Category: Swedish Cinema

Glasgow FF15 #12: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron, Swe/Nor/Fra/Ger 2014)

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

This was one of the first films on my booking list. Roy Andersson won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2014 for this, only his fifth feature in a career that began in 1970. I enjoyed his previous film You, the Living (2007) very much and hoped for something similar but also different. ‘Pigeon’ is referred to as the third in a loose trilogy so it is indeed similar and at first I was a little disappointed because the overall idea  and the approach – several short comic scenes knitted together by a handful of characters – are identical to the earlier film (and I suspect to the first in the series, Songs From the Second Floor (2000) which I haven’t seen).

Bruegel's painting

Bruegel’s painting

It wasn’t until a few days later when I studied Andersson’s excellent website for the film, watched the trailer and flicked through the stills that I began to remember more of the sketches and to understand more of what he was getting at. The strange title refers to the painting by Pieter Bruegel, ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565), and the three birds sat on branches in the tree in the foreground. This famous painting has been referenced by other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky. Andersson suggests that the birds take a panoramic view of human activities and the human condition – and that they are astonished that humans cannot see the coming apocalypse. Andersson shares their view and intends that we should be aware that we could change our behaviour and avert the tragedy for ourselves and the planet.

In order to present the pigeon’s view, Andersson selects a distinct aesthetic, moving away from realism and naturalism and drawing on ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ – the ‘New Objectivity’ art movement of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. He’s referring to both fine art and photography and in his notes he refers to a particular photograph by August Sander, entitled ‘The Pastry Chef’ (1928) in which the subject looks “trapped, aggressive and dangerous”. So, in his vignettes looking at the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in Sweden, Andersson sets out to tell little stories, some tragic, some sad, some pathetic. His chosen approach involves using painted sets with reduced colour palettes and using his company of ‘ordinary-looking’ actors with pale make-up. His camera usually remains static and keeps its distance from the actors so the vignettes play out in tableaux – often with a great deal going on in the background.

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of corse it is occupied!

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of course it is occupied!

Some of the vignettes are historical such as the one represented in the image above which refers to (I think) the young king Charles II in the Great Northern War of the early 18th century in which the Swedish Empire took on the Russians – please correct me if I’ve got this wrong. The bar is a popular location for Andersson since people go there to drown their sorrows and to seek solace with strangers.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop – note the carefully painted walls.

'Sancho Panza and Don Quixote' – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

‘Sancho Panza and Don Quixote’ – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

The main linking device between the vignettes id the sad progress of the two travelling salesmen. If you look carefully you’ll see them in the image of the bar above – one of them is wearing the ‘Uncle One-Tooth Mask’, one of their ‘bestsellers’.

I remember some very darkly comic moments in Andersson’s previous film. One included a man eating from a large box of popcorn as he watched an execution in a prison. This new film has two very disturbing scenes featuring animal cruelty and the hideousness of (British) colonial barbarism. I confess to being puzzled as to exactly what Andersson intended these to say – but perhaps I’m expecting too much in terms of clarity.

Overall this is a wonderful film because of its use of film language as well as offering both comic relief and piercing commentary. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the music. I loved ‘Limping Lotte’s Bar’ in 1943.

The trailer from the Roy Andersson website:

Persona (Sweden 1966)

Elisabet and Alma

This was the key film in the Leeds International Film Festival’s short retrospective of films directed by Ingmar Bergman and set on his adopted home Island of Fårö. This seems to me not only the finest film ever made by Bergman but also one of the outstanding masterworks in World Cinema. It parallels other films that address their own medium of cinema, like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, [a proposed title early in the project was Cinematography]. This is an intense character study involving two very fine actresses, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.

The film opens with an avant-garde montage of film – including the cinematic apparatus and apparently disconnected images: at least some of which do relate to the narrative that follows and some to other films by Bergman. Film as the subject re-appears near the middle of this work and again at the end with another montage which returns us to the cinematic apparatus on which the film relies. In between the narrative is presented in a more conventional style, which at the same time employs rigorous mise en scène, cinematography, sound design and editing. The film is graced by outstanding craft inputs from Bergman’s regular collaborators, Sven Nykvist, Ulla Ryghe, and P.O. Pettersson: and with more extracts from Bach on the soundtrack, [his Violin Concerto in E major]. There is also judicious accompanying music from Lars Johan Werle. And there is [once again] the influence of Strindberg.

The film offers a tight focus on two women characters, Elisabet Vogler (Ullman) and Nurse Alma (Andersson). We also meet a doctor who specialises in mental or psychological illnesses and the Elisabet’s husband .And we hear in the dialogue references to several characters including Alma’s fiancée. Bibi Andersson dominates the narrative because we learn most about the characters through her dialogue. For much of the film Ullman’s character is silent. There is a marvellous moment when we [think that we] hear her speak: reminiscent of the imperceptible movement after continuous stasis in La Jetée.

Whilst there is a tight focus on the two women, the Island of Fårö is important and it is recognisable from earlier films. There is a splendid long tracking shot as the two women walk along the beach. Much of the film occurs in the interiors, [mostly shot in a Stockholm Studio]. Later in the film there is a wonderful sequence running about eight minutes in length which consists of a long take that opens with a dolly, followed by a brief transition shot and then another long take in reverse shot, three increasingly large close-ups and then carefully crafted composite shots. What makes this sequence even more daring is the dialogue. The writing and delivery are impressive. There is an earlier monologue which relies almost completely on voice and tone – and it is far more erotic than many a visual sequence. Whilst near the middle of the film there is a brief male voice over

This is certainly a challenging film: a friend at the screening reckoned that one needed to see the film two or three times to fully comprehend it. It is also a richly complex film that pays the repeated viewings. This was my fifth or sixth screening of the film and I was still noticing aspects or noting possible meanings and references. We were fortunate to see the film in a good 35mm print: the cinematography benefits from the characteristic of the traditional medium. The Festival provides slips so audience members can vote on a scale of 1 to 5 – I ticked 5 on two slips and handed them in together.

Through a Glass Darkly (Sasom i en Spegel, Sweden 1961)

Martin, Karin, Minos and David.

Martin, Karin, Minos and David.

The Leeds International Film Festival is screening a short retrospective of the films of Ingmar Bergman. Happily the programme opened with this film – a masterpiece and for me one of the finest films by the director. Two friends seeing the film for the first time were impressed. This is one of what are described as Bergman’s ‘chamber works’, strongly influenced by August Strindberg and with the title taken from a Letter by the Apostle Saint Paul to the Corinthians. There is a dedication to his wife Kabi, who provided an important influence on his musical taste and knowledge

The film is set on the Island of Fårö. It involves four characters – a writer and father David (Gunnar Björnstrand), his daughter Karin (Harriet Andersson), her husband a university professor Martin (Max von Sydow), and David’s young son Minos (Lars Passgård). We also hear of two other characters, David’s dead wife and his ex-girl-friend. The action takes place over 24 hours, from evening to evening. The film opens as the four finish a swim in the sea. We learn that David has just returned from Switzerland where he was writing a novel. Karin recently left hospital where she was being treated for mental illness. They have supper and then Minos and Karin (with help from Martin) perform a short play for David. The play appears to have a purpose directed at David. Next day David and Martin leave the Island to buy necessities: their conversation and its filming are very revealing of the two men. Karin and Minos, talk, walk and then shelter in a wrecked boat in the rain. The crisis in the story follows. At the end of the film David talks to Minos as evening closes in. The final shot of the film is a large close-up of Minos in front of a window – behind him we can see the sun low over the horizon. The film then ends with a blank screen or on this occasion the logo of the Festival.

All the performances are superb, but the film is dominated by Harriet Andersson’s Karin. This is a marvellously complex and moving performance. All the performances bring out the tensions, evasions, psychological wounds and character changes in the film. The setting of the Island is beautifully evoked by the superb cinematography of Sven Nykvist, ably supported by the editor Ulla Ryghe and the art director P A Lindgren. And the film makes limited but judicious use of Johan Sebastian Bach’s Violoncello Suite No 2.  The light shimmers on the sea, and the changes from dusk to daylight and from light to shadow are exceptional. Fortunately the film was screened in 35mm – it would have need an above average transfer and at least 4K digital to do it justice.

The film is part of a trilogy including Winter Light (Nattvardsgästerna, 1962) and The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963). Time Out comments

… films that are generally seen as addressing Bergman’s increasing disillusionment with the emotional coldness of his inherited Lutheran religion.

The Catalogue quotes Bergman’s own claim that

What I wanted, most deeply, was to depict a case of religions hysteria.

But I thought the film was not really about religion but spirituality, possibly in a humanist sense – rather in the manner found in the films of Carl Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu. It is a powerful representation of the trials and difficulties of family relationships, albeit not a typical family. Like much of Bergman’s work it also relates the past to the present. I think viewers will find themselves considering the influence on Karin’s state of her father, husband and brother. The film is bleak but also offer lyrical moments. In the final sequence there is an ambiguity of the last light of day. And the abrupt ending leaves us to consider what we have seen and heard.

Concerning Violence, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, USA, 2014.

ConcerningViolence1web

The Leeds International Festival Catalogue describes this as an ‘essay film, rather than a documentary. This places the film in that cinematic discourse best represented by the masterworks of Chris Marker. Like those it offers a studied ambiguity that can and should stimulate the viewer’s thoughts as well as their emotions. It combines recently discovered archive footage covering wars of decolonisation in Africa from the 1960s through to the 1990s accompanied by quotation from Franz Fanon’s seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth. What follows is a short response to a complex film and I plan to return with a longer engagement on the Third Cinema Revisited Blog.

The film is divided into ‘Nine scenes from the anti-imperialist self-defence’. In the course of the film we see many sequences of the white settlers in various occupied territories, mainly lording it over the oppressed and exploited black natives. We also see various conflicts between National Liberation Movements and the colonial armies. There is extensive coverage of the struggles in what has become Angola. Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Each sequence also presents quotations from the Fanon’s book. This provides comment, analysis and ironic counterpoint to the comments of the white settlers, the colonial military, and the predominantly western journalist covering events. There are also extensive interviews with and comments by black natives, including those involved in the armed struggle. Refreshingly there is much screen space given to women, both as part of the exploited indigenous people but also as participants in the armed struggle.

Notably we also hear readings from the writings of Amilcar Cabral  [Guinea Bissau] and an interview with Tomas Sankara [Burkino Faso]. There is also an interview with Robert Mugabe from the early days after the ZANU-PF victory. Whilst there are many male voices on the soundtrack the frequent quotations are read by an Afro-American woman, Lauryn Hill.

Most of the footage was shot in 1.37:1, some in colour, and some in black and white. But the opening and closing sequences are in 1.85:1 and the footage in the older ratio is on a DCP, letter-boxed within this frame. There is also extensive use of music, both diegetic and non-diegetic. Unfortunately, [as in common in foreign language documentary] the songs are generally not translated in subtitles. There are a number of scenes of violence and horrific wounds: also of colonial atrocities.

The Director, Göran Hugo Olsson, is quoted in the Catalogue:

When you see these films today you are struck by how biased they were, and how the filmmakers were totally lost in their political views. The use of older archive material reveals perspectives and prejudices that are clear, enabling viewers to see beyond them.

I was impressed by the film. The selection of material, and especially the way that it is edited into a coherent and very effective arguments is finely done. It works well both as a film and as propaganda [expressing complex ideas supporting the movement]. One caveat that I had was that the film has added an introduction by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a writer regularly included in anthologies of ‘post-colonial’ writings: [neo-colonial would be more accurate]. She places the work of Franz Fanon with a short biopic of his life and work. She correctly rejects the notion that he popularised support for violence: the colonized must, of necessity, use violence because of ‘the absolute non-response‘ of the colonisers.

She also makes the point that Fanon’s ideas, many of them developed in the historic liberation struggle by the Algerians against the French occupation, need developing in the present day and situation. However I think she offers only a partial account of Fanon’s politics in The Wretched of the Earth. Moreover, I think her opening remarks offer a reading of the film which is not borne out. She comments on gender and appears to suggest that ‘violence against women’ is committed both by the colonial movement and the anti-colonial movements. But the film depicts armed women who state, “We are on the same level as men.”  The film does undercut some of Fanon’s reliance on male nouns and adjectives when passages are read over images of armed women fighters. But also note that he writes:

In an under-developed country every effort is made to mobilize men and women as quickly as possible; it must guard against the danger of perpetuating feudal tradition which holds sacred the superiority of the masculine element over the feminine. Women will have exactly the same place as men, not in the clauses of the constitution but in the life of every day: in the factory, at school and in the parliament.

And both images and quotations undercut the values expanded by the colonialists.

I think Spivak also overlooks the centrality of class in Fanon’s work. But this seems to me something that is at least underdeveloped in the film, especially in the Conclusion where we hear Fanon’s maxims for the future of the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist revolution. Fanon writes about the class forces in play after the end of direct occupation: a quotation from these comments would have made sense of the situation of Mugabe and Zimbabwe.

The quotations from Fanon are brief, mainly single sentences. Some the context of his position is often lost. This is the case when the film makes the point that the colonised black people use violence against their own: but Fanon is writing about the situation of the native under colonialism and before the development of an anti-colonial consciousness. One hopes that the film will stimulate viewers to read Fanon’s book – though I fear many may believe they have been provided with a sufficient grasp of his thought. The film’s title and focus is on one aspect of Fanon’s book, violence: this is where The Wretched of the Earth commences, but it goes a long way beyond this.

Even so this is a film that is unlikely to leave you unmoved and should certainly stimulate you. The audience at the Hyde Park Picture House showed their response with applause at the film’s end. This is definitely a film to see. It is getting a UK distribution [probably limited] by Dogwoof. I hoped to see it again, and did, [see http://thirdcinema.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/concerning-violence-with-a-q-a/].