Two movies, two different scenes: A poet struggles with a heavy box full of unsold books. A musician meets another musician on a staircase; they’re both carrying boxes of unsold records. “I still have thousands of postcards for all the little short films that I did when I started to make films, travelling through festivals and naively running around, putting fliers on tables etc, I’m sure there are a lot of basements full of similar things,” director Måns Månsson tells me, but the former scene comes from his movie, The Yard (Yarden). The latter scene is from the Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis, where the title character almost gives up on his art and takes a crappy job at a shipping company. But in the end he doesn’t though, preferring the life of the struggling artist. The Yard is the flip side of that, about the artist who does take that crappy job when things get rough.
“It‘s totally a work camp, a labour camp, for sure. It‘s a prison,” Månsson tells me and elaborates on the irony of the product being cars. “Cars, this incredible, almost clichéd freedom symbol, which you can jump into, go anywhere you want, highway one, wind in your hair – this freedom is being supplied by people at the lowest level of the workforce, under extremely harsh conditions. That‘s what attracted me from the beginning, this contrast, the freedom factory that is really using paid slaves.”
But what exactly do they do in this freedom factory? Yarden is a giant car port in Malmö, and giant ships come and unload their cars there, because those ships are too big to go into the Baltic sea, they have to reload the cars into smaller ships. “But these guys are not allowed to go into the ships; there are some other guys who do that. Each parking lot has a number, so they should just transport a car, which is a number also, they transport that number to that number, from one number to a number, because there is some kind of a transition system, in the end they end up in another ship and go away. But those guys don‘t know where the car will end up. They just get a number, move the car to that number, that‘s it,” leading actor Anders Mossling tells me, but his character is also a number – usually only referred to as 11811.
Humans Doing Machine’s Work
Yet I wonder how long this will last, when will the computers do this too? “That‘s what one wonders walking around in that car port,” Månsson replies. “This is the only step in the whole process where you still need to have some kind of humans around. There are robots making those things, but someone has to actually deliver them or move them at some point, drive them to the dealership – but then it‘s very important that they don‘t touch anything or ruin your special steering wheel or your stereo system or whatever special thing you ordered. These are mostly luxury cars, incredibly expensive ones, it‘s like a Fort Knox environment, hundreds of millions of dollars lined up in a cemetery almost,” the director muses.
Work as hell is nothing new in the movies, though. “Whenever you engage with something cinematic dealing with labour you relate back to Metropolis or Modern Times, it‘s part of the historical legacy, the nameless numbers. Yet this is not unique to the workplace, society in general is gearing towards a more dystopian world, things are not looking too good at the moment, but what can we do to change that? Maybe we have to change our way of life and change things for real, not only deal with consumerism but also find a moral compass, a social conscience; I hope the film boils down to questions relating to how much people are willing to sacrifice in order to help other people,” Månsson says and feels this is getting increasingly important by the minute. “What is the prize of solidarity? These are things that Sweden and Europe and the rest of the world are going through right now, it‘s hard to shy away from that, even just in the past six months, finishing this film … I‘m not even sure I recognize Sweden anymore, the country we were this last summer, what are we really today? Things have changed really rapidly, with the closing of borders, nationalistic movements gaining momentum …” he says and then ties it to the film again: “The film is about an individual in a character-driven narrative, but hopefully he also reflects the same sort of issues that society as a whole is faced with. Maybe it‘s easier to digest that as an audience if you enter a human mind through him.”
Those Beautiful Coffins
Månsson has worked as a cinematographer, not just shooting his own films but also films like last years’ Blowfly Park. This time however he works with another cinematographer for the first time, Ita Zbroniec-Zajt, who divides her time between shooting in Sweden and Poland.
“It was so nice!” he says of the experience. “Finally, I only shot my own films out of pure necessity, because of access issues or because of budgetary reasons, in non-fiction film-making you have to do something yourself, you either record sounds or you hold the camera, and I started shooting and enjoyed it a lot, but as the films became more complex, with more characters, then it becomes really hard to focus if you‘re behind the camera all the time. I realized it takes three or four takes before you even start to listen to what the performers are actually saying when you’re busy shooting the film too. So I had to stop, but I was very fortunate to work with Ita, who‘s a brilliant, brilliant cinematographer.”
But how did they approach it visually? “I had a feeling that if we actually made this place incredibly beautiful it would be even scarier. Cars are beautiful, they‘re made to be incredibly beautiful and sexy and we’re all conditioned to want to sit in one of those cars, but they‘re coffins, really, you walk around and wonder how many people will actually die in those things, they‘re just coffins waiting to crash.”
The Silent Poet
There is an ongoing debate about book adaptations in Swedish film making circles according to Månsson, since risk-averse producers prefer the safe option of a book adaptation, the pre-existing awareness helping them finance projects that otherwise would be impossible to fund. The Yard is one of those book adaptations; it’s based on a novel by Kristian Lundberg.
Despite that and despite the main character being a poet, this is a movie of very few words. “That‘s a contradiction,” leading actor Mossling concurs. “During the shot I said to Måns; isn‘t it too low-key, the whole thing? But he said; ‘keep it down, keep it down,’ and as soon as we talked too much and the script was too well written it didn’t work anymore, so we took it away and we ended up with almost nothing. But I think the poet is in a crisis. His words are not worth anything any longer, he tries to read his own poems in a church and he can‘t even remember it, he reads it wrong, he‘s lost this capability to speak, the words are not important any longer.”
Månsson then elaborates on how the whole debate about book adaptations was actually an early inspiration for the film. “Normally you‘ll find books have a very clear-cut narrative, on the surface at least, something very easily translatable to the screen, but my inspiration came a little bit from that ongoing debate; what if we tackled a book that felt impossible to adapt? If this is the game everybody is playing, fine, but it has to be a challenge, to me it was really difficult and complex to find out how this would work as a film. It didn‘t contain that normal, classic narrative in any way. It‘s a more floating, poetic language. But Sara Nameth, who wrote the screenplay, she really did a fantastic job in finding that miniscule of a story, which still drives it somehow forward, and then of course there is this visual aspect of the book, you read this language and realize it‘s something you’ve never really seen before, there are so many images coming up in your mind when you read it.”
The Swedish Actor Abroad
Anders Mossling is in almost every scene of the movie – but how did Månsson choose his lead? “He‘s a brilliant actor, but I had no idea he even existed. He‘s been completely under the radar in Sweden – he‘s been living in Copenhagen and working in Oslo, he‘s never done any film or TV in Sweden before. Then I was shooting in Malmö and heard he was playing at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, and I wondered; that name sounds very Swedish, why haven’t I heard of him? So we met him and he turned out to be a fantastic actor, waiting to be put on the big screen.”
It also helped that he wasn’t known in Sweden. “99 percent of all the other performers are non-professionals, that have never acted before, have never been in front of a camera, so for the Swedish audiences, the combination of this super-pro, who‘s still a completely new face for them, and all those newcomers, that worked really well, this way we didn’t break the contract too much by throwing a megastar in.” The other actors, mostly immigrants, were found through open calls in Malmö and through the employment agencies, “and a lot of them had been working at Yarden themselves at some point in the past.”
Ironically enough, Mossling was actually thought of for another role at first. “They were doing casting for another role, a small role, but then I read the whole script and I was really interested in the main character, because he felt so close to myself, I thought I could just do this without any problems, I don‘t remember if I said that to Måns, though. But I felt; why can‘t I do this one? It would be a joy to act, an adventure. I didn‘t really need to find the character per se, I just put myself in that situation; the character is my age, they put my name on him, if I would lose my job and I would have to take this one, I would act just like that. His strained relationship to his son is also not unfamiliar to me, sorry to say!”
But have there been moments when he had to make the same choices his character does in the film – to take a job he hates, just to earn a living? “No, I have not. I did a lot of jobs when I was younger, before I started to work as an actor. But then I did that with the idea that this was good for me, because this was taking me somewhere, and I needed the money to do the other things, but this terrible situation, if I would lose my acting career, thankfully not – because I have nothing to fall back on, I have a half-finished anthropological degree, that I can‘t use for anything, so that‘s a nightmare that follows me all the time.”
The anthropological education nevertheless proved useful for this film. Screenwriter Sara Nameth actually finished an MA in social anthropology from Oxford and in a way this is a very anthropological film. Mossling says Nemeth’s approach was anthropological in a way and so is his approach to acting sometimes. “I remember from my studies in anthropology, when you do fieldwork you should just come to a place and look at it and be open. You need some informant, a person that informs you about the workplace. And probably the first one you meet is the lunatic, you should be careful with that one, you need the lunatic, but after a while you should try to find more stable information. And that was my approach as an actor when I went into the film. To put yourself there and try to be a part of it, and experience it on your body and your mind.”
Interviewer: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson
If you prefer Icelandic, the Icelandic version can be found on Klapptré.