'From the Balcony' ('Fra balkongen'): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlinale
'From the Balcony'
Existential Ennui: DIY Edition.

Norwegian actor-director Ole Giaever ('Out of Nature') returns with another ruminative, voiceover-heavy film in which he questions his place in the world.

In Norwegian filmmaker Ole Giaever’s From the Balcony, the actor-director spends a lot of time sitting on his, well, balcony, contemplating both the view and his life. Whether he’s catching the last warm rays of the fall, braving the snow in winter or enjoying the first moments of spring, he can always be found right there, accompanied by a hot cup of tea in a Back to the Future mug. The type of cup might seem like a trivial detail, but a more circuitous view of history actually feels quite appropriate here, as From the Balcony ponders nothing less than mankind’s history and future, and how one individual, namely Ole himself, fits into this much larger picture.

Filled with contemplative voiceover, much like his previous feature Out of Nature, which premiered at Toronto, this semi-philosophical documentary essay-cum-ramble is an unusual proposition in terms of its commercial viability, even if the director is certainly not the first white, First World, straight, cisgender male artist to examine his existential malaise out loud. It should find a small but appreciative audience as a home-viewing item.

From the Balcony has an intentionally cobbled-together feel, meant to mirror the stream-of-consciousness narration of Ole, who tries to figure out how his own life — its past, present and future — fits into the much larger history of the planet and the universe. Early on, he reminisces about death and the funeral of an uncle (whom we later learn committed suicide) but instead of sorrow, his main memory focuses on how he, as a student, was noticed in the funeral procession by a girl he liked. This kind of connection between big subjects like death and smaller, more private and individual memories and emotions is typical of Giaever’s modus operandi.

A lot of the film was shot in and around the director’s apartment, which he shares with his two young children, aged four and seven, and their mother, actress Marte Magnusdotter Solem. An early sequence sees the director zoom in on Google Earth from a view of Planet Earth to his continent, his country, his city and then his home address, while Strauss’ "Also sprach Zarathustra" plays on the soundtrack. Cine-literate viewers will immediately draw a connection to the Dawn of Man sequence from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is both appropriate and hilariously self-aggrandizing. But both the do-it-yourself aesthetic of zooming in on his home on a simple browser tab and the tongue-in-cheek humor of the music choice keep the sequence from becoming too self-indulgent.

The newly shot material, credited to cinematographer Oystein Mamen but frequently made to look like spontaneous, off-the-cuff footage, is supplemented by camcorder home videos from the director’s younger years; computer-generated views of the planet and beyond and two short, pencil-drawn animated sequences that also feel very DIY (the second one has a hilarious punchline involving the reappearance of a character from the first).

Early on, Giaever explains that his reply to the question of what he wanted to be in life when he grew up used to be “Brad Pitt,” and that, as an inhabitant of “the richest country in the world,” his worries are few and petty. Though it is never stated out loud, there is a sense that people in Western countries like Norway are thinking about more existential questions — what is our place in history and the universe? — exactly because they don’t have to worry about primary concerns like food, shelter and safety. 

Hopping from one semi-connected scene to the next, this collage film lacks the lyricism of the best work of, say, Terrence Malick, or the philosophical inquisitiveness and rigor of someone like Kubrick. However, that seems not to be Giaever’s intention, and nor would it feel appropriate, as the whole idea is to shine a light on an average Western man’s existential musings and ennui.

Within the loosely shaped narrative there are smaller moments of grace. For example, an impromptu dance that starts with Ole doing laundry evolves into a sequence full of dancing strangers, only to come abruptly to a halt when the director throws out his back and grunts to the camera: “Let’s cut this scene.” It’s an almost-perfect metaphor for his film project, as getting out of your comfort zone to do something a little crazy comes with possible elation but also an element of risk. Thankfully, the scene made the final cut of this uneven but finally also quite relatable little movie.

Production company: Mer Film
Cast: Ole Giaever, Marte Magnusdotter Solem
Director-screenwriter: Ole Giaever
Producer: Maria Ekerhovd  
Executive producer: Axel Helgeland  
Director of photography: Oystein Mamn
Music: Ola Flottum

Editor: Frida Eggum Michaelsen
Casting: Iselin Saga
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Mer Film

85 minutes