
“I must confess that I’m an atheist. I’m not religious at all. But I grew up with religious traditions. But myself I’m not religious … at least I don’t think so. But when I say that people tell me, ‘No, you are actually religious,’” he explains mid-chuckle before tacitly admitting to leaning more agnostic.
“Nowadays it’s sad to see that so many religions cannot collaborate. Separatism is so violent and meaningless in my opinion. I think there is only one God and all these religions they also say there is only one God but they want to see themselves as the only one. It’s so stupid,” he added.
The everlasting life we’ve been promised in dogma is to him the permanence of his art. If he enshrines our unalienable truths and relatable miseries then he cannot die. Andersson shoots for immortality by making movies in service of the human experience. “If we don’t trust humanism we are lost,” he said. “Art is the defense of humanism, and that’s why I make movies in my style because they represent that.”
Technology seldom appears in his elaborate creations outside of the occasional cellphone. The cadaver blues and grays that conform his color palette similarly perpetuate the ageless aesthetic he’s after.
“What I want to reach is timelessness and to not be geographically specific. My movies are timeless in many senses. They are like cartoons, they can be anywhere and in any time and I like that very much, because if you are too close to reality from our time you lose the weight of the scenes very soon. For example, one of my favorite books ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Beckett has very banal situations but they are eternal. You can still see them even in our time and they are also important and impressive to see.”
In hindsight, Andersson has realized that he always departs from the same basic notions though each project is later imbued with distinct influences. Therefore all his movies, post 2000, are comparable in scope and intention.
“They can sometimes be comedies, but on the whole my movies are tragic. But it’s also very nice to see that art is a tool to resist hopelessness. With the help of art you can see how nice and beautiful life can be. And that’s enough, even if it’s for a short time.”
To explain his fragmented process, the director recalls a famous author — the specific name escapes Andersson — who would start a novel from a single sentence to which he then added more threads until a cluster of fictional situations became a completed piece. That’s how he sees his own modus operandi.
In spite of the satirical fatalism that dominates, the first situation he envisioned for “About Endlessness” was a scene focused on love, about a young man experiencing romantic attraction for the first time. He sees a young woman watering the plants outside her place of employment, and is awestruck.
“For me that’s an example of a scene that’s enough on its own, you don’t have to put it in a story. I’m not a storyteller. I’m more an expresser. I often come back to art history. Art history is not storytelling. Art is moments, details, signs of how mankind can be. That’s enough. In my opinion it’s not necessary to have a linear story,” he argued.
Given his aversion for plot, Andersson is not fond of episodic television since it requires the viewer to follow a story for a long time. “I don’t like TV series because they just push commercialism and you rarely see independent stand-alone works on TV,” he said.
On “A Pigeon,” Andersson drew its central themes from Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “The Hunters in the Snow.” For “About Endlessness,” the brushstrokes that communicated with him were those of Russian artist Marc Chagall. The film’s most prominent image, featured in the poster, is that of two lovers flying above a city. Andersson believes this particular visual demonstrates his subtle muse diversification.
“I saw reproductions of Chagall’s paintings for the first time when I was a teenager but I didn’t like them at that time, I was more fascinated by realism. Chagall is more… super realism. The flying couple is a scene that very clearly shows how I have changed my sources of inspiration … or attitude to realism. I’m very grateful that I came up with the idea to have this scene in the film,” Andersson explained.
Before opting for cinema as his preferred medium, Andersson wished to be a literary author. The written word seemed more adept to his fascination with philosophical discourse and art history. Still, once he got behind a camera, his first inclination was to follow neorealism with more traditional visual storytelling grounded in the world as it is.
“I started my career inspired by the Italian neorealism. When I was a young filmmaker I wanted to make something similar and better than that. But after many years of work I found that neorealism, and realism at all, is not so interesting. I wanted to find something more condensed. That’s why I found the style of German painter Otto Dix, for example, more interesting than pure realism, because it’s simply more.”
Even if that first foray into moviemaking, “A Swedish Love Story,” differs extremely from his last four, each of which takes him five to seven years to handcraft, in the final throes of that debut one can already discern his unique, farcical voice. He attributes that to an inner transition he underwent in the process of it.
Released in 1970 to great response, both financial and critical, “A Swedish Love Story” follows a teenage couple basking in the perils of first love, as the adults in the periphery struggle with relationships in crisis.
“I’m not the same person in the beginning of production than at the end. That’s what happened there. In that case, the end of ‘A Swedish Love Story’ is more similar to what I’m doing now. I can see more clearly that I changed my style and attitude step by step during the process of that feature. When I made my second movie, it’s so far from that time and style. I changed my style completely, and I wanted to be closer to Otto Dix than to Milos Forman, even if I like his films very much, I wanted to go a step further.”
Such detachment from conventions has led him to the subconscious, where our unedited desires and fears lie. “An idea taken from your dreams is cleaner and more concise than the reality behind the dream,” he said. In “About Endlessness” the priest, the would-be protagonist, has a nightmare in which he carries a massive cross as people whip and humiliate him. It’s an expression of his guilt for dwelling in doubt of the divine.
“For example, cartoons show the essence of an idea, and that’s also what I want with my movies, to present the essence of my worldview,” Andersson added. To achieve that, he often serves as his early production designer drawing sketches of his envisioned sets and camera angles to help his collaborators develop them to his specifications.
The remnants of armed conflicts and colonialism also percolate his vision. Born in 1943, Andersson was a young child during World War II. His father was part of the Swedish army and guarded the border with Nazi-occupied Norway. From him, a young Andersson would hear tales of the German soldiers’ kindness.
Later, aware of the atrocities German committed during what he calls “the age of madness,” he felt ashamed for Europe and human beings in general for developing such brutal mentalities. Taking advantage of the director’s disregard for timeliness, Adolf Hitler and his officers, portrayed as pathetic losers at the end of their rope, make a cameo in “About Endlessness.”
With that in mind, to him the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was a reminder of how fragile our institutions and our individual support systems can be.
“The building blocks in a civilized society, and civilized behavior, is not to be taken for granted, you must take care of them, that I think we have learned,” he said. “The pandemic has reminded us that we are, and the world around us is, vulnerable, if we have the knowledge and insight that we are vulnerable … that’s hopeful.”
A true original, Andersson knows that his career was made possible by his decision decades ago to found his own production company, Studio 24. Despite losing his longtime home in a recent divorce, Andersson still owns the filmmaking facilities. However, he is not certain about the prospects of directing another film.
“I’m old now. I wonder if I will have enough strength to make more movies. I’m not sure. But slowly something in me tells me, ‘Yeah, maybe one more.’ Let me think it over for a while,” he noted.
Last year, a feature documentary about the making of “About Endlessness,” “Being a Human Person” by Fred Scott, expounded on both the artist’s meticulousness and a challenging period in the director’s personal life that is now in the past. “I like [the documentary] a lot. It was a time when I sometimes had a bit too much alcohol but now I have that under better control.” He marches on without a determined direction.
“Now, I’m at the end of my career, so I don’t know what will happen in the future. But if I only have 10 more years, I hope that I can make something that even more clearly describes and declares what I’m saying now,” he said. “Art is one tool that can help us to move further with hope and without hopelessness. For me art has given me power to survive and stand out. Art is very optimistic, that’s my trust.”
The endlessness in the title of his latest treasure-trove of wisdom speaks more to the countless possibilities and experiences in this plane, as living humans, rather than an afterlife. In a sense, this movie is still about living, like the previous trilogy. “Existence is so rich and so full of surprising things, sad things and good things,” he added.
Because of the thought-provoking reflection he poses on the screen, people tend to seek answers to perennial questions, about the hereafter or the purpose of our suffering, in his oeuvre. Although Andersson never fully gives in to cynicism, he doesn’t romanticize the afterlife either. In fact, he doesn’t much care for it.
“I’m very pragmatic and not religious at all. I think there’s no mystery about that. There’s only the fact that if you die, you die. Sometimes people ask me, ‘What do you think is the meaning of life?’ And I say, ‘It’s to live.’ It’s only to live.”