You, the Living

One of my favorite films is a little-known Swedish tragicomedy called Songs From the Second Floor, made by first-time director Roy Andersson in 2000. His ostensible sequel (there’s supposed to be a trilogy) was released in 2007 but still not widely available. This second outing is entitled You, the Living (Swe: “Du Levande”), named after the Goethe quote that opens the film: “Be pleased then, you the living, in your delightfully warmed bed, before Lethe’s ice-cold wave will lick your escaping foot.”

An equally appropriate (albeit less high-brow) quote could’ve come from Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall where Alvy Singer says life is “full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.” Suffice to say, Andersson’s outlook is bleak and misanthropic to the core. Which makes me think of Michael Haneke, since I also just watched The White Ribbon, the punishingly dark winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. But if I’m going to sit through such misery, at least Andersson delivers with a mordant wit and deadpan humor that keeps You, the Living afloat.

And unlike Haneke’s, in Andersson’s films if there’s anything unwatchable it is only on-screen for a few minutes. You, the Living is composed of 50 absurdist vignettes, all filmed in one take and almost always using one fixed camera. Like Songs From the Second Floor, the film’s occupants are primarily ashen, lethargic, and mostly anhedonic. Some characters pop up in multiple segments, but often the individual stories have next to no connection to one another. Most of the pieces deal with life’s humiliations in one form or another, although You, the Living is still lighter and more accessible than Songs From the Second Floor. In my favorite storyline, a girl named Anna is approaching despair over her unrequited love affair with a band’s singer. Even her dreams mock her, in what has to be one of the most beautiful film sequences I’ve ever seen:

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Constantine’s Sword

Last night I watched Constantine’s Sword, based off the James Carroll book of the same name from seven years ago. It chronicles Christianity’s role in perpetuating antisemitism and our disgraceful ties to violent regimes.

The story and critique is mostly clear-eyed, and powerful when it takes a personal bent (Carroll has led a very interesting life). I’m uncomfortable, however, with how much antisemitism he reads into the Gospel accounts themselves. He intones, at one point, “At every Good Friday service, with the reading of that Passion narrative: ‘The Jews, the Jews, the Jews’… it really hits the ear. And Jesus is against the Jews. And I don’t know how else Christians can hear this story.

This strikes me as odd, for I’ve only ever read this story in one way. How else do I hear this story? I hear the Gospels blaming me. Who crucified Jesus? I did.

There’s a Goethe quote that I take quite seriously — he says something like “There is no crime so heinous that I cannot also imagine myself committing it.” This is good theology, and this is ignored theology. It requires hideous, uncomfortable self-awareness.

Our human tendency is to always marginalize, to “otherize.” I am not like that one or those people. When, in fact, the truth is much more disturbing. “It is a simple tenet of human nature,” writes Dave Grossman, “that it is difficult to believe and accept that anyone we like and identify with is capable of these acts against our fellow human beings. And this simple, naive tendency to disbelieve or look the other way is, possibly more than any other factor, responsible for the perpetuation of atrocity and horror in our world today.”

There’s a poignant moment in Constantine’s Sword where Carroll is at Auschwitz-Birkenau and while contemplating the past nightmares but present-day beauty, the guide fills the void by simply saying: “There is no meaning… only Auschwitz… only butterflies… silence.”

What drives me crazy is the American pretension at moral authority. Dresden alone wiped out whatever supposed moral capital we’d accumulated in fighting the Nazis, not to mention our unspeakable atrocities inflicted upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I think the point is that none of us personally have any moral capital either. My heart is totally bankrupt. At the end of Jesus’ famous quip in Luke 6, I read in an extra clause:: “…and in reality, you will never be able to remove the log from your own eye.”

Of course, this hints at the missing piece here that was filled in for us by a murderous Judeofascist extremist who had a blinding encounter with a Jewish carpenter. It changed his life. And this is the crux: “While we were still terrorists, Christ died for us.”