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The Swede Hereafter

Roy Andersson‘s Songs From The Second Floor

By Adam Thomas

Friday February 11, 2005

They come from the land of ice and snow

Sometimes the most haunting moments are not memories of what we’ve done, but moments we wished could’ve been done something differently. The guilt of our actions is weighed against the sins of our inactions and what we carry with us is inescapably personal. There is a theory out there, conspiracy or not, that the end of the world is coming. Some people think this final moment of judgment and obliteration will be by the hand of God. Tragically, you know we will just confidently, and business-as-usually bring it upon our selves, and spend the last living moments denying how it got to that point. When that happens chum, no matter whom you’re with…you will be all alone.

Ingmar Bergman’s film The Shame and Roy Andersson’s film Songs from the Second Floor are heavy, bleak films about the end of it all. Not in a “the end is coming, run for your lives” kind of way, but personal reflections on living and the point when that stops being primary to the fact we just aren’t dead yet.

The Shame is Bergman at his most beautifully bleak. Largely over-looked, the film stars Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman as an if only tolerably happily married couple. Set sometime in the not so distant future, in country X, in the middle of war. Jan and Eva have escaped the front lines and have been living in semi-seclusion on an island where they work the land and get on each other’s nerves. Their radio doesn’t work; sometimes, neither does their car. One day, the island is invaded and the comfort and reality of denial they have created is shattered when the war comes literally to their front door. Jan and Eva spiral away from each other as each blames, resents and betrays the person they are supposed to love. We are never told who is fighting or which side is good or bad, and Bergman seems unconcerned with the justification for the horrors and moral choices his characters face.

Confronted with a real threat, Jan and Eva continually attempt to navigate the precarious line of survival by remaining a-political and siding with whichever side is asking the questions. It is because of this incapacity to act, or to have a position that leads to destructive consequences for both and to the haunting last shot of the film.

Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor is a darkly absurd film told almost entirely through still camera shots with the action coming in and out of the frame. While this may sound slow and arty Andersson is ever gifted at creating richly disturbing and carefully constructed scenes that compel you to look even closer. Set against the backdrop of some kind of impending doom, the film primarily follows the emotional disintegration of a guy who burns his own business down for the insurance money and becomes haunted by people from his and other people’s past. With traffic at a stand still, the characters that inhabit the increasingly lonely city are left to deal with each other and their lives as it becomes clear the end is near. In one of the creepiest scenes around we witness a child being pushed off a cliff as a massive congregation gathers to watch, hoping the ritual will stop the inevitable end. In Songs, the end is never in question and it seems irrelevant as to what the end really is. With characters that continually appear more and more ghostly, Andersson’s film is a poetic and darkly drole look at the guilt of our actions and the manner in which we try to get by.

Both films are playing at Pacific Cinematheque this month, but this Apocalyptic double-bill is Feb. 11, 2005 beginning at 7:30 pm.