Songs from the Second Floorrecommended viewing

Your ghosts will catch up with you
★★★★★
☆
Released: 
2000
Director: 
Roy Andersson
Starring: 
Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson, Bengt C.W. Carlsson, Torbjörn Fahlström
The Setup: 
Semi-surreal series of vignettes on how crazy the world is.
Discussion: 

A reader who liked The Saragossa Manuscript recommended this as being in somewhat of the same vein, and it sounded interesting, so to the top of my list it went. Then, upon reading the worlds “in a near future” on the label, I was all ready. Mmm, anything in a “near future” is all right with me. Except maybe Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.

We open with our most main of the characters, Kalle, having a business meeting with a guy who is lying in a tanning bed. Then an epigraph: “Blessed be the one who sits down.” We see Kalle get ready for work, then the first of the many striking scenes: a long hallway, doors on either side, each ajar just a bit to see someone eavesdropping on the other side. In the center a man has been fired after 30 years, and is dragged down the hallway as he clings to another man’s foot. We have some exterior scenes, and see that this movie’s version of futuristic is just to film extremely bleak, verging on postapocalyptic cityscapes, framed in such a way to bring out repeated geometrical patterns. We see Kalle call someone sitting in a room, a man without pants standing by the window, watching the endless traffic going by on the freeway outside. As we will discover soon, everyone is evacuating the city [for no reason we are given], leaving the city center empty and all roads out a barely moving traffic jam.

The small, barely-related series of tableaux continues. A man at a magic show really gets sawed in half. Everyone is extremely pasty and pale, essentially looking like corpses, some more than others. A scene begins with Kalle in the subway, a choral score on in the background. Then suddenly everyone on the train opens their mouths and sings the score. Kalle goes into a sparsely-attended bar, traffic jam visible in the window outside, and says that his entire firm has burned to the ground. Furthermore, he’s the one that set the fire. He meets his son, who has gone insane. There is a long scene set inside the burnt furniture store, but soon our attention is drawn to a crowd of people walking by outside, pausing every few minutes to flog themselves. We’re starting to notice that every little vignette here is done in one long take. In some segments, people seem to be talking nonsense, but in with emphasis and rhythm, as though they were saying something meaningful.

At one point two seemingly homeless men meet at an abandoned intersection in the deserted center of town. We are starting to notice that a lot of shots have one thing going on in the foreground, as a person, who will be prominent in the second part of the scene, slowly walks toward us from a long distance. This guy bangs a pipe on a lamppost, and suddenly a bunch of very strange-looking rats come scurrying out from under the garbage at his feet.

A man is lying in a train station, screaming, with his hand caught in the door. The crowd gathered around him calls him “clumsy.” They finally free him, the crowd disperses, and we see Kalle there. Everyone leaves, and he is along with this guy Sven, soon revealed to be a ghost. They are approached by a young man, noose around his neck, who keeps repeating the same thing in a foreign language Kalle can’t understand. Sven explains that the guy and his sister were hung, but that the guy never got to apologize to his sister. Now he walks eternally around, but can’t “do” anything about his situation, because both he and his sister are dead. By now we’ve started to notice that a lot of the dialogue centers on ghosts who “can’t do anything,” and living people who repeatedly ask “What can I do?”

SPOILERS > > >
The following won’t really spoil the story, as it were, but are quite striking moments that, if you’re going to watch the movie, you should probably just experience without knowing what’s coming.

There's a boardroom with a long conference table, 24 people in dark suits seated around it. One of them is shuffling through a notebook, looking for some documents, as the others slowly pass a crystal ball from person to person. Then one of them freaks out that the buildings around them are moving. The entire group is suddenly thrown into a huge panic and tries to rush out of the room.

Then we see a girl of about eight in a room surrounded by about 50 men, with a woman in the center talking to her, telling her that the men around her have read so much, and know so much more than her. In the next scene, the girl, blindfolded, is brought to what looks like a quarry or something. There is a crowd of about 500 people watching, and a group of people in papal garb to one side. The girl is brought to the edge of a precipice—then shoved off.

The final sequence is a total stunner, but I don't want to tell you too much about it. It takes place in an impressive vast wasteland outside the city, with a man throwing out a truckload full of useless crucifixes, while a group of people slowly approach from far in the distance. Then Kalle recognizes one of the ghosts from earlier, and screams at them to go away. He throws a can at them—and something that BLEW MY MIND happens just after. The ghosts, led by the young girl we saw go over the cliff, approach, and Kalle finally just lets them. He has, literally, given up and stopped running from his ghosts.
< < < SPOILERS END

I watched this in two parts. During the first part I was intrigued, but maintained a little distance, and found the dreamy, nonsensical nature of the whole thing putting me to sleep. I was expecting to just finish the thing so I could send it back, but was surprised to find myself really involved and moved during the second half. Though it may seem like we keep getting new characters [and thus can't get attached to any of them] there does turn out to be recurring characters and narratives that continue throughout. Aside from being technically astonishing just for the amount of coordination involved, not to mention the art direction, the whole thing is both intriguing, a little funny [apparently some people came in expecting a comedy—and were extremely disappointed], and more than a little horrifying. At times I was certainly thinking this belongs in the horror section. Scenes begin in one way, and often find a way to take a turn in a way that is surprising and a little shocking.

So the whole thing has been described as a cinematic poem or even a painting. It has been described as "Slapstick Bergman," although I found it much more grim and horrifying than funny. Intellectually, it all seems to revolve around how in the modern world [advanced just a nudge into the future to make its characteristics more distinct] people don't connect with each other, are markedly unhealthy, are on edge and wearied by business to the point of complete shutdown, are horrified by each other, feel little to no spiritual warmth or meaning, and modern life is just a series of dreary, near-impossible tasks that you have to repeat until you die or just give up. The thing is so evocative, without ever coming out and making any direct statement, that everyone will be able to find their own connections in each of the many vignettes.

The director, Roy Andersson, is well-known in Sweden as a director of innovative commercials. The music here is by Benny Andersson, of Abba. No word if they're related. The trailer on the disc is a short shot from every one of the vignettes, in the order that they appear in the movie—it's like a short little version of the movie. It's funny, between this, Catch-22 and Alphaville, I've had quite a run of dreamy films with endlessly reductive and splintered narratives.

So anyway, if you're looking for something thought-provoking and artsy, and/or you just love dystopian films or critical views of the modern world, this film is definitely worth seeing.

Should you watch it: 

Yes, but expect more of an art piece than a cohesive story.