The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

August 23, 2014
Robert Gustafsson in'The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared' (2013)
Robert Gustafsson in'The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared' (2013)

Forrest Gump never made it to Sweden, or else the Swedes loved the film so much they still haven’t gotten over it. Felix Herngren’s The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, takes elements familiar from Forrest Gump (1994), Zelig (1983), and Being There (1979), and adds an extra dose of geriatric absurdity. The results are amusing, if not exactly hilarious. This film has been a box office sensation in Scandinavia, but that probably says more about the Nordic sense of humour than it does about the quality of the gags.

The protagonist is one Allan Karlsson (Robert Gustafsson), who makes a slow-motion escape from a retirement home on the day of his 100th birthday. Allan shuffles off to the nearest bus station where he buys the only ticket he can afford. As luck would have it he is taken in by another old crock, by name of Julius (Iwar Wiklander). In his dazed state he has brought along a suitcase belonging to a young skinhead, which turns out to be full of money. This is the trigger for a rambling tale which involves angry bikies, violent deaths, a cockney gangster based in Bali, an insecure young man who never finishes what he starts, and a girl with an elephant.

The story grows like fungus, with most of the characters turning out to be connected in a rather implausible manner.

As the plot unfolds, Allan regales us with the story of his life, which is the very model of “picaresque” as defined by Encyclopaedia Britannica: “usually a first-person narrative, relating the adventures of a rogue or low-born adventurer as he drifts from place to place and from one social milieu to another in his effort to survive.”

Allan’s tale encompasses many of the most significant events of the 20th century. Having been neutered during a youthful stay in a mental institution, he is completely indifferent to sex. Apart from alcohol, his one abiding passion is for explosives, a hobby that leads him from the Spanish Civil War, to the A-bomb tests in New Mexico, to the Soviet Gulags.

Unlike most of the people he meets, Allan does not see explosives as a means to a political end. He simply likes to blow things up. In his political naiveté, Allan is very like Chauncey Gardiner in Being There – a tabula rasa upon which powerful people see their own opinions writ large. By saying a few simplistic things, he gets a reputation as a great intellect.

Through the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time, he gets to meet General Franco, Harry S. Truman, Stalin, and Ronald Reagan. Allan may only be concerned with his next glass of vodka, but he manages to exert an influence on the currents of history, inadvertently prompting the decision to tear down the Berlin Wall. It’d be funnier if we hadn’t already met with similar scenarios in another movie or three. To rev up the humour, Herngren uses a tub-thumping musical score that is meant to make us realise how wacky and zany the story is, although this hardly needs to be emphasised.

The problem is that much of the comedy depends upon Allan being very old and decrepit, or largely devoid of feelings for anyone but himself. This makes him an unsympathetic character to carry the entire weight of the narrative. To be fair to Robert Gustafsson it must be hard enough to carry the facial make-up required to double one’s actual age.

There is also the small issue as to whether one tends to view history as tragedy or farce, to borrow Marx’s famous formulation. What seems tragic when viewed as current affairs takes on a different dimension with the passing of the years. But for Allan, it’s all the same, past or present. The result is a highly watchable movie that leaves one with a hollow feeling. When one thinks of the character Hal Ashby and Peter Sellers created in Being There, at once so comical and touching, Herngren’s centenarian seems a very crude piece of carving.

The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Directed by Felix Herngren
Screenplay by Felix Herngren & Hans Ingemansson, from a novel by Jonas Jonasson.
Starring Robert Gustafsson, Iwar Wiklander, David Wiberg, Mia Skäringer, Jens Hultén, Alan Ford
Sweden/Croatia, rated M, 114 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 23rd August, 2014.