The Penultimate is a twist on the Kafkaesque labyrinths. Danish newcomer Jonas Kærup Hjort films a satire on human existence in times of global confinement. With an absurd humor inherited from Roy Andersson’s cinema and characters and situations that Samuel Beckett could have written, his debut feature describes, with great visual inventiveness and a good dose of black humor, the nonsense of everyday existence.
The film echoes the work of Kafka. What does the alienation, the frustration and the anguish of his literary universe say about our present times?
I am in no way an expert in analizing litterature. What I take away from the works of Kafka is his resistance to deliver any sort of logical explanation for a universe that is inherently devoid of logic. We are all in conflict, we are all trapped in situations we cannot escape, even if others think we can. In a world emptied of meaning, he raises the question of meaning. However, the question never receives an answer. It doesn’t seem to escape absurdity but only preserve it – an expression of ultimate imperishability.
As a graduate from film school with a background in theatre, how much are you an enthusiast of the Theatre of the Absurd?
We didn’t have ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ on the curriculum at the film school in Denmark. But I did work with the absurd expression during my time as a stage director prior to attending film school. It was a very liberating experience to me so I am very much an enthusiast.
Which authors and pieces have influenced you the most?
Everything by Bill Watterson and Yoshihiro Takahashi. ‘Waiting for Godot’ by Samuel Beckett.
How did you work both the cinematography with Jacob Sofussen and the production design with Sabine Hviid and Kristina Kovacs to provide such a strong visual appeal?
I went to film school with Sofussen and we did our graduation film, ‘In a Month’, together. During this process we started building a common language through hours of devolpment. Hviid and Kovacs had great experience working in visual art film and also provided great knowledge about the art of stage-building.
What suggestions did you give the music composer (if so) to underline the unease atmosphere?
Sven is an independent musician/artist who, to my luck, accepted working as a composer on the film. I researched his work and he researched mine and we went on a quest to merge our individual expressions together so that it would hopefully become its own.
What’s your aim by challenging the patience and the intellect of the audience with the strong allegorical and symbolic contents of the film?
I don’t have a particular aim in that sense. For a long time I felt that the art of cinema had no identity. Whereas painting, music and litterature all have clear profiles and pure access to its consumers, to me, cinema was just a concoction of all these arts without any particular raison d’être. But then I discovered the one major strengt to cinema – the capture of time. The fact that you can encapsle time and sculpture it at will, is a mindboggling exploration that I find great satisfaction in pursuing.
You’ve declared that the film is an homage to the cartoonish tragi-comedy. In which sense?
I grew up watching old 40’s cartoons that thrived in the speechless world of the ‘situation-comedy’. As I got older I was introduced to Chaplin and Buster Keaton who also specialized in these characteristics. However, when I became old enough to experience the culture of entertainment changing into a much more dialogue-heavy way of dissemination, it saddened me greatly. The purity of the simpIe expression, I feel has great complexity and suits my sensibility well.
One of the first major hurdles was finding the right location for the building where the story takes place, how did you find it?
The film is produced on a very low budget and we could therefore not afford building a stage in a studio. We were forced to find a physical location which basically was impossible with the ambitions we had for the film. With a stroke of luck we discovered that one of the major water supply tanks from the city of Copenhagen had been shut down due to a leak. And because this particular water plant is designed by a famous danish architect the entire area is protected as cultural value. The city wanted the public to have access to the cultural history of Copenhagen and therefore allowed us to use the tank as a location. There where of course no walls and we could afford just 12 set-pieces out of which we moduled all the locations in the film.
I guess the pandemic confinement resonates among the spectator in a not premediated way. Is this unexpected context something that upsets you or the opposite?
The pandemic has been a tragedy to us as to anyone else. Needless to say I had never imagined the theme of the film becomming as current as it has. It is a bit frightening to be honost. But perhaps this experience can lead us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of our existense’ fragility.