Like spirits of the city, they wander, led from street to street, no longer by ennui or curiosity, not even fate, but by need or obligation. Ex-Addict Anders roams the streets of Oslo, streets, spaces of memory, and law-school-dropout Niko, Berlin’s graffitied sidewalks, spaces of history. The architectures of their two cities of the North (Oslo, Berlin) are haunted by and personified in these two spirits wandering through the roads, parks, and cafés, not so much lost as aggressed.
In another century or another space yet uncorrupted by the onslaught of capitalism, Niko or Anders might have found although not salvation, perhaps a sense of being in living out the flâneur’s unbelonging. Pulled along from café to café, street corner to street corner they might have, in another time/space diluted their suffering by matching their footsteps with the city’s beats.
Yet, since the Paris of Baudelaire the streets have hardened, the paths have been electrified, the space capitalized, the air muted. The city’s structure has turned hard and inflexible, and where once the modern city signified possibility through organic growth, the city of this virtual century is a calcified skeleton replicating its structure infinitely, and without purpose. The desperation of both Niko and Anders was birthed upon the concrete foundations of the city which no longer responds to their needs, to any human needs, answerable only to the wants embedded in its unliving structures. With its grids, sewer systems, career networks, postboxes, shopping malls, transport systems and dinner parties, the 21st century city reconstructs its inhabitant, structuring his/her being through the severe and complex forms of necessity, debilitating their individuality. Anti-flâneurs, both Niko and Anders are exemplary urbanites of the 21st century, no longer dandies wandering carefree and melancholy through the urban space (although both are middle class), but losers sucked through the grid of predictable modes, until their eventual and total submission or eradication.
The malaise of the anti-flâneur (the lumberer, the sleepwalker, the shuffler?) is that of diminishing possibilities, shrinking hopes, dissolving faith. Operating within a severely reduced field of possibilities, the potential of any action the city-dweller might take is strangled before it can be born, leaving only the space of reaction within which to move. Locked into pre-ordained paths by ATMs, dinner parties, job interviews, official meetings, neighbors, old friends, tram lines, the reaction of both Anders and Niko, that of absolute inertia, is the only one possible (for even the possibility of refusal has been removed). By embracing inaction, by welcoming failure they have taken the last conceivable path to escape the vicious cycle which would string them along from one promise of success or salvation to the next, all the way unto death.
Although Gerster’s Oh Boy adroitly displays the urbanite’s unwell, unlike Oslo 31 it never makes the necessary cinematic jump to identify its persecutor, confusing its character’s despondency with the film’s. Illustrating Niko’s general state of malaise, Oh Boy lacks the courage or intelligence to point to its source (although the images displaying their own intuition; give hints at times). The source of Niko’s malaise is apparent (his privileged youth, the reverberations of history, the encroachment of the bureaucratic-capitalist apparatus upon his city) yet the film proposes a philosophical standpoint vision too close to that its own character (insisting upon the lack of reason for the malaise). Gertser’s visual choices (the non-choice of the shoulder cam, the expected shots, the laudable but simple solution of black and white) emphasizing the middle-ground it takes in its structural choices.
Oslo 31 relies rather on the severity of its emotions and its formal experiments (voices and images of memory, patient dollies, circular editing, fantasized sequences) to reveal the outlines of the urban structures which entrap the 21st century metropolitan. Before the opening credits, over archival footage of the city, a voice of memory speaks: “I remember mom showing me where she once rented a room. There’s only offices there now…”
The difference between the two films, which share so much otherwise, is that of awareness, reflected too in the discernment (or lack) of its main protagonist. Anders, as a heroin addict rejects of the city’s sway upon him, absolutely, (although it causes his suffering) preferring the uncompromising inner landscape of addiction, whereas Niko, afraid to become even an alcoholic always seeks some sort of arrangement to retain some flicker of hope.
Both Jan Ole Gerster and Joachim Trier set the superficial source of suffering of their protagonist as the memory of a woman, and in this similarity,the contrasts between the two films reveal themselves. In Olso 31, Anders carries a tight dense core of devastation which remains in the heart like a pit of lead – the indefinable memory of a woman, a face, a time, an emotion. With its play of time and light Oslo 31 concerns itself with emanating the force of memory’s image through the extraordinary beauty of Anders’ ex-love Iselin (Iselin Steiro). In Oh Boy the cinematic force of memory’s image is replaced with the concreteness the filmed prop – a box of photographs – a directorial trope and empty signifier of love’s memory, rather than the strength of its sentiment.
Even the hieroglyph mask of each actor’s chosen face is revelatory in this difference. The severe, immobile, eternally clenched jaw of uncompromising Anders Danielsen Lie has a force which the pretty-boy ease of Niko (German teeny-heartthrob Tom Schilling) lacks, even if both suffer. Nikos acceptance to participate in the social game (even if always unwilling) is never as strong a statement of inertia as Anders inability to do so. Oslo 31 relentlessly presents a city-space in which every social being is an adversary to its protagonist, for every relation is a temptation to compromise or kindness, and an entrapment in the very position which led him to seek liberty through addiction in the first place.
Whereas Oh Boy occasionally loses its way in the many, Joachim Trier’s film has only one character: Anders (perhaps a second in the city?). Only Anders, his clenched muscles, his forlorn gaze, his suffering. All the others which he sees (which we see), all the social beings have become phantoms, vestiges, ground down by the city and its social structures into the ash of personlessness.
Niko’s compromises in Oh Boy are also the film’s compromises. Even the mélange of comedy/drama of Oh Boy is a compromise of sorts, one which ultimately leads the film to contain a mix of complex, developed characters (the jarring wackiness one fat Julika, the oozing melancholy of Niko, the flippant nonsense of actor friend Matze) and hackneyed stereotypes (the Serious Dad, the Organic Café Waitress, the Nosy Neighbor).
Ultimately, although Oh Boy is the lighter film, Oslo 3, nearer to death, closer to tragedy, gazes upon the city’s urban space with a more sympathetic regard, that of someone who knows he will no longer be able to partake of it. People, moments, streets, experienced through Anders eyes become elevated from the stiff and artificial construct of character (victim of the city-gaze), to the complex intimate flavors of memory.
The final images of the Anders and Niko are the best illustrations of their philosophies. Both Oh Boy and Oslo 31 display the generalized despair of the anti-flâneur, victim and representative of their city, yet Oh Boy falls into the trap of regenerating the hope which is the very source desolation. Niko sits alone in a café after the death of a chance acquaintance, an old barfly who succeeded in piercing his despondency, and in the morning after this death, before we leave Niko, we see him sitting alone in a café, a glimmer of hope in a ray of light shines through the window. Oslo 31, tragic, relentless to the end, brings us into the one place we hoped all along he would not go (and knew he would), the familial manor for one final hit, one final submission to the drug, one last gesture of despair, yet the only one that could liberate him from the city’s intractable hold, even if he must go alone, and into darkness.