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Ruben Östlund

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  • Interview by Christine Smallwood
  • Issue 9
  • Free Radical

Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund combines the cold eye of Michael Haneke with the awkward, everyday comedy of YouTube. In Play (2011), a group of black Swedish boys intimidates, without using force, a trio of white and Asian kids into handing over their phones, wallets, and, most tragically, a prized clarinet. Involuntary (2008) consists of five vignettes of various forms of social performance, including the drunken homoerotic antics of a group of otherwise straight young men and a teacher who is ostracized after witnessing her colleague strike a student. In his newest film, Force Majeure (2014), a bourgeois family’s ski vacation is ruined when the father, Tomas, responds to a planned avalanche in a less than heroic fashion.

Östlund uses a static camera, because “to create limitations also creates energy.” He’s known for very long takes that capture the contours of drama in real time. His next feature is The Square, a film about a city that sets up a communal area governed by special rules.

Christine Smallwood

Your first movies were ski movies. Why?

Ruben Östlund

My mother is from the north of Sweden, so every winter we spent a lot of time there. I really like snow. Snow is fantastic. I got interested in skiing when I was around nine years old. I was a really, really dedicated skier when I was around twenty, twenty-five. I started to spend my winter seasons in the French Alps, together with a lot of other Swedes. It’s like this ski bum culture there.

My second-biggest interest was probably the video camera. I was brought up during the ’80s, and somewhere in 1982 the VHS camera came along—a consumer version you could actually have at home. I thought it was fantastic that you could tape something and save it and then look at it immediately. So I was ordering ski movies from the United States. Warren Miller I didn’t like, but Greg Stump made really, really good ski films. I was ordering them by mail from ski magazines. I’ve watched way more ski films than anything from film history. I’ve seen those films one hundred times, I think. So I started to film skiing, and did that for five years—filming in the winters and editing in the summers, and releasing one film each year. After a while I got tired of skiing and went to film school.

Your trajectory reminds me of Spike Jonze, who started out making skateboard videos.

I saw Her on the flight from L.A. to New York yesterday. I think the difference between me and Jonze—I mean, there are a lot of differences, of course—is that he lacks a critical perspective in his films. Her has the perfect set-up to criticize the romantic idea of love. Instead it ends with the idea that that’s what we are aiming for. But we share overlapping themes. In the late 1800s we were living in large families. And then in the mid-1900s we were living in nuclear families. And we are going towards a society where we are living alone. And it makes us more and more efficient consumers, of course—as we see with the small family in Force Majeure.

What about your social critiques? Are there certain targets that you’re actively taking aim at?

Cinema is reproducing behavior, even creating behavior—we imitate what we see at the cinema. The kind of society we see portrayed in films supports an ideology. So many films are about a man standing up to something bigger, being loyal to a country: “He has to go to war because his country needs him.” That’s a way of reproducing an ideology where we make it possible to send young men to war. There’s something naïve about the film industry. We don’t talk about its naïveté. Filmmakers are reproducing stereotypes without asking themselves, What am I doing, Why am I re-creating this kind of male hero character?

A lot of the issues I’m dealing with, at least in Play, are class problems. It’s about economical problems, rather than skin color. The middle-class way of not having to deal with those issues is to say it’s about racism. But it’s not about racism. I don’t have trouble accepting someone that is from the same class as I am and wearing the same clothes as I am and talking in the same way that I do. But we get threatened when we feel that someone wants to have our position in society. I like Marx’s theories about the world—a lot.

You also seem interested in interpersonal expressions of power—in social intimidation.

When I did Involuntary, I was very interested in the question: How free am I as an individual? Within my peer group—a group of thirty-plus young men who have known each other since we began skiing together, and who have created this absurd jargon and behavior—I could be one person, and then when I was with my family, another person. In that film I was interested in the ways the group limits and affects the individual. Who am I, actually, when it comes to the fundamental me? I am the context that I have been brought up in. And since the human is a sociable animal, we are very, very affected by others around us. One of the things we are most afraid of is losing face in front of one another. We are afraid of being excluded.

You often shoot the body from behind or in such a way that the head is cut off entirely. In Force Majeure, for the first time, you really concentrate on the face and eyes. I wonder if this is related to what you’re saying about social behavior.

I think so. The distance between our bodies is interesting. If I’m sitting too close to you, that creates a totally different situation. In Play, there were eight boys with a really strong group dynamic. They had to deal with one another all the time. It is important to me that I look at the bodies in the room, on the tram. How far are they from each other? A lot about the truth of the actions in Play is about the positions of the bodies. When it came to the nuclear family, which is what I’m aiming my camera towards in Force Majeure, the conflict is internal. Tomas runs away and abandons his family, and then has to come back. Force Majeure was an emotional investigation more than any of my other films. Where can I see things happening inside the characters? This time I actually had to be closer to the faces.

Force Majeure contains a scene of Tomas crying that was inspired by a YouTube search for “worst man cry,” and the film’s music—a crazed accordion playing Vivaldi—also came from a YouTube shredding video.

If cinema wants to stay contemporary and not be like the opera, we have to adapt to the time that we are living in. I prefer to talk about moving images more than I do “the cinema.” When I made The Guitar Mongoloid, my first film, there were so many critics who were saying, This is not a movie. This is not film, they said. They were using the technical term in a very wrong way. They were talking about the content. We will be less tied up in conventions, we will be less tied up in expectations, when we talk about moving images.

If you look at YouTube, sometimes people have captured a moment that highlights the existential better than the professionals are doing. When I’m making a film, I really try to compare myself to the amateurs: What are the best moving images they have produced? This is what we are aiming for: to do a scene that is better.

I can talk about one YouTube clip that I have been very inspired by lately. I have never seen a stronger portrayal of someone trying to avoid losing face. A journalist thinks this man, Guy Goma, who was at the BBC to apply for a job, is a technology expert waiting to go on air. He brings him in front of the cameras and introduces him as Guy Kewney. And he’s like [Östlund makes a face of confusion and panic that transforms into a mask of ease], “Yes, hello.” Guy Goma starts to play this character, Guy Kewney.

This highlights what I think a lot of being a human is. We play the role of ourselves, or play the roles of what is expected. When we feel, Oh my god this role is about to go down, then we are desperately afraid of leaving it—of being exposed.

Many of your scenes are set on public transportation: buses, trams, trains. What’s that about?

Public spaces interest me, I think, because we are not one hundred percent sure who is in charge. Should we put our trust into the bus driver, even though we see that he’s not capable of driving the bus, as happens near the end of Force Majeure? When something happens on a subway or on a tram, who is responsible, and who takes on the responsibility of helping a stranger? It’s like a lab for social experiments. We are trapped in something together.

You have said that in your films, everyone loses their dignity, and they don’t get it back.

In too many movies, whatever dignity is lost in the beginning is regained by the end. Look at Disney, at Cinderella. She is actually worthy of a better place in society than she has. Or The Lion King. He is actually the king! It’s always about one individual who is worthy of a better place. It’s a very liberal way of looking at society. It’s a very, very clear picture of the American dream. But if you think of the conflicts in your life—if you’ve been in a divorce, or da-da-da—you lose your dignity in so many ways, and there’s no neat way to get it back. I don’t think that my characters lose their dignity forever, but they mess up and there’s no immediate solution. They are just trying.

You don’t like pieties, or political correctness.

There’s something very scary about Swedish society, and it is that we put ourselves above other people. There’s so much caretaking, so we look at other people as victims. We keep our own position secure by doing that.

Have you read My Struggle, by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård?

Yeah, sure.

He’s Norwegian, but he lives in Sweden and writes about this politically correct aspect of Swedish society.

He hates Sweden!

Is it a fair picture?

Sure. But I think that he’s also referring to the Norway he grew up in. Norwegian society has also changed in many ways.

So contemporary Norway is more like contemporary Sweden?

I think so. At the same time, what Norwegian people hate about Swedish people is that Swedish people always think Norwegian people are ten years behind.

There is something about the political correctness that I think is good—the aim of trying to be modern, trying to be fair, trying to be have solidarity with other people. We want to create an equal society, and to try to create an equal society is a struggle, it has to be a struggle. Every day we have a duty to be nervous—Am I doing something wrong?

You are clearly influenced by Haneke.

Definitely. I saw Code Unknown in film school, and it made a strong impression on me.

Anyone else?

I like Harmony Korine a lot. He was portraying the United States in a way that I’d never seen it before. For a lot of filmmakers my age, it was inspiring to see a person, twenty-three years old, that fearless.

Christine Smallwood is a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.

Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, Lisa Loven Kongsli, and Johannes Bah Kuhnke in Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure (Magnolia Pictures, 2014). Courtesy Magnolia Pictures and Rialto Distribution