Sweating in the dark: "You, the Living" director Roy Andersson gives viewers an aesthetic workout. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Roy Andersson on "You, the Living"

Erik Augustin Palm September 25, 2009

Roy Andersson’s Studio 24 in Stockholm, situated only steps away from posh Östermalmstorg Square, is like a parallel universe in atmosphere and aesthetics. The fact that the most internationally prominent of Sweden’s working-class film directors is operating in one of Stockholm’s most elite neighborhoods is ironic. Or perhaps that’s where he’s needed the most.

Bits and pieces of the beautifully designed props from his most recent film You, the Living (which plays the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki beginning Friday), randomly decorate the studio. In one of the studio’s smaller rooms stands a newly built-up set for Andersson’s recent commercial for the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy in Norway. To date, the 66-year-old director has directed more than 400 commercials, which provide the bread and butter for his creative work. He puts as much serious effort into his commercials as into his feature films and says that people who criticize him for it are hypocrites.

Andersson’s straightforward approach to life and work is striking. He’s an open book, albeit one that bubbles so briskly with ideas that the listener can hardly keep up. No matter how much he chatters on about his ambitions and future projects, the twists and turns of his ideas remain captivating. Another striking character trait of Andersson’s is warmth and humbleness. And thereby he is an oxymoron: he is the vastly complex but unpretentious Everyman, the guy who discusses Schopenhauer over a Big Mac. It’s hard to believe that anyone, anywhere could dislike him. But then there’s the matter of his self-admiration and his sharp criticism of others, which don’t always evoke sympathy in his cultural peers.

It’s almost impossible for other contemporary filmmakers (Swedish or otherwise) to impress Andersson. His personal standards are rigid, and even though this sounds incredibly arrogant—and at odds with his friendly personality—one somehow buys it simply because Andersson is such a scrupulous filmmaker.

After pouring glasses of cold apple juice in the studio’s kitchen, he sat down at his gargantuan desk to speak with me in early July. He reached for his latest release, a new DVD collection of his early short films. Along with his feature films and 30 minutes of selected commercials, these shorts screened at a retrospective at MoMA in New York September 10–18. The retrospective followed the U.S. premiere of You, the Living in late July; Andersson was excited over the U.S. launch. "The reviews I’ve gotten for You, the Living in the States are not bad at all," he said matter-of-factly. But when it came to some of the comparisons, he was not as enthusiastic. To his chagrin, Andersson is often described as almost exotically Nordic. Allusions to "a slapstick Ingmar Bergman" and comparisons to contemporary Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki are common responses. On the other hand, a case could be made that You, the Living’s gray-green color palette, pent-up body language, dark comedy and overall mood of melancholy, are distinctly Nordic expressions.

"I get why people see my movies as being stylistically ‘Nordic’ or ‘Swedish,’" he said, "but I think that my work has very little do to with, for example, Ingmar Bergman or Aki Kaurismäki. Perhaps Kaurismäki a bit more, but he’s not really after the exactness that I’m after in terms of composition and mise-en-scéne."

When asked whether he thinks an international audience can identify with his portrayal of reality, Andersson responded breezily, "Yes, most definitely. For example, in Cannes, in June, during all the press conferences, I noticed that You, the Living communicated as well with Latin Americans as with Asians. Everyone understands the message, no matter where they’re from." However, Andersson agreed that the atmosphere in his movies—particularly in You, the Living and Songs from the Second Floor (awarded with the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2000) create an atmosphere that evokes northern Europe. He also believes that as a Swede he probably captures certain situations differently from filmmakers of other cultures.

"Take the introductory scene of You, the Living, with the depressed small business owner sleeping in his office who is awakened by a nightmare. He represents a very sad case of loneliness, vulnerability, and disillusionment. Put in a Swedish context, with our language and my color palette, the context worsens. If an American would try to create a scene with someone in the same situation it would also be somewhat tragic, but in a very different way."

Andersson developed his now characteristic aesthetic late in his career. In his earliest short films, made during the late 1960s at Dramatiska Institutet, Sweden’s preeminent college for the dramatic arts, Andersson used a raw, naturalistic visual style. Together with a group of other students—among them director Bo Widerberg—he also started the filmmaking collective Group 13, which made the documentary The White Sport about the 1968 protests against a tennis tournament between Sweden and Zimbabwe, which at the time was controlled by its white minority. The director of the institute was none less than Ingmar Bergman, and he wasn’t particularly pleased about Andersson’s political filmmaking. Once, Andersson was called up to Bergman’s office, where the godfather of Swedish film pronounced a threat. "He told me that if I kept on doing what I was doing, I wouldn’t be able to continue as a filmmaker," Andersson recalled. "Bergman was very anti-leftist, and we were all about leftist politics at that time. Anyway, it was an amazing school, where each of us got access to a camera and a bunch of film rolls. There were enormous demonstrations going on, so we went out and captured all of that commotion, which Bergman and the others in charge didn’t really expect. They wanted us to film something much more psychological."

When asked whether he and Bergman had stayed in touch during Bergman’s later life, Andersson replied that they hadn’t. "But I’m honored that a few years before his death, Bergman said that he was really fond of and impressed by my film Songs from the Second Floor," Andersson said.

Clearly, Andersson didn’t follow Bergman’s advice to eschew leftist politics. In 1969 he worked as assistant director to Bo Widerberg on the controversial documentary Ådalen 31, about the notorious military assault on striking sawmill workers in a small Swedish town in 1931. Political commentary has been implicit in Andersson’s work throughout his career, although less explicit in recent times.

"I don’t think one has to have the ambition to make something political," he said. "The important thing is to clarify something, to make a point about something. And when one does that, it naturally acquires political implications."

After his huge success with A Swedish Love Story in 1970 and the devastating critical and financial failure of Giliap in 1975, Andersson took a 25-year break from the film world, at least on the surface. In 1981 he started his now famous Studio 24, an independent film company that over the course of 30 years has evolved into a small film academy. Andersson handpicks young collaborators and then mentors them in the craft of filmmaking. Initially Studio 24 produced only commercials, but gradually Andersson returned to the world of artistic filmmaking, although with a significant shift in visual style and narrative.

"I woke up one morning in 1985 and felt that I no longer could—or wanted to—create realistic scenes. Instead of quitting completely as a filmmaker, I decided to do what I had previously considered bourgeois, namely, to present abstract versions of reality. It was the only possible way forward for me."

When asked about his inspirations and how he evolved the aesthetics that he’s known for today, Andersson replied, "It was the ambition to reach figurative refinement, the one that’s condensed, simplified, purified. I usually say that I want to make movies that are clearer than reality itself. To clarify reality. And I’ve taken a lot of inspiration from painting. Actually paintings are the only inspiration for my aesthetics. Mainly I’ve drawn from the expressionists, and also Van Gogh. He’s the archetype of what I’m aiming for. My two favorite expressionist painters, though, are Otto Dix and George Grosz."

Andersson then sprang to his feet, trotted over to one of the many bookshelves in his office, and plucked out a catalogue of Otto Dix’s paintings. The connection between Dix and Andersson is indeed striking. Reality—elucidated á la Andersson—is characterized by compositions that echo expressionism: grayish colors, meticulously created props, models and mise-en-scéne, and handpicked, idiosyncratic actors that often make their film debut in Andersson’s movies. The first traces of this new cinematic language were shown in his short 1987 film Something Has Happened. It was initially meant to be an educational film about AIDS, but later was rejected by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare for criticizing socially accepted ideas about the origin of HIV and for being stylistically "too dark" for school audiences.

After continuing to develop his inimitable style in his television commercial business and in the acclaimed short film World of Glory (1991), Andersson reentered the feature film world in 2000 with his landmark work Songs from the Second Floor. In You, the Living (2007), the director cultivates his trademark mélange of aesthetics and tone even more. A consistent quality in Andersson’s filmmaking is his social pathos, his sympathy for the weak and his fearless questioning of the powers that be.

Towards the end of our interview, Andersson revealed that he’d already begun a follow up to You, the Living —which will result in a trilogy about the nature of human existence. However, this isn’t something he planned from the beginning. "I am opposed to contrived concepts like trilogies," he chuckles, "as if such a construct should be something remarkable in and of itself." Since both Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living took four years each to complete, he expects to be done with the third film in 2013. When asked its title, Andersson trotted off again, this time to retrieve a sketch of the title that in English translates to "A pigeon sat on a branch and pondered its existence." "Do you think it’s catchy?" he asked. "Do you think it works?" How many other award-winning directors would ask a journalist for his opinion? And how many others would you actually dare to answer honestly?

"I like it, but maybe it’s a bit too long," I said, as Andersson nodded thoughtfully.

I asked him how the last part in the trilogy will differ from the earlier films. "It will be about reflections on existence," Andersson replied. "As if an outer power had a way of observing how people behave and how they live. That’s what the movie will be like."

I pointed out that his other films have this trait. How will this one be different? "The next film will be more detailed when it comes to dialogue," he replied. "For example, it’ll be more intense and sometimes banal. I’ll return to a more plot-based storytelling style, where I’m inspired by literary figures such as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and John Steinbeck’s George Milton and Lennie Small. In other words, one main character that is more or less normal and one side character that is somewhat deviant and in need of help from the first one. The movie will also be characterized by a number of cruel and almost offensive episodes from human history. I will be totally disrespectful of the concept of time. I mean in the sense that I might have people from the 18th century hanging out in a dive bar of today."

In other words, the director’s hilarious dark comedy and persistent slaughtering of sacred cows will continue. Returning to his most recent film, Andersson noted, "One of my favorite scenes in You, the Living is the one with the woman praying and asking for forgiveness not only for herself but for all mankind. It’s a form of indirect criticism of the cruelty inherent in humans."

Despite these characteristics, Andersson has never created his art from a place of darkness. In fact, the opposite is true. I asked whether he thinks that a core principle of his work is belief in the potential for human redemption. "Yes," he agreed. "Take for example the scene in You, the Living with the psychiatrist’s monologue. After a long career he concludes that people really are evil or at least quite unsympathetic to their nature. At the same time, people desperately want to achieve happiness. And the psychiatrist sees the impossibility of trying to combine egoism and happiness. My point as a filmmaker is that it’s possible for people to realize this impossibility in themselves, and if they do realize it, they have a real shot at happiness. I think that everyone carries this prospect within them."

Spoken like a true humanitarian, Roy.
Erik Augustin Palm is a Swedish freelance journalist, graphic designer and musician who writes about visual culture and music for Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet.