‘The Social Contracts Have Changed’: Ruben Östlund Talks About His Palme d’Or Winner “The Square”

“The most uncivilized thing about our time is the collective rage against individuals that have been uncivilized”


Even before his film The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Swedish director Ruben Östlund was one of the world’s most intriguing filmmakers, celebrated for his playful looks at the contradictions of human behavior — how our ideals conflict with our actual real-life actions. (His 2014 film, Force Majeure, about the fallout from a husband’s selfish actions during an avalanche at a ski resort, was a critical hit here in the U.S.) But The Square, about the goings-on around a contemporary art exhibit (called “The Square”) designed to create a shared safe space of equality and decency, is on another level entirely — an ambitious, expansive work that looks at our ideals and our hypocrisies from a humanistic point of view. I recently had the chance to talk to Östlund about the origins of his film, his unique approach to directing, and whether he thinks the values of “The Square” can truly be applied to real life.

As I understand it, “The Square” itself was a real artwork that you created?

It was something that started as an idea in 2008 because I was making a film called Play about a group of young boys robbing other young boys, inspired by events that took place in Gothenburg [Sweden]. I read through the court files, and you could tell that it was very, very seldom that any adult was interacting with the robbers. And it was very seldom also that any of the kids were asking for help. The robberies took place in a mall, where there were a lot of adults around. So, the bystander effect was really, really strong.

I talked to my father about this, and then he told me a story that is also told in The Square — the one that Christian [the film’s protagonist, played by Claes Bang] is telling his daughters. My father was brought up in the Fifties in Stockholm, and when he was six years old his parents put a tag around his neck with the address to their apartment, and then they sent him out into the center of Stockholm to play all alone. Back in the Fifties you looked at another adult as someone that would help your children, and today, we see that other adult almost as someone who is a threat to your children. So, the social contracts have changed. It was in this context that a friend of mine and I came up with the idea that we should create a symbolic place where we remind ourselves of the possibility of taking responsibility, and also of showing trust to other people. A symbolic place that should change the social contract, basically.

The film seems to interrogate the idea behind “The Square” as well. The ideals of the art project are noble, but they’re also quite vague.

When we were presenting that idea, we were meeting that kind of reaction. People thought it was utopian and weird, and that it wouldn’t be possible. But, personally, I think it’s comparable with a pedestrian crossing. We have a couple of lines in the street where we have an understanding that drivers should be careful when there are pedestrians. It’s kind of a beautiful invention. I was looking at “The Square” in the same way. Of course you can create a new social contract. And even if we don’t live up to these ideals, it doesn’t matter. Just the fact that we have a symbol that is trying to remind us about these ideals will create the change. “The Square” exhibit is in two cities in Sweden and two cities in Norway now. And in one city, Värnamo [Sweden], it really has become a bit of a movement.

The pedestrian crossing idea is interesting. But a pedestrian crossing…you know, you cross it. There’s a beginning and an end. You go from one point to another, and then you leave the pedestrian crossing. What would happen if someone just stood in the pedestrian crossing and waited?

[Laughs] Well, then there would be a problem with the traffic, of course. “The Square” has been used in a completely different way, though. For example, in Värnamo, there’s a group of functional handicapped people that have been protesting because they lost their benefits, so they went there and had a demonstration. The local newspaper came and took a picture and reported about it. And then when the terror event happened — the guy with the truck in Stockholm — they had a manifestation against violence. The same thing happened after a high school murder — they gathered there, people were lighting candles. This summer, something kind of beautiful happened. Someone put a flower in “The Square” with a little note saying, “Thank you to you who helped our son.” These are values that have existed for as long as we have had a civilization. There is nothing new about these values. Maybe this is a new way of trying to get attention to these values.

I do find it interesting that Scandinavian countries seem to be so much more willing to try these kinds of progressive ideas. In the Seventies, for example, there was the commune movement. Why is that?

One thing was definitely the social democratic movement, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was this movement that the working class should be educated, in order to make it possible for them to claim their rights. It’s called the folkhem in Swedish, building up the idea that people should be educated even though they’re working in jobs that maybe don’t need intellectual knowledge. This really changed the possibilities for the working class, and started something that became a very flat hierarchy in Sweden. The idea behind the flat hierarchy is good — that equality is something that we strive for together. I can compare that with the U.S., where if someone has made it, it’s like, “Wow, good luck, man. Fantastic. You made it by your own hands.” In Sweden, we look critically towards that: “Were you born into circumstances that made it easier for you to reach this position?” We are striving for a flat hierarchy. There are good things about that, but there are of course also bad things about it.

Also, we have a lot of trust in the state in Sweden. For an example, when we see a beggar on the street, we think, “Why doesn’t the state take care of this?” But I think also that we are becoming more and more individualistic. Our attitude is getting closer to people in the U.S. Suddenly, when we talk about beggars, we don’t talk about it on a society level anymore. That’s really bad. We don’t say, “Let’s raise the tax 0.01 percent and let the richest help pay for this.” Now it’s only, “If I give or if I don’t give as an individual…” You put the blame and the guilt on the individual instead of trying to deal with it together.

Do you think some of this might have to do with the changing racial or ethnic dynamic of a society, too? Scandinavian societies in the past were a lot more homogeneous. I think that as the people around us start to look less and less like us, we tend subconsciously to start to find them suspicious. I found it interesting in the film that the boy that confronts Christian is an immigrant. Christian thinks of himself as a very fair-minded person, and a very humanistic person, but the film interrogates his conception of himself.

Two things. First of all, the boy — we don’t know if he’s an immigrant or not. That’s a preconception about him. But likely he can be an immigrant, yeah. But the second thing is that when it comes to Christian, it was super-important to me that he was mirroring the audience. My goal with the film was that it should be presented in Cannes in competition, and I will have this tuxedo-dressed audience sitting there and watching, in the monkey exhibition scene, a tuxedo-dressed audience. They should be confronted with themselves.

I don’t look at Christian as more hypocritical than anyone else. I look at him as myself, because so often we put ourselves on the good side. Always, always, always. I want to create a sociological experiment where we can identify ourselves when we fail. Sociology has a forgiving and humanistic view on us humans, even when we fail. I wish that I could express that in my films, because even if I want to be harsh towards the audience and confront them, I want them to understand that the situation in itself is creating bad behavior. I think that all of us have the ability of reacting in the way that Christian does — even if we don’t want to.

That’s the genius of the film: We’re able to identify with him, and he remains a likable guy throughout. And by questioning his actions, we question our own — without ever losing that sense of identification. How exactly did you pull that off?

One thing that I do during shooting is…OK, I have the script, I have the idea about the scene, but when we are starting to try out the scene, it’s a huge step to take something that is a written paper product and make it work as a visual product. So, I tell everybody in the scene that they have to stay true to themselves as human beings. I ask them, “Is it possible for you to do what you are doing now?” And one of the actor’s tasks is to detect that and say, “No, it’s actually not possible for me to react the way it says in the script.” Aha, then we have to change the setup, so it becomes possible for that actor to do that. They should always identify with the situation as human beings, not as characters.

For example, Christian is the chief curator of the museum. It’s super-important that Claes, who plays Christian, knows exactly what strings are attached to him in that job. You have the donators. You have the state mission of running a museum. You have to represent art, et cetera, et cetera. You have to understand the forces working on you. Then you can identify with being in that position as a human being.

Sometimes I write things that I want the actors to do, but it doesn’t work on set, and then I have to rethink. I have to find another way to go where I want to go, because if I don’t manage to direct the scene in the way that is believable for me, then I have to change what I have written.

Can you give me an example of a time when you feel you failed?

When Elisabeth Moss is coming up to Claes in the museum and surprising him. I wanted Elisabeth Moss to grab Claes in his waist and scream, “What do you want from me?!” And I didn’t manage to do that in a believable way. It is there, but it’s not as obvious. I wanted it to be, “What do you want from me?” And he’s like, “What do I want? I don’t want anything. What do you want?” That was something that I had to cut out. Maybe it’s a small detail, but yeah, it happens constantly. Every day when I’m shooting, there’s something that feels just wrong, constructed. And I have to stay true to what I think is believable.

From what you describe, your work seems very collaborative, almost improvisatory — and yet your style is very precise.

If I’m shooting one scene a day, at the beginning of the day I’m trying out the scene together with actors, and they are free to do different things. We have certain, how do you say, gates that they have to go through — where the scene starts and where it ends. And at the beginning, it takes a long time for them to go from the beginning to the end because they are finding it in an organic way. Then they also have the freedom to try out things, and take risks — things they wouldn’t be able to do if we only had five takes.

I do in general around forty takes. So I can say, “No, take away that,” “Keep that, that was beautiful, that was brilliant.” And then we start to sculpt the scene, and we do that until the end of the day. And then I say, “Now we have five takes left. Is everybody ready?” And then for those five takes, we repeat exactly that pattern, that structure that’s the skeleton that we have built during the day. These last five takes are very similar to each other. So my goal is only to use improvisation in order for the actors to find out how to deal with the scene, but within very specific limits. Then, at the end of the day, I really, really don’t want them to improvise at all. Then they are following that exact structure through the last five takes. And very often it’s one of these last five takes that I use — usually the second to last take.

How do you know that you have an actor who will be able to work in this method you have, which is not a standard approach to filmmaking?

When I’m trying out the scene with actors, I very often act with them. So when I was trying Claes, I had him do one of the scenes with Elisabeth Moss, but I played Elisabeth Moss’s character. So I could push him into a corner with the lines that were written: “You have been inside me,” and “How should we solve this?” Then, when I tried out Elisabeth, I did the opposite — I played Claes’s character, and she played Anne [her own character]. For me it’s a way of getting to know the scene, but also getting to know the acting intelligence of the actor. With Elisabeth, she really pushed me — so even though I had done that scene, say, fifty times with different actors, suddenly I didn’t know how to answer her. She was so skillful in pushing me into a corner.

Let’s talk a little bit about the scene at the gala with Terry Notary. I’m curious about how you shot it. But also: At what point did you come up with that scene? Was that an organic part of the screenwriting process? It’s such a remarkable moment, but it’s like its own little thing inside the movie — nobody mentions it afterward.

My first inspiration for the scene was an American punk rock artist, GG Allin. I watched two YouTube clips called “GG Allin in Boston Part 1” and “Part 2.” I have never seen anyone so anarchistic. It was like they’d let a wild animal onstage or close to the audience, and the audience was also relating to him as a wild animal — you couldn’t really predict what he would do. They were scared of him at the same time they were there to watch him. These were probably some of the most intense moments I have seen with moving images.

But then, I thought that this should be some kind of performance artist. I googled “actor imitating monkeys,” and I found this clip where Terry Notary was doing a demo with his arm extensions for Planet of the Apes. So I decided to make it someone imitating a monkey. And then I also wrote this voiceover — this announcement that comes out in the speaker before he enters the room. “Soon you will be confronted by a wild animal. As you all know, the hunting instinct is triggered by weakness.” That text is really highlighting what the bystander effect is. So, for me, the scene is very thematic, it’s connected to the film. It was a way to highlight the reason that we get paralyzed when we see something that we are scared of. We are thinking, “Don’t take me, don’t take me, take someone else. I don’t want to be the prey.” So, once again, I didn’t want to put guilt in this moment when we don’t take responsibility. I wanted to look at it from a behavioristic point of view, and try to create understanding.

One of the wonderful things about that scene is that it can be interpreted in so many different ways. When I watched the film a third time, recently, I realized it also resembles what happens with something like social media — which obviously is a theme in the film. The announcer says something like, “Try not to get noticed.” Somebody steps out of line or says one thing wrong, and they’re just completely consumed. And even if you want to defend the person, you step back and think, “I shouldn’t say anything, because then I’ll get attacked.” The bystander effect is very much at work on all levels of existence.

I actually wrote down a quote the other day when I was trying to describe this behavior I think is in the scene, and also that I see on social media: “The most uncivilized thing about our time is the collective rage against individuals that have been uncivilized.” I don’t know if it makes sense for you, but the most uncivilized thing today for me is that complete anger that comes like a rage, like a riot, towards individuals who have been uncivilized. And for me, the film is very much about this in some way. I understand the audience in that room because Terry Notary is so scary — or his character is so scary. But I wanted him to walk into a room and be like an uncivilized animal. And in the end this tuxedo-dressed audience have themselves become uncivilized. So, they are having a revenge on him in the same way that he has been behaving.