DVD recommendation: Kitchen Stories

Swedish film directed by Bent Hamer

Set in the post-war 1940’s, Folke, a Swedish efficiency expert, observes the kitchen habits of Isak, a Norwegian bachelor farmer, as part of a study run by Sweden’s Home Research Institute. Malmberg, the scientist left in charge of the study, explains to his charges that the goal is to “rationalize the kitchen and the placement of the stations” to suit Norwegian bachelors. The rules of the study require that the observers live in trailers outside their subjects’ homes. They are to conduct their research (each atop a tall, pedestal chair) in their hosts’ kitchens for a period of days/weeks without interacting with their subjects. Such is the quirky premise of this delightful film.

Hamer, the director, is well aware of his audience as yet another observer in the mix, and creates a film that rewards the attentive. The visual details evident in the setting, situations, and character body-language tell the story almost as much as the subtitles. The film is, itself, an exercise in showing, not telling. The result is engagingly humorous and, towards the end, bittersweet.

On one level Kitchen Stories taps into my interest in the evolution of kitchen design. In the 50’s machine age, efficiency was all the rage. The kitchen became a lab, equipped with the latest equipment arranged in the most judicious way. Soon enough it became more home to the machines than home to the folks using the machines. In Kitchen Stories Isak’s kitchen is a long, long way from the lab aesthetic. His kitchen is a homey, green, board-and-batten living space that serves multiple uses: as a barbershop, laundry, bath, and snacking area, but very rarely as a cooking space. He cooks upstairs, out of sight, because he’s not wild about being observed. In fact, he’s quite put-out about the whole thing from the get-go.

Folke arrives one grey, winter day in a comically ordered caravan with the other scientists. They tow buggy-shaped trailers with their ladder-like, pedestal, observation chairs strapped onto the back as they drive down the left side of the road toward a border gate where they then switch to the right side. This signals to the audience that they’ve arrived in Norway. A scene with a child’s buggy adjacent to one of the trailers is one of many fun visual puns in the film. Like a baby in a baby carriage, Folke will make a snug home in the trailer (while he remains uninitiated). Good thing, because Isak leaves Folke out in the cold for what seems like days. At one point Isak opens the door just enough to claim the red, wooden gift-horse that the scientists set on his porch, but then quickly shuts it again. Eventually, after returning from the barn past the speechless scientist, Isak leaves the door slightly ajar for Folke. This sets the stage for how they will silently communicate, for a while anyway.

The reluctant host and scientist play an elaborate game of cat and mouse in the beginning. In one scene Isak literally baits mouse traps with cheese on the kitchen table, while Folke looks silently on and then unexpectedly coughs, surprising Isak, causing him to trigger the trap on his own fingers. Isak, clearly feigning stoicism, stands up from the table and leaves the room. It’s quietly amusing. In another scene, Isak is seen peering through a hole drilled in the ceiling above Folke’s pedestal chair. Folke seems to sense something is up, but carries on with what he’s doing while he waits for Isak to enter the kitchen. Isak has become the cat instead of the mouse, turning the tables on who is observing whom.

Ultimately, the film is a study in human behavior, our inclination to form relationships, and the impracticality, or even questionable morality, of supposed neutral observation. In short order, subject and scientist are silently influencing each other. One eats chocolate; the other desires it. One binges on herring; the other gains an appetite for fish. They are empathic and curious about one another, each trying on the others shoes, so to speak. Perhaps we’re hard-wired this way. Just the other day Richard Conniff was saying on American Public Media’s Marketplace, “We actually have mirror neurons in our brains dedicated to imitation. So two people in a friendly conversation often match each other’s body language.” Conniff goes on to talk about the powers of cooperation and to conclude, “We’re just not built to go it alone.” Isak and Folke come to a similar realization as they forge a special friendship.

As for the kitchen study, it proves beyond rationalization for this group of Swedish scientists. Though their methods were flawed, I applaud their efforts as early environmental psychologists, of sorts. The kitchen is certainly worthy of study, in terms of its impact on our behavior/thinking and vice versa. Isak’s multi-purpose kitchen may well be a better model for the kitchen of the future than the streamlined lab of the mid-century. Plus its informal décor appeals. Granted, due to my Norwegian roots, it's no surprise that I favor Isak's kitchen, and, for that matter, his home. It captures some of the endearing traits I mention in my earlier primer on architectural charm. In fact, the whole film is charming. See it; you’ll know what I mean.

by Katie Hutchison for the House Enthusiast

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