Roughly 50 minutes into Songs From the Second Floor (2000), director Roy Andersson decides to move the camera. Pulling slowly back, the shot moves only enough to accommodate the rather large figure of Kalle (Lars Nordh), who could very loosely be considered our protagonist, as he is slowly followed by a shuffling old friend. “I thought you’d committed suicide” Kalle declares to the man. “That’s right”, the man replies, offering up his gouged arms for the other to inspect. The joke is that the dead are almost indistinguishable from their living counterparts, such is the joyless manner in which they go about their lives.
Andersson’s film is a comic tone-poem of vignettes, each exploring the loneliness of contemporary living, the absurdity of tradition and the collective guilt over Sweden’s Nazi sympathies, despite its declaration of political neutrality. Although there is no discernible storyline, we frequently return to the unlucky exploits of the aforementioned Kalle and his family, including his institutionalised son, driven mad through writing poetry – it is this poetry (actually that of Peruvian poet César Vallejo) that is the film’s only real through-line, as well as the source of the film’s epitaph ‘Beloved be those who sit down’.
However, Songs From the Second Floor often visits marginal characters, such as the 100 year old general who confusedly tells his visitors to “give his regards to Goebbels” or the day-to-day tribulations of a company man who has been partially sawn in half by a stage magician. Each scene unfolds in a bleached, deep focus master shot, resembling the paintings of René Magritte and Edward Hopper made flesh. Andersson exemplifies Chaplin’s assertion that ‘tragedy is a close-up, comedy a wide shot’, with every cut serving as a punchline as we are introduced to each concurrently nightmarish and hilarious composition.
The film, even in its stillest moments, engages in a constant dance with its audience, testing their MTV-saturated patience levels and puncturing spells of inactivity with peripheral sight-gags. Continually inviting the viewer to scour both the frame and the facets of meaning, Songs From the Second Floor is not simply a formal exercise or a vehicle for oblique visual comedy, but a passionate work that can quickly turn on the complacent viewer.
This belated release from Artificial Eye treats the viewer to three making-of featurettes, focusing on the execution of two standout set pieces and a look at the entire creative process. Andersson comes across as a warm character, seen personally congratulating each background extra upon the completion of a difficult crowd scene and, in a wonderfully endearing moment, absent-mindedly miming the lines of dialogue as they are being performed, a look of childlike awe on his face as he sees his world realised. He has just cause, too. Songs from the Second Floor is a minor masterpiece.