'The Yard': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival
A slight but timely examination of low-wage work in a globalized world.

This tragicomic Swedish drama casts a Kafkaesque eye on the horrors of the modern industrial workplace.

The young Swedish director Mans Mansson has a particular interest in the economic forces that drive immigration and globalization. His last film, Stranded in Canton, was a bittersweet lost-in-translation drama about African and Arab emigres struggling to do business in China. His latest pic, partly funded by Swedish television, is about a depressed poet who takes a low-wage job in the southern Swedish city of Malmo, where his co-workers are mostly immigrants. Fresh from its prize-winning premiere in Gothenburg last month, The Yard makes its international debut in the Berlinale's Forum section this week.

Adapted from a Kristian Lundberg novel by first-time screenwriter Sara Nameth, The Yard may sound painfully earnest in its starkest plot terms. But Mansson and his youthful, multinational team find plenty of visual poetry and dry humor in this fatalistic fable, with glumly comic overtones of such deadpan Scandi masters as Aki Kaurismaki and Roy Andersson. Though unlikely to make much impact beyond domestic audiences and film festivals, this timely snapshot of modern European capitalism and its discontents is a thoughtful, absorbing little gem.

Swedish theater veteran Anders Mossling radiates soulful, stoical melancholy as the nameless anti-hero, a middle-aged single father whose work as a minor poet has only led to poverty and obscurity. After unwisely sabotaging what remains of his literary career by publicly trashing his own latest book, he is forced to seek employment at Yarden, a vast high-tech warehouse on the Malmo docks, where 500,000 cars are shipped out annually. In this harshly futuristic vision of the post-industrial workplace, employees are treated like interchangeable drones with numbers rather than names. The slightest deviation from protocol can lead to instant dismissal by faceless bosses.

While fraternizing between employees is not encouraged in this Kafkaesque dystopia, the slumming poet forms a fragile bond of friendship with an Arab co-worker (Hilal Shonam), helping him out with minor acts of charity. But he is then suddenly fired for no clear reason, returning home to his cramped apartment, where he is bullied even by his own sulky, entitled teenage son (Axel Roos): "Should I have to suffer for your failures?" the boy protests. "You can't even keep an immigrant job."

Bankrupt and humiliated, our downtrodden hero resorts to desperate measures. Returning to Yarden, he succeeds in securing another job by using blackmail and betrayal, selling out his foreign co-workers to his Swedish bosses, thus enforcing the operation's unspoken but rigidly racist hierarchy. The chilly critique of capitalism as a race to the bottom is pretty bluntly laid out here, but Mansson does not labor the point with angry speeches and political slogans. This is not a Ken Loach film.

In visual terms, The Yard is crisply and elegantly composed. Mansson and his Polish cinematographer Ita Zbroniec-Zajt make striking use of the science-fiction landscape of Yarden, shooting it like a vast modern-art installation. The rich soundtrack also deepens the drama, with constant low-level drones and metallic clangs reinforcing the sense of inhuman alienation, while rousing blasts of Verdi serve as a kind of emotional counterpoint to the low-voltage performances onscreen.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Anagram Film & TV, Film I Skåne, Sveriges Television, Lucky Bird Pictures
Cast: Anders Mossling, Hilal Shonam, Axel Roos, Robert Bengtsson
Director: Mans Mansson
Screenwriter: Sara Nameth, from the book by Kristian Lundberg
Cinematographer: Ita Zbroniec-Zajt
Editor: George Cragg
Producer: Emma Åkersdotter Ronge
Sales company: The Yellow Affair

Not rated, 78 minutes

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