I had always liked the way that JAL’s screenplay played with the idea of portals becoming barriers and barriers becoming portals. In the very first scene we see Oskar reflected in his window, an image of the lonely boy superimposed upon the world beyond the window. The window holds them separate. In this shot we see that the window, which should be a portal to the world, instead acts as a barrier. Soon after we see Oskar putting his hand against the window, reaching out for the world that he can see but not touch.
Juxtaposed to this, the screenplay also turns a barrier into a portal. The wall of Oskar’s room, intended by its builders to be a barrier to keep the world out, instead becomes a portal. It becomes the only channel that this lonely boy has out of his isolation. He reaches through the wall to contact his new sort-of-friend who has moved in next door.
I thought this theme of reversing the roles between the wall and the window was interesting, so I sat down to watch the film yet again (as if I needed an excuse) to look specifically at how this theme was played out. What I found instead was a much more interesting theme. The wall and the window could not play their roles alone – it was the hands that gave them their new meanings. I noticed hands are frequently given prominent positions on the screen. I came to believe that this visual theme was used to symbolize human contact. As we know from the film, human contact is not always a good thing.
Now that I could see how the window stopped Oskar’s hand from touching the world, I watched further to see how else this could be a story told by hands.
It is in the scene of Oskar and Eli’s second meeting on the jungle gym where the film really introduces the visual theme of the hands telling a parallel story. Eli is hungry. She wants to nom Oskar, but also she is interested in him and doesn’t want to hurt him. When she first shows up behind Oskar, she is undecided about what she will do. When she becomes interested in the puzzle, Oskar holds it out and offers it to her. At this Eli pulls back. She does not want to have human contact with Oskar, but this is what he is offering her.
However she relents and takes the Rubik’s Cube from Oskar’s hand and the film makes a point of showing us this token of human contact passing between them.
In fact as the cube is handed back and forth between them in this scene the film makes a point of showing this contact back and forth, from hand to hand…
Finally to close out the scene Oskar leaves. Oskar is now out of danger. He has perhaps made it through this encounter with Eli simply because he offered her that human contact. After he leaves, the film gives us a clue to this.
In the next shot, instead of showing us Eli’s pained, hungry face, the film instead first shows us her hands. Her hands are gripping tightly the Rubik’s Cube, the token of her human contact with Oskar. The film is showing us that although it has cost her, Eli has held on to her humanity by not feeding upon Oskar.
After his second meeting with Eli, the film shows us that Oskar is not just interested in Eli, but he is desperately interested in Eli. Once again we get an image of Oskar with his hand on a barrier, but this time it is not the barrier between him and the world outside his window. Now it is the barrier between him and Eli. The film goes so far as to obscure Oskar’s face with his hand, and to intentionally pull focus from his face to his hand. The film does not want us to miss the story now being told by Oskar’s hand: That Oskar’s main interest is no longer contact with the world outside of his window. Oskar is now interested in contact with his new acquaintance.
When Oskar heads out the next morning, before he exits his building the film once more uses the image of his hand on glass to remind us of the barrier of loneliness that isolates him from the world. This time however the barrier does not stop him. He opens the door and goes out to find that the Rubik’s Cube has been left on the jungle gym. The cube has been solved, signaling to Oskar and to us that Eli has not just immediately cast it aside, but she has spent time pondering it and in fact has appreciated it. Eli has accepted this offer of contact from Oskar. The film shows us Oskar’s hand holding the completed cube not just that once, but again as Oskar is in school. By showing us the image of Oskar’s hand on the door and then having him open the door and pass through it, the film is using this parallel story told by hands to let us know that Oskar has broken out of his isolation. His loneliness is at least now not absolute.
By the time of their third meeting, Oskar and Eli are ready to find out about one another a little bit. When Oskar discovers that Eli does not get birthday presents, he offers her his sympathy, once again in the form of the Rubik’s Cube. The film makes a point of showing his hand extended with the cube, but Eli’s hand does not enter the frame.
Eli refuses the cube. This is not the contact that she wants. She doesn’t want Oskar’s sympathy or pity. Instead the conversation turns explicitly to the cube itself and Oskar marvels at her ability to solve it. When Oskar mixes up the cube and once again extends his hand to Eli, this time the film shows us their hands exchanging the cube.
Now Eli takes the cube without hesitation. This is the contact she wants. This is about her interests (in puzzles) and her abilities. This is not about Oskar’s pity for her situation. This is about Oskar’s interest in her. It is on this basis that she accepts contact with Oskar.
At Oskar and Eli’s fourth meeting, the film has absolutely no qualms about presenting the visual theme of hands.
As the scene opens, literally Oskar’s hand is conversing with Eli’s hand as he explains the Morse code to her. The first thing the film shows us is not a shot of their faces, but instead a shot of their hands.
Next the film shows us Oskar’s hand passing the Morse code key to Eli’s hand. Now all of the pieces are in place to turn the wall of Oskar’s room into a portal, a channel to contact with Eli. Now their hands have become not just a symbol of contact but also of communication.
Then comes first moment of real, physical contact. Eli is exhorting Oskar to fight back against the bullies and she offers to help him. As she does this, she touches Oskar’s hand and again we see another image of just their hands.
This time it is Oskar’s turn to pull back. This is not the contact that he wants. He also does not want pity, and even less than that does he want to feel like he needs a girl to stick up for him. Oskar pulls his hand away and gets up and walks out of the frame. After Oskar has left the frame, we are left with a picture Eli sitting by herself on the jungle gym, and centered in the frame is her empty hand.
However, Oskar was not rejecting Eli altogether, he was just rejecting her offer of help. Just as Eli had in their earlier meeting, Oskar was rejecting the contact born of pity. He is still interested in her. Oskar makes this clear by urging her to follow him.
Now that Oskar has spent some time with Eli and has given her the Morse code key, the barrier has been transformed into a portal for contact. We see an image of Oskar’s hand on the wall, once again the hand obscuring his face and the wall – even though it out of focus – takes up almost two thirds of the frame. And now instead of being stopped by the barrier of the wall we see the hand reaching through the wall and touching Eli, via the Morse code. Oskar is Morsing a mundane, albeit sweet message to Eli: “SOV GOTT”, which is Swedish for “SWEET DREAMS”. However it does not really matter what the message is. The barrier that consumes over the half the screen has become a portal.
By the time of the candy scene Oskar and Eli’s relationship has progressed quite a bit. Now Eli is willing to do things to please Oskar that she would not otherwise be inclined to do. She accepts Oskar’s offer of candy, and then rejects it in the most literal fashion. Oskar hugs Eli, and the camera shows us a view of Oskar’s face and Eli’s back, and then it pans down to shows us Oskar’s hands encircling Eli. Here the tale told by Oskar’s hands has become much more straightforward. Oskar is displaying real caring for Eli and a certain amount of increased intimacy. He has seen that she is willing to do things to please him even though there is a real cost for her.
In the latter half of the bed scene, we see Eli’s hand re-enact the conversation that she has just had with Oskar. After Oskar has fallen asleep, the film shows us a shot of Eli touching Oskar’s shoulder with her fingertips. The film made a point of focusing on her hand while leaving her face out of focus.
This hesitant touching seems to be mirroring Eli’s earlier hesitancy about accepting a change in the status of her relationship with Oskar to that of boyfriend and, umm… girlfriend. Then, as she examines the idea, she becomes more amenable to it.
Eli’s hand portrays this by slowing sliding down Oskar’s arm to his hand. The shot now widens to keep Eli’s face in the frame at one side and Oskar’s hand in the frame at the other. Eli’s face is now in focus, and we can still see traces of Håkan’s blood on it. In this one shot we see Eli’s hand making the journey that Eli herself is making: from lonely vampire to human contact.
Finally Eli’s hand reaches Oskar’s and she intertwines her fingers with his. They are together.
At the end of the scene the camera leaves us with an image of Eli caressing Oskar’s hand with her thumb as their fingers are intertwined. The symbolism is so obvious that is barely recognizable as symbolism.
In the scene at the pool, we are presented with a shot of Eli outside the Bad standing at the window. She is watching Martin talking to Oskar when he is in the pool. Once again there is an image of a hand on a barrier. It could almost seem that although she is together with Oskar, the film is trying to tell us that she feels separated from him when he is off in his regular life.
However, when Eli pulls her hand away, we can see fuzzily through the window that her hand had been covering Oskar. This is rather symbolic and is a nice little bit of foreshadowing. While Martin is trying to interact with Oskar, Eli’s hand is on Oskar. The barrier that is being symbolized here is the barrier (of death) that Eli later puts between Oskar and the bullies.
In the basement scene Oskar’s hand now takes center stage. However, it does not get the extended close-up treatment that hands have elsewhere in the film, except where it is necessary to show us the blood dripping from it. I did not get the sense that the basement scene was continuing the visual theme of hands symbolizing contact and barriers. Although Oskar cutting his hand is symbolic to Oskar, it does not seem to be visually symbolic of any sort of contact or lack of contact. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It is in fact part of a different theme; the theme of the knife, but that is an entirely different topic.
In the director’s commentary, Tomas Alfredson has this to say during this scene:
“Your body language also expresses your attraction to someone, you start mimicking their movements. So that’s also an underlying thought in this scene.”
I think he actually went a little bit further with the visual theme of hands and barriers. As Oskar and Eli talk through the door, Eli puts up her hand on the glass.
When Oskar matches the movement with his own, Eli then moves her hand, and Oskar’s hand follows. Then Eli puts her other hand on the glass and Oskar mimics this movement as well. It is as though Eli is testing whether Oskar really wants to be in contact with her, while at the same time pleading with Oskar to want that contact. She puts her hand up to the glass barrier, inquiring whether Oskar wants to get through the barrier just as she does. The film so strongly wants to emphasize this that it actually obscures Eli’s face with her hand. However the subtle the visual theme of hands and barriers has been before, the film does not intend to allow us to ignore it here.
While Oskar and Eli are discussing her being a vampire, their hands are having an entirely different conversation. Eli’s hand is saying, “Do you really want to be with me?” and Oskar’s hand is saying, “Yes, I really want to be with you.”
This is the conversation that convinces Eli to open the door and let Oskar in. If you just listen to the dialog of this scene, you could be puzzled as to why Eli opened the door. It is the non-verbal dialog of the hands that makes us understand Eli’s decision to let the right one in. The poignancy of the two conversations, and the fact that they are both presented to us simultaneously, makes this an extremely compelling scene. By the laying the groundwork for this communication of the hands earlier, the film is able to use it to deliver an emotional hammer blow in this scene.
The visual theme of Oskar and Eli’s hands reached its culmination in the scene of the egg. It was here that I really felt rewarded for examining this theme. I watched as Eli’s hand pointed to the top of the egg, and then Oskar’s hand enter and touch the egg, causing it to unravel into a shower of pieces. After an uncountable number of viewings of this film I finally realized what the egg symbolized: the egg was Eli. By making contact – real human contact – with Eli, he has unraveled the mystery of her. By making contact with Eli he has pierced the mystery of what she is. Just as by touching the egg Oskar has caused its outer puzzle to fall away revealing the golden yolk inside, Oskar has touched Eli causing her outer shell of protective isolation to fall away.
Oskar now knows that she is a vampire, and through this realization he begins to understand the implications of her existence. The very next thing that Oskar notices is the collection of rings on the table, next to the pieces that formerly hid the center of the egg puzzle. There next to his hand Oskar finds the concrete evidence of the price of Eli’s survival. Oskar’s hand has finally brought him to a clear understanding of Eli.
As the scene progresses, it becomes clear that Oskar is uncomfortable with some of the things he has learned about Eli. Eli offers to help him by giving him money and in fact hands him some cash. The film does not show us Oskar’s hand taking the cash from Eli’s hand. Instead it shows Oskar’s hand placing the cash on the stove top. Oskar is rejecting this gift of money. He is having problems accepting the implications of Eli’s existence. He does not want to play a role in that aspect of Eli’s life.
As he confronts Eli, he advances and she retreats until she has crossed through the doorway. When he asks her where she got the money, her answer is an obvious falsehood. At that point she stops and the film shows us that she has hands on the door jam on either side of the door. Now there is a barrier coming between Oskar and Eli and once again the film is showing us an image of hands on a barrier.
Eli steps aside and lets Oskar pass and as he leaves the frame we are left with an image of Eli’s face, and behind her we see her hand still on the door jam. The film is pointing out with Eli’s hand that this barrier has popped up between them. Oskar’s discomfort with her being a vampire and perhaps also the lack of trust she shows by lying to him about the money has put yet another barrier between them.
The final act in the story being told by Oskar’s and Eli’s hands is played out at Oskar’s apartment door. Having let Oskar in, Eli now needs to have his acceptance, so she knocks on his door in search of it. Oskar is still feeling uncomfortable with her being a vampire. Perhaps he is also irritated that she was not honest with him when he asked where she had gotten the money. When she tells him that he must invite her in order for to be able to enter, suddenly Oskar has a little feeling of power. He begins a thoughtlessly cruel game of the type that twelve years old play with each other all of the time, taunting Eli to come in without his explicit invitation.
This is Oskar himself putting up a barrier between himself and Eli. The film shows us a literal picture of him doing so when pantomimes pressing his hand against an invisible barrier in his apartment doorway. Eli breaks down this barrier with an act of trust. She enters the apartment anyway, trusting that Oskar will not force her to pay the full price for entering unbidden. Eli shatters this last barrier of Oskar’s. And so between the two of them this tale told by their hands has finally played itself out.
Virginia is not destined to fair well in this film. Her purpose in the plot is to serve as a trigger to action for Lacke and also to provide a contrast versus Eli about how she deals with being a vampire. This being the case, her prospects were grim from the outset.
The fate that awaits Virginia is nicely foreshadowed in the scene where Virginia enters the Chinese restaurant and joins her friends. As she approaches the door, she pauses at the window and taps on the glass to her friends. In light of all of the symbolism that surrounds images of hands in this film, it is interesting that the film presents us here with an image of Virginia with her hand on the window. It is a small hint that something unpleasant is to come for Virginia.
After Virginia is attacked by Eli, the film moves to show us the effects of her transformation into a vampire. And the vehicle that it uses first to show us these effects is her hand – the same hand that knocked on the window. We see a close-up of her hand as the sun creeps though a gap in her blinds and shines upon the back of her finger. We see the finger char and smolder from just this small exposure to sunlight. This image both sets up and foreshadows Virginia’s ultimate fate.
Then later when Virginia is in the hospital, we see a shot of Lacke’s hand fingering Virginia’s wrist restraint. Here we see in the frame Virginia’s hand (the one that had been placed on the window) separated from Lacke’s hand by the restraint. There is indeed now a barrier between Virginia and Lacke, and in the fact the barrier separates Virginia from the rest of humanity. She is now a vampire. Immediately after this shot we learn that Virginia realizes at least part of what has befallen her, when she says to Lacke,
That kid… She must have infected me somehow.
I don’t want to live.
The restraint on Virginia’s wrist is symbolizing that she has now been barred from her old human life. She realizes that her humanity is being taken from her. This shot also shows that Lacke is pondering this new barrier as well.
Now when the orderly unlocks Virginia’s she has an opportunity to make a choice. Now she uses the hand that knocked the on the window, the hand that was burned by the sun, to reach out for a final human contact. The film shows her reaching out and grasping a hold of her humanity. Unlike Eli, she has decided that she cannot live without it. Although the film has shown us that Eli very much desires human contact, for Virginia it is a necessity. She has chosen to keep a tight grip on her human life even though it will consume her.
As Virginia meets her horrible fate we see her hand waving about, engulfed in flames. Having her hand be free was a natural result of the plot up to this point, so it is unlikely that this shot was specifically intended to put an exclamation point at the end of the story told by Virginia’s hand. However it provides such a nice end cap the symbolism of her hand that I just could not ignore it.
Lacke too takes part in symbolic use of hands, although with him the symbolism seems to be much less complex and evocative. It has already been mentioned how is hand toying with Virginia’s wrist restraint symbolized his contemplating the barrier that Virginia’s vampirism placed between him and her. Symbolically he was touching Eli, who had put the barrier of death between he and Jocke, and then between he and Virginia.
When the crowd of, umm… locals was looking around site where Gösta saw Eli kill Jocke, they discover fresh blood underneath the snow. The film presents us with a shot of Lacke’s hand covered with blood. This is his last contact with his friend Jocke. It is also his first contact with Eli. Further, it is not the last time we will see Lacke’s hand covered with blood. This shot foreshadows Lacke’s fate in the film.
Later when the… locals are in Gösta ‘s apartment, Lacke is urging Gösta to go to the police with what he has seen. Lacke wants someone to look into the apparent death of his friend. Lacke uses his hands to describe how close he and Jocke were. Here perhaps the film is also telling us how close Lacke is to sharing in Jocke’s fate.
When Lacke finally meets up with Eli, he also meets up with his ultimate fate. The hand that had symbolically touched Eli in Jocke’s blood has now touched the actual Eli. We once again see his same hand, once again bloody, only this time it is covered with his own blood. Now his fate is as close to his friend Jocke’s as his hands were to each other in the scene in Gösta’s apartment.
Although we don’t literally see Håkan’s hand on a window, the film still finds a way to weave him into a theme of hands and barriers.
As Håkan and Eli move into their apartment, we see a shot of Håkan from outside their apartment window. Instead of having Håkan’s hand on the window, instead the film shows us an image of someone else’s hand in the window – a hand in a rather foreboding pose. In this shot we see Håkan constructing a barrier. It is behind this barrier where he seeks to protect Eli and preserve his life with her.
However, Eli will not remain behind Håkan’s barrier. She seeks contact with Oskar and goes out into the courtyard to be with him. After Oskar and Eli’s fourth meeting, where Oskar gives Eli the Morse code key, they run off together. We are shown that Håkan has been watching them from behind his barrier. While Eli has escaped his barrier, he has not.
As Håkan is preparing for his last ill-fated foray to procure blood for Eli, the film shows us Eli entering the scene. As she does so, the film gives us an image of her hand on yet another window. The film seems to be telling us that the barrier that Håkan was erecting earlier is now a barrier between he and Eli.
Although Eli has entered the scene, she does not actually enter the kitchen where Håkan is. Instead she stops just at the threshold. She has not passed the barrier between she and Håkan.
However Håkan asks her to promise not to see Oskar that night. Eli then enters the kitchen and touches his face, but as she does so her face betrays no emotion at all.
Although this touch has great meaning for Håkan, it seems to have little or no meaning for Eli. Håkan has asked her to come back within the barrier he intends to keep between the two of them and the rest of the world. Eli gives her assent with a brief nod, but it is clear this barrier will hold her only as long as she allows it to.
As the final act in the theme of barriers regarding Håkan, Eli visits him at the hospital. The film reminds us one final time of the barrier between he and Eli with a shot of Eli with her hand on the window. Indeed, that is the purpose of her visit: to put the barrier of death between them.
We are first introduced to the bullies through one of their hands, or more specifically through Martin’s tapping finger.
In the scene where the policeman visits the classroom the film shows us Martin’s hand at the edge of frame. One finger is tapping ominously. The film makes sure that we notice it by having Oskar notice it. This is the first hint that the film gives us that all may not be right with Oskar’s world.
The tale of Oskar and the bullies is a tale told just by their hands, but by their hands upon him. Conny torments Oskar by pushing his nose to mimic a pig’s nose and then by flicking it with his finger. As he does so, the film shows us Conny’s hand in preference to showing us Conny’s face. It would be easy enough to block this scene out to show Conny’s face on one side, Oskar’s face on the other and Conny’s hand in the middle. Instead the film tells us that Conny the character is not important. By obscuring his face with his hand, the film is letting us know that it doesn’t matter who the bully is. This is Oskar’s world putting unkind hands on him.
When the bullies accost Oskar after school, once again the film would rather show us a hand rather than a face. Martin and Andreas sneak up behind Oskar and Martin grabs him from behind. The film gives us a shot of Oskar with Martin’s hand on his throat. Martin’s face however is hidden behind Oskar, although it would have been easy enough to let us see it. What we see once again is a disembodied hand mistreating Oskar.
Although the first scene with Oskar at the pool was already regarding the theme of Oskar & Eli’s hands, it was in this scene where that theme crossed paths with the theme of the bully’s hand. The scene in fact opens with a shot of Martin’s hands in a contemplative pose (if there can be such a thing). The shot then widens to show a similar look on his face. He then goes and engages – or at least attempts to engage – Oskar in a friendly conversation. The film shows us the bully’s hands first to remind us that he is a bully. However much he attempts to feign friendship with Oskar, these were the hands that were on Oskar’s throat.
And finally come the unkindest hands of all. By whacking Conny, Oskar has gotten rid of Conny as a threat, but it seems that Oskar’s world has unending supply of bullies each more cruel than the last. This pair of hands does not intend to just torment Oskar. This pair intends to maim or drown him. The film describes Jimmy’s interactions with Oskar almost entirely with shots of his hands.
As the action approaches its climax we are presented with an image of Jimmy’s hand on Oskar’s head with his fist grasping Oskar’s hair, preparing to push him under the surface. This one image symbolizes what Oskar’s world had been. Through the bullies’ tormenting and the adult’s lack of interest, Oskar’s world had its hand on his head and it was pushing him under. Oskar was drowning in a sea of cruelty and indifference.
Soon however, as carnage above the surface of the pool ends, we see that Jimmy’s arm has been severed. Its grasp on Oskar’s head has been released and drifts downward out of the bottom of the frame. By letting Oskar in, Eli has severed his world’s hostile grip on him just has she has severed Jimmy’s arm. While some viewers have criticized this shot for being a gratuitous bit of gore and also for not making sense in the kinematics of the attack that was taking place out of view, the symbolism of this shot is crucial as the dénouement to the visual theme of the bullies’ hands.
Finally we see that not only has Eli stopped the world from holding Oskar under the surface, she is actually uplifting him. The film shows her hand reaching downward from above to raise Oskar to the surface of the pool. She is not only saving him from his previous world, but she is removing him from it entirely.