I read the other day that, although Swedish and Norwegian are quite different languages, native speakers can mostly, easily understand what the other is saying. Although “Kitchen Stories” (Salmer fra kjøkkenet), which I’ve just finished watching on the World Movies channel on Foxtel, is spoken in both Swedish and Norwegian, it wouldn’t really matter, however, if you spoke neither language, since the great communicative strength of this film is the body language.
Although the basic premise for the film sounds odd, it also sounds “very Scandinavian”. We’re led to believe that in the post-war period, an institute was set up to improve the efficiency of kitchens through better design, based on observing the movement patterns of housewives. As a follow-up, a group of researchers are then sent to Norway to observe the movements of single men.
Perched on a high chair in the corner of a kitchen, Folke (played by Tomas Norström) has the job of observing, never interacting with Isak (played by Joachim Calmeyer), a man living by himself on the outskirts of a small Norwegian town. Set in the run up towards Christmas, there’s abundant snow and the nights are long.
Just the type of weather that leads Scandinavia to have a major problem with depression, Isak’s only friend appears to be his horse (whose health worsens throughout the film, leading to its death). He’s also fairly set in his ways. He’s also fairly eccentric by modern standards. “I must have a bath next week”, he declares at one point. We also discover the fillings in his teeth allow him to pick up radio stations, including “foreign ones, when I hold on to the drain pipe”. And his answer for a small case of the flu is a a feral cat fur around the neck, whilst sleeping on the back of a horse. Yeah, that kind of eccentric. And although he signed up to be part of the study, at first, he won’t, for example even answer the door.
But he does eventually open the door, although at first, the invasion of his privacy is almost too much. At one point, whilst eating chocolate, Isak gets up and turns off the light for just a moment by himself. Hilariously, the response of Folke is to adopt one of those miner’s lights which he flashes in Isak’s face. After a while, though, Isak begins to relax, going about his life setting mouse-traps, cutting the hair of friends and so on.
Meanwhile, back in his caravan, Folke eats chocolate, throwing the papers on the floor and listening to music on his portable radio. The music, by the way, is just wonderful, with lush jazz orchestrations, often based simply on bass and saxophone. There’s also some wonderful old variety-style numbers sung in Swedish or Norwegian, I’m not sure.
Inevitably, the men begin to interact, although it’s the non-verbal communication that tells you more about their friendship than anything else. For example, as Folke falls sleep in his high chair, Isak places a blanket on his knees. Their friendship becomes such that, when Folke is asked to leave, to take on the observation of another participant (as the observer has started drinking heavily with the participant there, breaking the rules), he asks to stay, assuring his supervisor that “things are just starting to get interesting”.
Crossing the boundaries, however, interferes with the experiment. And as one by one, other observers disappear, the success of the experiment becomes more and more dependent on Folke, with increasing surveillance by his supervisor. Will their friendship be identified? Will he lose his job?
Well of course, he does lose his job. But for them both, that doesn’t matter as they’ve become good friends, evident clearly when spring arrives and Folke has found a new home living with Isak. The contrast between the seasons could only be found in Scandinavia, though I suspect you might find similar characters and situations in the Australian outback.
Nonetheless, this is a very Scandinavian film with some very Scandinavian references. For example, the film touches on the Swedish transition to left-hand driving and on the imprisonment in Norway of Jews during the Second World War. Drawing upon history to explain the circumstance of the two men, Isak declares “You Swedes don’t understand that. You were observers only during the war too”.