Roy Andersson’s “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence,” which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last fall, concludes the Swedish director’s “Living Trilogy” of movies, all of which are as hilarious as they are melancholic. Andersson’s collage-like portraits of surreal characters and bizarre scenarios, which begins with “Songs from the Second Floor” and continues in “You, the Living,” marks one of the more prolonged comeback stories in recent cinema: After his breakout debut “A Swedish Love Story” in 1970, Andersson ran afoul with his sophomore effort “Giliap” and spent the next several decades mainly directing commercials. “Songs From the Second Floor” was his first bonafide feature-length narrative in 25 years.
Now in his early seventies, Andersson recently came to New York for the U.S. opening of his new movie and sat down with Indiewire to reflect on his circuitous career path — as well as the shadow that his early mentor, Ingmar Bergman, casts on Swedish cinema.
While many scenes play for comedy, “A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence” plays with many moods. How do you explain its distinctive feel?
My movie is about humiliation, which is something I hate to see, especially when you understand that it is also very, very vulnerable. And the movie is also about reconciliation. For example, I have this theme in my movies where people are cruel to each other. In the Second World War, in the Nazi period, it’s incredible how they behaved. How can human beings behave like this? [Sighs] Wow. There’s a philosopher who is very respected, Martin Buber, a German moral philosopher. He said if you commit crimes such as the Nazis did, and even individually, if you commit a crime against existence, you will be guilty and you will feel yourself guilty, even if you try to hide or suppress it.
I was so occupied by this stuff because I grew up during the Second World War and saw these cruelties, and I felt, actually — I was not there, I was not involved in what happened — but I felt guilty for what happened, as a representative of the human race. And it was optimistic to read this philosopher Martin Buber when he said, “Yes, you can get rid of that feeling of guilt. You can repair it. Not necessarily at that time when it was committed — you can make it in another time and in another place by being good.” It was his advice for for us: What’s made is made, so you can’t repair the crime that was committed, but you can make it until you can repair another time and place.
How would you say this film addresses that philosophy?
You have this scene at the end where English colonists torture and kill black people in this metal chamber. This actually happened in Sicily around 500 A.D., where there was a very cruel king. He constructed a bull in brass metal, and there was an opening so they could put people in there and put fire under it, and then their cries were transformed to nice sounds. What an idea, what an idea! It’s about colonialism, that scene, with the English people there, and even the scene before, when they are very cruel to animals and make experiments on monkeys, without respect, without empathy at all.
There’s no sense of compromise to these scenes. Ironically, you spent years directing commercials.
Yes, but I actually made commercials with the same ambition and same seriousness as these features. But I made very special commercials. So I found my style with the help of these commercials. But I made commercials because, for a period, I was not accepted in that field by producers in Sweden. So I had to survive, and I accepted that I had to make some commercials. They were very successful, and I got many new clients.
Why do you think that you were not accepted?
Because my second movie [1975’s “Giliap”] was very unsuccessful — it was not my fault, but I was a scapegoat for it. And even the reviews were terrible. Maybe the most negative reviews ever in Sweden. But now, after some years, they changed their minds.
So Sweden has come around on it?
Yes, now they say, “Oh, it’s fantastic!” It happens a lot. At some moments you can meet very bad reactions that change later on, and that happened to me after my second movie, maybe because my second movie, it suppressed despair. I think it was too strong, or frightening, but also very humorous. However, now is now, and I have already started to plan a new movie, an adaptation of “Arabian Nights.”
Which is the opposite of your films. So who do you identify as your biggest influence?
First of all, when I started my career, it was Italian Neorealism, mainly Vittorio De Sica — “Bicycle Thieves,” for example, is a masterpiece. And later, I was influenced by Luis Buñuel and, of course, Federico Fellini… even Jacques Tati, especially his movie “Playtime.”
What sort of struggles do you face when gathering resources to make these films?
I think the commercials have also helped me with this, because when people see them, and if you collect them, you can see that it is rich stuff. In Sweden, we have state subsidies, so we have a consulate. Two people are chosen to be consuls and can give out the subsidies, and sometimes you can be unlucky because there can be consulates that don’t like you — they are your enemies. But when I started “Songs From the Second Floor,” I had a friend of mine who was in the consulate. Most importantly, I had made three commercials for France, including ones for Air France and for some kitchen equipment. For the first time in my life I was profitable. I got enough money from it to make 15 minutes of “Songs from the Second Floor.”
And with that 15 minutes, I went to my friend at the consulate, and he said, “You will get the maximum from me, and also from the subsidies.” So then I got subsidies from EuroImage. There’s a very special TV channel in France and Germany, a collaboration between Germany and France, and they also gave me subsidies. So, actually, I could collect a budget to make that movie, and after that I’ve been more accepted abroad than at home.
You were mentored by Ingmar Bergman early in your career. Do you think he deserves his reputation?
Yes, I think he deserves his reputation — of course he does. But I’m not so fond of his movies. He made 50 movies, and I like three of them, three or four. But he was not a kind person, he was a mean person, jealous of other people’s success. And he was very, very aggressive and not respectful to the members of his team. He was very right-wing as well. He grew up in a family with a father who was a bishop, and this father sent him every summer to Germany, and that was before the war. At that time, Hitlerjugend was growing up, and Ingmar Bergman was sent to Germany at that time and also was accepted as a Hitlerjugend guy with a uniform and so on. But that was before the Holocaust. We knew about the Holocaust. So, I mean, Ingmar Bergman couldn’t help that, but no doubt he was very, very right-wing, and very, very egoistical.
Which films of his do you actually appreciate?
I like “Persona,” “The Silence,” and one is “The Seventh Seal.” There, again, you have an epic figure like “The Living Trilogy.”
As I said before, I think he deserves his reputation, because he has worked a lot. I think he couldn’t stop working, because if he stopped working he’d go crazy. There are not so many filmmakers of his quality. So I don’t accuse him of anything — except that he had no humor.