This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Songs from the Second Floor (2000), written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, may be the most impressive translation of Samuel Beckett’s sensibility to the screen. It is a series of absurdist allegorical vignettes that satirize the folly and anomie of contemporary life. The central character is a middle-aged salesman (Lars Nordh) who is cracking under life’s pressures. His mantra is a line from the poet César Vallejo: “Blessed is the one who sits down.” Unfortunately, he never gets to relax. Eager for a fresh start, he torches his furniture store to collect the insurance money. But he has no idea of what to do next, and he eventually decides to sell crucifixes for a living. Meanwhile, the world appears headed towards apocalypse: an inexplicable traffic jam paralyzes the city; office workers march in groups flagellating each other; and corpses come back to haunt the living over money owed when alive. The pillars of society are desperate and collapsing as well. The national board of economists looks to a crystal ball in order to formulate policy, and a corporation conducts a human sacrifice to save itself from ruin. In the film’s opening scene, a character says, “This is a new day and age.” In some ways, what follows makes that seem an understatement. But in others, the world Andersson shows comes across as only a slightly skewed version of the one we live in. Daily stresses lead people down odd roads, and they eventually go along in a state of shellshock. Life seems meaningless, and as with Beckett, that meaninglessness is conveyed by absurdist pursuits and occurrences. Like Jim Jarmusch, Andersson approximates Beckett’s tone of comic deadpan with single-take scenes filmed with a stationary camera. He makes it feel like the camera is as dazed by the goings-on as the characters. Everything comes across as arch and unreal, which, as in Beckett, abstracts the horror and despair to the point of making it deeply, darkly funny. The picture gets under one’s skin, and the macabre images and set pieces are indelible.