“In my pictures you can’t hide”: Roy Andersson on humour and truth

Roy Andersson, director of About Endlessness, talks to James Mottram about why mankind must learn from its failures, why humour is essential for survival and how he was inspired by Bob Dylan.

3 November 2020

By James Mottram

Sight and Sound
Roy Andersson

About Endlessness is streaming on Curzon Home Cinema.

In Roy Andersson’s latest – and if reports are to be believed, last – film, About Endlessness, the banal and the eternal nestle almost effortlessly next to one another. One minute, a priest cries to God: “Why have you forsaken me?” The next, a woman fusses over a broken heel.

A series of 32 barely connected vignettes spanning just 76 minutes, the film has a unique worldview that will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Swedish director’s earlier works, such as A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (2014), which won him the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. About Endlessness, which claimed Best Director at the same festival last year, is another melancholic mood piece grappling with our mortality.

It’s a subject that also resonates through Being a Human Person, a new documentary by Fred Scott that chronicles Andersson’s life and work. Yet when I met the 77-year-old Andersson, before the pandemic struck, he was in good spirits. “Humour is necessary for us to survive,” he said, more than once. If this has always been a mainstay of his work, it’s advice that seems even more important in 2020.

What does the word ‘endlessness’ mean to you?

Endlessness? I mean that the existence… as the young man says in the movie, everything is energy, energy cannot be destroyed. It can only be transformed into other forms. But the power order is the same. That’s why he says to his girlfriend that you can be a tomato or a potato. But you cannot destroy it. You must be there. And maybe he will be a potato, but that’s better than nothing!

About Endlessness (2019)

Do you see mankind as doomed to repeat failures?

It’s a pity that we don’t learn from history. That’s a tragedy, especially concerning the conflicts between countries, war and so on. I wonder if we can get rid of these cruel things in future… I’m not sure but I think that we must try. I return all the time to the Second World War; how could they destroy so much wisdom in Germany in 12 years? Hundreds of years of quality – painting, creative writing, architecture and so on. Suddenly, nothing left. Only ruins. It’s a shame. But I hope that we will not have that period again.

About Endlessness features voiceover, linking the vignettes, which was new for you. How did this idea develop?

It’s the first time that I’ve used voiceover; it’s not my style. Now it is. Now I like it. And I must say I was inspired by a lot of [Alain Resnais’s 1959 film] Hiroshima mon amour. In that there is a voiceover: the female main character. She tells sometimes about things not in the picture, but you can hear her voice. And I found that very, very beautiful. And sad also. I’m also inspired by Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’. That’s a very good formulation. He says in the song: “I met one man who was wounded in love / I met another man who was wounded in hatred.” This changing of the view is so nice, beautiful: I met a man wounded in love.

Can you talk about the way you construct your scenes?

Sometimes it’s very hard to describe how I work and what’s important, when I create the scenes. Every scene is a story. A very short story. And I like that very much. For me, it can give you a very rich view on existence, to see all these sides, how to be a human being. Most of the time in features they have maybe two or three scenes from life. But in this case, we have 32, 33, with different characters. There is no main character. Almost no one. The dentist is one. The man in the stairs we see twice.

About Endlessness (2019)

For all the melancholic qualities of your work, do you feel more optimistic as you get older?

I think that you have to. I’m optimistic when I look at children. They are so innocent, playing with fantasy. With puppets. It’s very, very beautiful to look at.

How would you describe your sense of humour?

I hope that my sense of humour is universal, because I think that humour is universal and is a tool to survive. Yeah. It’s beautiful, that we have humour to help us to survive. Sometimes it doesn’t help, but my kind of humour is – I want to be true, describing life and human beings with truth. Without truth, that will be no humour. My kind of humour is dependent on truth. Naked, revealed. That’s why I don’t – nowadays especially – use shadows in the lighting. My pictures are shadowless. Why? Because there is no possibility to hide in the picture where there is no shadow. A shadow can help you to hide. But in my pictures you can’t hide. You are naked.

Is there one film above all that has guided you through your work?

I started my career as a big fan of the so-called Italian neorealism. And I was a big fan of Vittorio De Sica. Especially Bicycle Thieves [1948]. I think it’s a masterpiece. And I wanted to make movies as good as he did.

Which contemporary filmmakers still inspire you?

There are some modern filmmakers, who at least try to find the same kind of humour. Jim Jarmusch – I think his humour is very special. And I like it very much.

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