A Stunning Satire of Grief and Religion—With a Hitler Cameo
The latest from Swedish maestro Roy Andersson is “About Endlessness,” an absurdist take on philosophy, religion, and the human condition.
“It’s not easy being human” says a businessman in Roy Andersson’s 2000 masterwork Songs from the Second Floor, succinctly encapsulating the focus of the now 77-year-old Swedish director’s oeuvre. In that triumph as well as its two companions, 2007’s You, the Living and 2014’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, Andersson wields droll humor and aching pathos to investigate the crux of our myriad emotional dilemmas, his films comprised of vignettes that marry the wit of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, the spiritual and existential despair of Ingmar Bergman, and the fantastical joy and tragedy of Federico Fellini. Brimming with multifaceted life, his is the cinema of dreams, drudgery, guilt, greed, selfishness, cruelty, comedy, kindness, misfortune, loss, longing, bliss, and unexpected and inexplicable doom, all of it packed into an expertly controlled, continually surprising frame.
Andersson’s latest, About Endlessness (in theaters and on VOD)—which netted him the Silver Lion prize for Best Direction at the 2019 Venice Film Festival—is of a piece with that prior trilogy, although it’s infused with a greater degree of anguish over the question of what lies beyond, and what that means about the purpose of our time here on Earth. A series of brief painterly scenes of men and women in unique and/or banal circumstances, it’s shot, per the director’s trademark, in soft, muted hues and in static, unbroken, deep-focus takes, its every location marked by diagonal visual lines—often streets, lanes, or corridors that lead to windows overlooking the outdoors, to the vast horizon, or to bends around which we can’t see. The effect is to draw the viewer’s eye into a given space so they can scrutinize these figures and their surroundings and ponder (as Andersson does) the unknown regions that lurk just out of sight.
There is always a literal way into and out of Andersson’s three-dimensional tableaus, be it a winding road that runs past a half-populated café, or a well-trod path that goes over a hill sitting in front of a pole to which a pleading man is being tied for execution. What is it that awaits us in the distance, Andersson wonders. About Endlessness is a rumination on that query, as well as a diverse expression of universal doubts, insecurities and desires, most of which have to do with loneliness. Central to its drama is a priest (Martin Serner) who’s introduced in a dream in which he’s whipped and castigated while carrying a cross and wearing a crown of thorns on a city street. This nightmare of persecution frightens him awake, and later, he confesses to his doctor the root cause of his troubles: he’s lost his faith. “Could it be that God doesn’t actually exist?” he worries, because “that would be terrible. What’s there to believe in then?”
The priest’s alarm about a universe possibly devoid of a Creator—and the shame and self-loathing that comes from it—manifests itself again in an amusingly bleak scene that features him drunkenly delivering the sacrament to parishioners. His dread is echoed by his countrymen’s fear of being alone. A woman exits a train, where no one is waiting to greet her, and sits patiently until a male acquaintance finally appears. A man enters a bar, flowers in hand, looking for a date he’s apparently scheduled to meet, only to be told by a solitary woman at a table that she’s not that individual—and to prove it, her beau suddenly materializes with two beers, sending the inquiring guy away. Alongside his remaining, sloshed loyalists, Adolf Hitler (Magnus Wallgren) gazes upwards in his bunker at the rumbling sound of his own approaching demise. And a father sits on his living room floor in teary torment as he cradles the daughter he’s just murdered in an honor killing, overwhelmed by his regret for having slain the very love he (like everyone else) so desperately craves.
About Endlessness is a cornucopia of such sorrowful visions, each one constructed with Andersson’s usual slyness. A female narrator introduces many of these scenes in the same fashion (“I saw a man…”), providing added context to what we’ve already witnessed. Often, the director plays with our expectations by first focusing on certain foregrounded individuals, only to then cannily turn his attention to others arriving in the frame. That structure keeps his stationary action consistently unpredictable and suspenseful. More importantly, it speaks to his larger quest to examine and empathize with a motley collection of lost and desolate souls who fret over abandonment and, as with a young man who reads to his girlfriend about “the first principle of thermodynamics”—which says no energy can be destroyed, thus meaning we may meet again in some other form (she hopes to return as a tomato rather than a potato)—find little solace in reason or science.
Humor is in relatively short supply in About Endlessness, which is more oppressively grief-stricken than its predecessors. Distress over potentially wasted lives, unnecessary suffering, and inevitable calamity is everywhere in Andersson’s collage, whether it’s a self-doubt-wracked man who tells us about being ignored by a former classmate he passed on the street—and whom he envies for having earned a PhD, which means he accomplished more than this fellow did—or a dentist incapable of putting up with a patient who refuses to have Novocain and then moans every time his tooth is drilled. Nonetheless, moments of optimism do peek through: a trio of girls who break into spontaneous dance outside a bar, their youthful effervescence inspiring onlookers to applaud; or the proceedings’ signature sight of a man embracing a woman as they float through the gray clouds, their tender togetherness underlining the director’s belief that love is the transcendent force that helps us rise above the fray of the mundane and the miserable.
Andersson ends his concise (76 minutes) but powerfully poignant film with the image of a solitary gentleman trying to fix his car, which has broken down on the side of the road—a metaphorical snapshot of the ordinary toil needed to keep us functioning, and moving forward. More affecting still, however, is a preceding passage in which a father ties his young daughter’s shoe in the pouring rain, sans umbrella, while taking her across a sports field to a birthday party. There’s something alternately sad, encouraging and beguiling about this portrait of comfort and care in a time of unrelenting dourness, and it allows Andersson to suggest, ultimately, that mysteriousness is a source of not only ever-present agony, but beauty and hope as well.