Film Festivals

A Luminous Century: Celebrating Norwegian Cinema (2005)

waywardgirlThe Wayward Girl, 1959. One of the clear highlights of the Norwegian cinema series for me was Liv Ullmann’s personal appearance for the introduction of her film debut as lead actress in what would prove to be the final film by Norway’s first female director, Edith Carlmar, The Wayward Girl. Admitting that she initially found it odd that program director Richard Peña had chosen this somewhat (then) scandalous, low budget independent production by the husband and wife production team of Otto and Edith Carlmar, Ullmann subsequently realized that it would be an exciting opportunity to re-visit the film some 47 years later to see, not only to see how much she had changed since then (as she noted, the film was made five years before she met Ingmar Bergman and changed the course of her professional and personal life), but also how much society had changed since that time, when members of her own fairly religious family tried to keep the film from getting distributed after they had caught wind that she had appeared nude in some scenes. (Ms. Ullmann does, however, note that her grandmother was quite supportive throughout the entire ordeal and proud of the film and that, in fact, she had invited all of the residents in the wing of her nursing home to the screening after which, she jokingly adds, they never spoke to her again.)

Ullmann’s anecdotes of the notoriously parsimonious Carlmars were also refreshingly candid, engaging, humorous, and delightful, such as her first contact with the Carlmars to express interest in the role (after having just finished a stage production in the title role of Anne Frank in a provincial theater company) upon which she was granted an interview with the provision that she pay for her own airplane fare in case they decide not to cast her (later on, she was also told that she was to provide her own wardrobe as part of her salary). Fondly remembering that the first question ever posed to her by the Carlmars was to ask if she was a virgin (which, she reasoned that if she had told the truth, that they would not even entertain the idea of her playing the part of the wayward girl), she promptly responded that she was not, which, although she realized immediately that they did not believe her, she self-effacingly jests that that they must have been swayed by her acting. Ullmann shares another anecdote in her character’s befriending of a sheep in the film that, as she recalls, died in real-life (as it does in the film). Looking to economize, the Carlmars then served the sheep as part of the wrap-up party. As Ullmann would eloquently conclude, her acting may not have been the most polished (a remark that says more about her own exacting nature when it comes to her craft than in the detection of any perceptible weakness in her characterization of Gerd), but it remains, for her, certainly the most honest of her performances that she would ever commit to film, made by a young artist who wanted to prove her skill, mettle, and passion for the craft, both to the world and to herself.

As it turns out, The Wayward Girl is something of a minor gem – a film that, not only pushes the artistic bounds of filming sexual liberation given the morality of the times, but also captures the dichotomy of the exuberance and freedom of youth and the subconscious realization of the eventual need to conform to societal expectations that comes with growing up. At the heart of the film is a pair of runaway young lovers, Gerd (Ullmann), the illegitimate child of a perennially absent, self-absorbed mother, and Anders, a university student from an upstanding middle-class family, who sneak away into an abandoned cabin in the woods to lead a Garden of Eden existence of love, complete abandon, and self-reliance. Rather than rendering a simple cautionary tale of reckless young love, Carlmar creates a thoughtful and provocative portrait on the process of maturation and awakening to social constraints and moral responsibility that ultimately serve to extinguish the light of youth.

thehuntThe Hunt, 1959. Favorably recalling the experimental narrative strategies of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Erik Lochen’s remarkably light and agile, yet ingeniously constructed and elegantly realized film, The Hunt similarly plays on the author’s recurring themes of memory, atemporality, and psychological reality. Prefiguring Alain Resnais’ collaborative film with Robbe-Grillet, Last Year at Marienbad (the film was made in the same year as Resnais’ collaborative film with another nouvelle roman author, Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima mon amour), the film opens with a shot of a covered body on a gurney being loaded into the coroner’s van accompanied by an off-screen narrator’s explanation of what appears to have been a shooting accident during a hunting trip. The fourth wall is broken, and the film proceeds in flashback as the narrator begins to interrogate each hunter on the circumstances surrounding the incident – a beautiful woman named Guri (Benedikte Liseth), her husband Bjørn (Rolf Søder), and her spurned (or perhaps, current) lover, Bjørn’s best friend, Knut (Tor Stokk) – filling in the details of their complicated shared history in alternating narrative turns, the reality of the nature of their shared intimacy tempered by individual perception (or perhaps, by a sense of guilt or complicity in the tragedy) and fractured by the altered perspective that invariably comes with each change of speaker. The inscrutable trio’s informal testimonies begin to organically diverge, veer off in stream-of-consciousness tangents, be willfully suppressed, entangled in fanciful imagination, or become occluded in the haze of imperfect memory and subsumed desire, collapsing the planes of memory and imagination to a singularity where truth becomes malleable, and reality itself becomes as ephemeral as a waking dream.

bergenexpressRaid on the Bergen Express, 1928. Although annotated with a running time of 98 minutes, the print for Uwe Jens Krafft’s Raid on the Bergen Express that was screened for the program turned out to be a British cut of the film that clocked in at slightly less than one hour. With that reservation noted, it is difficult to assess the effectiveness of the film in its current form. Ostensibly a hybrid of sorts between romantic comedy and action/caper film as two young men – a recently (albeit probationally) promoted newspaper advertising manager named Tom and a humorless, by-the-book officer named Lund – vie for the affections of Gerd, the daughter of the general manager for the national railroad, the film starts auspiciously with a long distance ski jump contest between Tom and Lund, a head-to-head competition that portents their romantic rivalry over Gerd. Unfortunately, the seamless choreography of this sequence is subsequently broken by what appeared to be gaping plot holes, with Tom inexplicably recruiting his friends for a plot to raid the Bergen Express on April 1st. Is his motivation to take revenge on Gerd’s father who placed his promotion on contingency? Or perhaps it is to outwit Lund by staging a daring raid under his watch? Although the film does provide a resolution to these questions, the tidy denouement does little to reconcile the ethical quagmire that the actions in the film represent, an absurdity that would likely have been tempered if the missing sequences somehow deployed humor in order to justify the seemingly extreme measures concocted by the hero in order to win a girl’s heart.

growth_soilThe Growth of the Soil, 1929. Two of the earliest surviving silent films in the Norwegian Film Archives were included in the program, the first of which is Gunnar Sommerfeldt’s epic ode to rugged individualism and self-reliance, The Growth of the Soil, based on the Nobel Prize-winning novel by internationally renowned native author, Knut Pedersen Hamsun. Tracing the pioneering adventures of Isak (Amund Rydland), a man seemingly without a past who came upon a clearing in the woods of a “No Man’s Land”, far away from traces of civilization and decided to claim the area as his own, Isak’s life becomes a contemporary parable for the birth of civilization, marrying an “unwanted” woman from a distant village named Inger (Karen Thalbitzer), endlessly toiling on their self-created frontier utopia, forging an enduring friendship with the district sheriff and his assistant after paying a state-ordered visit to the property in order to settle ownership, and becoming the reluctant founding father of a burgeoning town after the government decides to build a telegraph station within his property in order to connect two neighboring cities. Retaining the neo-romantic tone of Hamsun’s novel, the film is infused with a certain element of mysticism, fantasy, and suspension of disbelief, creating an oddly stilted atmosphere and logical incongruence that is at once realistic, yet otherworldly, intimate yet impersonal (a dichotomy that is perhaps best encapsulated in Inger sending Isak away on errands throughout the film, only to return in complete surprise to find that she had given birth to a child, apparently unaware of any of her pregnancies).

 

kissedbywinterKissed by Winter, 2005. In the review for Sara Johnsen’s understated and intelligently realized debut feature Kissed by Winter, Mode Steinkjer writes, “The last part of the film’s key moments are accompanied by Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sung by Jeff Buckley in his version that is both beautiful and atmospheric. For me the song works to elevate the drama because the connection is unconsciously linked to Buckey’s own fate”. This insightful association does, indeed, reside at the core of the film, as the emotional trajectories of three families converge within the arc of an unexpected – though perhaps, not entirely unforeseen – tragedy and its ensuing repercussions in a small, provincial town in Norway: a country doctor, Victoria (Anika Hallin), who recently separated from her husband (Göran Ragnerstam) and the painful memories of her life in Oslo in order to start over, a snow plough driver, Kaj (Kristoffer Joner) who painstakingly built a dream home for his wife only to be abandoned by her, and a stern and devout Iranian immigrant couple, (Michalis Koutsogiannakis and Mina Azarian) whose troubled, missing son Darjosh (Jade Francis Haj) was found dead on the side of a snow embankment without shoes and curiously marked by a series of puncture wounds on the soles of his feet. Unfolding as a seeming whodunit mystery, the film is, instead, a muted, yet incisive portrait of the underlying grief, guilt, pain, and internalized, misdirected trauma felt by the characters as they struggle to come to terms with their own insensitivity (or more appropriately, obliviousness) and sense of moral culpability in the tragedy of a young man’s death. Filmmaker Johnsen demonstrates a natural ability to convey the gentle humor of, and quiet affection for, her endearing, but emotionally isolated characters, a compassion that is exquisitely captured in the remarkably rendered performance by Swedish actress Anika Hallin (who remarked during the Q&A that her acting career had, up to this point, been mostly playing the role of law enforcement officials in crime dramas).

ninelivesNine Lives, 1957. Norwegian cinema is integrally rooted in the presentation of landscape as character, and this integration is particularly evident in Arne Skouen’s Nine Lives. Told in extended flashback, the story is based on the real-life experience of resistance fighter Jan Baalsrud who became the sole survivor of a sabotage mission to blow up a German war boat anchored in then-occupied Norwegian territory, only to be betrayed at their reconnaissance point when their contact, a shoemaker named Hansen, is replaced by another shoemaker named Hansen who is sympathetic to the Fascist government of Vidkun Quisling. Forced to navigate his way through the mountains alone in order to cross the border into Sweden for safety and medical treatment for his injured leg (after sustaining a gunshot wound in the foot), Baalsrud inevitably stumbled into the kindness of strangers and other pockets of resistance fighters and sympathetic villagers willing to help him despite personal risk to ensure his safe crossing. Skouen’s combination of spare dialogue with extended shots of Baalsrud and his guides navigating through the dangerous and inhospitable terrain (and unpredictable weather) of the mountains creates a taut and dramatic portrait of one person’s perseverance and enduring spirit in the face of overwhelming adversity and seemingly inescapable death, a juxtaposition of man and unconquerable nature that also characterizes the atmosphere of the nation’s wartime occupation.

toomuchnorwayToo Much Norway, 2005. The first film on tap for A Luminous Century: Celebrating Norwegian Cinema was Rune Denstag and Sivge Endresen’s Too Much Norway, a film that, as a Norwegian American audience member appropriately pointed out, was a film “made for Norwegians, not for export.” Indeed, there are no indications of a National Geographic travelogue at work in Denstag and Endresen’s humorous and meditative essay: no picture postcard shots of the tundra, Lapps in costume, or national landmarks, but rather, (literally) launches from a certain familiarity and insight into the national history into a tongue-in-cheek reflection of the country’s nascent history since the dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905. Told from the fictional perspective of an aging astronaut (played by artist and writer Odd Borretzen) who has lived throughout much of the country’s independent history, the film is an alternately self-effacing, whimsical, cheerful, and thoughtful portrait of a small, but wealthy and well-educated European country striving to make its mark on the world stage (through pioneering expeditions into – and subsequent annexations of territory within – the South Pole and excellence in Olympic games) while still struggling to define what it means to be Norwegian (an opening collage of multi-ethnic Norwegians dispels the myth of the country as a monoethnic society). In essence, it is this pervading spirit of self-reliance that would seem to define Norway’s history through its first century as an independent nation, not only from its separation from Sweden, but also recently, in its rejection of joining the European common market: a determination to retain its own sense of culture and national identity in an age of increasing globalization and interchangeable economic unions.

Acquarello, 2005 [reprinted]

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