Although the liner notes bill it as “hilarious,” that is probably an exaggeration. It is, however, a satiric poke at the whole idea of “neutral observation” underlying scientific studies and very funny indeed.
The movie was made in 2003, but takes place in the early ’50s or even a couple of years before.
In the beginning of the movie, the narrator informs you that Swedish scientists began to study home cleaning products and methods in 1944.
They went on to study kitchen traffic patterns of Swedish housewives and at the beginning of this particular story, Swedish scientists are about to embark on a study of the kitchen habits of Norwegian bachelors.
Each Swedish observer is paired with a Norwegian bachelor and lives in a little travel trailer outside his host’s home.
The observer is free to come and go into the host’s kitchen, but is not allowed to communicate or interact with his subject.
The observer is to take notes and to draw the traffic patterns used by the single males in their kitchens.
Most of the story records the old Norwegian’s attempts to thwart the Swede’s ability to observe him.
First of all, he doesn’t eat in the kitchen, maybe the odd bowl of porridge, but nothing substantial. The Swede suspects that he cooks and eats in his bedroom — he can smell it.
His Norwegian host does, however, do other things in the kitchen. He smokes his pipe and drinks his coffee; sets mousetraps; and hangs laundry between himself and the Swedish observer to obscure his view.
The Swede jots it all down and his superiors are amazed at the unsuspected, erratic cooking patterns of single males. It seems that the same patterns are being reported by the other scientific observers as well.
His superior speculates, “I wonder what the kitchen will look like for these people?” — meaning the scientifically designed kitchen that is the purpose of the study. Odd kitchen, indeed, if it incorporates cooking in the bedroom.
And while the notes accumulate, the recorded footsteps multiply and the data grow, the patterns are all inexplicable and seemingly unrelated.
Eventually, the two men do interact, and then talk, and Folke, the Swedish observer, finds out why these behaviors have surfaced in Isak, his Norwegian host, as well as in all of the other Norwegian study subjects.
In 1944, while Swedish scientists were studying Swedish housewives, Norwegians were undergoing their fourth year of German occupation.
Sweden had declared itself a “neutral observer” during World War II, and many Norwegians felt that Swedish neutrality gave the Nazis access to their country. Enmity arose between the neighboring countries.
Never mind that the Norwegians had tried for neutrality as well and had its own traitors to contend with. Never mind that Sweden had also done much good — raising Norwegian orphans, shipping food to various countries besieged by Germany.
Among Norwegians, there was bitterness and resentment toward all things Swedish and my Norwegian relatives tell me that in Denmark (also occupied), this ill-feeling toward Swedes was even worse.
The movie makes many references to the war, which was a recent wound at the time depicted in the movie.
The film, produced by a Swedish company, but supported by film institutes in both Sweden and Norway, is an acknowledgement that, just as there is no neutral observation in science, there are no neutral observers in war.
Heisenberg developed his uncertainty principle in 1929 — noting that matter could either be measured as a particle or a wave and that the act of observation affected it.
Most traditional scientists don’t feel that observation affects the outcome enough to hinder coming to an unbiased understanding of universal laws.
Certainly, we continue to pursue scientific studies in the same manner, using observation and measurement as neutral data, as if Heisenberg had noted nothing at all.
It takes a long time to slow a freight train.
But in recent years, more and more studies are finding that, not only does the act of observing change the nature of what is observed, but the expectations implied in the hypothesis are likely to be borne out. What you expect to find in your study is likely what you will find.
This is especially true when studying human behavior. The movie makes the point that there is no such thing as neutral observation and that understanding human beings requires communication.
We are all biased by past experience and future expectation and only communication can untangle the lot.
The movie is also a plea for forgiveness and friendship between peoples. Norway and Sweden were neighbors and remain neighbors still; it is in their best interest to resolve differences and work toward a cooperative future.
Probably a good many Americans who were born well after the end of World War II don’t know their wartime experiences and don’t really differentiate Sweden from Norway from Finland from Denmark.
On the other hand, probably most Scandinavians would be hard put to tell an American Democrat from an American Republican.
And yet, we are neighbors, Americans all. As we try to untangle the mess that is our economy, we would do well to communicate: not speechify — but to really speak and listen to one another.
It means that our Republican representatives will need to stop blaming Democratic actions in the past and vice versa.
In the movie, the old Norwegian’s resistance to the Swede’s neutral stance just skews the data, leading to a future kitchen-bedroom design that makes no sense and renders the study useless.
And the Swedish scientist’s sense of privilege as “unbiased” observer warps his subject’s responses.
Only communication can untangle this mutual mess. Only communication leads to real understanding — a lesson we might take to heart in our current situation.
It takes a long time to slow a freight train.
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