With ABOUT ENDLESSNESS, Roy Andersson adds to his cinematic oeuvre with a reflection on human life in all its beauty and cruelty, its splendour and banality.
We wander, dreamlike, gently guided by our Scheherezade-esque narrator. Inconsequential moments take on the same significance as historical events: a couple floats over a war-torn Cologne; on the way to a birthday party, a father stops to tie his daughter’s shoelaces in the pouring rain; teenage girls dance outside a cafe; a defeated army marches to a prisoner of war camp.
Simultaneously an ode and a lament, ABOUT ENDLESSNESS presents a kaleidoscope of all that is eternally human, an infinite story of the vulnerability of existence.
Having been involved with filmmaking for 18 years (the time in film school included), dealing exclusively with a realistic/naturalistic aesthetic, I felt I had hit at a dead end with limited opportunities for innovation and development. The year was 1985, and I was ready to abandon film as a means of expression. Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist Bicycle Thieves would never be surpassed. It had everything as far as I was concerned.
Certainly there were other films that both interested and fascinated me greatly, such as the later works by Luis Buñuel and Federico Fellini, but the highly abstract cinematic language of these films was something I felt I lacked the aptitude for. Until I dared give it a try!
I wouldn’t say that I’ve given up realism/naturalism for good. Elements of these forms of expression are of course also present in abstract film. But finding the courage to take the plunge into the world of abstraction, was something I found enormously liberating. With abstraction’s help, I was able to let the living talk to and meet with the dead in Songs from the Second Floor. It also allowed me to achieve total freedom of expression as it can manifest itself in the dream world of You, the Living.
It has enabled me to tell stories about us and about our time in spectacularly anachronistic scenes, such as in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, where the Swedish King Charles XII is on his way to Russia with his army in 1708 but makes a brief stop at a suburban bar in the present day because the king is thirsty. Following the crushing defeat at Poltava, the shattered remnants of the Swedish army pass by the same bar on the way home. The king has to use the toilet, which unfortunately turns out to be occupied.
Sources of Inspiration
There have been many sources of inspiration for this project About Endlessness. But I would like to mention two that have been particularly significant.
One of the most celebrated works of Arabic literature is without doubt the collection of stories One Thousand and One Nights. When the Persian King Shahryar discovered that his wife had been unfaithful, he wanted to take revenge on all of womankind by wedding a new bride each day, only to have them beheaded the following morning. Eventually, a young woman named Scheherazade became his bride. But he didn’t have her killed because she began telling him a story on their wedding night that he absolutely wanted to hear the end of.
Thus, Scheherazade managed to postpone her own execution for a thousand and one days, by which time the King had started to grow fond of her and wanted to stay married to her. My hope and ambition in this project, is for the scenes to be so interesting and fascinating that people will want to see more of them as soon as they’ve seen one, and that they will never want them to stop.
In short, we should feel like King Shahryar when he hears something through Scheherazade that seems inexhaustible, namely human existence, everything that it means to be human. The scenes in this film will naturally be fascinating in and of themselves, but it is the scope of the composition of the scenes that will generate the impression of being inexhaustible.
There is an object that appears in Greek mythology that is known as the horn of plenty. It is a goat’s horn filled with items that signify wealth and abundance. It is usually depicted as overflowing with a profusion of produce and fruits of all kinds, a bounty that, as myth would have it, never dwindles, that is the very embodiment of infinite inexhaustibility.
I feel that art, art history plays the role of a horn of plenty, encompassing within it the entire scope of what it means to be human. I must confess that I have often felt a certain envy for this richness of the fine arts. Of course there are films that are almost on a par with the great masterpieces of fine arts, but they are few in my opinion.
I have now envisioned that this film should be driven forward by means of a storyteller, a Scheherazade. I have on a few previous occasions created scenes that depict what a person has just recounted. But I have not yet tried using a voiceover in the scene being watched. There are a number of examples from film history that show how well this can work, including some incredible sequences in Alain Resnais´s Hiroshima mon amour where Margurite Duras´s monologue text is narrated over the silent, beautiful visuals.
Sometimes this narration is pure monologue, but often it takes the form of dialogue exchanges between the main character, a French actress who is in Hiroshima to shoot a film about the devastation caused by the atomic bomb, and a Japanese man who is temporarily on his own in the city as his family is away on holiday.
A relationship develops between the two of them during the short time they are together.
The dialogue between them is sparse but pithy. The man keeps repeating that she hasn’t seen anything in Hiroshima. But she answers that she’s seen everything there is to see in the museums. The man responds insistently that she hasn’t seen anything. “You haven’t seen anything in Hiroshima.”
The narration in About Endlessness should be done by a woman, a young woman, but one whose voice exudes life experience and wisdom, like the voice of a fairy. She recounts everything she’s seen. But she’s not telling a specific person, as happens in Hiroshima mon amour. She’s telling those of us who are watching the film. Her voice is bright and calm. She’s not trying to convince us of anything. She describes what we see taking place in the scene, but she does so in the imperfect tense, i.e. what we see taking place on the screen, she describes as if she’s already witnessed it.
But she also tells us about something we don’t see.
If, for example, we see a man waiting for a bus, she might provide additional information about the man’s profession. She can tell us that there is a man waiting for the bus. But if she says that there’s a shoemaker waiting for the bus, then the perspective widens and the scene becomes richer and often more humorous.
There will also be three scenes in this film that have been inspired by the French-Russian artist Marc Chagall. Five times we see a young couple floating above cities and landscapes that have been ravaged by war. The narrator says that she has seen this young couple. The floating couple symbolizes innocence.
There are finished sketches for all the scenes in the film except specifically for a few of these five. Here instead I have used historical photos that show how the scenes are intended to look. The reason for this is that they are so wide in scope that my sketches cannot do them justice.
Style and shooting technique
With About Endlessness I want to continue to develop a cinematic language that is pared-down, simplified, refined, distilled, or however you choose to describe it. That’s what I mean by the expression abstraction. I strive to achieve that refinement, that simplification that is characteristic of our memories or our dreams.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to achieve this using a classic “shooting on location” aesthetic. I have always preferred, and still prefer, to create and shoot all the scenes in a studio. It’s very costly and time consuming, but I feel that it’s worth it.
This refinement endeavor isn’t focused solely on the visuals. I also strive to refine and simplify the scenery as well as the dialogue. Since this film is carried forward to a large extent by a storyteller, a narrator, it becomes possible to reduce the role of dialogue. Thus the film becomes more visual than my previous ones. I want my accompanying sketches to provide a visual explanation and clarification of the scenes, and in that sense to assume the role of a treatment.
I have never finalized the dialogue in my films until I’ve known who’s going to actually speak the dialogue. The dialogue should be short and precise, and possess a very special dimension of its own that leaves us feeling uncertain as to whether there isn’t at times a touch of humor even in the most serious situations.