Berlinale 2020 to host conversations between filmmakers, including the wonderfully eccentric Swedish director Roy Andersson
Roy Andersson is genuinely hilarious and truly original as can be deduced from his Living trilogy, which excels in 'absurd' comedy.
It’s always special when filmmakers speak with filmmakers. Two of my favourite books on cinema are François Truffaut’s interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, and Cameron Crowe’s interviews with Billy Wilder.
Sometimes, the questions appear basic, as when Crowe asks: “Who wrote the last line in The Apartment — “Shut up and deal” — you or IAL Diamond?” Sometimes, you see the filmmaker (the filmmaking) in the question, as when Truffaut asks (about Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint in North by Northwest), “Their bodies glide along the panel, making two complete turns as they kiss each other. On the screen it’s absolutely perfect, yet it must have seemed completely illogical during the shooting.”
The Berlinale, this year, presents a live version of such conversations. In a special programme called 'On Transmission,' seven filmmakers — “whose films have shaped the Berlinale," in the words of the festival’s Artistic Director, Carlo Chatrian — have been called upon to select one filmmaker to whom they feel attached and with whom they would like to converse about cinema. Films of both directors will be shown, followed by a discussion. “The result is a programme that is just as fascinating, as it is unexpected: Thanks to the contributions of these 14 directors, both a festival narrative and a vivid picture of cinema are created, documented in a time of audiovisual change,” says Chatrian.
Berlinale award-winner Ildikó Enyedi (On Body and Soul) has picked fellow-Hungarian Zsófia Szilágyi, whose One Day premiered in the Critics’ Week in Cannes, in 2018. From Italy, the Taviani brothers (Caesar Must Die) will be in conversation with Carlo Sironi (Sole). The legendary Margarethe von Trotta, one of the spearheads of New German Cinema — and “the world’s leading feminist filmmaker," as the American writer-filmmaker Ally Acker called her — will present Sheer Madness, and then be in conversation with Ina Weisse (The Architect), one of the few filmmakers on the planet who has admitted to finding Tarkovsky “boring” (She prefers Bergman, Cassavetes, Truffaut).
From China, Jia Zhang-Ke (Artisan Pickpocket) will be in dialogue with Huo Meng (Crossing the Border - Zhaoguan). Claire Denis (35 Shots of Rum) has picked Olivier Assayas, who will show one of his most celebrated films, Irma Vep. (The title, as you may know, is an anagram of “vampire," and the story is about a filmmaker attempting to remake Louis Feuillade's classic silent film serial Les Vampires, which was released in ten episodes over 1915-16.). Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain) will pair up with Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life). And Roy Andersson (A Swedish Love Story) will be seen with Niki Lindroth von Bahr, whose short films will be screened.
Roy Andersson’s session is the one I’d like to attend. The man is a true eccentric, a true original — and I’d love to hear him speak. In one of my favourite interviews of his, published in 2009 on mubi.com, he begins to talk about being influenced by painting and photography. He talks about being fond of all periods in art history, though there are some periods and movements (like expressionism ) he appreciates more. Then, he turns to his present style of lighting without shadows. “There should not be a possibility for people to hide. They should be seen. They should be illuminated all the time. That’s what I mean when I say ‘light without mercy.’ You make the people, the human beings in the movie, very naked.”
You can see this flat cinematographic style in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (what a gloriously eccentric, original title!), which is the third instalment in Andersson’s Living trilogy, following Songs from the Second Floor (2000) and You, the Living (2007). This episodic film — each episode is self-contained, through there’s also an overarching theme — was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Film at the 71st Venice International Film Festival, and you can see why: simply because no other film in Competition offered the sight of a monkey being given a series of shocks in a laboratory, as a scientist by a large window gazes at the city outside, while on a call. “I’m happy to hear you are doing fine,” she tells someone, as the monkey screams.
And this is a comedic sequence — not ha-ha comedy, but something more wry and droll, something that a critic would want to label “absurd."
Like the bit with the monkey, it sounds horrific. Colonial soldiers are whipping African slaves and making them enter a giant drum that looks like it’s made of copper. A fire is lit under the drum, which begins to creak and rotate. A strange music is heard in the background — not the music of terror or sadness, but something that just seems incongruous, as incongruous as the man in an early scene who keels over from what seems to be a heart attack as he attempts to open a bottle of wine.
This is the strange zone Andersson works in, and some may ask: Why is any of this supposed to be “amusing”? Because existence is inherently a joke, perhaps? Talking about A Pigeon Sat on a Branch to the Independent, Andersson said, “Yes, I think all of us are a little frightened (about death). But I wanted to joke about it. I have it in the movie too, one of the main characters is afraid to meet his parents in the afterlife. I don’t know if I’m perverse or not, but I like to joke about it.”
In one of the most hilarious episodes, a man drops dead after placing an order at a restaurant. The order has already been paid for, so the waitress asks if anyone else wants the shrimp sandwich and draught beer. After a pause, a man comes and takes the beer. I mean, why not? Life goes on, no?
Baradwaj Rangan is editor, Film Companion, South.
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