Where to begin with Roy Andersson

With the release of his new film About Endlessness, we pick a beginner’s path through the despairing, absurdist universe of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson.

About Endlessness (2019)

Why this might not seem so easy

With only 6 features to his name in a career that spans more than 50 years, Roy Andersson does not seem to be the most productive filmmaker. But first impressions are deceiving, because he directed over 400 commercials (often hilarious) as well as a number of short films, among them the powerful World of Glory (1991), which provided the first inkling of Andersson’s new fascination with the absurdity of human life and our collective ignorance in the face of history.

Andersson’s latter-day feature films are instantly recognisable for their stylised presentation and painterly approach, with a static camera filming tableau-like arrangements of people against staged settings. Andersson has always been a big fan of painting and has striven to make films that fix the viewer in time and space, just as a painting would. He’s especially taken with the often gruesome canvasses of German expressionist Otto Dix (1891-1969), whose art focused on the brutality of war, its traumas and effects on German society. But there are also clear influences of Edward Hopper and his empty tableaus, which show the alienation and solitude of modern life.

And it’s this that makes Andersson’s films not an easy pill to swallow precisely because they are so much like paintings. There is a lot of waiting involved, both for the characters and us viewers. They are also shot through with dark, absurdist humour. Andersson’s films are everything but escapist. They are a long, hard look at ourselves. Critic Roger Ebert famously described the films as following a logic of despair with no hope in sight. 

Andersson’s new film, About Endlessness – centring on a pastor who has lost his faith in God and wonders what to live for – is no exception. Even more so than in his previous films, here Andersson takes a look at the burden of what has been and what is, and at our attempts at dealing with it.

The best place to start — A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

Even though Andersson’s films played at major international film festivals throughout his career, it was the Golden Lion for A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence at the Venice Film Festival in 2014 that brought his work to a wider audience. Whereas World of Glory had an explicit historical context – the Second World War, particularly the Holocaust – Pigeon is much more focused on the here and now, on the heaviness of being and the folly of existence.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014)Studio 24

It’s an excellent entry point to his specific style, as well as to the deadpan, dry humour that courses through his work. Its 46 tableaus are lightweight, funny (except for a single scene) and make you laugh about yourself. The 2 salesmen, played by Nils Westblom and Holger Andersson, who try (unsuccessfully) to sell their new vampire teeth or other supposedly funny gadgets are simply a joy to watch, despite their growing despair in the face of their failed attempts to cash in on their new products that should make people laugh. Alas, no one is laughing. 

Once you have spent almost 2 hours in the company of Andersson’s peculiar personages, it won’t surprise you at all that the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, which dedicated a retrospective to the director in 2015, titled its season It’s Hard to Be Human: The Cinema of Roy Andersson.

What to watch next 

Pigeon is the third part of Andersson’s ‘Living trilogy’, which began back in 2000 with Songs from the Second Floor. It was here that – after a 25-year break from making feature films – Andersson began to create his distinctive new style. Every scene is carefully staged, its sets are elaborately built over several months in a studio and the specific lighting makes the actors and actresses appear as pale as can be. This lighting penetrates every inch of the frame, never creating shadows for the characters to hide in. Andersson’s films don’t conceal; they lay open the full breadths of human emotions. 

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)Studio 24

“It’s not easy being human,” one character says in the film. When Kalle, played by Lars Nordh, picks up a wooden cross at a business fair to uplift his failing business – it’s the year 1999 and with the upcoming 2000th anniversary of Jesus’s birth, a business partner has told him that there will be a run on crucified Jesuses – he becomes an icon of every single character in Andersson’s films: desperate, tired, empty, but holding on. 

It took another 7 years before Andersson reappeared with this next film. The middle part of his trilogy, You, the Living (2007), is much more organised around a narrative thread. There’s a psychologist who has given up counselling people because he believes people can’t be helped. He only prescribes pills now. A barber shaves off a client’s hair in response to the latter’s open racism. A teacher suffers an emotional breakdown in class. Meanwhile, a military band playing uplifting music is never far away, regardless of how absurd the situation is.

You, the Living (2007)

With each new film in his trilogy (and beyond), Andersson becomes a little more explicit, a little more direct about the human condition, but he never teaches or preaches about what we should do better. His films only show us that Shakespeare was right: all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. 

Where not to start

Aged 27, and only a year after graduating from the Swedish Film Institute, Andersson directed A Swedish Love Story (1970), his first feature film. Following 2 teenagers discovering the beauty and pain of love, the film fits a much more conventional mould but proved a big success for the young director. Selected for the 20th Berlin Film Festival and chosen as Sweden’s entry to the Oscars, its reception encouraged him to continue on his path as a filmmaker.

A Swedish Love Story (1970)

Five years later, he presented Giliap (1975), which was a commercial and critical flop. After overwhelmingly negative reviews in and outside Sweden, Andersson disappeared from feature filmmaking for quarter of a century to focus on making commercials instead. 

These 2 early films are crucial parts of Andersson’s filmography, but they bear little resemblance to the absurdist films he’s now known for. As with Hungarian director Béla Tarr, whose early social-realist trilogy showed glimpses of the director’s later style, Andersson’s initial films could be considered a training ground for his later pieces. It was only after the turn of the millennium that Andersson’s cinema really took flight