in conversation with Roy Andersson
What does it mean to be human and is art able to capture it? Award-winning Swedish director Roy Andersson talks to four by three about his Living Trilogy, contemporary cinema, the relationship between aesthetics and ethics, the frailty of the human condition, while addressing the purpose of art and cinema.
In the existential tradition of Albert Camus and with an aesthetic rigour and restrictive use of non-professional actors comparable to Robert Bresson, Roy Andersson’s films are influenced by Andre Bazin's film theory and Vittorio De Sica's realism in Bicycle Thieves. Having directed nearly 500 commercials, Andersson returned to feature films in 2000 with Songs from the Second Floor, which won him the Jury Prize at Cannes and formed the basis for his Living Trilogy, addressing nothing less than what it means to be human. Whereas Songs from the Second Floor thematizes institutions and relations of power, such as capitalism and religion, You, the Living features predominantly personal relationships of couples and family, while his latest A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence illustrates just how shockingly good people are at holding up appearances of being fine.
A Pigeon opens with a man and a woman in a museum looking at a stuffed pigeon on a branch, opening up the viewer’s mind to all things possible. Andersson’s films are marked by humour and cruelty in equal measures and having established a style entirely his own, his films are masterfully sublime and puzzling.
What inspired you to become a director? And what are your artistic goals now?
Roy Andersson: When I was young, I wanted to be an engineer and produce some very important inventions. As I grew up in a working class family with no intellectual tradition, I only got in contact with very good literature when I was in school. So initially I wanted to become an author in the vein of my favourite author at that time: Albert Camus. But, at the end of the 50s and during the 60s, there was such a good periods in European cinema, from the Russian wave at the end of the 50s to the Polish wave during the 60s and the Czech wave. There were just so many fascinating waves, which in turn made me change my mind and aspire to become a director instead of an author. Actually, I must have been around 14 or 15 years old when I first encountered Italian Neo Realism and in particular the film Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica . During this time I simultaneously aspired to become an author, engineer or filmmaker. However, my encounter with Bicycle Thieves was so impressive and important to me that it was then and there that I decided that I wanted to become a filmmaker.
The three films in your recently completed Living Trilogy [2000-2015], which is frequently referred to as being absurd, nonsensical and surrealist, focuses on different aspects of human existence. You, the Living appears to be different in tone, in as much that it is more sentimental or maybe even more hopeful, than the previous two films, which seem to imply a level of doom to humanity. Do you agree with this characterization?
RA: It’s interesting that people say that they feel that there are actual differences between the three films in the Trilogy. But to me they are extremely similar and part of the same family. And as you already alluded to, all three films are about what it means to be human. For example, I hate to see when people are humiliated, which shapes my interest in questions concerning reconciliation, as well as questions concerning individual as well as collective crimes, such as the Holocaust. How can we get to terms with these nightmares we have committed in the past and how can we live with these crimes now? Reconciliation is indeed a very important theme to me.
One scene towards the end of A Pigeon is extremely striking and shocking, especially as it mirrors the opening scene of your short film A World of Glory . What is it about that image in particular that made you revisit it?
RA: I was born in 1943 when the Holocaust was at it’s peak and when concentration camps were just mind-numbingly effective in killing that many people in such a short time. Growing up during this historical period, knowing about it, but only afterward did I realize how terrible, cruel and overwhelming the magnitude was. The total lack of humanism shocked me. The question of how it was possible for this to happen followed me all my life and I still can’t shake it. I am also thinking about the Spanish conquerors and how they behaved towards the Indians during the 15th century or how the British unloaded ships filled with slaves in Liverpool. The Holocaust isn’t an isolated event and I am interested in the repetition of crimes against humanity throughout history and how little we have seemed to learn from it. We have to confront the past, in order to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
Your films avoid montage, close-ups, movement and are characterized by slow pace, long and static shots, a wide angle and deep-focus. You have termed your strikingly meticulous style and precision of composition as ‘the complex image’, reminiscent of the great film theorist Andre Bazin, in which you challenge the viewer to be active, rather than passively absorbing the film. Could you elaborate on the relation aesthetics and ethics play within your films?
RA: I think about this a lot and it is an interesting, yet delicate question. In my opinion these two planes are combined and you cannot divorce them, as they are from the same family. You simply cannot get rid of the ethical dimension within aesthetics. Thinking about ethics makes me think of how we have behaved like beasts throughout human history. But, one must also understand and recognize that human beings have achieved incredibly good things. In my next film I want to show precisely that more clearly: the sheer simultaneity of being good and bad in every one of us. I don’t want to be cynical about this and believe that human beings are neither always good nor always bad.
I hope that through my films I am able to open up our sensibility towards each other and show that we are existentially very vulnerable beings. Plus, we just have so little time in our lives. There is no happy ending to any of us [laughs]. But that’s exactly why we should be more responsible with the time we have left.
When watching your films, I can’t help but sense that you are taking your audience seriously and that you trust us. More mainstream films, however, tell you what to think, as they manipulate us into thinking what they prescribe. Not just that this is the right way to think about a certain matter or narrative, but that it is the only way how to think about it. However, you are opening up questions, rather than closing it down through answers. Is this something that is important to you? What do you feel about contemporary cinema?
RA: I don’t want to be ungenerous towards other filmmakers, but contemporary cinema makes me a bit sad and I find it overall less honest, which often comes down to technique. Nowadays it is possible to work very quick and fast, due to fewer technical restrictions and hurdles. There is a lack of patience. Yet contemporary directors are wondering why their films aren’t as impressive as the films from the 60s. However, in the 60s it was necessary to work with great patience. When I ask myself what contemporary cinema is lacking, it is quite simple: it is a lack of patience, a lack of talent and a lack of money.
As you pointed out earlier, I am very influenced by Andre Bazin’s writing. Using a wide shot is like paining history, as there aren’t many paintings of close-ups in history that are as interesting as the wide shot. Yet, one could argue that my use of the wide shots is manipulating as well, even if it is more difficult to create deception that way.
You are uncompromisingly honest and fearless when it comes to exposing the frailty of the human condition. You have argued in your book Our Time’s Fear of Seriousness [Vår tids rädsla för allvar,1995] that the contemporary man suffers from a fear of seriousness and a lack of critical and moral awareness. What is it that you wanted to explore and expose through the Living Trilogy? What do you feel is most difficult or striking about the human condition?
RA: My main source of inspiration is life itself. But, you must also dare to look at it. I have also been greatly influenced by other forms of artistic expression, such as from within painting, music and literature. Without that I couldn’t have achieved the richness in my own movies, so I am highly indebted to other artists. Art, cultural history and the history of civilization have been a great source to create my own films. Civilization contains it all, from cruelty to beauty and everything in between. Without that I would have made such poorer films.
The scenes in A Pigeon, in which characters say that they are fine, are scenes about caring for another human being. Even though we care most about the people closest to us, such as our relatives, children and parents and so on, we are also able to feel care towards people anonymous to us.
You have once said in an interview that ‘I want to make movies that are clearer than reality itself. To clarify reality’. Why is your representation of the world’s ‘reality’ rendered in stylized and non-naturalistic terms, much closer to reality, as opposed to Italian Neo Realism [in which form you filmed your first feature film A Swedish Love Story from 1970]? Do you feel that the dream-like, minimal and arguably abstract rendering of the world, along the lines of Berthold Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, in which we live, reveals the structural depth of reality in a more authentic manner?
RA: Indeed, abstraction brings us closer to reality, while making it easier to understand it. Of course it is possible to go too far with this style of abstraction, so as to end up losing something essential. But, I also feel that some level or form of abstraction supports both the clarity of the image and the clarity of the content.
If you take the French painter Matisse, for example, his philosophy was that you have to take away everything that is unnecessary to an image, in order to achieve the greatest degree of clarity. He cleans his images to the point where he is only left with lines.
In your narrative structure time and space appear to be condensed and you avoid traditional cause and effect, as your tableaux are loosely linked thematically, chronologically and spatially, which results in the appearance of a disintegrated world. Why do you foreground the smallest segments rather than portraying an overarching narrative?
RA: Over the years I have come to find narrative driven films to be boring. Both the viewer, as well as the director, become trapped, as you have to fulfill a particular formula of a story. In that sense the film also becomes more predictable and I as a director feel forced into predictability, which certainly limits creativity.
I also want to show how the small things in life can be very beautiful. In America they refer to good art in terms of ‘magical moments’ and it's not necessary to understand a movie in full, as sometimes it’s enough to see some magical moments.
I prefer fragments of existence, as these are richer and more in the line with poetry. I do feel as though fragmentation is more honest and closer to life itself. Sometimes I want to compare my films to memories, as memories are an important source of inspiration for my films. Memories can be cleansing, as it takes away that, which is not important any longer. And even in dreams, details vanish, while foregrounding the more essential. Dreams are realism, but in disorder.
What is the purpose of cinema for you? Is it a self-contained entity or does it have wider ethical or cultural implications?
RA: The purpose of art is always to be at the service of humanism and to increase our understanding and empathy with others. I cannot find a single painting in all of art history that hasn’t been at the service of humanism. Even if a painting is cruel or depicts something horrible, it still is in the service of humanity. For example, if you take Goya’s Guernica - it is a protest, even if it is difficult to look at, due to the violence depicted in it. To me, the purpose of cinema is the same as the purpose of art. But, when I talk about cinema, I am not talking about the industry, as greedy people work in that strand and all they care about is money.
How do you see the relationship between film and philosophy? Does art and philosophy belong together?
RA: Yes certainly! Philosophy and art belong together, as art is very philosophical and arguably philosophy is an art itself. This intellectual side of the human being is very impressive and fascinates me. It is wonderful that we have the means to reflect about our existence in such a way.
Marguerite Duras, who wrote the script for Hiroshima Mon Amour, which was directed by Alain Resnais, is another important French filmmaker. Even though philosophy isn’t directly addressed in this movie, there is just so much philosophy in it! The protagonist repeatedly says to the woman that she hasn’t seen anything in Hiroshima. But how can he claim this? She has in fact seen a lot, even if she wasn’t there at that time. So the philosophical undercurrent comes into being through the tension of what she has seen and what she has indirectly experienced.
This brings me to the question of why aren’t we making films like Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour or Bunuel’s Veridiana anymore? Just give me a little bit more time and I will show how we can make films like in the 60s again [laughs]. It is actually my ambition, to find the limits of the cinematic medium. I want to create films that contain philosophical and poetic dimensions in life. I want to save cinema or at least bring it back to being art.