Thursday, 5/12/2011

Roy Andersson: The Lost Generation of the Welfare State

FILMFEST MÜNCHEN presents all the films of the Swedish master of the absurd and genius of the grotesque.

"When I was young, I was very fond of naturalism and realism, but later I could really see the wisdom in more abstract painting." -Roy Andersson

A patient has to pay cash before the doctor will treat her. The nurse takes her purse and shakes out the last pennies. This bleak vision from a 1985 Roy Andersson commercial strikes a familiar chord with health-care-plagued audiences today. Roy Andersson is a visionary crusader for social justice, a ruthless provocateur of the absurd.

"Roy Andersson is one of Europe's most unique and unusual directors, with his very own, twisted sense of humor," says festival director Andreas Ströhl. "We're thrilled to welcome him and his films this year." FILMFEST MÜNCHEN is showing a complete retrospective of all of Roy Andersson's films, the "slapstick Ingmar Bergman" (Village Voice) and "tragic Groucho Marx" (Roger Ebert), starting with his student films, which were still extremely realistic: VISITING ONE'S SON, TO FETCH A BIKE, and SATURDAY OCTOBER 5. He already found himself leaving the detached, objective observer's role in tennis doc THE WHITE SPORT on the protests and riots surrounding the Davis Cup matches between Sweden and Rhodesia 1968. Andersson and the other filmmakers of the Grupp 13 collective (including Bo Widerberg) took to the streets and wound up in clashes with the Swedish police force during the shoot..

He returned to and perfected the objective, observing style in A SWEDISH LOVE STORY (1970), his first and most commercial theatrical film. It was a teen romance somewhere between A MAN AND A WOMAN and QUADROPHENIA. Seeming spellbound by the rebellious energy of unencumbered youth, Andersson contrasts his young lovers with their materially secure but bored and frustrated parents. For two hours, he stays glued almost voyeuristically to the impossibly pretty faces of his youthful protagonists - Ann-Sophie Kylin was 14 at the time, Rolf Sohlman 15, with the camera lingering a little too long on her miniskirt for today's audience, while he chain-smokes sulkily. It's a film almost without dialogue, like an overlong music video, that leaves its teen actors time to merely fawn and grin at each other wordlessly, as if there were no words for this idealized young love. A SWEDISH LOVE STORY was a box-office hit and won four awards at the Berlin Film Fest 1970. Its success plunged Andersson into depression, however, fearing he would become entrapped by his own success.

In 1975, he followed it up with the absolute polar opposite: The black social satire GILIAP, an absurdist slapstick comedy about the oppressed employees of a run-down hotel, which will most remind modern audiences of Monty Python or DELICATESSEN, heralding Andersson's later surreal-expressionist trademark: The almost viscerally painful scene in which a rich businessman grabs the hand of a drunk trying to bum a cigarette off him in his limousine, traps his arm in the window, extinguishes his cigarette in the screaming man's palm and then tosses the last smokes at his feet, only to have the beggar thank him obsequiously, captures the essence all of Andersson's later work: cruelty as comedy, criticism and catharsis. A starker contrast to the dreamy romance of A SWEDISH LOVE STORY can hardly be imagined. The ruthless send-up of modern capitalism was invited to Cannes, but went over budget and failed at the box-office. It was the end of Andersson's feature directing career for over 25 years. In sum, he has only made four feature films so far.

His public service film SOMETHING HAPPENED (1993) on the topic of AIDS, commissioned by the Swedish health department to be shown all over the country, also became a debacle: Andersson suggested that HIV was spread by secret US experiments and drew parallels to Nazi concentration camp doctors. The film became a scandal and was shut down by its producers before it was finished.

With his short meditation on the horrors of the Holocaust, updated in a modern Orwellian setting, WORLD OF GLORY (1991), Andersson definitively established his expressionistic style of long, static shots, ruthless satire and emotional detachment. The opening scene, in which gray-clad men in suits expressionlessly watch a naked young girl being tossed screaming into a van full of other victims and gassed to death, is almost unbearable to watch. Andersson's strategy seems to be to unsettle audiences through detachment and lack of empathy.

He pursued his device of pointed visual sarcasm in his over 300 commercials, which earned him no less than eight Golden Lions in Cannes and made him famous as an advertising director. FILMFEST MÜNCHEN will present a selection of his best commercials under the title ROYS REKLAM. In an ad he made for the Swedish Social Democratic Party 1985, "Why we should care for each other", a man gathering his things up from the floor is bowled over mercilessly by anonymous passers-by.  A bully who wants to drink his beer in a bar forces a couple to leave their table, only to be driven off by an even bigger bully. And the nurse searches the patient's purse for her last money before she gets treatment: It's every man for himself in this urban jungle.

Andersson brought his dystopian view of a completely dehumanized society to the big screen again in 2000 in his masterpiece SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR, his first feature film in a quarter century. Grey people in a grey airport terminal drag grey luggage to the check-in, presumably longing for some sunny vacation paradise, but can't make headway because the trolleys are too heavy. A magician performs the sawing-a-volunteer-in-half trick, but the volunteer starts to scream in pain. The film makes clear: we are definitely not in Kansas anymore. Rather, it is the land of BRAZIL and Buñuel; its almost speechless characters stoically bear the unbearable, all the way to the human sacrifice of an innocent young girl before the assembled mourners and grandees. At the end, a character chucks crucifixes on the trash heap of history from the back of a pick-up truck, a none-too-subtle metaphor for the postmodern apocalypse.

In order to get his first major motion picture in 25 years produced, Andersson not only had to write and direct, produce and edit, but also founded his own studio and secured Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, French and German co-financing. The surreal comic nightmare won the special Jury Award at Cannes 2000. The wafting, lyrical score, which includes a whole subway breaking into angelic chorus, was composed by ABBA's Benny Andersson, who also did the music for his follow-up YOU, THE LIVING, part 2 of a surrealist trilogy that is to be completed with his current project, A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH, REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE. His new films are extended absurdist parables, collected anecdotes of despair and existential angst. To put it with the depressed therapist in YOU, THE LIVING:

"I've been a psychiatrist for 27 years. I'm completely worn out.  Year after year, listening to patients who aren't satisfied with their lives, who want to have fun, who want me to help them with that. It wears you out, I can tell you. My life isn't exactly a lot of fun, either. People demand so much. That's the conclusion I've drawn after all these years. They demand to be happy at the same time as they are egocentric, selfish and ungenerous.  Well, I would like to be honest. I would like to say that they are quite simply mean, most of them. Spending hour after hour in therapy, trying to make a mean person happy… There's no point. You can't do it. I've stopped doing it. These days, I just prescribe pills. The stronger the better."

Roy Andersson - a bitter pill to swallow, but perhaps the only remedy. FILMFEST MÜNCHEN presents a complete retrospective and a director's Q&A at the Gasteig Black Box, featuring sneak peaks at A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH. Also presenting documentary TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY by Johan Carlsson, who accompanied Roy Andersson for 4 years shooting YOU, THE LIVING.

More on Roy Andersson in the FILMFEST Blog (in German and English) and on the artist's homepage and YouTube channel.

The complete Roy Andersson retrospective at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN

Collin McMahon


Ann-Sophie Kylin and Rolf Sohlman in SWEDISH LOVE STORY: From the romantic idealism of youth... the Kafkaesque nightmare of YOU, THE LIVING.