“Al fin de la batalla,
y muerto el combatiente, vino hacia él un hombre
y le dijo: ‘No mueras, te amo tanto!’
Pero el cadáver ¡ay! siguió muriendo.”
“La Masa”, César Vallejo, 1937
A man enters a room while another man lies inside a tanning bed. They have an exchange about how their company is downsizing and the troubles it will bring to the employees. The man on the tanning bed tells the other man not to worry; because once the real problems arrive he will already be gone. Orchestra music begins, fade out to black and the title of the movie appears.
Roy Andersson’s movie pays homage to Peruvian poet César Vallejo (the screenplay uses one of his poems as a leitmotif several characters quote). And like Vallejo’s work, the movie bends cinematic language to its own purposes. Andersson challenges the viewer by delivering a movie like no other; one that works as an allegory, an artsy twister and one of the darkest comedies ever made. Dealing with the issues of despair, desolation and indifference the film is set in an unidentified grey city where several characters interact in various situations regarding society, work and family.
Divided into vignettes that don’t follow any chronological order, particular character or theme, Songs from the Second Floor delivers an experience that may be fascinating for some and revolting to others. In one vignette an old man throws up over a bar, while a woman sits underneath, giving no explanation of their behavior - a scene that only sets the mood for how the movie will pan out - while the whole bar comments on the recent sacrifice of a young girl that was made in order to quench the thirst of the gods' despair. “We have already sacrificed our youth! Can we do more?” the old man screams. But we never know if he’s referring to his youth at the service of society’s needs or in fact the brutal sacrifice that took place earlier.
None of the characters in the film seems to be alive - an old military member lies dying in the hospital. He’s being helped with his physical needs when other soldiers arrive to pay their respects to commemorate his hundredth birthday. While he is helped by nurses, he springs to sudden life and almost by inertia delivers the orders we assume he was used to delivering in his glory days. One of the soldiers plays a trumpet. The scene is both repulsive and tender.
What is Andersson trying to tell us about memories? Is he in fact slyly pointing out how military practices -and the brutality they bring with them - are one of the things that haven’t changed despite the passing of time?
Time is an essential theme of the movie. Several characters point out how there’s been an eight hour long traffic jam in the city, while others mention how there’s no need to rush and many try to make a point out of their aging. This is especially obvious in the cinematography (by the extraordinary group of István Borbás, Jesper Klevenas, and Robert Komarek). The camera barely moves during the entire movie except for a single dolly movement halfway through the running time. The rest of the time it stays still and it’s the characters and elements that move in and out of the frame. This serves as an aesthetically wondrous method; Andersson was obviously inspired by the decadence in the paintings of Bosch, by the angles of silent Expressionist cinema (note those slanted angles and the way he stresses out the presence of vertical buildings), the color scheme of industrial design and even borrows some elements from Tati (especially Playtime) as every scene bursts with visual gags and things that take our attention away from the “main” event.
The cinematography also comes to help as a metaphor for what the film implies sometimes: that the more we complain and suffer, the more time seems to get stuck. Surprisingly-and obviously not by accident - most of the film is shot in deep focus and we can see absolutely everything that’s going on in every plane of the scene. This gives the viewer a feeling of almightiness and serves as a reminder for how little we know of the goings on of the world or even the people in our city.
Released almost ten years ago Songs from the Second Floor comes as a particularly timely movie now. The entire world is suffering from the effects of a recession some still have trouble explaining and understanding. Andersson’s movie works as a perfect parable for what’s going on nowadays since it represents the effects of a force (God? The economy? Democracy?) that has left people at their own mercy. Hence the brutal violent and ridiculous we see take place in this movie. The people don’t know who to recur to in times of unexpected chaos. Perhaps people in Wall Street aren’t sacrificing young virgins and protesters in democratically unstable countries don’t go around whipping themselves in large public demonstrations. But then again Andersson isn’t saying this is an exact portrait of reality.