Review: ‘About Endlessness,’ starring Martin Serner, Jan-Eje Ferling and Bengt Bergius

Stefan Karlsson (with stick) and Martin Serner (with cross) in “About Endlessness” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

May 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

“About Endlessness”

Directed by Roy Andersson

Swedish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Sweden and briefly in Norway, the atmospheric dramedy “About Endlessness” features a predominantly white cast (with some people of Arabic heritage) representing mostly middle-class people from various walks of life.

Culture Clash: Various characters in the movie express angst about themselves or other people. 

Culture Audience: “About Endlessness” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching slow-paced films that don’t have a plot but present various scenarios that are meant to reflect the human condition.

Jan-Eje Ferling (standing in front) in “About Endlessness” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

There’s a good chance that people who watch “About Endlessness” are already familiar with the work of the movie’s director, Roy Andersson, a Swedish filmmaker who’s made a name for himself with his brand of slow-paced, absurdist observations of life. But if people aren’t familiar with Andersson’s work, “About Endlessness” might be a curious and often-frustrating hodgepodge of vingnettes that range from provocative to mundane. “About Endlessness” isn’t for everyone, but if people are interested in watching an artsy, plot-less meditation on timeless human qualities, then the movie takes viewers on an unpredictable ride.

It’s clear from watching “About Endlessness” that the title of the movie comes from the movie’s concept that no matter what happens in the past, present or future, some things won’t change about humanity. “About Endlessness” presents a series of scenarios, where most of the characters do not have names. The scenarios are mostly “slice of life” and represent a broad range of emotions, which are usually expressed in a deadpan manner.

Ech scenario usually features long stretches of silence. A group of people could be gathered somewhere, such as in a food market or a restaurant, and it’s eerily silent, without the usual buzz of several people talking at once in different conversatons. This filmmaking technique works best if viewers aren’t expecting to see a movie with a typical story in three acts. Viewers also have to be in the mood for a movie that lingers on characters who don’t do much and seem deep in thought. In other words, “About Endlessness” is the opposite of an adrenaline-pumping action movie.

Guiding viewers through this series of short scenarios is a female voice providing narration. She will begin each sentence with the words “I saw,” as the scenario plays out on screen. For example, there’s a scene with a man in his bedroom, patting his mattress before he kneels down to pray and settles into his bed. The narrator says, “I saw a man who didn’t trust banks, so he kept his savings in his mattress.”

In another scene, a middle-aged man and woman are at a graveyard. The narrator says, “I saw two parents who lost their son in the war.” The mother talks to her son (whose name is Tommy) at the son’s grave, while the father waters the flowers that will be put on the grave.

At a train station, a women in her 30s disembarks from a train and looks around and appears annoyed. She sits down on a bench on the platform. The narrator says, “I saw a woman who thought no one was waiting for her.” Eventually, a man runs up the stairs to the platform, with the demeanor of someone who is late. He and the woman leave together without saying a word.

Another scene shows a young woman in her late teens or early 20s watering a plant outside of a beauty spa. She appears to work at the spa. Just as she goes inside, a young man who’s about the same age, comes out of a business next door, goes outside on the sidewalk, and stares wistfully at her. The narrator says, “I saw a young man who had not yet found love.”

You get the idea. Usually, once a scenario is shown, the people in that scenario are not seen again in the movie. There are a few exceptions. A recurring character throughout the movie (and the one who gets the most screen time) is an unnamed priest (played by Martin Serner), who’s going through a crisis of faith.

He’s first seen carrying a crucifix on a winding street and wearing a crown of thorns (like Jesus Christ), while various people physically assault him, by whipping him, hitting him, or beating him with a stick. Is this a re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ? No, it turns out it’s just a nightmare that the priest is having.

He wakes up next to his wife after having this nightmare. And he tells her, “They drove nails through his hands!” Later, the priest visits a psychiatrist named Dr. Lindh (played by Bengt Bergius), who tells the priest that it’s normal to have bad dreams. The priest tells the psychiatrist that he began having nightmares around the same time he began losing his faith in God. They agree to make an appoinment for the following week.

But before the next appointment can happen, the next time the movie shows the priest, he’s in a private chamber room at a church while his congregation is waiting in the next room for a chruch service. The priest takes a swig of wine from a bottle and gives the appearance of being drunk, because he is unsteady on his feet. He stumbles into the main church service area and serves communion to his parishioners.

At an unspecified time later, the priest shows up unannounced at the psychiatrist’s office, which is about to close for the day. The priest shouts several times, “What should I do now that I’ve lost my faith?” The psychiatrist’s secretary (played by Anja Broms) tells the priest that the office is about to close and that he needs to come back when he has his appointment. The priest doesn’t want to leave. Eventually, the psychiatrist and the secretary forcefully make the priest leave the office by literally shoving him out of the door.

There’s another character who is in more than one scenario in the movie. He’s a middle-aged man who first appears near the beginning of the movie. The man (played by Jan-Eje Ferlin) is standing at the top of the stairs outside of a train station. And he begins to talk about how he keeps seeing a former schoolmate named Sverker Olsson walking near him, but Sverker snubs him when he says hello.

Just then, another middle-agded man walks out of the train station. The first man says the second man is Sverker’s name, and he says hello to Sverker. But the man identified as Sverker keeps walking, as if he never heard this former schoolmate try to talk to him.

Later, the snubbed schoolmate is shown in his kitchen with his wife sitting at a nearby table. The ma then starts to rant about Sverker snumbbing him and then repeats that he can’t believe that Sverker has a Ph. D. This character is a satirically deapan embodiment on human insecurity that can lead to jealousy.

There are more scenarios, some more memorable than others. A man named Torbjörn has an uncomfortable visit with his dentist named Hasse (played by Thore Flygel). An army of men, identified by the narrator as prisoners of war, are shown marching silently in Siberia to their prison camp. A grandmother joyfully takes photos of her baby grandson outside of a building, while the baby’s father holds the child and the baby’s mother stands nearby. A man helps his daughter ties her shoelaces during a walk in the rain on her birthday.

“About Endlessness” does have some dark moments. One is showing a Middle-Eastern/Arabic man, crying and looking distressed while sitting down in a living room in disarray, as if a physical altercation had taken place there. The man is holding his dead teenage daughter, who has a large bloodstain on her chest.

The man’s wife and teenage son are standing nearby watching, as if they’re in shock and don’t know what to do. Viewers soon see that the father is holding a knife. And then, the narrator explains the horror of what happened: The father had murdered his daughter in an “honor killing” and changed his mind after it was too late.

In another scene, about four Nazi soldiers are in a bomb-shelter room, as bombs can be heard going of outside the building. Based on the soldiers’ demeanor, it’s the end of World War II, and they are experiencing defeat. One soldier is already drunk, while the others look like they’re in a daze.

The narrator says, “I saw a man who wanted to conquer the world and realized that he would fail.” And then, Adolf Hitler (played by Magnus Wallgren) walks into the room, and he also seems to be in shock over the defeat. And then, the drunk soldier gives a Nazi salute to Hitler and says, “Sieg Heil,” which is a victory salute in German. It’s a dark comedic way of showing that, even in defeat, Hitler and his brainwashed followers were clinging to a delusional sense of superiority.

Most of the characters in “About Endlessness” are rooted is some type of realistic scenario. The exceptions are fantastical characters (a man and a woman) who are seen floating through the air while they cling to each other. The movie’s narrator says, “I saw a couple, two lovers, floating above the city.” Because of its slow pace and snippets of life that aren’t tied to any big story, watching “About Endlessness” is a lot like that dream-like state of mind that can happen before someone goes to sleep. Knowing that before watching the movie will affect your expectations.

Magnolia Pictures released “About Endlessness” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 30, 2021.