Meanwhile on Earth review – interesting, sympathetic study of the business of death

This discreet yet gently ironic Swedish documentary encourages us to look at the bright side of death; that is, the attentive preparations for those passing, and the miraculous persistence of earthly matters around them. It’s shot in what you might call the European objective style, reminiscent of Ulrich Seidl and Nikolaus Geyrhalter: largely static, square-on tableaux of activity in morgues, crematoriums, cemeteries, hearses and the like. But they’re filled with small talk that attests to the unstoppable flow of life, even in these most sombre of places.

The dead are conspicuous by their absence; shrouded in the back of a hearse or occasionally glimpsed hands as a mortician works on them. But a whole army from the funeral industry are at their disposal: embalmers, grave and urn diggers, chapel staff, musicians. Not quite on the threshold yet is Saga, a hunched pensioner we see on a tea date with a friend, or the bingo players waiting for their number to be up – literally and otherwise. Director Carl Olsson lets such existential wryness percolate, but unfailingly adorns it with humane touches, like the little bows the drivers and the undertakers give their charges.

Avoiding presenting these vignettes in a grimly determinative care-home-to-the-grave chronology and instead hopping between the different parts of process, Olsson manages to portray life and death as contained within and cradling one another. The universal bonds of care that prompt us to usher the dead into eternity with such consideration are ever-present, even for the dog that one morgue attendant is grieving. Hearse drivers Lasse and Micke are the film’s Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield, bantering about smoothie nutrition and Chinese buffets while they’re on the road. “Why do you always eat so damn much?” asks Micke. “Because you’re afraid you won’t get your money’s worth,” says his colleague. In one of a few thematic reprises in a deftly edited climax as decorous as a floral wreath, Olsson later returns to a pair of gravediggers hoovering up spring rolls as if to say: tuck into life while it’s there.

  • Meanwhile on Earth is available on True Story on 13 February.