In The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays Albert Camus opined that “outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty”. Allan Karlsson, the titular protagonist of this film, truly embraces Camus’ absurdism. Staying faithful to his mother’s last words – to not ‘waste’ life by thinking – and being aware of his father’s unkind fate, a man who prided himself as a thinker of sorts, Allan creates a life filled with eventful moments. He commits to the action that befalls him, and lets others around him worry about the ‘thinking’ business.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is a beautiful examination of mankind’s constant irrational search for the rational in every instance of life. The search for meaning, however imminent, is ultimately futile. Critical self-reflection and hours of ‘thinking’ can only lead to one undeniable conclusion – that life is unabashedly absurd. Yet, we are steadfast in our belief that everything will ‘make sense’ in the end; that all actions – however confusing or perverse – have inherent meaning attached to them. It is up to us to search for this epiphany inducing logic and if we are unable to find it, even create meaning that can give us the solace we crave. It saves from the despair and anguish of acknowledging that life is ultimately absurd, though it can tease us with moments of clarity.
On his 100th birthday, Allan Karlsson climbs out of the window of his retirement home upon seeing a young child burst firecrackers, whilst his carer is too busy counting and making sure that she’s got the correct number of candles on Allan’s centurion birthday cake. Free from the confines of his four walls for the first time in years, Allan buys a bus ticket to a stop where no one ever goes. Along the way, he gets mixed up in the dealings of a bikie gang. Trying to escape the gang, he meets with fellow geriatric Julius, student Benny who has trouble making concrete decisions in life and Gunilla, a woman who has a circus elephant as a pet. This eccentric and unlikely bunch tries to survive and escape from the clutches of the bikie gang as the police search for the ‘disappeared’ Allan. Once again on the road towards adventure, that too in his centenary year, we find out more about the extraordinary past life of Allan Karlsson; a man who seems to have influenced many significant historical events in the past century.
Allan leaves the despair and anguish part to everyone else around him. He is a man of simple pleasures. He likes blowing things up. And I mean, really likes blowing things up, not just in a ‘that-was-cool-I’m-not-doing-it-again-though’ kind of way. So, he tries to fulfil his urge whenever he can, blowing up anything he can get his hands on. We now know why he just couldn’t resist climbing out of his window upon seeing firecrackers. He just loves explosions. Unfortunately, the world is unable to rationalise his ‘explosive’ penchant and they send him to a mental asylum.
The film’s darker undertones that are hidden below its comedic absurdity make it more than just a whimsical and chuckle worthy film. Our regressive reaction, when we are confronted by the absurd or even something that we cannot comprehend or classify – push us towards aspiring for an idealistic version of the norm. Ironically, our conception of the norm also keeps changing. Allan’s urge to ‘blow things up’ is an irrational loose end that the world tries to explain in different ways. They all try to apply their perceptions of the norm in order to try to explain the supposedly ‘abnormal’ Allan Karlsson. In an extremely disturbing and disconcerting scene, a doctor operates on Allan because he finds that Allan’s member size is uncommonly large for a person of his ethnic origin. Though exaggerated, the scene has the desired impact. The audience is shown a mirror where our obsession towards rationalisation can lead to questionable outcomes, especially when resorting to an ‘ends justifies the means’ philosophy.
Allan Karlsson becomes a vehicle through which the people around him try to make sense of the world they find themselves in. In many ways, this thematic underpinning is reminiscent of the film Being There, where Peter Sellers plays a gardener and his views on gardening are interpreted by everyone around him as pearls of wisdom that are supposed to unlock the meaning of life.1 Similarly, Allan, a man who seemingly possesses no particular skills that might make him extraordinary, helps Robert Oppenheimer during the Manhattan Project, dances with dictators Stalin & Franco, becomes a double agent for the US and Russia during the Cold War and plays a key role in the falling of the Berlin Wall.
An adaptation of the hugely successful book of the same name by Swedish author Jonas Jonasson, the film is able to translate the absurdist essence of the novel very well on to the screen. Despite editing out a few other interactions of Allan with historical figures, the film gets its selective permeability right on the money is able to flesh out the characters from the novel on to the screen with a surprising amount of detailing. There are small niggling issues with the screenplay and pacing, mainly because of the way the scenes from the book translate on to the screen, but despite that, this is a very strong adaptation which brings a high level of screen originality.
The characterisation of Benny, the indecisive student (portrayed brilliantly by David Wiberg) proves to be an excellent foil to Allan, who has no problems in making quick decisions, and is given into the absurdity of life. Benny, who is prone to the disease of ‘thinking’ and excessive rationalisation, is quite unhappy precisely because he rationalises everything to a point where it becomes a chore. To echo Camus once again: “The preceding merely defines a way of thinking. But the point is to live.” And by Jove, does Allan live! What a life it is indeed.
Robert Gustafsson is in top form as the titular Allan Karlsson. He gets the deadpan aloofness of the character in full focus and his ‘innocent’ narration heightens the absurdity of the flashback sequences. Iwar Wiklander as Julius, the geriatric partner in crime of Allan gives a commendable performance. David Wiberg brings out the physicality of Benny expertly on screen. In this manner, the film utilises the visual medium very well. Mia Skaringer (Gunilla) has a very strong screen presence. The only annoying aspect in terms of performances was the portrayal of Ronald Raegan by Keith Chanter, which should be added to the mind numbingly long queue of truly horrible portrayals of past US presidents. Shooting his character using long lens also didn’t help his cause. However, the highlight of the film definitely has to be the cameo of David Shackleton as Albert Einstein’s supposedly identical ‘dumb’ twin Herbert Einstein.
The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared turned out to be the perfect beginning to the Scandinavian Film Festival. It captures the absurdity of life and our obsession of rationalisation in an acutely refreshing, comical and whimsical manner. Be sure to catch it when it gets a wider release on August 21st this year.