A man has a vivid nightmare about being crucified in About Endlessness, but it’s not obvious that that’s what we’re watching at first. The shot opens the way many shots in Roy Andersson’s movies do: on an unassuming stretch of a Swedish city. A few people are out on the sidewalk, while others linger over drinks inside a café — a tableau of normalcy makes the biblical procession that starts winding its way into the foreground all the more absurd. It’s the road to Calvary as enacted by people in jeans and business separates, with a hooting crowd trailing after a guy who is whipped and kicked whenever he collapses under the weight of the cross he is carrying. He seems, curiously, less perturbed by the nature of this violence than by the fact that he was chosen as its target. As he moans, “What have I done wrong? What have I done wrong?,” the impassive expressions on the faces of bystanders begin to give the sequence the feel of a particularly involved anxiety dream. And in the next scene, the same man screams himself awake in bed next to his wife, who comforts him when he tells her, “They drove nails through my hands.”
Andersson is so masterful with dream sequences because his films already have one foot in the surreal, while the other remains firmly planted in the mundane. It doesn’t take much to adjust that balance, only a little, because he grasps that the most evocative dreams are made up of the rearranged stuff of regular life. In 2007’s You, the Living, a girl talks to the camera about a dream she had about marrying her idol, a rock musician named Micke Larsson, who had brushed her off earlier. It’s a teenager’s fantasy, but the way it’s realized onscreen is almost unbearable in its yearning for kindness, with the newlyweds unwinding after their wedding in a starter apartment that is, impossibly, also a train car traveling into town, where everyone gathers outside the window to cheer for the young couple. In 2014’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, a salesman dreams of serving drinks to an audience watching a spectacle of Black captives being forced into a giant brass drum that is then rotated over a fire, their screams transformed into music in an analogy for Colonial legacies and complicity that’s all the more phantasmagoric for how unmoved the viewers seem to be.
The man who has the dream about crucifixion in About Endlessness turns out to be a priest, played by Martin Serner, who has lost his faith. In droll Anderssonian fashion, he consults a doctor about this problem, asking if it’s possible there is no God. “That would be terrible! What’s there to believe in instead?” the man asks, distraught. “Damned if I know. Maybe be content to be alive?” the doctor replies with equanimity, telling him to come back next week. Andersson’s films tend to get labeled as black comedies, and while that speaks to their ferocious deadpan, it doesn’t begin to convey how strange and singular and spectacular they also are. The four features he has made this millennium take place in a reality that feels purgatorial — the colors are muted, the cast members are given an exaggerated pallor, and the backdrops are intricate sets observed by a camera that’s often static. While there are characters with ongoing arcs, like the priest in crisis, most sequences exist as stand-alone vignettes, and in About Endlessness, a woman offers a label to certain scenes in voice-over. “I saw a woman who had problems with her shoe,” she intones as we watch that woman struggling with a broken heel while pushing a stroller through a train station. “I saw a young man who had not yet found love,” she says as we see a woman come out of a salon to water the plant outside while a passing man watches her surreptitiously but doesn’t say hello.
And “I saw a man who wanted to conquer the world and realized he would fail,” she murmurs as the film cuts to a group of Nazi officers, disheveled and drunk, in a room with bombs falling outside. Into the space strides Adolf Hitler, too disheartened, in the moment, to summon any rage. It’s an ostentatious choice, though Andersson has always made a point of leaping back into the past with the same ease as his trips into his characters’ sleeping minds. There is a leveling effect to his approach, one that allows About Endlessness to find grandeur in the smallest of everyday moments while also highlighting the fallible, fleshly absurdity of even history’s most outsize figures. A father, setting aside his umbrella in the driving rain to tie his daughter’s shoe, becomes an emblem of parental love. Hitler, in that bunker, is diminished and defeated, just another person for the detached narrator to catalogue. As time stretches on toward infinity, the film seems to suggest, the infamous and the unremarked upon both shrink in comparison to its scale. The loveliest image Andersson offers in About Endlessness is a hallucinatory one of two lovers floating in the sky above a bombed-out Cologne, and it could be interpreted as either a symbol of resilience or of indifference in the face of destruction.
The scene with Hitler is followed up by an overtly funny one that seems intended to resonate with it — a scene in which a man on a bus starts crying and telling his fellow passengers that he doesn’t know what he wants. “Why can’t he be sad at home instead?” one mutters in disgust. Being at home wouldn’t stop About Endlessness’s all-seeing eye from finding him, but what the film is concerned with is not just a spectrum of joy and cruelty. Andersson has always been interested in the ways in which bystanders are implicated in what they’re bearing witness to, whether they’re walking along the street in a dream about carrying a cross or looking away during an uncomfortable exchange on public transportation. At the age of 78, Andersson continues to make films that desire to capture no less than a grand sense of human existence — and that somehow achieve it. Here’s hoping this one isn’t his last.