Dotted with amateur martyrs, home to a malpracticing magician, and site of a well-attended human sacrifice, the unnamed pre-apocalyptic city of Songs From the Second Floor is a crossroads of medievalist ritual and millennial panic. In other words, it’s the 21st-century global village, according to Swedish director Roy Andersson. “It is so strange to me that in modern times so much is still built on superstition,” says Andersson. “When Sweden has suffered a bad economic situation, the government has asked priests to pray for better times. You could see flagellants in the streets during the Asian economic crisis. People ask a higher power for change, and it’s so dangerous.”
Born in Gothenburg to a Lutheran family in 1943, Andersson never found much use for organized religion: “All the church ever told us was to obey, work hard, be loyal to the king, and don’t enjoy anything too much.” More than once in Songs, a character remarks that Christ “wasn’t the son of God—he was just a nice guy,” while an overstock of hideous plastic crucifixes provides a recurring sight gag. “Jesus represents love and generosity, but we use him as a materialistic symbol—the church is a business like any other,” Andersson maintains. “So I’m teasing a little.”
More inflammatory is Andersson’s deployment of Nazi imagery, in Songs and elsewhere—his 1991 short film, World of Glory, opens with naked prisoners being herded into a truck to be gassed. “I’m trying to provoke my country, my government,” Andersson says. “For a long time we have suppressed the facts of the Second World War, when Sweden had a major collaboration with the Nazis,” including iron-ore exports for gun manufacture and German troop transports on Swedish railways.
Made up of 46 scenes and 46 cuts, Songs is essentially a series of tableaux, and Andersson (currently scouting locations in the north of France for a “very huge production” based on Louis Ferdinand Céline’s WWI picaresque Journey to the End of the Night) says he draws inspiration from German painters of the interwar Neue Sachlichkeit, especially George Grosz and Otto Dix. (A particularly Groszian strain of enraged caricature, gallows wit, and unsentimental empathy casts a long shadow over Songs‘ mausoleum of the hapless and humiliated.) His political bent dates back to his enrollment in the Swedish Film Institute in the late ’60s, when the lecturers included one Ingmar Bergman. “His title was ‘inspector’—Inspector Bergman! He was very worried about me, and also angry. He said you should not make political statements with film. He warned me: If you go further with this, you will lose the opportunity to make features. I liked to hear the criticism, because it made me stronger.”
After graduation in 1969, Andersson was favored to win the top award at the 1970 Berlin Film Festival for his debut, A Swedish Love Story, but he and his Marxist-minded fellow competitors banded together to formally denounce prize giving, and the jury resigned. His next—and, for 25 years, last—film, 1975’s Giliap, was a critical and commercial belly flop, and Andersson, ridden with debts, turned to making commercials, eventually building his own studio in Stockholm, where most of Songs was shot. (His uproariously funny insurance ads mine his absurdist knack for meticulously choreographed disaster.) “People have accused me, especially in Sweden—how can you make commercials, it’s not art, it’s not ethically acceptable. But I accept that we have a market. Commercials are honest because they behave as commercials. What I would never do is product placement.” (Paging Steven Spielberg!)
Of course, since the first 36 minutes of Songs were wholly self-financed, it was Andersson’s very engagement with the mass market that helped make his decidedly unmarketable, anti-commercial third film possible. “I like to survive in real, rough reality,” Andersson says. “Of course, if I can get state subsidies I’m happy, but I’m also happy to survive without them.”