After we die, it is different people’s jobs to clean, stitch, embalm, drive, lift, lower, burn, and bury our corpses. Carl Olsson’s documentary feature observes them all, in a series of tableaux of Sweden’s funeral process.
Roughly halfway through Meanwhile on Earth, Carl Olsson’s feature-length documentary on Sweden’s funerary industry, there is a montage of Seidl tableaux. The ‘Seidl tableau’, named after Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl who institutionalized the form, shows a documentary subject, silently standing upright, in a wide shot, looking straight into the camera. It functions, for Olsson as it does for Seidl, as a pause in the narrative, a moment of apparent connection between viewed and viewer, and a recognition that the subject is aware they’re being filmed. The pathologist, the gravedigger, the embalmer: they all know we are watching them.
These Seidl tableaux help create greater empathy with Olsson’s subjects, which are otherwise mostly kept at a distance in the static wide shots used throughout Meanwhile on Earth. And there are other names that can be dropped here, apart from Seidl. The older man in a suit and tie, rolling a coffin into the church, could be a character in one of Roy Andersson’s films. And the middle-aged woman, singing karaoke in a club in a somewhat incongruous scene, could be straight out of Aki Kaurismäki. Olsson uses similar stylizations to similar effect, combining, like these filmmakers, morbid fascinations with awkward humour.
In his director’s statement on this strictly observational documentary, Olsson writes he thinks “it’s interesting to emphasise the strangeness of the phenomena and at the same time create compassion and empathy for the characters”. He asserts that “the strangeness of the industry surrounding death arises when the simplicity of everyday life emerges in a context that we always have looked upon as immune to the concerns of everyday life because of its existential character”, while he acknowledges that: “The alienation I experience is likely a product of my own and my culture’s exaggerated relationship with death.”
This cultural component is interesting. It seems likely that Meanwhile on Earth will be experienced differently by viewers used to different funeral traditions. In countries where funeral rites are more emotionally extravert, Sweden’s systematic, mechanical, and quiet approach to death, often captured by Olsson in symmetrical shots that reinforce the formality of the procedures, must seem strange, if not absurdly inappropriate to the experience of loss and grief.
Many Northern-European viewers, however, will probably feel quite at home here. Olsson’s look behind the scenes (we never see any mourning family and friends, only the people working there), will chime with their cultural mindset of death being ordinary, funerals practical and efficient, and emotions kept in check.
However, Olsson overdoes the filming of “the simplicity of everyday life”: funeral workers talking about their daily affairs while preparing bodies, driving hearses and digging graves. Yes, people who work with corpses every day also talk about public transport, pets, restaurants, supermarkets, lunch, holidays, the weather, the weekend et cetera – that doesn’t make these conversations any more interesting. Or, to put it another way: I feel less than Olsson seems to do, that this ordinariness is part of “the strangeness of the phenomena”. Who knows, maybe it’s because I’m not Swedish, but Dutch. To me, these conversations are not particularly strange, funny, or awkward – so they get boring after a while.
I prefer those conversations which, however ordinary and undramatic, do concern their jobs – sometimes indirectly. Like the hearse drivers, talking about how much they prefer driving their cargo to further away places. The pathologists, worried about the fragile skin they’re working on. The two employees of the crematorium, wistfully discussing a deceased pet. Or the moment the embalmer or hearse driver, who otherwise do their jobs with no more decorum than a bus driver, make a small bow to the coffin before they leave. It’s at these moments, where they do acknowledge the corpse they’re handling, that, to me, the ordinariness of how they perform their jobs becomes itself a bit extraordinary.
Meanwhile on Earth is also – possibly even more so – a documentary on spaces. Rooms which look like a cross between a factory and a hospital. Empty places, white, grey, maybe pastel. Nothing on the walls, no decorations, hardly any personal items. Metal doors, white sheets, TL-lighting. These are lifeless spaces for lifeless bodies. Outside, the grass and flowers at the graveyard only partially offset a depressing row of grey concrete flats in the background, as two kinds of repositories for different stages of life.
Because life is short. And so is this documentary. Many are the films of which we say: it’s fine, but it could have been fifteen minutes shorter. Carl Olsson cut those superfluous scenes out (or never filmed them in the first place), making his documentary a lean 72 minutes.