A purgatorial vision of the Swedish funeral industry examines existentialism and death, and does so vivaciously
Words by Savina Petkova / @SavinaPetkova
One might think that she won't live to see the inside of a funeral car. But with Carl Olsson’s documentary, Meanwhile on Earth / Samtidigt på jorden, dreaded images of death pop up all the time, yet they are generously covered in fabric (morgue sheets) or boxed up in wood (caskets). It is a fairly sanitised (but not sterilised) documentary of the funeral industry in Sweden, but it nudges one’s terror of mortality and decomposition further than mere macabre imagery. Through a series of tableaux, the film returns to its various worker characters, such as church musicians, grave diggers, morticians, embalmers, and drivers, filming their unscripted dialogues and authentic work mode in a bizarre middle ground between labour and existential dread, a chronotope situated between profane and sacred.
In its uniform aesthetic, Meanwhile on Earth maintains a steady grasp on the big questions it explores, as well as its potential social commentary. Explicitly more meditative than proposing a solid judgement, its documentary form grounds any abstract notions of mortality in a petrifying way. It is precisely through the unflinching long takes which let the actions unfold in a natural, albeit often mechanical way, that the spectator’s distance is easily transformed into an anxiety-inducing experience. Crisp deep-focus long shots frame an immobilised moment, up to the point of movement that thrusts into the frame — as if a painting has come alive.
Motion, it seems, must come from elsewhere in this kingdom of stasis and a rupture is almost invited in the impeccable geometric compositions of each shot, observed by the director, who worked with three cinematographers (Mathias Døcker Petersen, Jonathan Elsborg, Maria von Hausswolff) to achieve such pristine visuals. Be it a casket that is wheeled in the frame, or one that emerges from a hole in the ground, a third being picked up from the ground and slid into the crematorium, all the movements are technologically supported, calculated, and aided by levers and button-pushing. In this instrumentalised distance from the dead, the stylised frames resemble meticulously constructed doll’s houses, or an artwork, and a similar game-like arrangement becomes apparent. Whereas the film has little dialogue and no voiceover narration whatsoever, it relies on improvised conversations between the workers, the topics of which touch on the humorous and acquire profound resonation in the context of their profession. For example, two gravediggers discuss their approaching days off, drivers of the funeral car discuss buffets and smoothies, and a passing comment lingers in the air, as one complains that it’s “hot as hell” in front of the crematorium. The subject matter of Meanwhile on Earth facilitates philosophical reflections on life and death, and it works especially well in contamination with the decorative aesthetics and mundane conversations.
Humour is still present in this cinematic waiting room. Motion and trespassing may be suspended, yet jokes always infiltrate any rigid situation in the morgue or at the graveyard. One can find consolation in the fact that, even attending to death, there is room for mistakes, stoppages, even sloppiness, visualised in a funeral assistant that keeps knocking down the flower arrangements, or a coffin that gets stuck in transportation, or maybe the brief pauses between cremations that are filled up with small talk. There are glitches and uncomfortable moments, which defuse the otherwise unbearable tension in a way that one might recall the rule of medieval executioners to wear masks or veil their faces to stay clear of personal responsibility. In this case, Olsson protects his actors by exposing their labour in the most honest, unswerving ways, in both visuals and dialogue.
However, the film flirts with a beckoning quality of what’s concealed. The spectators are not going to find solace in an actual funeral sequence (snippets of that only happen off screen), nor an actual burial or a coffin descending into the ground. A body cloaked in a hospital sheet is still a body, yet by denying the visual of a corpse, the film swings freely from material death to its virtual presence, never privileging one over the other. Meanwhile on Earth is, then, a vision of human, all-too-human, purgatory in which one ponders over the most important questions of life and death, ones that in other contexts provoke either repentance or damnation.
Meanwhile on Earth / Samtidigt på jorden
Director: Carl Olsson
Country: Denmark, Sweden, Estonia
Duration: 72 minutes
Release: Screened as part of the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020
Savina Petkova is a regular contributor at Electric Ghost Magazine. She also writes for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, and Girls on Tops.