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The New Cult Canon: Songs From The Second Floor

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"There an old joke: Two elderly women are at a Catskills mountain resort, and one of them says, 'Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.' The other says, 'Yeah, I know, and such small portions.' Well, that's essentially how I feel about life—full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly." —Woody Allen, Annie Hall

It's a fitting coincidence that I find myself writing about Roy Andersson's mordant black comedy Songs From The Second Floor as the global economy, torpedoed by a vast Ponzi scheme involving subprime mortgages, stands on the verge of total collapse. Back in 2000, when Andersson's film shared the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, there was no shortage of apocalyptic visions—nuclear, natural, zombified—that stirred the pot of Y2K millennial anxiety. It wasn't a matter of whether society would crumble at our feet, so much as how, and Songs From The Second Floor connects humanity's downfall to economics, frequently recalling the bureaucratic nightmare of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. In Andersson's world, capitalism has exacted a spiritual price: As his legions of pallid businessmen shuffle off this mortal coil, they do so in tailored three-piece suits.


Before I go any further, here are a few fun facts about Songs From The Second Floor:

— The film consists of 46 scenes, all rendered in static tableaux (the camera moves once), and it took about four years to produce.


— None of the scenes were scripted or storyboarded. They were constructed under Andersson's direction, on two giant soundstages, with non-professional actors.

— Some scenes took as much as five weeks to set up and required as many as 100 takes. If Andersson wasn't happy with the end result, he'd order the set destroyed and start again.

— The price tag for the movie was $5.5 million, over five times its original budget, and a portion of that came out of Andersson's pocket. (He was famous for commercials that no less a source than his Swedish countryman Ingmar Bergman called the best in the world.)

The first striking thing about Songs From The Second Floor, well before its grim themes take shape, is its astonishing style, which has drawn comparisons to everyone from Bergman to Terry Gilliam to Jacques Tati to Stanley Kubrick. Andersson's stationary camera captures whole scenes in long master shots, but his frames are extraordinarily layered and dynamic, with action in the foreground and background, and a depth of field that seems to stretch to infinity. (One of the problems of reviewing it on DVD is that the format can only hint at its visual impact, especially toward the end of the film, when Andersson widens his scope from individual strife to the teeming, miserable mass of humanity.) The 46 tableaux have an undeniably painterly quality: One shot, set in a diner, looks like Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" from a reverse perspective, with the camera peering out from the inside. But a better comparison might be to a diorama, since Andersson's frames are accommodating enough to seem like three-dimensional creations that don't require special glasses.


The Woody Allen quote above, which kicks off Annie Hall, kept springing to mind when I re-watched Songs From The Second Floor for this column; as Andersson catches these businessmen and dignitaries at their end of their lives and their ropes, they must be pondering the same question as those elderly women in the Catskills: Is that small slice of misery all there is? Through a series of interconnected vignettes, Andersson supplies a number of bleakly funny images: A desperate man, having lost his job after 30 years of service, literally clinging to his boss' leg as he's dragged down a hallway; a soot-covered furniture salesman carrying the burnt remnants of his business around in a plastic bag; a venerable 101-year-old military leader and millionaire entrepreneur living out the end of his life in a giant metal crib. And then there's the following sequence, in which a magician summons a volunteer from the audience for what turns out to be a horribly botched saw routine:


Though Andersson eventually eyes the bigger picture, he does find a hero of sorts in Kalle (Lars Nordh), an obese middle-aged man who picked the wrong time to torch his furniture store for the insurance money. He's worried that the adjusters will see right through his little scheme, but in truth, nobody cares to hear his woes, because they've got woes of their own. His vicar, for one, cuts off his complaints to talk about a house that the vicar has had on the market for four years, at a $200,000 loss. On top of that, Nordh's eldest son sits more or less catatonic in a mental institution, and his future business prospects are tied to the sale of crucifixes in what isn't exactly a buyer's market. Whatever heart can be detected in this chilly little film goes out to poor Nordh, who's merely one small cog in a capitalist machine that's greedily devouring itself.

One of the joys of Songs From The Second Floor—though "joy" isn't really the right word—is that the vignettes are multi-layered and ever-evolving, so just when we're laughing at Nordh's pitiful attempts to pass off a pile of ash as burned Chippendale loveseats, along comes a parade of businessmen and women trudging down the street in the background, flogging each other with whips. Then there's the ongoing traffic jam that clogs up Andersson's Everycity, with countless angry drivers laying on the horns as they inch forward at barely a yard a minute. They're impatient and agitated, but Andersson implies a larger, more existential question: Where, exactly, are they headed?


Tragedy and farce are really just a nudge away from each other, and though Andersson folds them together into a twisted symphony of the absurd, the laughs usually stick in the throat. (His somewhat disappointing 2007 follow-up, You, The Living—a.k.a. Songs From The Second Floor 2 1/2: The Smell Of Fear—is funnier but less substantial.) Andersson's breathtaking cynicism could never be taken seriously as drama, but since comedy feeds lustily on discontent, his grim ironies are allowed to take root in even the most barren soil. The sight of an innocent young girl blindfolded and led off a quarry precipice as part of a ritual sacrifice may sound horrifying, but in this context, with clergy and military officials standing by and a sea of hoi polloi filling out the backdrop, the whole affair becomes a bizarre spectator sport, executed by a society gone certifiably batty.

Songs From The Second Floor is obscure in some ways, and blunt as a hammer in others. When crucifixes of all sizes are hawked at a convention, for example, there's no missing Andersson's message that religion has been commoditized and corrupted. (After the cross-selling business goes bust, a salesman bitterly complains, "How can you make money on a crucified loser?") At the same time, Andersson's frequent quoting of "Stumble Between Two Stars" by Peruvian poet César Vallejo is hard to interpret without a firm grasp on Vallejo's series of leftist "Human Poems," written about the desperately poor. Nordh's emergence as a Christ figure, too, asks viewers to take a few cognitive leaps in order to see how this pallid, obese schlub could transform into an unlikely spiritual vessel.


For me—and here's where I reveal how shallow I can be—Songs From The Second Floor endures more for select mind-blowing tableaux than for the sum of all 46 of them. Though they do interact in a complex way, they can also be removed from context and appreciated individually, like paintings in a gallery. As a whole, the film is admirable but not easily digestible, yet in its most inspired parts, I think it's pretty clearly a masterpiece. And like any good showman, Andersson saves his best shots for last: The aforementioned ritual sacrifice, which symbolically crushes the hopes of the younger generation before a vast swath of humanity; the stunning final shot, which puts the death of spirituality in monumental terms; and the following sequence, where the masses quite literally haul their personal baggage into the afterlife. Only God sees the world with focus this deep.


Coming Up:

Next week: Oldboy

Oct. 9: Gerry

Oct. 16: Irréversible

Oct. 23: Office Space