'Aniara' is a Spaceship Built by Sorrow—and the Apocalypse

Emilie Jonsson in 'Aniara.' (Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

When you name the spaceship in your movie “Sorrowful,” you’ve pretty much tipped your hat to the viewer from the get-go. (The added bonus is that you don’t have to worry about spoiler alerts.)

Will the happy astro-travelers of the Aniara arrive at their distant destination in one piece? Absolutely not.

In their feature film adaptation of Harry Martinson’s 1956 epic poem “Aniara,” co-directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja kept his title (also translated as “sad” or “despairing”) and the relentless sense that all hope is lost. If Das Boot (1981) brought out your inner claustrophobe, the visuals in Aniara should multiply that feeling, I’d estimate, upwards to about infinity.

Way back in the 1950s, Martinson, a Swedish Nobel Prize-winning author, was one of many Cassandra-like figures who prophesied that humans were destroying the Earth (but nobody ever believes a Cassandra-like figure).

A scene from 'Aniara,' 2019.
A scene from 'Aniara,' 2019. (Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

Aniara begins in the future after the 32nd World War. That’s right, the 32nd one. The good news is it took thirty more world wars to completely annihilate the place. The bad news: Earth is completely annihilated.

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But Kågerman and Lilja’s movie is light on explosions. Aniara has more in common with Ingmar Bergman’s entire oeuvre and Andrei Tarkovsky’s drama The Sacrifice than it does with Hollywood space junk like Armageddon or Independence Day. In this Swedish take on a trip to Mars that goes awry, the end of human existence isn’t made into an occasion to display Ben Affleck's mighty pectorals.

I spoke with Pella Kågerman in a transatlantic phone conversation that meaningfully recreated what it must feel like for an astronaut (or cosmonaut, or yuhangyuan) to call ground control while floating in a silver suit from high up above. There was plenty of echoing reverb and a 10-second delay between each question and answer.

Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, directors of 'Aniara.'
Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, directors of 'Aniara.' (Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

What made you want to adapt Martinson’s poem?

In Scandinavia, but mostly in Sweden, it's almost impossible to avoid it or not know about it. It has been made into theater plays, exhibitions and even operas. So it's all over the place. Our current generation was forced to read it in school, but this is the first ever film adaptation.

I was very close to my grandmother growing up and we used to read books together. We went to see a musical version of “Aniara.” After that, she had a stroke and ended up in this huge hospital. I was by her side and reading the poem out loud to her. As she was getting better, we started to role-play. This enormous hospital was the big spacecraft. All the patients were passengers and the doctors: they were the crew. My grandma was this artificial intelligence called Mima. That's when I realized, "Oh my god, this story is amazing and I have to make a movie of it."

Emilie Jonsson in 'Aniara.'
Emilie Jonsson in 'Aniara.' (Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

Your film presents a bleak and disturbing vision of humanity.

I’m not surprised that that’s the feeling that you left with. But somehow, I think we had the idea that when you were walking out of the screening you’d basically be feeling like it’s shitty weather and we say, “Thank god that I’m here on Earth and that I'm not onboard the ship.” And that we haven’t come that far, even if it seems like that’s the way we’re heading now.

We have to read the story of this spacecraft as if it were Earth. The apocalypse looks like this. We’re in the middle of it, right? Destroying Earth.

The most beautiful scenes in the movie come from an A.I. program called “Mima” that recreates the experience of being on Earth for the passengers. It temporarily restores their sanity.

Mima in the poem was more or less described as a big TV screen. We understood pretty early on that that wouldn’t impress an audience or the people that would go onboard Aniara today. So we thought of it as more of a spiritual practice like yoga—being thrown back to your strongest memories of Earth and nature, and how good it feels to almost experience that.

A scene from 'Aniara.'
A scene from 'Aniara.' (Courtesy of Magnet Releasing)

As the protagonist, Emelie Jonsson’s character doesn’t lose faith in the possibility of being rescued. She’s the only ray of light in the film. Is that why you cast her in the role?

We wrote Aniara with her in mind because she has this naïveté to her. Her character will somehow continue fighting. In this blue, pessimistic world, the main character really has to carry the hope. We think that she has that.


Could you clarify one plot point? Despite the incredible advance in technology, why can’t the Aniara, this floating city, contact anyone else?

Because space is enormous. And when the poem was written in the 1950’s, they hadn't found that many planets. Yes, they would know that they existed. Now they’ve discovered one planet that might actually be inhabited but it would take five million years to get to. Most of space is just empty. And also, you just have this spacecraft that’s been taken off course. No one could have the speed to rescue it.

'Aniara' opens Friday, May 17 at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and Landmark's Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley.

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