In the beginning we are shown accelerated nighttime footage of Europe's most sumptuous city. The actors are introduced with their characters' names, and our first scene has a very blond little boy playing Bach to the tutelage of a worried instructor. Our wunderkind may be talented, but he cusses violently at his minute mistakes. We also see him as a cartoon stick figure eating his first soft ice, riding the merry-go-round, and making other normal childhood discoveries. Yet even in these first few minutes we have the impression that our pianist became an adult without ever having been a child. His only name is Zetterstrøm (Ulrich Thomsen), the reluctant epicenter of this film.
A voice-over from a much older man than Zetterstrøm cryptically informs us that, "the secret to his success is also the reason for his failure." The voice then with great relish provides some facts about the virtuoso with a few nudges as to his own role in the matter. Although this initially comes off as unwarranted contrivance there is, we will learn, system behind such a narrative. Zetterstrøm plays his concerts with the necessary technique and posture, not missing a note and not really contemplating any other part of reality. He is alone, almost wordless, grim-faced, and dapper in that way particular to very lonely people. Our narrator observes that Zetterstrøm yearns for love; it would be more correct to say he yearns for understanding, which lasting love encompasses. At length he meets Andrea (Helena Christensen), also in her mid- to late thirties, on a walk-up one starry evening. Green-eyed and angelically curious, she is very attentive to the strange man marching around Copenhagen in a tuxedo and bow tie. This last appurtenance becomes a conversation piece and like most conversation pieces serves as an icebreaker when much more has already been said by telepathy. The enigmatic voice-over about Zetterstrøm's "success" and "failure" is based, therefore, on this scene in which he misplaces his keys but finds the one and only love of his life. But alas, there are many more failures to come.
The two become a couple, sharing soft, fully-dressed moments on some chic Scandinavian furniture and we sense Zetterstrøm melting ever so slightly. While Andrea is oozing with love, the pianist can manage: "You're very beautiful. You make me very happy. If you didn't exist, God, I'd have to build you." When they revisit their selection of sweet nothings he adds that she "makes [him] play better," to which she rejoins like any self-respecting woman, "Is that all?" He strengthens his claim by saying that she almost makes him human as well. "Almost?" she whispers. "Yes, almost," he replies. "No need to exaggerate." We never learn how long their relationship lasts but this does not affect our sense of its importance. Its presentation has the quality of many long-lost loves, a passel of tender moments that transcend the daily vicissitudes, and Zetterstrøm expresses himself so haltingly but at his maximum emotional capacity. If he had gushed like a love-struck schoolboy, writing poetry and hanging on his beloved's every word, the whole architecture of the film would have collapsed. Which is, as it were, what happens anyway. As the lovers stand on a bridge one quiet night, Andrea asks him one very important question that he not only answers wrongly, but also unhesitatingly. The next thing we know events have advanced ten years into the future: Zetterstrøm left Denmark after that fateful night vowing never to return and his style has receded into robotic perfection (he so shuns the human element that his concerts are held with the audience blindfolded). Then our unseen narrator surfaces to announce his hardly-concealed intention: he will make Zetterstrøm regain his humanity by regaining his memory.
His memory? The narrator's Helper (Niels Skousen), who comports himself somewhere between a priest and a chef, is dispatched to interview the pianist and tell him of something very strange. After the lovers parted and Zetterstrøm abandoned his native land, a Zone arose in the middle of Copenhagen near where he had once lived. "372 x 88 meters, bound by unknown substance, uninhabitable" is the official description provided (a couple of curious young boys bounce a ball off a street entrance as if it were made of plastic). The Helper asks Zetterstrøm about his life prior to the last decade and finds that he cannot remember a single event. "Life for you began ten years ago," he tells him, "but before that is an impenetrable mist." To prove his point to us he shows Zetterstrøm a picture of Andrea, which he does not recognize. His past remains trapped in the Zone and the only way to retrieve it is, of course, to return to Denmark. Zetterstrøm returns and finds an invitation from his host and our narrator, Tom (Henning Moritzen), who is nice enough to have his name stenciled on his luxurious apartment's door – and here's where things become much more lucid. He goes back into his first thirty years of life and relives that moment when he and Andrea parted; when she was upset about their decision "not to have a child"; and he hears recordings of the film's opening scene of teacher and student. He also sees himself as a child standing next to him, which makes us wonder why Tom, who is never given a surname, is so keen on helping the pianist, who is never given a Christian name – and we should say no more.
Although short, the film is a quiet triumph of film-making in the style of this director, a fact Boe gladly admits (the Zone is a direct allusion to this masterpiece). Small moments are observed with meticulous perfection, such as the arrangement of paintings when Zetterstrøm finds he can only play off-key, or when he glares back at the Helper as they march down an abandoned street. Thomsen has such a remarkably gentle face for someone whose brow is invariably furrowed and who rarely smiles. Even when he contradicts someone, his features seem to apologize. And lovers of soundtracks and diegetic music will revel in what is played to us, since Bach comprises, I believe, the entire score. The world would be more divine if everything were by Bach; he may be the one composer whom one recognizes as godly without needing to hear anything else. Depending on your loose-ends policy, you may or may not be pleased with how the film concludes, but you should consider what Tom – which in Danish means "empty" or "blank" – has to say about "sunsets and beautiful flowers." And then you should wonder about what degree of happiness someone like Zetterstrøm could possibly achieve.