Knut Åsdam

Establishing shots are usually only used at the outset of a film. Yet Norwegian filmmaker Knut Åsdam’s films comprise little else. In a similar way to Patrick Keiller’s, what Åsdam’s long shots and pans establish is unclear. Nothing happens. The shot does not establish, but de-establishes, de-contextualises as much as contextualises[1]: we gaze at unfamiliar urban spaces (the settings are Austria, North Lebanon, unspecified European train stations, and London’s Docklands; the characters are often not only foreign to the location themselves, but also of different nationalities to each other). The sense of translation, therefore, between people – or people and urban topography – is emphasised.


Characters are determined by their architectural surroundings: when the city is a non-place of construction-sites, between growth and collapse (as in Oblique), the characters are similarly unstable. There is little sense of direction, both in terms of the characters’ motives, the plot, and the actual overview of the city. In Tripoli, the main character goes up onto the roof of Oscar Niemeyer’s modernist marketplace, as if in an attempt to gain more perspective, yet this does not seem to come, and the film spirals with increasingly little plot progression. Niemeyer’s abandoned concrete curves are a reminder of a short-lived dream of a utopia that was as fictional as its architecture now feels against a backdrop of everyday apartment blocks and political conflict. Apertures pervade Tripoli, from arches to doorways. They are reminiscent both of a camera’s gaze and also a broader metaphor of lack: the architecture is elliptical, especially in its half-completed state, and the plot and dialogue contain gaps. At one stage, the main protagonist is filming from the rooftop with a camera through which we see as audience. Then the camera is presumably dropped, and its operator attacked. The scene goes black and noise is muffled. This is just one example of the subtext of violence that pervades the film – and the area, following recent political unrest.


Alienation, confusion and fragmentation figure in the films as post-modern urban symptoms. Sometimes this feeling of fragmentation results in a surreal montage. Simon Sheikh says, ‘when watching films surrealists (according to urban legend) would come into the theatre sometime after the film had started and leave again well before the end, in order to get a series of situations and subjects for viewing without the clarity of a narrative’.[2] Åsdam’s films embody this feeling; they begin and continue in medias res. At the end of Finally, one character tells the other to ‘Wake up!’ emphasising the strange disjointedness that has been. Without context or traditional establishment, the characters feel like the façades that surround them. Architecture and the field of gazes mediate linguistic and psychological activity: tower blocks, crumbling walls or motorways influence the characters. Like a repetition of architectural shapes or detailing, verbal phrases – ‘Please, pass me my coat, please’ – are repeated until their meaning and ordinariness disintegrates; the city and the verbal gesture become countless, meaningless. All begins to feel like an exchange: gestures and lines are repeated and exchanged between characters in an emotionless economy of body and words and buildings. As in Sarah Tripp’s monologues, speech is made alien and as constructed as the urban fabric. In Finally, the three main characters fight repeatedly, yet nothing in the minimal narrative or their dialogue offers an explanation. They move like the characterless figures in Beckett’s Quad piece; beyond our gaze and the spatial perimeter, their aims are unclear and perhaps nonexistent. Whereas the Quad figures avoid physical contact, Åsdam’s characters in Finally fight as a means of operating in the space. And as Quad’s untouchable central point is physically untouched by the figures, Finally’s plot resolution and its characters’ communication is equally impossible. Finally is a resolution that is never achieved.


[1] Sheikh, S (2011) ‘Aesthetic Subjects in Urban Spaces – Some Remarks on the Films of Knut Åsdam’ in Tate Film Knut Åsdam London: Tate
[2] Ibid.