Director: Bent Hamer
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Pity the poor efficiency expert. Reviled by wage earners the world over for everything from crackpot work redesigns to hopelessly unrealistic time/motion calculations to massive layoffs in the name of productivity, it’s the rare movie that takes up the efficiency expert’s cause. In fact, I can think of only one film in which these professionals were not the butt of ridicule—Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), in which Clifton Webb’s character is not only honored for his work, but also inspires his wife to enter the profession.
More typically, the efficiency expert’s work, spawned by the Industrial Revolution, is played for sight gags, most often the Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions rigged by everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Wallace and Gromit. Characteristically, perhaps, these send-ups of efficiency in repetitive tasks usually involve men. We forget that the unpaid workers with the vast majority of routine chores to perform—housewives—benefited greatly from the labor-saving designs and devices that come under the larger umbrella of efficiency. Kitchen Stories, set in the late 1940s, offers a wry Scandinavian twist on this blighted profession that doesn’t have much respect for the work efficiency experts do, but acknowledges that they can be pretty decent people, too.
Sweden’s Home Efficiency Institute labors on behalf of the poor domestic worker. Impressive demonstrations of the Institute’s work include a presentation of the results of a study of how housewives move about their kitchens—an elaborate spider web revealing the most heavily trafficked paths that will be used to reconfigure kitchen design. To further these studies, the Institute has arranged to study single men living alone in a small, rural community in Norway. A team of Swedish observers move toward the border in a tidy, evenly spaced caravan of cars pulling small, half-moon-shaped trailers. Once in the Norwegian town, the lead researcher, Dr. Ljungberg (Leif Andreé), must attend to an emergency in Finland, and places his trust in his second-in-command, Malmberg (Reine Brynolfsoon). Anxious to make good, Malmberg keeps a close watch on his charges, who fan out to their host sites, each bearing a gift—a charming dala horse—and intending to be silent observers.
A local, Grant (Bjørn Floberg), leads Folke Nilsson (Tomas Norström) to the farm of Isak Bjørvik (Joachim Calmeyer), who fails to answer Grant’s knocks. Grant advises Folke to be patient. Several days pass with Grant and Folke taking turns trying to persuade Isak to open up by standing on a ladder and shouting into Isak’s second-story bedroom window and another in which Folke’s offering of the dala horse is secreted into the house by a disembodied hand. Eventually, Isak leaves the front door ajar, and Folke sets up his towering observation chair in a corner of Isak’s kitchen and waits fruitlessly for Isak to do something other than drink coffee and leave him in the dark. Making a big mistake, Folke secretly borrows Isak’s salt shaker for his boiled egg and fails to return it to its proper place; the next day, Folke sits in a kitchen strung end to end with drying laundry. However, the ice eventually is broken when Isak, distraught over his horse’s illness, finds he has run out of pipe tobacco. Folke wordlessly tosses his tobacco pouch onto the table, and we witness the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Kitchen Stories trafficks in the incredible sight gags we’ve come to expect from Scandinavian directors, such as Roy Andersson, Aki Kaurismäki, and even Lars Von Trier. Hamer tends to mock contraptions and how awkward they are for the people who are supposed to use them, for example, a breathing apparatus attached to a woman doing housework to measure her exertions or the struggle Folke and Isak have climbing in and out of the stilt chair. Even Isak’s birthday becomes a surprisingly funny experience, as Folke presents his host with a cake made threatening with a forest of lit candles.
Hamer also takes gentle and not-so-gentle pokes at the relationship between the neighboring countries. Malmberg says he literally got nauseous the moment he crossed the border into Norway. Isak upbraids Folke for observing, but doing nothing, just as the Swedes did during the war. Folke answers sadly, “Unfortunately.” And, perhaps a portent of things to come, Folke wolfs down the Swedish delicacies his aunt has sent him by post and ends up vomiting the whole meal on the ground. In the next scene, Isak is happily feasting on these provisions with Folke’s blessing.
The sweetness of the relationships in this film—Folke and Isak, Isak and an increasingly jealous Grant, Isak and his horse—makes this a fascinating and touching look at single men and the bonds they form, even when they are forbidden to do so. One could look at this film, set in the post-World War II period, as a contemporary plea for peace. Or one could simply look at it as another raspberry blown in the face of efficiency and productivity. Either point of view works beautifully.
Ultimately, however, this film works best for me as a meditation on film itself. One night, Green (Lennart Jähkel), a worry to Malmberg because he is fraternizing with his host, comes to Folke’s trailer to see if he has any beer—he and his host have run out. Folke attempts to take a principled stand as a dispassionate observer and refuses, hiding the fact that he has spoken with his host, too. Green curses him and says, “How can we hope to learn anything if we don’t get to know the people we observe?” Watching this film, several odd occurrences happen: Isak lets the phone ring without answering it and says, “Grant is coming for coffee.” Grant comes over for a haircut and takes the clippings home with him. Without Folke’s probing questions about these actions, Isak and Grant would seem rather eccentric; instead we learn that the rings communicate the message without the expense of the phone call and that Grant uses the hair to repair dolls, a skill he picked up in a POW camp. Part of what I love about cinema is that it takes us to worlds we’d never know and asks questions we’d never think of. Hamer seems to recognize the value not only of entertaining, but also enlightening. This wonderful movie accomplishes his aims beautifully and, might I add, efficiently.