Songs from the Second Floor is one of the most extraordinary films that I have ever seen. Released in 2000, it represents the Swedish director Roy Andersson’s surreal and disturbing meditation on the emptiness, absurdity and alienation he sees permeating western society at the turn of the millenium.
How to describe this film? Monty Python meets Ingmar Bergman? Jacques Tati meets Luis Bunuel? Perhaps the easiest way to begin to explain this film is to say that it consists of 46 shots in which, with total precision, Andersson positions his actors as if in a tableau, their movements limited and always remaining within the frame. With a perfect sense of tragi-comic timing, Andersson presents a series of vignettes that each have the concentrated brevity of an advert, with all the associated visual imagination and surprise that is characteristic of a form in which you must grab and hold the viewer’s attention. In fact, before making films, Andersson was a renowned director of television commercials in Sweden (see below for a YouTube compilation of some of these hilarious videos).
Behind the weirdness and the black comedy, you soon realise that Andersson has a serious purpose. He is depicting the collapse of a soulless consumer society, where monolithic buildings dwarf humanity and human relationships – in families, at work and in public places – are absurd and grotesquely alienated.
In 46 vignettes we move through a city inextricably caught in unending gridlock, chancing upon an assortment of empty, unfulfilled or troubled lives. Some kind of apocalypse appears to be unfolding in slow motion: flagellants weave among the stalled vehicles that endlessly fill the city streets. In one scene, in a massive airport terminal, people fleeing the city struggle to haul their massive cartloads of luggage a few yards across the concourse. They are literally burdened by the weight of their lives.
There is a character who appears in many of these scenes; Kalle, a man who sets fire to his ailing business for the insurance money, is played by Lars Nordh, who, in a situation that somehow seems appropriate, was choosing a tablecloth in Ikea with his wife when he was spotted by director Roy Andersson who thought he looked perfect for this impassive character. After the fire, in one of the film’s most haunting scenes, Kalle appears on the subway with his face covered in ash. As he stands expressionless in the crowded car, the people around him sing a silent song as a chorus (written by Benny Andersson of Abba) swells on the soundtrack.
Kalle’s eldest son is in a mental institution, having, in his estimation, ‘gone nuts through writing poetry’. Each time Kalle visits him, he has to be manhandled from the room, raving against his son’s obsession with poetry. Later, when he tells a clergyman of his plight, the man of God evinces little interest, burbling on about his own difficulty selling his house at a profit. Kalle meets a businessman who believes that the catastrophic times will lead to a resurgence of demand for crucifixes. In the final scene, having failed to find a market for Christ on the cross in various sizes, the entrepreneur is seen hurling them onto the city refuse dump yelling, ‘How can you make money from a crucified loser?’.
Elsewhere, a clerk with years of loyal service has been abruptly fired and clings to his boss’s ankle as he leaves the office building for the golf-course; a man who speaks in a foreign accent is brutally attacked while bystanders watch impassively; a magician somehow gets the sawing a man in half trick badly wrong; and a young girl is sacrificed in a bizarre ceremony by a tribunal of religious and business elders. The scene in which the child is sacrificed is an embodiment of the overall theme of the film: every part of society has become subservient to the capitalist economy. Lined up as the girl is led to the edge of the cliff are representatives of the church, business, the trade Unions and political parties.
Through each scene snakes the endless traffic jam and through cars process the flagellants. There is an oppressive sense of a city grinding to a halt, and of numbed people who have abandoned themselves to fate. Beneath a surface veneer of cold satire, Andersson tugs at empathy for these hopeless characters who stand for every type of social ill, injustice, and human weakness. He seems to locates what hope there is in the character of the young man who has gone insane from writing poetry that no-one wants to buy.
The first words that appear on screen (and which, unhelpfully, are not translated in the English subtitles) form a dedication to the early 20th century Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, quoting a line from one of his poems, ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’. The line is repeated several times in the film: ‘Beloved be the ones who sit down’.
There are people so wretched, they don’t even
have a body, their hair quantitative,
their wise grief, low, in inches;
their manner, high;
don’t look for me, the oblivion molar,
they seem to come out of the air, to add up sighs mentally, to hear
bright smacks on their palates!
They leave their skin, scratching the sarcophagus in which they are born
and climb through their death hour after hour
and fall, the length of their frozen alphabet, to the ground.
Pity for so much! pity for so little! pity for them!
Pity in my room, hearing them with glasses on!
Pity in my thorax, when they are buying suits!
Pity for my white filth, in their combined scum!
Beloved be the sanchez ears,
beloved the people who sit down,
beloved the unknown man and his wife,
my fellow man, with sleeves, neck and eyes!
Beloved be the one with bedbugs,
the one who wears a torn shoe in the rain,
the one who wakes the corpse of a bread with two tapers,
the one who catches a finger in the door,
the one who has no birthdays,
the one who lost his shadow in a fire,
the animal, the one who looks like a parrot,
the one who looks like a man, the rich poor man,
the extremely miserable man, the poorest poor man!
the one who is hungry or thirsty, but has no
hunger with which to satiate all his hungers!
Beloved be the one who works by the day, by the month, by the hour,
the one who sweats out of pain or out of shame,
the person who goes, at the order of his hands, to the movies.
the one who pays with what he does not have,
the one who sleeps on his back,
the one who no longer remembers his childhood, beloved be
the bald man without hat,
the thief without roses,
the one who wears a watch and has seen God,
the one who has honour and does not die!
Beloved be the child who falls and still cries
and the man who has fallen and no longer cries!
Pity for so much! pity for so little! pity for them!
Vallejo reworks Christ’s radical declaration that the lowliest in society are the most blessed, with a humanist and equally radical declaration of common humanity: that the blessed are those whom society deems the least noteworthy. Reading the poem after seeing the film, it is clear that the humanist ethos of the poem informs Andersson’s film and, indeed, its absurdist point of view. As for Andersson, he once asserted that Vallejo was one of the world’s ‘absolutely foremost poets’, and described ‘Stumble Between Two Stars’ as one of the strongest and most beautiful things he had read.
In a nutshell, I suppose, Songs from the Second Floor suggests that the power and strength of Western civilization is derived from its economic system and not from moral beliefs; if the system fails, therefore, its citizens will be left without hope. The film won won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. Andersson followed Songs from the Second Floor with You, the Living, premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. He is reportedly planning ‘a third enormous, deep and fantastic, humorous and tragic, philosophical, Dostoyevsky film’. Now that should be interesting!
Here is the film’s closing scene:
On YouTube there are four compilations of Roy Andersson’s hilarious TV adverts, in which it’s possible to discern the some of the same characteristics on display in Songs from the Second Floor. Here’s one of them:
- Review: by Roger Ebert