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With: Lars Nordh, Stefan Larsson, Bengt C.W. Carlsson, Sten Andersson
Written by: Roy Andersson
Directed by: Roy Andersson
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Swedish with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 05/01/2000

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Sad 'Songs' Says So Much

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Forget everything you know about current mainstream cinema. Forget plot or storytelling. Think back to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali or Jean-Luc Godard with a dash of Terry Gilliam thrown in. Take that, refrigerate it until it's cold and blue, then add some goofy, odd elevator-type music, and you've got Songs from the Second Floor.

According to the press notes, Swedish writer and director Roy Andersson divides the film up into 64 distinct episodes, all filmed on a huge two-stage studio built just for this film. The result is a strikingly artificial, desensitized view of a dreary gray-blue society on the edge of something and looking down. Several characters turn up again and again, such as a furniture store owner named Karl who's burned his own store to the ground to collect the insurance. Each time we see him, he's covered in soot and ashes.

Karl constantly complains about his store and his son, who apparently, "wrote poetry until he went nuts," and now lives in an institution. The film starts us off with a quote: "blessed is the one who sits down," and this quote is repeated over and over by Karl's other son, a healthy lad who takes over the sick son's taxi driving job.

The problem with driving the taxi is that this particular Swedish town suffers from a seemingly permanent traffic jam. Cars line the streets, honking and blaring, and never moving. The sound of the horns is never far off -- no matter where we are we can hear them. A group of businessmen and women also walk the streets, chanting and thwacking each other with thick chunks of rope.

Despite the smothering dreariness, this somehow all becomes funny. In one bizarre scene, an immigrant searches for someone in an office building and a group of thugs finds him and beats the stuffing out of him. The beating takes place in wide shot with that weird, happy elevator music playing on the soundtrack, and though the scene is amazingly cruel, it struck me as oddly funny.

Likewise the scene of the magician performing the old sawing-a-man-in-half trick; only this time it doesn't work. He actually cuts into the poor man, who spends the rest of the film groaning in pain each time he turns up.

The film uses faith symbols in a similar way. A sleazy salesman at a convention tries to unload his collection of plastic crucifixes, complete with plastic Jesus (in the background, one Jesus comes undone and swings back and forth from one arm). The film takes place just before Y2K, and the salesman's predicting that everyone will turn toward faith. But later, this same salesman tosses all the Jesuses, large and small, onto a trash heap.

Songs from the Second Floor seems to be asking us point blank, "if the world is so grim, what's the reason you get up in the morning?" Is it faith in humanity, or faith in something higher? In one scene, a meeting of corporate giants is interrupted when someone notices the building across the street moving. Everyone rushes to the window except a soothsayer (complete with crystal ball), who stays in her seat. Another symbol of faith perhaps, leaving the "black arts" behind? Or just another joke?

I believe I've only scratched the surface of this bizarre, complex, hilarious, and highly artificial film. The reasons for living are numerous and not something we tend to think about daily. That alone makes Songs from the Second Floor a valuable and rare movie experience.

(This review originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.)

DVD Details: This great DVD comes with more extras that New Yorker normally comes up with: "work in progress" footage, deleted scenes, production notes, a making-of documentary and a director commentary track (in Swedish with English subtitles). It also comes with a Songs from the Second Floor trailer, plus four other trailers for other recent New Yorker releases. This beautiful film probably works better on the big screen, but its still, carefully composed frames will work just fine at home. For some reason, my copy did not come with a counter time code, which always aggravates me to no end...

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