P.O.V. No.26 - Humor in Film and TV

In the light of darkness
- a note on Roy Andersson's influences

Per Fikse

Displaying the absurdity of modern existence with a subtle humour that has been compared to that of Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka and Buster Keaton, Swedish film director Roy Andersson finally made a name for himself internationally with the feature Sånger från andra våningen (Songs from the Second Floor, 2000). More recently he has followed this up with You the Living (2007).

Although he made use of humour throughout his work, to label the films of Andersson comedy would be horribly misleading. Still, they provoke more laughter than many films unmistakably belonging to the comedy genre. What is this kind of humour that he makes use of, and where can we find the origins of this specific mode of the absurd?

Roy Andersson
After two brilliant features in the early 70's (En kärlekshistoria/A Swedish Love Story, 1970 and Giliap, 1975), but lacking financial support, Andersson had to resort to making advertising films. In 1985, with the commercial Spjälsängen (which can be translated as The Bed with Rails) for HSB, he found the visual and narrative style that from then on would be his trademark.

But it was through two magnificent shorts that he fully developed the striking qualities of his artistic expression.

Någonting har hänt (Something Happened, 1987, 24 min.) was initially commissioned by the Swedish health authorities as an information film on AIDS, but the support was withdrawn when they became aware of the direction the film had taken. Luckily, Andersson was able to finish it, though in a somewhat shorter form than planned and with some delays.

The next short, Härlig är jorden (World of Glory, 1991, 14 min.) was commissioned by the Gothenburg Film Festival.

In these two shorts, everything we have come to identify as the 'Anderssonesque' is fully in place. Visually - the static scenes, the long takes with stationary camera in deep focus and wide angle lens. And also the mood - the bleak, cold depiction of the all too well-regulated Scandinavian society, so rigid that it is on the verge of falling apart. These are two superb portrayals of the absurdity of modern human existence.

But these depictions would have been unbearable without the resonances of humour throughout. It is in the sublime balance between the life-shattering seriousness (the Holocaust opening of Härlig är jorden) and the deadpan caricature (the lecture on the origins of AIDS in Någonting har hänt) that Andersson's real genius is displayed. To be able to see and acknowledge this form of humour demands empathy and a humane attitude on the part of the spectator, and it is the humour that makes the films humane.

Some sources
Andersson himself refers to the Czech New Wave of the 60's as source of inspiration (films like Spalovac mrtvol/The Cremator, Juraj Herz, 1969). Trademarks of the Czech movement are dark and absurd humour and the casting of inexperienced actors. Andersson also uses non-professional performers he has discovered. "I want actors who are believable, who have a body language that is absolutely true. I call them characters instead of actors." [1]

As for the origins of the subtlety of Andersson's humour, the European literary canon may provide some clues.

In the chapter Humor in The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts, Milan Kundera writes about Don Quixote (Cervantes, 1605):

In Don Quixote, we hear a kind of laughter that comes from medieval farces: we laugh at the knight wearing a barber's basin for a helmet, we laugh at his valet when he gets smacked. But alongside that humour, often stereotyped, often cruel, Cervantes gives us the flavour of a very different, more subtle sort of comedy: a good-natured country squire invites Don Quixote to his home, where he lives with his poet son. The son, more lucid than his father, instantly recognises the guest as a madman, and makes an ostentatious point of keeping his distance. Then Don Quixote asks the young man to recite his poetry; eagerly, the fellow acquiesces, and Don Quixote praises his talent to the skies; pleased and flattered, the son is dazzled by the guest's intelligence and promptly forgets his madness. So who is madder, the madman praising the lucid one, or the lucid man who believes the madman's praise? We have moved into another sort of comedy, more delicate and infinitely precious. We are laughing not because someone is being ridiculed, mocked, or humiliated, but because a reality is abruptly revealed as ambiguous, things lose their apparent meaning, people turn out to be different from what they themselves thought they were.

That is humour; the humour that Octavio Paz saw as modernity's great invention, due to Cervantes and the birth of the novel. […][2]

Later authors writing in a similar vein include Franz Kafka and Luigi Pirandello. Although Kafka is considered the incarnation of bleakness, biographer Roy Pascal points out: "Yet there is much humour, even if it is humour of a curious and rather black type." The humour brings out the absurdity of the situations depicted and heightens the tension. "It was also used to create even greater contrasts both in scene and story line, to further emphasize the darkness felt in so many of his stories." [3]

Pirandello, on the other hand, even wrote a long and informative essay on the various aspects of humour in L'umorismo (On Humor, 1908). He later became a highly regarded theatrical experimentalist especially through the play Sei personaggi in cerca d'autore (Six Characters in Search of an Author, 1921) - which can be roughly characterized as satirical tragicomedy, and is an obvious precursor to the type humour that Roy Andersson utilizes. Pirandello is regarded as a precursor for the Theatre of the Absurd. [4]

Sorrow is fun
Now let us look for more direct sources for this balancing on the edge of destruction and chaos with a grin on one's face.

In an interview on Songs from the Second Floor (Aftenposten, Oslo, 7 March 2004), Roy Andersson claimed:

Samuel Beckett said that 'Sorrow is fun'. Brutally put, but there is something there. The scenes are meant to create recognition. And therein lies the source of empathy. And empathy can disarm even the most hateful and aggressive.

In Samuel Beckett's seminal play En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot, 1952), we follow the two tramps Vladimir and Estragon as they pass their time while waiting for the arrival of Godot - an increasingly mysterious figure who never turns up. In the words of Martin J. Esslin:

[Beckett] dealt with human beings in such extreme situations not because he was interested in the sordid and diseased aspects of life but because he concentrated on the essential aspects of human experience. [...] The basic questions for Beckett seemed to be these: How can we come to terms with the fact that, without ever having asked for it, we have been thrown into the world, into being? And who are we; what is the true nature of our self? What does a human being mean when he says 'I'? [5]

Samuel Beckett articulated the sorrow, brutality and despair that was the essence of being human in post-war Europe. But in contrast to many of the full-blown existentialists of his time (such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus), he articulates a feeling as opposed to an idea. And more important here, the humour is present as a backdrop even at the darkest hour. Esslin continues (page 33):

In spite of Beckett's courageous tackling of the ultimate mystery and despair of human existence, he was essentially a comic writer. In a French farce, laughter will arise from seeing the frantic and usually unsuccessful pursuit of trivial sexual gratifications. In Beckett's work, as well, a recognition of the triviality and ultimate pointlessness of most human strivings, by freeing the viewer from his concern with senseless and futile objectives, should also have a liberating effect. The laughter will arise from a view of pompous and self-important preoccupation with illusory ambitions and futile desires. Far from being gloomy and depressing, the ultimate effect of seeing or reading Beckett is one of cathartic release, an objective as old as theatre itself.

Deadpan: The Buster Keaton-Samuel Beckett link
His biographers describe Beckett as a devoted follower of the movie comedians in the 20's and 30's, and of Buster Keaton in particular. [6] Keaton was "the 'Great Stone Face' of the silent screen, known for his deadpan expression and his imaginative and often elaborate visual comedy".[7] Deadpan is a form of non-comedic delivery in which humour is presented without a change in emotion or facial expression.

Along with being an obvious source of inspiration for the acting style in Beckett's plays, Keaton also was the choice for lead role in the only movie that Beckett made, Film (1965, 20 minutes, officially directed by Alan Schneider, but co-directed by Beckett according to Schneider).

And as a curiosity, let us mention the feature The Lovable Cheat (1949, directed by Richard Oswald, based on a play by Balzac), in which Buster Keaton plays a small part and the plot involves endlessly waiting for the return of the patron's financial partner by the name of …Godot.

Chaos: The Theatre of the Absurd
The "original" absurdist was Alfred Jarry, whose wild, irreverent and lecherous play Ubu Roi (Ubu the King, 1896) scandalized Paris.

The term "Theatre of the Absurd" was coined by Martin J. Esslin (Theatre of the Absurd, 1961). Esslin called Beckett, Jean Genet and Eugène Ionesco "absurd," claiming that they better captured the meaninglessness of existence in their plays than did Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus in their respective writings. Esslin also mentions early film comedians such as The Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton as direct influences. [8]

A conclusion
Above I have mentioned some of the sources of Roy Andersson's humour on the edge of chaos. The subtle, humane humour from Cervantes via Kafka and Pirandello. The deadpan comedy through Buster Keaton via Samuel Beckett, adding a fair amount of existentialism along the way. And finally I have looked briefly at the origins of this mode of the absurd, again involving Pirandello and Beckett.

Within the medium of film, though, Andersson's reference to The Czech New Wave of the 60's might be the closest we get to a genuine source.

1 New York Times, July 5, 2002.

2Milan Kundera, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007), pp. 106-107. Translated from French by

3Roy Pascal, Kafka's Narrators: A Study of His Stories and Sketches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 40.

4"Luigi Pirandello," John Humphreys Whitfield. Encyclopædia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2007), vol. 9, pp.

5"Samuel Beckett," Martin J. Esslin. Encyclopædia Britannica (Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2007), vol. 2, pp. 32-33.

6James R. Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 71.

7"Buster Keaton", Ed. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved July 20, 2008, from: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/314015/Buster-Keaton

8Martin J. Esslin, Theatre of the Absurd (New York: Doubleday, 1961), pp. 327-398.

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