“I want to be unpredictable”: Roy Andersson Interview

A filmmaker sat on a chair reflecting on cinema – we speak to deadpan poet Roy Andersson about his new film and the human condition

Feature by Patrick Gamble | 21 Apr 2015
  • A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

“Why should we care about one another?” This was the slogan of Sweden’s Socialdemokraterna party when eccentric filmmaker Roy Andersson directed their party political commercials in the 1980s. “In the 80s there was a party with very right-wing, anti-immigration opinions,” says the 72 year-old filmmaker. “They knew I was left-wing but they still asked me to make a video for them. I said no! At the time the Right’s attitude was starting to take over. That’s why I decided to take the side of the social democrats and make a electoral movie for them instead.”

The Socialdemokraterna won the election, thanks in part to Andersson’s distinctive blend of absurd comedy and wry social commentary. The same approach is very much present in his new feature, A Pigeon Sat on A Branch Reflecting on Existence. The film focuses on a wide selection of characters displaying various stages of melancholy and a disconcerting habit of staring directly into camera. One running joke sees various characters observed on the phone, morosely declaring, “I’m happy to hear that you’re doing fine.” Andersson’s motley crew of good-for-nothings are unified by a collective sense of hopelessness, something the director hopes to rectify. “I hope to give a voice to the vulnerable and people without self-confidence,” he says. “When I see people who are vulnerable and without confidence I really want to take care of them.”

With Pigeon, Andersson aims to demythologise the idealised image of reality and focus on the world’s dropouts, its misfits and its ignored. Observing humanity’s endless capacity for cruelty and self-humiliation, Andersson presents the audience with 39 tragic sketches that in their totality complete his trilogy about “being human”. There are many questions to ask about this idiosyncratic picture, but the first is thus: why that title? “I was having trouble writing a script,” Andersson says reasonably, “then out of the window I saw a pigeon sat in a tree looking in at me and I thought maybe that pigeon also has problems about existence. What’s the meaning of being a pigeon?”

Andersson continues to make commercials to fund his work, yet his films act to appropriate the language of advertising as a comment on feelings of alienation and despondency. “My work with commercials has helped me become secure with my style, especially when you only have 30 seconds to tell a story; you have to be economical,” he says. “I struggle with my conscience of course, and I’ve been accused many times by people of my generation of selling out. But I never want to repeat this image of the happy family that eat corn flakes together in the morning with the perfect dog in their perfect home, wearing perfect clothes. I like to mix tragedy with comedy because I want you as a spectator to be insecure. You should never be trustful, you should always be surprised. I want to be unpredictable.”

Described by the Village Voice as a “slapstick Ingmar Bergman”, a lot has been written about Anderrson’s distinctive style. Rendered in clean, unhurried lines, with a precision that’s anatomical yet emotional, there’s a striking similarity in his work to the oil paintings of American artist Edward Hopper – a similarity Andersson relishes. “Edward Hopper, he’s also talking about existence but he’s describing loneliness in New York. But New York is such a big city, so why are the people lonely? I have a philosophy that I employ in my work; I call it ‘the human being and his room’. To me, the room’s role is much more significant than you imagine. Wide shots fascinate me far more than close-ups because they tell within the space what values you have, what tastes you have. For me, it describes a lot more about you than your face.”

So is Andersson a tortured artist caught in the body of a filmmaker, or a filmmaker trying to create art within cinema? “I always wanted to be a painter, but then I also wanted to be a author and a musician,” he reveals. “When I was 40 I started playing guitar because my team were young and played rock’n’roll. I bought an electric guitar and joined the young people and jammed a lot after shooting. But I’m also very interested in art history. Art history has so many subjects that you can just stand in front of and look at for hours. It’s very rare in film that you get such rich scenes. I felt that movies should also have this quality and that’s what I’ve tried to develop with this style.”

There’s no great drama in Andersson’s work, with each of his stark dioramas precariously balanced between the picturesque and the vulgar, yet there’s a certain truth contained within the frame. “I want to purify the pictures of our lives, our existence,” he says. “I sometimes quote Matisse; he said, ‘take away everything that is not necessary for the idea.’ So I search for some kind of simplicity, some clarity. I see it as a process of reduction.”

“If you trust only capitalism, where people can exploit one another endlessly, then you will loose your respect for other people” – Roy Andersson

The weight of history can be felt throughout the film, encumbering the narrative with an inescapable sense of guilt. In one scene we’re situated at a bar enjoying a quiet drink with the locals before being transported back to 1943 for a wartime knees-up where sailors exchange kisses for vodka, while in another we bear witness as a group of slaves are forced into a copper cylinder balanced above burning coals. “I’m so interested in history, especially periods in history when people have behaved badly to one another,” he says. "I have this feeling of collective guilt – I mean, the Second World War, Germany and the holocaust! I was not there, I was only just born, yet in spite of that I feel guilt for it because as a representative of the human race I have a collective guilt.”

Andersson’s film could be seen as an attempt to reconcile and through comedy expose the cruelty of humanity while giving a voice to the oppressed. “I read a very interesting book, Guilt and Guilt Feelings, by Martin Buber. He was an Austrian-born, Israeli Jewish philosopher, one of my favorites. He talked about that feeling of guilt. He said if you commit a crime to a human, be it collectively or individually, you have committed a crime against existence. He said you can only be forgiven in one way: by making good in another time and an another place. It’s a very optimistic perspective.”

A surrealist with a penchant for tragedy and astringent humour, Andersson may place his characters in hopeless situations but they’re very much rooted in real life, and while 30 years have passed since he adapted his style to fight a political battle, he remains very much focused on contemporary concerns. “If you trust only capitalism, where people can exploit one another endlessly, then you will lose your respect for other people,” he says. “Feeling lost, or like a stranger; having no sense of home – these feelings of alienation are the most prominent feelings of our time.” A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence may not hold the answers to society’s innumerable problems but it does raise the familiar question: Why should we care about one another?

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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is released 24 Apr by Curzon Film World