Like ‘Forrest Gump,’ but With Castration, Explosions and Joseph Stalin
A Swedish film series scoffs at the Cold War
Dig deep enough in Netflix and you might find a Swedish movie called The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on the Bill and Disappeared.
The title is a mouthful. The plot is insane.
It’s the story of Allan Karlsson, a former spy for both Russia and America during the Cold War. One day while sunning himself in Bali, he discovers a bottle of the Soviet Union’s experimental Folksoda. The bottle of red syrup is so delicious it sends him on an international quest to rediscover a recipe he thought was lost to the ages.
As he wanders the globe, he flashbacks to his life as a spy during the Cold War. Karlsson Forrest Gumps his way through history, meeting Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, Leonid Brezhnev and David Bowie. There’s intrigue, explosions, LSD and heaping helpings of dark comedy.
Oh … and this Netflix original is a sequel to an even more insane and far superior movie called The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.
I’d watched half the sequel, the one all about Folksoda and the Cold War, before I realized I was completely lost and needed to watch the first film to understand what the hell was going on. Strangely, the original isn’t on Netflix — but it is on Amazon Prime.
As much fun as it is to watch Nixon and Brezhnev fight over a soda formula in an alternate history, the original movie is much, much better. In it, Karlsson sneaks out the window of his retirement home on his 100th birthday to set off an adventure. He’s bored and he wants to blow something up. That sentence is the story of his entire life.
The first film follows Karlsson as he makes his madcap escape across Sweden while pursued by police and angry drug dealers. It’s fun, but the best parts come when he’s flashing back to his long and storied life.
Karlsson’s father is a rabble-rouser. He’s the first to brings condoms to Sweden in the early days of the 20th century, a move that so frightens the Swedish aristocracy that they arrest him on blasphemy charges. Undeterred, Karlsson’s father moves to Moscow after prison and attempts to establish an independent country where he can preach the gospel of birth control. It doesn’t go well.
Soon after, Karlsson’s mother falls ill. Our hapless hero tells his dying mother that he doesn’t know what he’ll do without her. She admonishes him for worrying too much. “Thinking will get you nowhere,” she says. “The only sure thing is that it is what it is. And it will be what it will be.”
Karlsson takes the advice to heart and spends the rest of his life following his impulses and not thinking or worrying about much of anything. What follows is like Being There with tons of violence.
As a young man, a coworker in a cannon factory talks Karlsson into fighting in the Spanish Civil War. “He invited me along to go help him crush someone named Franco. I figured, ‘Why not?’ After all, in war you must get to blow things up.”
Karlsson’s big-mouthed buddy is the first official casualty of the war. Franco’s fascists blow his head off the moment he gets to the front line. “He never got to blow up any bridges, poor guy,” Karlsson laments. “But me? I got to blow up quite a few. For many years I did nothing but eat and sleep and blow things up. It was a wonderful time.”
These two movies are deeply weird, violent and hilarious. It’s the kind of thing that shouldn’t work. It’s too silly and strange, but it’s so grounded in actual history that it makes a kind of sense. Much of the past 100 years have felt so odd and so ridiculous that a figure such as Karlsson fits right in.
He’s present for some of history’s most horrible events and his lazy, care-free attitude contrasts the seriousness of those moments. His mere presence renders the horrors of the atom bomb, the Cold War and Soviet gulags ridiculous.
The world around Karlsson is so focused on its enemies and war, that no one notices how incompetent he is. He falls in with the Manhattan Project because he loves explosions, falls in with the Soviets because they heard he worked on the bomb, then falls in with spies on both sides because they know he’s a well-connected man.
Karlsson shrugs, drinks and agrees to everything. He doesn’t think much about it. It’s a great survival strategy for surviving the worst of history.
The plot works despite its insanity — because the fictional history created seems as if it could have happened. There’s this perfect moment where Karlsson delivers a bottle of Folksoda to Nixon. The Soviets want to counter American culture with their own, so they’ve begun to develop their own rock-and-roll, soda and blue jeans. Their only hit is the soda.
Nixon takes a swig of the drink. “Well this is some tasty shit,” he says, “but it’s still just a soda.”
Kissinger pipes up. “Pepsi and the Coca-Cola Company together gross more than five times the Russian defense budget,” he says. “With the right marketing campaign, this could make billions for the Russian state. What do you think would happen to the U.S. image abroad if the Soviets suddenly start producing the most refreshing soft drinks? What if the whole world starts coveting Russian consumer goods? Imagine Times Square with Russia ads.”
Nixon calls up Brezhnev. “You must realize by now that we will not allow you to manufacture that beverage,” he says. Thus, the two sides decide to meet and talk it over. They call it the SALT talks, because sweet would be too obvious. And thus, a strange man who loves explosives moves history forward a little with the help of a strange little man who just wanted to blow stuff up.