In an interview at the 2010 Berlinale, Ruben Östlund said that he would prefer making shorts if they attracted as much attention as feature films. He then left Berlin with a Golden Bear for a short film called Incident by a Bank. He is otherwise known mostly for the talked-about feature films such as Force Majeure (2014), that competed in Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section and was awarded the Jury Prize, and The Square (2017), an elitist yet in truth humorous film that won the Palme d’Or. His other films won acclaim as well. The first, The Guitar Mongoloid (2004) won the 2005 FIPRESCI Award in Moscow, the second, Involuntary (2008) was internationally recognised, while his third feature, Play (2011) won the Coup de Coeur at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight section and the Nordic Council Film Prize.
His earliest amateur sports documentary shorts, Free Radicals (1997–1998), were intended for a specific audience and filmed mostly out of Östlund’s passion for skiing before his professional film endeavours. Yet, they are the source of his affinity towards long takes and his reliance on the actors to convey something extraordinary (and not simply “cover” the script). The two shorts offer the long sequences of spectacular moments of adrenaline-fueled skiers on the steep European and North American slopes spanning from December to April. According to Östlund, the perfect performance in Free Radicals signifies a long and dynamic ski ride full of tricks and jumps, with minimal cuts to cover mistakes. It was the skiing films of the 1990s that enabled him to study film at the Goteborg University, at which he now also lectures.
His creative goal is the ethical imperative of responsibility. In his sharp but also comical films that are above all precise anthropological studies of the modern Western life, portraying the fear of the different, social conformity, violence, the gap between social classes etc, he rejects repeating the same patterns and instead strives for originality (drawing from his experience). When choosing characters, he follows these criteria: 1) what would be the most interesting character design considering what we wish to expose in the film and 2) which features should be ascribed to the character based on the environment he or she comes from. He balances this “chess game” with emotions. It seems his characters remain on the surface, their moves depicted in strange but daily and awkward situations with realistic dialogues and through meaningful camera perspective. Although some of his themes question the image of the seemingly ideal Scandinavian society and some critics attribute him with locality and Swedish humour, he says that he is more interested in different profiles than in the Swedish society.
His films are founded on the feeling of shame that occurs in different situations. Let the Others Deal with Love and Autobiographical Scene Number 6882 are based on the realistic documentary method and behaviourism: the observation of people’s behaviour and the functioning of groups. They explore how the group we belong to influences our behaviour and what consequences come with conformity. This makes the Scene a pre-study of the Involuntary. He builds out of carefully-pondered situations and characters’ reactions to them, often creating a darker humorous effect (“The use of personal experience is the best creative drive. You don’t always have to be the hero or the one who does the right thing. Make fun of yourself and of your stupid reactions.”) In his imaginary Incident by a Bank, he reconstructs an event he handled quite poorly. On 26 January 2006, Östlund and the producer Erik Hammerdorff were on their way to the Swedish Film Institute, when Hammerdorff suddenly noticed two bikers with ski helmets. They then witnessed a bank robbery but deemed calling the police unnecessary since they thought that “the employees have a secret button they can press at any time”. The unusual robbery was anything but the stereotypical and effective action of Hollywood films we have seen numerous times. Because cinematic art is too repetitive in his opinion, he keeps coming up with new, different approaches. The robbery in the film appears to be moving although the acted scenes were shot by a static camera. Östlund created the movement, including the approach of the clumsy individuals besides the robbers (who at first enter through the wrong door) in postproduction. To make a detailed and extremely funny reconstruction of the failed robbery, he engaged 90 theatre actors.