Not “Making Bad Movies with State Money”: Roy Andersson on A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence
I used to dismiss the films of Roy Andersson for their coldness and repetition; a mistake. While the Swedish filmmaker’s camera hangs at an ever-stiffer remove, each scene he shoots is suffused with minute power dynamics, rendering the players — aimlessly shuffling to and fro, outfitted in sepulchral pancake makeup — both tragically pathetic and pathetically hilarious. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Contemplating Existence, the 73-year-old auteur’s latest, caps Andersson’s so-called “human existence trilogy” with a surprising rumination on repressed cultural memory stitched within the director’s signature vistas of human cruelty. Andersson has been perfecting this droll, widescreen aesthetic over the decades — not least in his long series of one-take, one-gag commercials, always culminating with one perfectly timed, regularly macabre twist — and Pigeon may well be his most confrontational work long-form yet.
An otherwise unassuming seaside bar receives a showstopping cameo from Sweden’s king Charles XII, marching en route to Moscow — an awkward interjection of the early 18th century into the present. The battle was a catastrophe for Sweden, and Andersson paints for viewers an evocative before-and-after, Charles revisiting the bar — same widescreen angle and all — in tatters. In another scene, African slaves are led in chains by colonial keepers into a giant iron drum, which is then rotated, as if a giant skewer, under a gigantic gas-flame. The slaves’ screams begin to warp and warble from inside the drum, building to a Messiaen-worthy echo-crescendo, while a concert hall’s worth of well-heeled and ancient Swedes step through a sliding glass door to watch in awe, champagne flutes in hand. The scene is of a piece with Andersson’s other setups in that its procedure is easy to dismiss as a facile equation, and yet its clinical melancholy is overpowering.
If Andersson is leaving the flotsam of national trauma in his audience’s hands, the question becomes: to do what with? For all his films’ deadpan inscrutability — Pigeon is less novelistic than the filmmaker’s 2000 breakout Songs From The Second Floor, yet more blunt in its historic evocations than 2007’s You, The Living – I was surprised to find the filmmaker remarkably direct in our below conversation: rapping the table with a single knuckle to emphasize his points, bright-eyed like a mischievous kid, the opposite of haughty in reassessing his storied and serpentine career.
Filmmaker: Do you mind if I open with a question about your early days?
Andersson: Doesn’t matter. I can talk about everything. (Laughs)
Filmmaker: I know you originally started out working as a kind of assistant to the great Bo Widerberg. My sense is there is — at least following Raven’s End — a kind of split within Swedish film, with Bergman representing the establishment, and Widerberg trying to push things further to the left; you considered yourself part of that other path. You’ve spoken about a rivalry between the two men before, but can you elaborate?
Andersson: Well, Widerberg and Bergman were enemies, actually. Widerberg hated Bergman, because he was a little jealous, I think. Because of Bergman’s reputation, all over the world. But… I was young during the ’60s, you know? Young revolution, all over the world. Widerberg was 10 years older than me but he was also a fan of that period. We believed we would change the world, get more justice and so on. When I passed the Swedish Film Institute, Bergman was, at the time, a so-called “inspector,” over the school’s rector. Each term, we were called to his office so he could give us a lesson. (Laughs)
It was a very generous school at the time: it was free, we got passports to Cannes, and we got film stock. We could have a 16-millimeter camera when I was at school, and you know, this was during the Vietnam War. There were so many demonstrations in Sweden against the war. We shot the demonstrations with our school cameras, and Ingmar Bergman was so angry that we were engaged politically. He was a very right-wing person, and we were left-wing, I must say — most of the young people at that time, because of the Vietnam War. So he threatened me: “If you continue with this, I promise, you will never have the possibility to make a feature!”
Filmmaker: But this was a political consideration. He wasn’t talking about technique.
Andersson: Yes, and I don’t know why. He grew up in a bishop’s home. Every year, at summertime, his parents sent him to Germany, and, you know, he went to the Hitler Youth. He never left that ideology.
Filmmaker: Really? I mean, Persona grapples directly with a troubled postwar conscience…
Andersson: It was not visible in his films. But personally, he was very right-wing. Almost a little fascistic — more than we talk about. But I don’t accuse him for that; it was his father that sent him to the Hitler Youth. I don’t know that he ever made something political. Shame has a little anti-Soviet piece, but that’s the only one, as I see it.
Filmmaker: Damn. Well, let’s talk about your films. How did your style grow in response to prior Swedish cinema? What new approach did you want to take after Bergman?
Andersson: When I left school, I made A Swedish Love Story. Then my second movie was a flop, so I was not accepted in the field; to survive, I had to accept making some commercials. However, my commercials and shorts were made in the realistic style — the Widerberg style, the European style, at that time. After 15 years, I was so tired of realism, I planned to stop, to change my work into something else, until the moment I saw, “Wow, I can try to go over to a more abstract style.” Inspired by Fellini, for example, and also Buñuel. When I did that, I was so relieved. I was so happy to have found something — a quality to go further with!
Filmmaker: To clarify – you’re talking about your 1991 short, World of Glory?
Andersson: Yes. And it started with the commercials.
Filmmaker: This 15-year hiatus — was it because you were attempting to get features made with no support? Or is it because you felt stuck creatively? Aesthetically?
Andersson: Eh, it was both. I had problems with financing, but above all, I changed my style because I was tired of realism. This was a very special style, also, and sometimes I myself wonder: “How was it possible to find this style?” Above all, painting history is the most important source of inspiration for me. Many periods in painting history are very, very fascinating, especially the periods that are not realistic.
Filmmaker: You’ve been aligned with Goya, the elder Breugel — the good shit. This is equally influential to your commercials?
Filmmaker: I have to say, they’re hilarious. It’s hard to imagine any American company OKing this kind of dark humor…
Andersson: But they sold the product! They were very successful in Sweden. And when things are selling, you are accepted. (laughs)
Filmmaker: So the client never had a problem with your sensibility.
Andersson: No. They accepted it totally. I got very free hands the whole time. When I left school, I made a commercial [during] my Christmastime break, [when I had] two weeks free. That commercial was successful all over the world. After that, I got free hands, and clients didn’t contact me if they didn’t know what they would get. In Sweden, we call it gräddfil, after sour cream: “the cream lane.” It means you are not obliged to be in a queue; you can pass.
Filmmaker: This is a bit of a jump, but does the Swedish left have the same stigma against commercial-making you might see in the United States?
Andersson: Well, yes. Some of my people from school, they accused me of being a traitor. But my philosophy was already, at that time — even if I was engaged on the left, if you accept that we have a market, that means it’s natural, we must make advertising for that market. The only thing you have to take care of is you can’t do any amoral commercials. So I have been making them in a very special way, and I have said no to commercials [for] bad products and bad lifestyles.
Filmmaker: So, back to World of Glory – the final scene of that film I find just devastating. This guy is awake, sitting up in the middle of the night, and he hears somebody weeping in the background, but his wife implores him to just go back to sleep. There’s a moment in A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence that’s quite similar; is there a relationship there? Do these moments come to you first, and the film is structured around them? Or is it rather, you set out to make a new one, and the turning points just generate themselves?
Andersson: Concerning this theme in World of Glory and also the colonial scene in Pigeon — this is an issue I have been engaged in all my life: how can people behave so badly to each other? I was born during the War, but I was not engaged in it. How is it that I feel guilt about the Nazi period, for example? I have thought a lot of, how to be forgiven — how can I get reconciled to these crimes that were made with Swedish assistance? I am a member of all humans, so I feel a responsibility for what we, together, have made. That question of reconciliation is a very important issue for me.
Filmmaker: Originally, I thought the self-flagellating scenes in Songs From The Second Floor were a reference to Brave New World, but I read it was actually a response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis. But it’s buried – you don’t make it look like a reference. Regarding the colonial scene at the end of Pigeon — is this your angriest film yet?
Andersson: Yeah. I really want to be more provocative. My next production, I’ve already started – it’s going to contain both sides of human behavior: happiness, sadness, cruelty, good things. As rich as possible to describe existence, the whole spectrum, but of course I’m very angry about arrogance and lack of empathy. That’s very common nowadays, because we’re talking about money in Sweden today. When you’re an artist — I don’t like to call myself “an artist.” However, when you work with artistic tools, you must understand that you are at the service of humanism.
Filmmaker: In terms of the “human existence” trilogy, was it structured as such all the way back in 1996 when you began filming Songs? Or has it developed one film after the next?
Andersson: One after one. I felt it very natural to make a new one and call it one part of a trilogy. The figure three, it’s a so-called magic number. You have seven of three, they are historically very special numbers. Snow White with the seven dwarves. In Sweden we have some formulations — all good things come in threes. It was very natural to call it a trilogy, because the films are very very close to each other, they’re in the same basket.
Filmmaker: So this next one will be a departure?
Andersson: I say so, but I don’t know if it’s possible. Maybe I’m trapped in a style, but I really want to change it a little, actually.
Filmmaker: With Giliap, you changed your style drastically – the opposite, I’ve read, of what they wanted you to do following Swedish Love Story.
Filmmaker: Does that mean, in making Love Story, your style was somehow untrue to yourself? Or is it more like you just grew out of it?
Andersson: For me, it’s absolutely impossible to make a movie in that realistic European style, as a love story. Impossible.
Filmmaker: So we can deduce your next film will not be a love story.
Andersson: No. And I wonder if I can ever move the camera again. I would like to, but I tried already. It gets worse.
Filmmaker: How do you mean, it gets worse?
Andersson: To move the camera.
Filmmaker: You conducted tests, or experiments? You shot whole scenes?
Andersson: Because people say, “Ah, you repeat yourself all the time, with your fixed camera.” (waving his hands in the air) Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’ll try. And I have tried. And you lose something, if you move the camera. To be honest, I’m not sure what.
Filmmaker: I guess my thought is, it’s easier to agree to move the camera constantly or not at all. It’s the in-between that’s tricky.
Andersson: Well, Iñárritu — the director who made Birdman — his camera is moving all the time. And it’s so excellently made. So I’m not sure if I will keep the fixed camera all the time, I’m not sure. What I absolutely will not do, what I don’t want, is to cut into the face, the so-called insert. No. No. Never. That’s impossible.
Filmmaker: As an American, I look very jealously at European countries’ arts funding, even today. But in 1995, you wrote the following: “Film reform today, along with significant portions of Swedish television, is responsible for the achievement of letting the Swedish people pay, with their own money, for their own growing stupidity.” Is this a reference to challenging films needing support, or…?
Andersson: Yeah. (laughs) The state subsidies for films, they were all misused. And are still. They’re making bad movies with state money.
Filmmaker: Without naming names — you think this is still true, 20 years later?
Andersson: It’s worse, now. There is a new generation coming up; they want to be famous, above all. They don’t want to make something serious or important; above all, they want to be famous. I was also, of course, attracted by being famous, but nowadays, that’s what young filmmakers want, and it doesn’t matter what they do. It’s hard to say so, but that’s my opinion. There are exceptions, of course, but not many. You know, we have to pay back subsidies from the state if the movie’s running well and earning money. So, it’s not a total gift.
Filmmaker: So the films are no longer good because their makers care more about getting a Hollywood deal than they do about form?
Filmmaker: Did you ever get a Hollywood deal?
Andersson: I did. After Swedish Love Story, they asked me if I could imagine making a movie in Hollywood. I met a producer from Universal at Cannes and we had a discussion. It was a movie about people working at the ferryboat between France and England. Now, I had a story already, but I had a little hubris at that time, so I said, “Yes, I want to. Can you arrange it so I can have Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Burton?” When the producer heard that, I think he said, “This man has hubris.” It didn’t lead to anything.
Filmmaker: So you wanted to be famous too.
Andersson: No! I really loved them. Burton and Taylor, at that time, fantastic actors. But of course, it’s always what happens after you get a little bit of success.
Filmmaker: Can you tell me a little about the World War II scene in Pigeon, with this song about “Limping Lotta”?
Andersson: I sang that song when I was a child, it was very well known. “Ten cents for a shot of liquor”: that was very famous, even when we were kids. I don’t know if it ever existed, that restaurant you see in the film. I’ve tried to examine that background, but nobody knows exactly where that restaurant was.
Filmmaker: It’s receded into myth.
Andersson: Yes, yes. And some people say, maybe Limping Lotta was a prostitute. However, the song was very popular and still is.
Filmmaker: To me this was the closest thing in Pigeon to a moment of reconciliation. It changes the way you look at the bar for the rest of the movie in a brief moment. Even if the camera angle remains the same.
Andersson: Because I felt it was a very nice song for poor soldiers at that time. They had no money, so they could get a shot of liquor in exchange for a kiss. A beautiful idea; I really found it beautiful to visualize.
Filmmaker: Is it still true that you prefer to work with non-actors?
Andersson: I started my career with a mixture, 50-50. Now, this last movie is 80% amateurs, 20% professionals. But I’m not fixed, not orthodox. What I look for is authenticity. I found more of it among people on the street than among professional actors. I mean, there are 10 million inhabitants of Sweden, which is 10 million characters, and we have only, let’s say, 5,000 actors. The source is much richer among amateurs.
Filmmaker: But when you’re doing 30, 40, 50 takes, isn’t it more difficult with someone inexperienced?
Andersson: That’s a misunderstanding. It’s not easier with a professional — I would say it’s contrary. Because they are fixed to a style when they work professionally, they’re stuck. I wouldn’t say the amateurs are more authentic than the professionals, but if I use a professional, I want them to be authentic. I really hate to use professionals with a certain character we have already met in another movie or on television. I want them in a totally new situation. Then it’s possible to use actors.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the Poltava sequence. If people protested outside cinemas showing Songs From The Second Floor, has it been controversial for you to make fun of a national icon like Charles XII? Do you build up to this moment your entire career, or is it more like, “Ah, it might be fun to…”?
Andersson: He’s an icon for the Swedish people, but also for their Fascist side too. They celebrate his death day every 30th of November. Not so much now, but even ten years ago they had huge celebrations for his death day, especially among fascists, Nazi-influenced people. He’s a symbol for modern Nazism in Sweden, but it’s declining. Now it’s not so much as it was, say, ten years ago. Another thing: you know, there is so much Russophobia in Sweden right now. So I really wanted that scene. You must remember: it was not Russia that attacked Sweden, but the other way around. Because of that, Sweden lost a huge bit of its country — almost a third, almost a half. At that time, Sweden was connected with Finland, and the Baltic states. So because of this king, Sweden lost these countries. But, that’s a good thing.
Filmmaker: Does it bother you to discuss these moments in such a literal way? Sometimes I feel like the goal of these interviews is just to sap a director of the mystery in his work. When it’s playing before your eyes, of course, it’s different — it has spontaneity, energy.
Andersson: You mean the scene with the king?
Filmmaker: Any scene. I don’t know if you read your critics, but — if so, do you find these analyses reductive?
Andersson: To be honest, they haven’t written so much about it in Swedish papers yet. I don’t know why. In other countries, fantastic analysis, very very good ones. Sweden now, the critics are very lazy and superficial, unfortunately. In Spain, for example, in Portugal, and England, and France — so much respect for the scenes. It’s an old expression: you are not a prophet in your own country.