In many ways this film is unconventional compared to other short fiction films. Typically we meet one or two central characters who aim at specific goals and have to make several crucial decisions in order to achieve these goals. In this film, however, the main character, Natan, seems completely unable to make decisions on his own, even regarding rather trivial matters. Still, I find this film to be worth watching and even find that it generates an emotional resonance within the spectator.
In this article I attempt to explain the specific qualities of this film that contribute to making the story interesting and moving. I demonstrate how the main characters are presented and how they interact, and examine the subject of the story, arguing that it can be seen as reflecting man in modern society. I also claim that through their visual appearance and actions, the characters (Viggo and Natan) symbolize the fundamental human traits of rationality and emotionality. The use of visual codes from the documentary genre enhances the notion that in a twisted way this story might mirror the society of today, perhaps also explaining why we accept a fundamentally weak main character.
The story is about a Swedish man called Natan, who has just been employed in a grill bar. He seems to be very insecure and awkward serving the customers, and the situation worsens when the manager interferes, resulting in the owner (Viggo) firing Natan. However, out of a guilty conscience Viggo catches up with Natan, gives him a hot dog, and offers him a ride home. In the car Natan tells Viggo that he lives by himself and therefore has considered buying a dog. Without actually finding out whether Natan wants him to, Viggo takes on the task of getting Natan a dog. Viggo arranges a meeting with a lady named Sabina, who also lives on her own, apart from the dog she has put up for sale. During the entire visit Viggo controls the chain of events, with the result that Natan runs out the door and hides in a nearby forest. While Viggo is searching the forest Natan returns to the house and experiences a quiet moment with Sabina and the dog for the first time, and Sabina tells Natan that she thinks he is capable of relating to other people. Viggo returns and immediately starts to complain about him running away, and Natan tries to argue with him but without much luck. Right after this Viggo waits impatiently to drive on and constantly tells Natan to get in the car. Sabina proposes that Natan spend the night at her place and make up his mind about the dog later on. Natan accepts her offer and Viggo hurries on.
As a main character Natan is very unusual because he plays the part of the victim, evoking compassion instead of fascination. He seems slow-witted, irresolute, and to lack initiative in every way. He doesn't seem to be able to make up his mind on trivial matters like wanting/ not wanting things, perhaps due to low self-esteem and uncertainty about his ability to function in society. Physically he is lanky with tousled hair; this, along with his harelip and bulging eyeballs, evokes an image of him as retarded, and throughout most of the film his articulation is very unclear, further underlining this prejudice. Natan is not able to deal with Viggo's manipulation of his willpower until the end of the story. Until then Viggo decides everything - for instance, that they would drink coffee instead of tea and that Natan should try having the dog on his lap. Viggo humiliates him further by constantly pointing out that he should at least be able to make a decision on these simple matters. Sabina doesn't like what she sees, and she tries to help Natan by saying that he should be given the time needed to make up his mind. In reaction to the mounting pressure Natan runs away to hide in the forest, where he isolates himself from the problem (Viggo) and the pressure resulting from all the decisions he has to make. Later he returns to Sabina and the dog, managing to show an interest in the dog as well as her company. As mentioned above, Natan is socially insecure, which might explain his irresoluteness. Sabina senses this and by being able to see through this she discovers his human qualities. She shows him great understanding and lets him generate his own opinions, which provides him with enough strength to contradict Viggo when he returns, although it doesn't have much effect in the actual situation. Afterwards, however, the big trial awaits: Natan's hasty choice between staying with Sabina or moving on with Viggo. Viggo makes this decision difficult by impatiently commanding Natan to get in the car, but Natan chooses not to follow Viggo and everything he represents, turning instead towards the human values Sabina represents. This decision is the culmination of the story.
Rather than dismissing Natan as a poor retarded man whom we can only pity, it might be more interesting and rewarding to regard him as a sensuous person who for some reason is rather incompetent when it comes to rational actions and choices. One example from the film that serves to illustrate this occurs during the ride in the car: Natan is sitting in the back seat looking out the window at the landscape rapidly passing by. We hear a brief musical motif that suggests the significance of the situation given the limited use of music in the film. He differs greatly from Viggo, who is performing several actions like driving the car and calling Sabina to arrange to stop by and see the dog. The visual composition also underlines this contrast: Natan's position in the back seat of the car reduces him to a child, as opposed to 'the parent' in the front seat making all the decisions on future events. If the two men were equal they would sit next to each other, both taking part in the journey. Through this contrast it becomes clear that Natan is (or simply just exists) rather than acts. And, although Natan sometimes tends to slip into a remote state of mind, as in the example just mentioned, in the scene where he is alone with Sabina and the dog we experience a strong sense of him being present in the moment. In other words, the present rather than the future characterizes Natan, while Viggo only has his mind on the future.
Viggo differs from Natan in every respect. Viggo is overstuffed, so to speak, probably suffering from stress and, it seems, generally physically unhealthy. This unflattering picture is drawn right from the beginning when he fires Natan while eating a hot dog. The sonorous quality of his voice affected by a large lump of hot dog contributes tremendously to our negative picture of him. And his constant shortness of breath enhances our notion of his excess weight as unhealthy.
Another telling picture is the headrest in the car, which is covered by a towel, probably because Viggo sweats a lot or has greasy hair. After this negative first impression of Viggo, we begin to think better of him when he decides to help Natan, first by offering him a ride home and then by helping him get a dog. Whether Viggo does this out of a guilty conscience because he just fired Natan or he does it out of genuine compassion for this poor fellow, we can only guess. However, the problem is that even though he invests time in helping Natan, he takes no time to really listen to what Natan is trying to say. Natan says that he has thought about getting a dog, adding, "More and more I reckon that I would like to have…" Viggo interrupts by saying, "Then get one! What's stopping you?" I think the open ending of this second sentence is important to our interpretation. Viggo automatically fills in the word 'dog', but if Natan was about to say "someone", then a dog would just be a poor substitute. This situation appears crucial to our understanding of the relationship between the two men, and it demonstrates that Viggo doesn't actually hear what Natan is really trying to say. Another problem is that Viggo acts on behalf of Natan and in so doing pacifies him. Viggo also seems to believe that there is a rational and often materialistic solution to any problem: Because of the dismissal notice and the rough tone in the grill bar Natan is depressed, but it will cheer him up if he gets a hot dog and a ride home. Later, Natan's loneliness can be solved by getting him a dog.
Since Viggo is presented as strong, domineering and energetic, and at the same time unhealthy and unpleasant, we are more likely to accept a weak main character. Furthermore, Natan shows much more strength when he finally stands up to Viggo, because the power of his opponent is overwhelming. I find it obvious that Viggo is a caricature of modern man: He is energetic, successful (owns a chain of grill bars), and he solves problems right away by using his cell phone and car, but on the other hand he has a stressful life and suffers from obesity.
Sabina seems to be an empathetic woman who takes the time needed to listen to Natan. Maybe she mirrors herself in Natan's loneliness, and she might be less interested in helping him out of pity than relating to him as a human being. She emits a motherly warm-heartedness and calmness which gives Natan a feeling of confidence. She also appears to be a good judge of character since she sees Natan's human traits in the way he touches the dog. Sabina plays the role of helper, evoking the processes that initially give him the courage to contradict Viggo and then to choose to stay with her. She is positioned between the two men since she communicates well with Viggo at his rational level of action, but she is also able to reach Natan at his linguistically limited level of being. She cannot solve the conflict that emerges between these different levels; this is Natan's task. However, she helps him create a foundation of confidence, where he finds the strength to make the right decision at the end of the film.
Description of a sequence
To back up my previous observations and as a basis for further reflection on the relations between the characters and the meaning of the film viewed in a broader context, I will now analyse the sequence in which Natan hides in the forest and later returns to Sabina and her dog. I will begin with a shot-by-shot breakdown of the sequence.
- Close shot of Sabina who points out the window and says that Natan is leaving.
- Close shot of Viggo seen from behind as he goes out the door.
- Over Viggo's shoulder with Natan in the distance. He begins to run when Viggo calls out his name.
- Low angle close up of Viggo's face. He commands Natan to slow down.
- Close-up of Sabina's face. She looks worried.
- Medium shot of Natan running into the forest.
- Low angle medium shot of Viggo trying to find his bearings. A bird cries.
- Close shot of Viggo from behind. He complains about this silly game of hide and seek.
- Close shot of Viggo from the left, still talking. He nearly stumbles and the camera makes a sudden movement and zooms out.
- Close shot of Natan from the left. He is sitting hunched over with his head against a stone. Viggo calls out his name, which is only answered by a bird's cry.
- Full shot with Natan in the lower right corner leaning up against the stone in a fetal position and Viggo walking in the upper left corner. Between them the ground is covered with ferns.
- Close-up of Natan in the same position. His eye line runs diagonally to the lower left corner. We hear three notes from an accordion in a downward movement. When the second note of this little motif is heard Viggo calls his name again, and the sunlight flashes in the camera lens producing a star-like effect.
- Full shot of Sabina on the sofa with the dog next to her. Her body forms a line running from the lower left corner to the upper right corner. Her line of sight runs to the right. The musical motif fades out and we hear an off-screen noise.
- Full shot of Natan standing on the doorstep. The camera backs away a little bit and off screen Sabina says, "Come on in and have a seat".
- Close shot of Sabina. The camera pans immediately to Natan entering the living room.
- Full shot of them sitting on the sofa with the dog between them. Sabina asks if he wants to stroke the dog.
- Close shot of Sabina looking kindly at him.
- Close-up of Natan's hand shaking slightly while gently reaching for the dog. The camera moves closer to the hand.
- Full shot of Natan alternately looking at Sabina and the dog. She remarks that the dog likes his petting it.
- Close up of Natan's hand stroking the dog. Again the camera moves closer to the hand.
- Full shot of Sabina saying that Natan has good hands.
- Close-up of Sabina's face seen from the right. The camera moves down to a close-up of Natan's hand still stroking the dog. She says, "You're good with animals…"
- Close reaction shot of Natan.
- Close-up of Natan's hand. Sabina continues, "and with people I think."
- Close-up of Natan's face; he asks, "You think so?", and she answers, "Yes".
- Close-up of Sabina's face. Her expression verifies what she just said.
- Close-up reaction shot of Natan's face showing that her words have a great emotional effect. The intimacy is interrupted by the off-screen sound of the kitchen door opening.
- Full shot of Viggo entering and complaining about Natan running away.
On the basis of this detailed description it is possible to observe some subtle yet effective compositional dispositions that create or enhance the relation between Sabina and Natan. When we see a close-up of Sabina's worried face (shot 5) clearly observing someone and then a cut to Natan running into the forest (shot 6), we understand that shot 6 is Sabina's p.o.v. Recollecting her facial expression we might conclude that Sabina has a genuine feeling of compassion for Natan and the fact that he is not able to verbally defend himself against Viggo.
The juxtaposition of the close up of Natan leaning against the stone (shot 12) and the full shot of Sabina in the living room (shot 13) also suggests a relation between the two characters and thus anticipates the following scene. Natan has taken refuge in nature, away from the cultural values represented by Viggo. This is symbolized by the fetal position, which is best seen in shot 11. This position and his eye line create the impression of him looking at Sabina. Furthermore, the position of her body creates a diagonal that points back at Natan as if she is "reaching" for him, and her eye line points in his direction. If there had been a transition the effect might not have been this subtle, but even with the straight cut our short-term memory is perfectly capable of matching the images. The brief musical motif enhances our perception of a connection since it continues over the cut and as a result glues the shots together. Again, the music highlights the situation due to the otherwise rare occurrence of music in the film. In addition to this is the flash of sunlight in shot 12, which can be interpreted as a sign that Natan has found strength in nature to return to Sabina, or perhaps as a guiding star that heralds hope for Natan's loneliness.
The dog is the direct connection between Natan and Sabina. It represents nature and thus forms a relatively safe first step for Natan in the process of making contact with another human being. The hand is an another important metaphor in this film. We see Natan's hand stroking the dog several times in a close up (shot 18, 20, 22 and 24); the camera also moves closer, focusing our attention and emphasizing the importance of the touch. In addition, Sabina reads his human traits into the way his hand touches the dog, emphasizing this by pointing out that he has good hands and that he is good with animals and with people as well. Between the lines she is saying that he has value as a human being and therefore he shouldn't be afraid to communicate with other people. Shot 27 shows us that her words create a strong emotional resonance within Natan. The hand thus becomes a metaphor for his emotional depth and human traits. In this context the word touch has two meanings: on one level we can touch another human being in a tactile manner even without emotional involvement; on another, we can touch another human being emotionally, which doesn't necessarily require a tactile action (like a word or a smile). According to Sabina, Natan is able to navigate on both levels - unlike Viggo, who only navigates on the level without the emotional involvement. Another interesting aspect of the expression "good hands" is that it normally refers to an ability to create something valuable of a physical kind, but in this case good hands becomes synonymous with emotional value and depth.
As mentioned above, Natan is a sensuous person who has a hard time functioning in a modern society based on rationality. This is clearly demonstrated in the beginning when Natan is incapable of managing a fairly simple job. Here we cannot speak of good hands in the ordinary sense considering that Natan is not able to open a plastic bag without scissors. Viggo, on the other hand, clearly doesn't possess these human qualities and the ability to sense, as demonstrated when he picks up the dog - it twists and struggles in order to get down, only calming down when Viggo places it on Natan's lap. It is no coincidence, I think, that our ability to sense is represented by the hand, since as children some of our first cognitive knowledge of the world is obtained through tactile sensations in the hands. Knowledge obtained through our senses is a fundamental notion in phenomenology, one of whose leading figures is the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who builds his theory on an idea of the human body. He claims that as subjects we sense and obtain knowledge of the world through our body, and afterwards we are able to reflect upon the knowledge obtained. The world cannot be explained and understood only by means of reflection; the point of departure is information collected through our senses. Another fundamental concept is that the body is considered as 'being in the world', which means that there is no separation between the subject and the world that would allow us to grasp the world in an objective manner and thus perform a rational action. In relation to this, Natan, as mentioned above, can be seen as person just being and sensing, who after a while might act or make a decision. We might say that he demonstrates this kind of phenomenological process in slow motion. Another reason why phenomenology is worth mentioning is that it builds on a holistic concept of human beings consisting of both a rational and an emotional dimension, and in this way it can be seen as framing the conflict between Viggo and Natan.
If we accept the idea that Natan is a natural, sensuous being representing "soft" humanistic values, then the conflict with Viggo, who represents the rational modern man, appears to be a hidden criticism of modern society. In the realm of Western ideology, rationality prevails, implying that everything can be explained in a logical way and dealt with or treated, and economic powers determine what is feasible. Time is money and therefore the film shows us some of the core symbols of modern life: fast food (hot dogs), cars, cell phones and wristwatches. Coupled with Viggo's and the manager's obesity, it seams reasonable to expect the film to be fairly critical concerning some aspects of modern life. The emotional values that Natan represents have been alienated in rational modern society, or at least suppressed by economic forces and the demand for continuous growth.
The name Natan is related to the Old Testament and the function as prophet or herald. With this in mind we might regard Natan as a herald with the message that we need to focus more on human and spiritual values. The film shows us the negative side of the stress of modern life, with cell phones constantly ringing and people always moving towards new goals instead of focusing on the moment. There is no room for awkward or emotional and sensuous people; yet the film expresses a tiny hope since Natan chooses not to follow Viggo, thereby metaphorically speaking jumping off the train in favour of intimacy and confidence. Consequently, the film illustrates that it can be difficult to juxtapose modern society's demand for constant growth and development with the basic human need for nearness without the pressure of time. The sense of tranquillity and timelessness that characterises the scene in the living room is partly achieved through the way in which the camera is used. For most of the film the camera moves hectically in a documentary-like way, but when we see Natan in the forest leaning against the stone the camera hardly moves. In the living room the camera also moves more gently, which supports the affection that develops between Sabina and Natan. When Viggo returns the camera resumes its hectic pattern of movement, thus creating a strong feeling of contrast when this tender moment in the living room is brutally torn apart. It also illustrates that time is ticking away again. So the two different ways of life represented by Viggo and Natan are illustrated in a subtle manner through the way in which the camera is used.
This conflict is also present in the composition of the picture shown here. Natan has sought refuge in nature and finds peace of mind by just being there, while Viggo is rushing on to find him. The two characters are clearly separated, and through his position in the lower right corner Natan can be associated with the element of earth (the body). On the other hand, Viggo in the upper left corner can be associated with the element of air (the mind, the rational). The film doesn't propose a solution to the dilemma just mentioned, but it lets Natan make the right decision in respect to his actual needs. This might explain why we accept his indecisiveness in the majority of the film, because in most situations he does not have to make crucial decisions, and he is not given enough time to "feel" what decision to make.
I have presented some daring speculations on the enunciation of the film, but I leave it up to the reader to decide how far one should proceed in interpreting this story. I might also have painted too rosy a picture of Natan, as some viewers might consider him to be too dumb and slow for us to really care. I have also emphasized the negative aspects of Viggo's character, paying less attention to the fact that he really tries to help Natan. I find these aspects to be less important compared to the conflict between the two characters, which is obviously important for this story. As mentioned above, the story relates to phenomenology in some respects because it focuses on the way we sense and exist in the world. Natan has good hands, which are perceived metaphorically as good human traits and an ability to sense, but he is also able to touch Sabina (another person) emotionally.
By visually telling the story using codes from the documentary genre (handheld camera and at times very awkward elliptical cuts) the subject matter is elevated from a trivial level, suggesting that this is a story about real people with real problems. Focusing the story in a wretched character and showing it in a documentary-like style is meant to cause us to react with empathy rather than pity, which I believe to be a more detached feeling. Perhaps we will put ourselves in Sabina's place and try to understand Natan rather than just feeling sorry for him. This is an unusual kind of audience engagement compared to the normal identification with a strong and energetic main character, but as mentioned above the composition of visual and auditory elements, has a considerable effect on our experience of engagement in the story and the characters.
1 The subtitle in the film reads: "It's something I feel like doing", which doesn't correspond to what Nathan actually says.
Chion, Michel: Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, New York 1994.
Chion, Michel: The Voice in Cinema, New York 1999 (orig.1982).
Jørholt, Eva: Ind i filmen, Copenhagen 1995.
Grodal, Torben: Filmoplevelse, Frederiksberg 2003.
Lübcke, Poul: Vor tids filosofi - engagement og forståelse, Copenhagen 1982.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice: Kroppens fænomenologi (På dansk ved Bjørn Nake), Frederiksberg 1994.
Raskin, Richard: The Art of the Short Fiction Film, N.C. McFarland 2002.
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