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A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence

A Voice to the Small


How to make a humanistic film without the tools of humanist cinema? Yet to answer this question we should first of all muse over what the tools for a humanist cinema might appear to be. Let us name five: agency, reaction shots, close-ups, cue music and narrative continuity. However, perhaps such an approach doesn’t lead to an awareness of our being human; it only points up our humanity. How many stories do we have that play up a character’s good deeds and make us feel better in witnessing the humanity at work: from Hotel Rwanda to Schindler’s List, from The Killing Fields to The Year of Living DangerouslyAmistad to Rabbit Proof Fence. We do not judge these films qualitatively; it is chiefly to address a cinema that we might call humanitarian, just as we talk of certain acts by Oxfam, Save the Children and so on as humanitarian. They mean well, but there is a pragmatic force to both the films and the charities that leave certain questions begging. It is these types of questions we sense director Roy Andersson wishes to ask in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.

Andersson’s purpose, he says is to depict “the small human being … [who] symbolises all of us. I’m trying to show what it’s like to be human and to be alive.” (Guardian) It is to concentrate on what we might call the litotal figure rather than the hyperbolic man: this is neither the hero nor villain; neither an antagonist nor a protagonist, and the director’s visual style and narrative procedures exemplify this refusal, and hence to the eschewing of the close-ups, reaction shots and other devices of mainstream film. It is, of course, a bird’s eye view yet of a particular kind and of a particular bird. The pigeon is a passive creature, symbolized culturally through the dove, with Andersson leaving the title an abstract suggestion rather than a piece of narrative content. Nobody need wonder why Schindler’s List is called by that name, nor Hotel Rwanda, but Andersson asks us to muse over what it might be like viewing humanity from a dove-like perspective.

The human doesn’t come out of it very well, as though the notion of the humanistic seems to be grounded on a false assumption; that the human is a force of good, a source of well-being. Andersson indicates otherwise, or rather that if we look at human nature over humanism a different story is told. Simplistically put we could call this misanthropy, but the word doesn’t seem precise enough to describe the film’s vision on the world, the third in a trilogy of fixed-frame despair preceded by Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living. There is too great a sorrow behind Andersson’s images for misanthropy to be quite the word, which suggests an inevitable, even gleeful despair. By suggesting a dove-like view on things the despair is tempered by a melancholic wish, perhaps for a human nature deserving of the term humanity.

Humanist cinema often takes one event and shows what the good individual can or tries to do against the misery surrounding them, as we find in Schindler’s ListHotel Rwanda, and The Killing Fields. These are terrible historical moments (the Holocaust, the Tutsi killings, and the Cambodian massacres) but there is nevertheless human decency through human agency: through characters doing good in the face of the bad. Schindler saves numerous Jewish lives; a hotelier in Rwanda gives refuge to thousands of Tutsis escaping Hutu wrath. The event is singular and the positive deed achieved, and often its basis in a true story suggests that, for all the human misery, the exception can be couched as the norm. As director Michael Caton-Jones would say on making Hotel Rwanda, “I felt if I made this that could make a difference, use my talents as a human being and a filmmaker to illuminate those terrible events. And that’s the key theme of the film. That one person can make a difference.” ( This is agency in cinematic action. We needn’t ridicule Caton-Jones’ optimism: this is how a particular type of humanist story is told.

Obviously there are those who might claim the type of passive cinema Andersson makes problematically suggests it is better to do nothing: that at least humanist film finds pieces of optimism in the debris of despair. Yet when asked about what his work hoped to achieve, Andersson said “It’s huge stuff. My ambition is to make a very huge spectrum of the existence of being a human being on this planet. My main source of inspiration is art history. I relate [‘Pigeon’] to the Spanish painter Francesco Goya. He painted his paintings about existence, and I think he was 80 years old when he died. And he told us about his view of existence throughout all those years —sometimes very sad and hopeless, sometimes very hopeful, sometimes very grotesque and cruel, and so on. But above all he was all about humanism, and he believed, as I see it also, that art should always be at the service of humanism.” (IndieWire) Equally, though, we sense in Andersson’s work that humanism is at the service of art, that any ethical enquiry is matched by formal distinction and an enquiry into ‘human nature’.

We can see this for example in the scenes with 18th century Swedish soldiers off to war, and then returning, and in a late scene where black slaves are marched into a massive, rotating tin drum. In the first of these three scenes we see a modern day cafe half-full of customers intruded upon by jingoistic hordes off to fight. A few come into the cafe, including a couple on horseback, insisting women must leave the premises, and that the king demands a drink. The king is Charles XII of Sweden, a man who was famous for his war-mongering and his tactical genius. “I have resolved never to start an unjust war” he said, according to Voltaire’s book on the king, “but never to end a legitimate one except by defeating my enemies”.  Make war not love would seem to have been his motto: he died at thirty-six leaving no heirs to the throne. Andersson asks what he might look like viewed from the perspective of a bird on a branch, as though musing not over the Bruegel painting from whence the film originates, Hunters in the Snow, but more with Goya’s famous work depicting the atrocities during the Napoleonic wars. Yet while Goya went off and sketched the appalling events, Andersson’s passive perspective insists on musing over the adrenalin rush of belligerence viewed from a fixed perspective. The camera remains still as if on the cafe’s back wall, watching the king and some of his troops come in and oust the woman and make various demands. This is a minor act of ransacking, a kind of militaristic hors d’oeuvre, or a bellicose aperitif. Several scenes later they are back, passing through the town again, looking destroyed and defeated. The camera angle is exactly the same, yet this time there is no attempt to oust the women from the cafe.

What is Andersson’s point we might wonder? Part of it would rest on Charles XII’s supposed celibacy, but that would be a fact offered; hardly an analysis justified. Andersson is looking at belligerence through history and the static approach he takes gives us a sense of the absurd at the heart of a human nature, one that suggests the aggressive at the same time as a humanism that indicates a sorrowful need to love thy neighbour. Perhaps the very bumper sticker statement make love not war captures the human dichotomy in its simplest form: the difference between the humanistic and human nature. But then what would be its most complex form, how to take Andersson’s claim that art should be at the service of humanism singularly? Andersson does so by filming on the side of the passive over the active, by using fixed frame shots, deep focus that keeps all the planes vivid, and characters who lack agency within the scene. Andersson thus offers an aesthetic of passivity that asks us to muse over situations without identifying through characterisation. We don’t identify with characters and adopt a position as we do in The Killing Fields with journalist Sidney Schanberg tackling terror in Cambodia, dodging bullets, arguing at the American Embassy and determined to get the truth about Cambodia out to the world. Roland Joffe, like most other humanist filmmakers, uses the vocabulary of mainstream film to situate perceptually man at the centre of the human problem. Yet what happens to this humanism in Andersson is that the filmmaker doesn’t dehumanise in the common sense of the word, but rehumanizes through derealising, by changing our perception of human activity. 

To indicate that human behaviour is sometimes atrocious but a good individual acts can make a difference, often leaves intact a value system that allows for the behaviour to be repeated in another manifestation. Whether it is Auschwitz, Cambodia or Rwanda, the tragedy gets a new set dressing but the power structure remains the same. Films usually dealing with such atrocities indicate both the specificity of the event and the capacity for the heroic action, exemplified in Caton-Jones’s remark, and by the end of the film the viewer is provided with the feeling that humanity triumphs over adversity. The techniques applied to convince us of such a claim can seem awfully like strong-arm manipulation. Whether it is the end of Hotel Rwanda or Schindler’s List, the viewer is expected to emote rather than comprehend; to forget other images of atrocity as the film utilises the conventions of humanist film to maximise emotional affect. As the UN trucks come in near the end of the former film so the images remind us of numerous scenes in cinema of the US army liberating Europe after WWII. The film doesn’t ask us to recognize the echo; its purpose is to work on us sub-consciously: the human comedy as tragedy, as another post-war atrocity alongside the Cambodian killing fields, the Srebrenican massacre in former Yugoslavia, the military Junta throwing dissidents out of planes in Argentina. It is as though films like Hotel Rwanda and Schindler’s List don’t find a first principle of human nature, but a second principle of humanity – a principle, a cynic might suggest, deep enough to tug at the heart-strings and loosen our purse strings, but not enough to make us muse over the human condition.

We might be inclined to wonder if numerous scenes in A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on its Existence don’t more readily capture what we are, whether it is a family trying to wrestle from her a dying woman’s bag full of expensive jewellery in a hospital room, a monkey strapped in and wired up in an electrical experiment, or the slaves in the cylinder. Some could claim this just might be the difference between the optimism offered by Spielberg, Caton-Jones and others, and the pessimism evident in Andersson’s film, but our purpose isn’t to defend the optimistic over the despairing; it is to wonder about the falsely optimistic. One of the dangers of false optimism is that one might believe that a problem has been solved because of a feeling arrived at. We feel good so the problem must have gone away, but isn’t that the logic of many a sedative drug that will alleviate the symptoms but leave the underlying problem intact? We needn’t pretend that Andersson’s films resolve the problem either, but the trilogy has the advantage of not trying to do so in affective form. Even if Spielberg and others might claim they are well aware that other terrible things are happening and their film is merely a glimpse at the one, the techniques used – the close0ups, the reaction shots, the cue music, the character agency and the narrative continuity – all insulate us within the singular event. Andersson’s approach does not, and like the Straubs, Theo Angelopoulos and Miklos Jancso, he creates a reverberative politics that acknowledges no event is unique to itself. In the scene where the people are herded into the cylinder we notice on the side the name of Boliden, a Swedish mining company founded in 1931 even though the slaves shown and the Colonial era British soldiers suggest a period preceding the company. Yet the film’s conflation of late nineteenth/early twentieth century British colonial soldiers, slaves from a century earlier, and a company founded in the thirties, allows Andersson to muse over the ongoing nature of terrible deeds over the singularity of an atrocity. Presumably Andersson includes the scene because of a scandal hardly acknowledged by the media when in 2013 Arica Victims AB sued Boliden for their involvement in a toxic waste scandal in Chile, dating back to the eighties. So far so political, but Andersson has the slaves pushed into the cylinder which is made of the brass the company mines, and we may notice there are various trumpet-like release valves. Underneath the cylinder a fire is lit and as the cylinder heats up so we hear the slaves inside the drum running furiously as if to escape the inevitable heat. Out of the movement and the breathing comes a melodious music drowning out any other noise that might be heard. The point and purpose of the scene is hard to discern, but then the film cuts to a reverse angle (we see the cylinder reflected in the glass), as wealthy, well-dressed aged figures step out of the building and listen to the music as if at the opera. We still may be unsure of Andersson’s aims, but that should be secondary to the reverberative echo given musical form: as if he has managed to find an aesthetic correlative for how much that passes for culture and civilization comes out of slavery and exploitation. Yet this wouldn’t only be the great architecture of Europe, or the wealth generated that allowed for great painting, theatre and music, but also the music that would come directly out of personal misery: for example the blues that came out of the plantations during the nineteenth century and became a key mode of musical expression in the twentieth. The resonant aesthetic Andersson seeks asks us to sense reverberative connections over homogenising emotional responses.

This approach is perhaps consistent with Nietzsche’s notion of eternal recurrence and Schopenhauer’s belief that life is far from optimistic, even fatalistically pessimistic. As Schopenhauer says, “the Fate of the ancients is nothing other than the conscious certainty that all events are bound firmly together by the chain of causality and thus occur with strict necessity, so that the future is already totally fixed and precisely determined, and can no more be altered than the past can.” Schopenhauer adds elsewhere in the book, “people have always been very discontented with governments, laws and public institutions; for the most part, however, this has been only because they have been ready to blame them for the wretchedness which pertains to human existence as such.” (Essays and Aphorisms) Nietzsche say “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!” Nietzsche adds “Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?” (The Gay Science)

The humanitarian suggests progress; that the flawed human nevertheless learns from their mistakes. Is this not what some of the films we have discussed propose? Schopenhauer suggests otherwise, and Nietzsche wonders what metaphysical underpinning can lead the human to see the nature of their nature. If we view Rwanda or the Holocaust in the past, then we need not concern ourselves with the future atrocities because they might never happen. We only know they have taken place. Nietzsche muses over how our actions might be different if we knew that temporality wasn’t going to rescue us from the depravity of past actions: what would we want time eternal? It is this type of relationship with history that Andersson seeks, and why he offers us a passive agency within a fixed-frame aesthetic, incorporating different historical moments. One scene flashes back from the present to 1943. It is the same bar we were in moments earlier, but now the barmaid is different, the bar much busier, but the camera angle remains the same as the barmaid starts a sing-along with the troops and sailors in the bar. Sweden was neutral during WWII, but in a New York Times article the piece quotes a Swede: ”Sweden was not neutral, Sweden was weak,” says Arne Ruth, a journalist who has written a book on the Third Reich. ”Its sales of iron ore made an important contribution to the German effort. It allowed German troops and weaponry through its territory to Norway. In 1943, its government told the central bank to ignore suspicions that German gold Sweden received was looted.” Some might claim in Andersson’s examination of various historical events an opportunistic, high-minded, high-art posture politics, but apart from the fact that Andersson’s has made a few compromises himself, making (brilliantly funny) adverts for car companies, insurance firms and outdoor advertising corporations, it would be to miss the point of the conflations Andersson makes. We are all implicated in the atrocity of being human: the only escape routes that of never being born, being dead or committing suicide. This doesn’t mean everyone is equally culpable, but as Dostoevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov, “each of us is guilty before everyone and for everything and I more than others.” In other words one must take on the burden of culpable responsibility, feel the weight of the burden of being human. Nietzsche might not entirely agree, saying, “in one made and destined for command, for example, self-abnegation and modest retirement would be not a virtue but a waste of virtue; so it seems to me.” (Beyond Good and Evil) Self-abnegation has its place but Nietzsche would have no time for it as a universal value: we are not all doves. Yet an abnegatory realisation is no bad thing. It makes us accept our condition without denial. It is this aspect Andersson appears to explore. “I’m one for solidarity” he says. “A society where one shares, and feels responsibility towards others. Unfortunately, we’ve had a period where to look after one another is seen as old-fashioned. This is the path Sweden has taken politically” Andersson says. “But it’s evident that it hasn’t worked out. It is a painful insight…” (Guardian

The operative word here though is insight – the word that allows Andersson to explore with originality and humour the human state we are in, aware that the escape from tragedy is often found in the deeper reservoirs of humour: if we don’t laugh we cry. This is a particular type of comedy, a sorrowful laughter containing the tears but never ignoring them. We find it in a scene with the shop owner, his wife and their child. We also see it in a sequences with the dance teacher, and again in the relationship between two salesman selling masks and assorted comic miscellania. In the scene in the shop, the two salesmen come in and list the items that the owners have purchased, including six uncle one-tooths and vampire teeth with extra long fangs. The mother stands half-stooped listening to the salesmen, while a young child plays in the foreground on the floor, and in the right hand of the frame we see fake breasts and corset hanging on the wall. After they enquire about payment the wife says she will have a word with her husband, goes next door and we see him lying on the couch. A moment later when he sees the salesmen seeing him he pulls a blanket over his face insisting he has no money. The scene is funny from one perspective but terribly sad from another, yet Andersson’s perspective does not change as he holds the shot from the same angle throughout the sequence. If we concentrate on the child how can we not be moved; if we focus on the father how can we not find it funny? If we look at the corset and breasts hanging off the wall how can we take the whole sequence at all seriously?

Andersson’s comic perspective, though, doesn’t rely on burlesque reinterpretation as Gilles Deleuze sees it. Speaking of a moment in a Chaplin film, The Idle Class, Deleuze says: “viewed from behind, Charlie, deserted by his wife, seems to be shaking with sobs, but as soon as he turns round we see that he is in fact shaking himself a cocktail.” (Cinema 1 – the Movement Image) Deleuze sees this as a constant in burlesque cinema: in Lloyd, Chaplin and Keaton. “Indeed, the law of the index – the slight difference in the action which brings out an infinite distance between two situations – seems to be omnipresent in burlesque in general.” Deleuze later adds, “there is certainly no case for saying that we laugh, whereas we should cry. Chaplin’s genius lies in doing both together, making us laugh as much as moving us.” In the moment from Chaplin the scene is based on a reversal of perception; in Andersson it is usually based on the conjunction of perception. This would seem to be one of the main differences between Andersson’s Trilogy and many of his adverts. In one ad a man wishes his girlfriend goodbye at the dock as he goes off to sea. He swings his heavy sailor bag round and instead of going towards the boat fails to keep his balance and falls into the water. In another advert a Swedish couple are in an Italian museum and the man is asked to stop filming, before the museum worker sees his girlfriend hugging up against a statue. We then notice why she is simpering after the guard goes: the arm has come off and she is holding it. In many of the adverts we have the mild reversal of mood common to burlesque, but in the films we usually have a conjunction of comedy and despair that more completely incorporates the comedic and the pathetic. This is not a question of cutting: the Chaplin moment and the ads are in one take; it is more that the films don’t obey the burlesque law Deleuze invokes.

This makes the films not so much difficult to watch, but difficult to comprehend: tonally it is much less easy to register the humour. If this is funny it doesn’t only stick in the throat; it is though it is humour that is determined to be caught mid-sob. In the scenes with the dance teacher what are we to make of her infatuation with the young man? It is funny as we see she cannot keep her hands off him while she ignores all the other students in the class, but at the same time Andersson registers her pitiful caresses as the man tries to parry her unwanted advances. A couple of scenes later we see them again in the background of the shot while a man talks on the phone in the foreground. We might notice that she becomes more and more desperate as she grabs his hand, cries and is left there sobbing after he gets up and leaves. We hear none of this of course: they are behind glass in the restaurant while we focus on the man in the street. We cannot claim that the woman’s desperation is funny even if we cannot quite take it seriously either. It is part of the misfortune of the human condition that attraction is not always shared, and the individual sorrow looks clumsily sad from the outside.

Yet Andersson’s achievement is to show the humorous without the cynical; to offer the comedic without playing up the cruelty so often vital to laughter. The friendship between the two salesmen is shown to be a forlorn acceptance of mutual loneliness, but while we are likely to find their fall-out amusing two thirds of the way through the film, Andersson insists we remain touched by their bickering and the attempt to make-up. However, this oddly doesn’t make him a gentle filmmaker like Jacques Tati, but a subtly coruscating one. If Tati pokes fun at modern life, Andersson punches a whole through it, suggesting a metaphysical misery that is unlikely to go away because the human deeds done and the habits generated insist upon man’s mordant nature. This suggests that Andersson’s achievement is twofold. He manages to make films that are sorrowful rather than cynical, with his pale aesthetic, on the one hand, suggesting Swedish simplicity and cleanliness; on the other, the antiseptic and the zombified as all the faces are pale far beyond a missing Mediterranean holiday. He also makes films that are amused but not quite amusing, containing the perspective of the humorous without quite asking for laughter. Though he occasionally uses non-diegetic music, he doesn’t cue the humour situationally or even ironically. Whether it is the classic movie score setting the comedic tone, or the modern equivalent that uses a cue score for ironic effect (Ace VenturaAustin PowersNaked Gun), the comedic finds its assertiveness in the jaundiced mood the filmmaker indicates.

This is finally what makes for a properly comic perspective: not the techniques adopted by comedy, but the sensibility of the filmmaker that views the world from an original angle which happens to have a comedic dimension. The difference between Chaplin and Tati and many another burlesque filmmaker is that Chaplin and Tati have a world view that incorporates the comic, rather than a locally comic tone. The latter plays on tropes and conventions. The former suggests a metaphysic on the world, close to philosopher Henri Bergson’s fundamental claim for the comedic: “something mechanical encrusted upon the living.” (Laughter) For Bergson life is a vital, changing force and we often laugh when we see that force constrained, This is partly why he says in attacking the problem of laughter, “we shall not aim at imprisoning it within a definition. We regard it, above all, as a living thing.”  The originally comedic thus wouldn’t add to the mechanics as we often find in weaker comedies, but expose the mechanical aspect to existence. There will be many funnier films than A Pigeon Sat on a Branch… but not so many that utilise the comedic to express a view on the world. What is the world view of Ace Ventura, of Naked Gun or even Austin Powers, funny though they all might be? Their purpose is to comment on other films more than to say anything about our being. Yet Chaplin and Tati (and Andersson) find the humour in the acuity of their commentary, which is why Modern TimesThe Great DictatorMon Oncle and Playtime can so easily and usefully be used to explore problems of modernity and ideology. This doesn’t mean they are commenting on life; more they are finding an angle on it in film form.

To conclude, two Andersson comments come to mind. In one he talks about moving from the realist aesthetic of his early work (the wonderful A Swedish Love Story for example), and in the other, about a scene he describes seeing in London or Stockholm. “I grew up in a working-class family, typical for Gothenburg. Though I learned French, German, and English at school, my parents did not know one word in another language. The working class really love realism. Abstraction was a little bourgeois, a bit upper-class style. My roots made me hesitate for many years. But I am still so happy that I took the chance.” (Film Quarterly) Nevertheless, this wouldn’t negate the reality he sees around him, saying “I saw a little girl, about seven years old, holding an umbrella. I couldn’t see her face. The umbrella was colorful and had little ears, maybe cat ears. Her father, a tall man, was bent low, tying her shoes, getting wetter and wetter as she stood there. That’s enough of a scene to be in a movie.” (Film Quarterly) The question would then be how to film its essence, not its mechanics. It is funny that the father is wet as the daughter remains dry, but it is the human gesture that would seem to interest Andersson, whether laughter comes out of it or not. His aim is no less and no more than to produce what he too modestly calls a ‘trivialist cinema’, giving “a voice to the small human being…[who] symbolizes all of us.” (Guardian) It is, however, an ambitious triviality that suggests certain philosophical first principles, and not merely the easy laugh or the ready tear.

©Tony McKibbin