Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

Director: Roy Andersson


By Marilyn Ferdinand

After seeing this film at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival, I was desperate to see it again. I wrote a couple of letters to New Yorker Films regarding its theatrical and DVD release dates. Sadly, it took more than two years for this 2000 Cannes Jury Prize winner to receive a limited theatrical release in the United States, and another six months for it to come out on DVD. Getting a chance to see this film is almost as arduous a task as life in the bleakly absurd world Roy Andersson has set out for his characters.

Andersson, who began this film in 1996, uses the apocalyptic fears regarding the coming millennium to craft a coal-black comedy about economic collapse in a country that must be Sweden, if we are to judge by his palette of faded yellow and blue, the colors of the Swedish flag, His capitalist implosion is populated by enormously fat, cadaverously thin, and grotesquely misshapen people in a desperate hurry and going nowhere fast.

The bottom feeders of the economic food chain are reduced to massive denial, madness, garbage picking, and arson. One Mother-Courage type decides the millennium is the perfect time to capitalize on the 2000th birthday of Jesus and goes into the crucifix business. “An opportunity like this comes along only once in a thousand years!” he cackles greedily. Ah, the optimism of the seriously deluded! Company managers make for the airports like they are in the middle of the fall of Saigon, while middle managers, left holding the bag, move through the streets as flagellants or worker ants trying to navigate the most massive case of gridlock since the invention of the internal combustion engine.

The tallest pillars of society, the clergy and the government, are the most clueless of all. A desperate furniture salesman named Kalle (Lars Nordh, a nonactor recruited by Andersson in an IKEA store), who has burned down his own store and is trying to bilk his insurance company, goes to confess his misdeeds to his pastor. Unfortunately, the spiritual adviser is busy consulting with his real estate broker about the imminent loss of hundreds of thousands because he hasn’t been able to sell his house, on the market for 4 years and counting.

A meeting of cabinet ministers is near comatose while the finance minister fumbles through a folder of papers looking for the missing short-range economic forecast and the rest of the cabinet passes around a crystal ball. The meeting adjourns suddenly when one of the ministers claims the building across the way is moving and the assembled run to the window to watch. The government’s final measure to remedy the economic crisis is human sacrifice. The only man who seems to have money is 100 years old, living in a steel crib in a posh nursing home, and insensate to the high-ranking military men who have come to bid him a happy birthday.

This description shows the high absurdity of this morbid film, and I haven’t even gotten into the small details that keep the laughs sharp and constant. A magician does the saw-the-man-in-two trick but doesn’t clue the subject from the audience into it and cuts his midsection open. For the rest of the film, the unfortunate magician’s assistant yells “Aie aie aie” every time he moves. Sickly funny. Kalle’s son Tomas (Peter Roth), a poet, is in an insane asylum. Every time Kalle comes to visit him, he becomes furious that his weeping son doesn’t even say hello, and the orderlies end up dragging Kalle out of the ward. Repeated throughout the film is a line Tomas wrote: “Blessed be the one who sits down.” No wonder he went mad. Lack of talent will do that.

In the end, Kalle starts experiencing visions of the dead. This aspect of the film is rather poetic and deepens what could have been a mere exercise in pessimism and the creative skewering of types. Be prepared for a film both superficial and silly, sly and, ultimately, sublime. l

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