Category: Nordic Cinema

Land of Mine (Under sandet, Denmark-Germany 2015)

Rasmussen leads his group across the sands

The mystery is, why has this film, first seen at London Film Festival in October 2015 and Denmark’s Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, not been released in the UK until now? The answer may be something to do with the current spate of Second World War films on UK cinema screens. I haven’t seen Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk yet, but I would be surprised if Land of Mine wasn’t my pick of the summer. It arrives on our screens when not only Dunkirk, but the ideological quagmire that is Brexit is being widely discussed.

The film’s title is either brilliant or risible depending on your love of puns. The Danish title simply refers to the land mines planted by the German occupiers ‘beneath the sand’ of Western Jutland beaches during 1942-44, whereas the English title includes the crucial other element of the narrative concerned with national identity at a time of crisis. Like most UK viewers, I suspect, my knowledge of the experience of Danes under German occupation from 1940-45 is sketchy at best and mostly derived from Flame and Citron (Denmark 2008). I had to look up what happened in 1945 when British and Canadian troops advanced from Normandy, through Belgium and the Netherlands, and arrived in Denmark at more or less the same time as the German surrender to Montgomery at Lüneburg Heath on 4th May. The British Parachute Regiment arrived in Denmark to take control. This is the starting point of Land of Mine.

Sgt Rasmussen (Roland Møller)

Presumably concerned about Denmark’s western beaches as a possible target for an Allied invasion force, the German occupiers had set over a million mines of various kinds on the beaches – more per cubic metre than in any other territory in Europe. Clearing them was going to be a major undertaking and someone decided it should be German POWs who would have to risk their lives. Sgt Rasmussen (Roland Møller), a Dane wearing the uniform of British Army Parachute Regiment, gets the job of ‘looking after’ a group of POWs and supervising them clearing the mines. Unfortunately these soldiers are very young, mostly teenagers aged 15-18, and they soon realise that they won’t get home until all the mines are cleared in their sector. The job is extremely dangerous and many will die (at the end of the film, on-screen text reveals just how deadly the task proved to be).

At the preview screening I attended, my colleague suggested that this was basically a suspense genre film – who is going to die next? I agree that the narrative structure does imply a certain kind of genre film that combines war movie, horror and suspense. It’s also an extremely fine genre movie in that the genre conventions are explored very carefully and with intelligence. Land of Mine would score well if it was simply a genre movie – but it’s much more than that. At heart it’s also a humanist film harking back to the classic humanist dramas of the 1950s. The young men, boys really, are not Nazis, though they may well be patriotic and homesick. The war movie genre leads us to expect that they will be differentiated in various ways and this happens. The horror movie suggests that they will be ‘picked off’ – killed by mines in different ways. The stereotype of the ‘British’ sergeant (though I think that sergeants are the same in most armies) gives us a man who is hard and experienced, gruff and prone to shouting, even bellowing at his ‘men’. But a good sergeant also cares for his men. He understands them, they are his children. He mediates for them with the officer class. In this case, Sgt Rasmussen (an excellent performance by Møller) begins by attempting to be cold and brutal towards the PoWs, trying to keep his distance. Eventually he will make relationships with them. He has to do this to make the operation work, but it isn’t easy for him.

A child wanders into a minefield and a young German soldier tries to keep her calm – an example of how the genre conventions are used?

The film moves beyond genre because of its interest in the Denmark of 1945. This is the point at which for viewers outside Denmark it gets tricky. I don’t know what the Danes knew in 1945 or how they felt, but in the film, the Danish officers (and the British) seem to treat the POWs extremely badly. This also seems to be the case with some of the local people on the coast, at least initially, and the film’s real strength is its exploration of guilt, compassion, justice and all those other difficult emotions that this unique situation sets up. Someone has to clear the mines. How should it be done? I won’t spoil the narrative any more. The film is ‘based upon real events’ but my attempts to clarify the historical facts suggest that this is still a contested issue (which may be shaming for Danes – and Brits). The numbers of POWs injured or killed is disputed – but not the danger. Under the Geneva Conventions the clearance depicted in the film shouldn’t have happened but the British and French seemingly encouraged the authorities in liberated countries to use German POWs in activities like this after 1945. They changed the wording to imply that the surrendering troops were ‘volunteers’. There are accounts of German soldiers supervised by their own NCOs (but controlled by Danes) operating as Minenkommando units and claims that these were ‘volunteers’. When I watched the film, I didn’t notice armbands to this effect but now I see them in some of the stills material. I found other web material, more clearly political in nature, which disputed some of these facts. I think it is safest to say that Land of Mine simplifies a story which is based on real events – but that it does expose one of the many stories about the immediate aftermath of war that make for uncomfortable viewing.

A German soldier wearing the yellow Minenkommando armband probes for a mine beneath the sand.

Land of Mine was written and directed by Martin Zandvliet. I’m surprised that I haven’t come across him before since he has won several awards for earlier films (Land of Mine has won many prizes). The cinematographer Camilla Knudsen has captured the strange atmosphere and beauty of the dunes and beaches in ‘Scope format. The young German actors playing the POWs are very good and Land of Mine is riveting to watch. Because of the suspense genre conventions, you will fear that something terrible is about to happen but the suspense will work – and you will be intrigued by the relationships. Don’t miss an opportunity to see it. Although it is released by Thunderbird (ex Soda), your best chance of seeing it in the UK seems to be at Curzon Cinemas and online until it gets to smaller arthouse/specialised cinemas. It is on at HOME in Manchester

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Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017

The 31st Archive Festival presented by the Cineteca di Bologna ran from Saturday June 24th until Sunday July 1st. The Festival has expanded rapidly in recent years. During the day there were screenings in four auditoria – The Salas Mastroianni and Scorsese at the Cineteca and the Arlecchino and Jolly cinemas. And there are smaller salons for supporting events. In the evenings these four screens are added to by the Piazza Maggiore in the city centre and the Piazzetta Pasolini at the Cineteca.

My friend Peter Rist worked out that there were 250 titles in this year’s festival, and only a fifth of these had repeat screenings. Thus even the most dedicated cineaste could see even a fraction of the Festival programme. This year those cineastes exceeded 3,000. So popular titles nearly always involved queues and sometimes a fairly crowded auditorium. My strategy for coping was to focus on 35mm; these composed just under half the programme. I managed 30 35mm prints and then ten digital (titles described were in 35mm unless noted otherwise). Even then one had to make choices between interesting and even fascinating films.

‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’ offered a series of daily programmes, with both short and feature-length films. One that caught a crowd was Abel Gance’s early masterwork, Mater Dolorosa. One of the finest was Thomas Graals Bästa Film / Thomas Graal’s Best Film ((Sweden). Directed by Mauritz Stiller, this was a  delightful comedy centred on a scriptwriter working on his next  film. The writer and title character was played by Stiller’s fellow-filmmaker Victor Sjöström. And as was often the case in Swedish films of this period there was a strong and independent minded female lead, Bessie (Karin Molander). We also enjoyed a film directed by Sjöström, Tones Fran Stormyrtorpet / The Girl from the Marsh Croft (Sweden). The film was based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf, whose writings provided stories for a number of Swedish films in the silent era. The plot was familiar, focusing on class, bigotry and the restraints of religious morality. The put-upon young heroine Helga was played with real power by Greta Almroth, whilst future star Lars Hansen played Gudmund. The film made great use of contrasting spaces and offered that exceptional use of natural locations that grace the silent Swedish films.

‘Thomas Graal’s Best Film ‘

Also in the programme was a rare Triangle western directed by Frank Borzage, Until They Get Me ; a Lyda Borelli vehicle directed by Carmine Gallone, Malombra; and a German ghost film directed by Robert Wiene with a young Conrad Veidt and distinctive tinting, Furcht / Fear. Needless to say they all proved popular, generating queues of expectant admirers and full auditoriums.

The programme that I managed to see in its entirety was ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. This was another programme curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström. The titles all came from between 1937 and 1941 when Japan was under the control of a militaristic regime: all were jidai-geki or period films. In their introduction Alexander and Johan explained that the series of films selected all explored,

“how to present the past . . .”

and that all these films in some way

“challenge the samurai values . . .”

which were central to the regime.

The opening title was a film that I have read about often but which I had to wait until now to see, Ninjo Kamifusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). The film was directed by a promising young filmmaker Yamanaka Sadao, who sadly died in the war against China the following year. The film opens with a Samurai suicide and then follows the effects as they work through a small tenement community. The film has a substantial group of central characters and represents the class divisions underlying conflicts through the use of spatial difference. It also offers one of the great endings on film. There were seven others films in the programme, two of which, Hana Chirinu / Fallen Blossoms (1938) and Sono Zen’ya / The Night Before, are set in the crucial year of 1877 when a samurai rebellion attempted to stopped the modernisation led by the Meiji Restoration. And Kyojinden / The Giant (1938) was an impressive though not completely successful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s great French novel ‘Les Misérables’. All the films were interesting and worth watching. However, the print quality of some of these films, dating back decades, was mixed. Several did not have great definition or contrast: in the case of one film this meant that it was difficult to identify all the characters and their actions. The projection accentuated this because it mainly used the sub-titles as a point of focus, and on 35mm there is a slight difference in the plane.

‘Humanity and Paper Balloons ‘

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema project is now an established event in the Festival. The Foundation has now embarked on a project to restore fifty key films from Africa. So, as a real treat, we were able to see three films by Med Hondo. Born in Mauritania Hondo worked elsewhere in Africa and then in France. He took up acting and founded his own company in 1966. Then, working in television and film, he moved into cinema. Like some other notable filmmakers he has funded his film direction by his work as an actor. Since 1967 he has been able to make eight films. The Foundation has produced a digital restoration of his first, Soleil Ȏ (Mauritania, 1970 – DCP). Shot in black and white the film uses avant-garde techniques but it is better described as an ‘agit-prop’ documentary. Whilst it has a dramatised plot line the film presents the experiences of black people in Paris in this period.

“All the scenes were based on reality. Because racism isn’t invented, especially in film. It’s like a kind of cloak put on you, that you’re forced to live with.” (Med Hondo, 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

It is powerful document and stands up as relevant forty years on.

The programme also included two of Hondo’s later films in 35mm prints from the Harvard Film Archive. West Indies (France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979) could be described as a period musical. The film presents

“a giant slave ship that symbolizes the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean – as it explores the parallels between the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary migration of Afro-Caribbean subjects to former colonial metropoles.” (Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue).

Sarraounia (Burkino Faso, Mauritania, France, 1986) dramatised the historical record and the successful resistance to a French colonial expedition in the late C19th. The film  had a more conventional linear narrative and was shot in colour and Technovision. Using African locations (but Burkino Faso not Niger), African songs, griots and cultural artefacts , the film celebrated both African culture and resistance. It also inverted the stereotypes of mainstream cinema with the psychotic French commander reduced to brutal sectarian violence.

‘Sarraounia’

Med Hondo was present to his introduce his films. He was clearly moved by his reception and by the re-emergence of his cinema. Hondo also was passionate about his films and the radical political content. The writings of Franz Fanon would seem to be central to his standpoint whilst stylistically the films use montage, both visual and aural, to create their effect. But seeing them in the UK (and likely elsewhere) has always been difficult. Soleil Ȏ, Les ‘Bricot Négres’ vos voisons (1974) and Sarraounia have been screened cinematically in the UK. Channel 4 screened the three films shown in Bologna in its ‘Africa Film’ season in the 1980s, but Sarraounia was cropped to Aacademy ratio.

The Foundation also continued its work in restoring Cuban classics. This year we had Lucía (1968). The film directed by Humberto Solás and also scripted  by him together with Julio Garcia Espinosa and Nelson Rodriguez, is a fairly epic work with three stories and running 160 minutes (DCP). The three tales present three women of the same name, from 1895, 1933 and in the present.

Lucia is not a film about women, it’s a film about society. But within society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change. ” (Humberto Solás, quoted in the Catalogue).

There were also two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa restored by the Academy Film Archive: Una pelea Cubana contra los demonios / A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971 – DCP) and Los Sobrevivientes / The Survivors (1970). The programme was rounded off by a selection of ICAIC Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (1960 – 1970): the complete series has been restored and digitised by the French INA and is available on their website. This is clearly a welcome archival source: my main  reservation is that it seems that INA have bought and hold possession of the archive, which would be better retained and controlled in Cuba.

‘The Survivors ‘

There was a programme of films related to the French writer, ‘Colette and Cinema’. This included documentaries about her; films based on her writing; films that she reviewed  as a critic; and films that she worked on providing French sub-titles for foreign language films. One of the famous films from her writings is Gigi: but the festival screened the 1949 French version, directed by Jacques Audry.  This seems closer to the spirit of Collette’s writing than the Hollywood musical.

Gigi opened the way to films focused on the subordination of make characters to female ones ….” (Émilie Cauquy in the Catalogue).

A popular treat was Divine (1935), based on her novella and  with dialogue by Collette. The film has a rich representation of the French music-hall, but it was the stylish direction of Max Ophuls that made the film stand out. Her critical work was represented by Mater Dolorosa, directed by Abel Gance, another film from 1917. Collette had some reservations about the style and characterisations but

“I applaud a new use of the ‘still life’, the touching use of props, as in the fall of the veil on the floor.” (College quoted in the Catalogue).

The film is a marital melodrama and was relatively successful on release,. The cinematography of Léonce-Henri Burel is reckoned one of the films outstanding qualities.

The regular programme ‘The Time Machine’ focused on the year of 1897, right back in the pioneer days of cinema,. Both the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès featured here. The notable Lumière programme was ‘Palestine in 1896’, a ‘land without Zionists’. And there was a programme of film originated on 68mm by American and British Mutoscope Biograph, now presented on 35mm.

Another regular programme ‘The Space Machine’, included both Mexican and Iranian films of the past. The Mexican programme included Dos Monjes / Two Monks from 1934 (DCP). The restoration also involved The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. Most of the film was flashbacks prior to the monastery setting that opened the film. What stood out in a melodramatic tale was the style, which was at time expressionist and at time surrealist: visually potent. The stand-out film in the programme was Maclovia (1948), the name of the heroine played by Maria Felix and opposite Pedro Armendáriz as José Maria. The film is set on the Island of Janítzio where an indigenous people have their own mores and also suffer the contempt and oppression of the European élite. The film was directed by Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández working with the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. The latter’s use of the camera and lighting, together with what seemed to be all the fishing nets from around Mexico, was beautiful, especially as we happily had a 35mm print.

‘Maclovia ‘

I was less struck by the ‘Teheran Noir: The Thrillers of Samuel Khachikian’. Working in the developing days of the Iranian film industry Khachikian was clearly seeking out the conventions of film production and a style appropriate for the Iranian world of the time. The only title I watched was Chahar Rah-E Havades / Crossroad of Events (1955). The story follows a young man tempted into crime by his desire for a young woman. The tale was fairly conventional and the style did not really seem to suit the melodrama.

The Festival offers all sorts of other pleasures. One of these are the evening screenings in the Piazza Maggiore. A large screen offers open air cinema to thousands of people. There is a screening every night, unless the weather intervenes. The opening night saw the presentation of Jean Virgo’s classic L’Atalante (1934) accompanied by A propos de Nice (1930), part of a programme on this French filmmaker. By the end of the week a fellow French filmmaker Agnès Varda introduced her new film Visages Villages (2017). In between there were a number of digital screenings and two on 35mm; the famous Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosec Potëmkin (1925) with a full orchestral accompaniment; and then in a lighter vein The Patsy USA 1928) starring Marion Davies.

On three evenings the Piazzetta Pasolini was the site of screenings projected from a 1930s Carbon-Arc projector,. Therese events are equally popular and the particular palette from carbon arc through 35mm prints is a delight. The opening screening featured Addio Giovinezza! / Goodbye Youth (Italy 1918). The film was directed by Augusto Genina who was the subject of a programme of screening at the Festival. This was, as the title suggests, a bitter-sweet comedy. The young protagonist leaves his small town to attend Turin university. Not an engaging figure though, he exploits both his student friend and a young woman with whom he has a romance.

‘Goodbye Youth ‘

There were all sorts of other exciting and/or interesting films in the Festival. There was a retrospective of the US independent filmmaker Bill Morrison. I had seen many of the films when he visited the Bradford Film festival, so this was one of the choices I missed. One recurring programme is ‘The Cinephiles Heaven’. This included the fine restoration of Kean ou Désordre et génie / Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lovers (1924) from the Cinémathèque française which I had seen at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. I was able to revisit Trouble in Paradise (USA 1932). This is one of the most delightful comedies by Ernst Lubitsch, with Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis offering beautifully modulated performances. I also watched The Asphalt Jungle (USA 1950, on 4K DCP), John Huston’s fine crime/noir thriller, with an outstanding characterisation by Sterling Hayden.

‘Una Dominica a Bologna’. This was a varied and fascinating selected of ‘Sunday’ titles. I had to forgo seeing Menschen am Sontag / People on Sunday (Germany 1930) another time. But I did recommend to an Italian friend that he must see It Always Rains on Sunday (UK 1947, DCP).

‘Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years was a follow-up to the first programme in 2016. There were films directed by Lois Weber, Tod Browning, James Whale and Frank Borzage. ‘The Two Faces of Robert Mitchum’ included the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947) and Home from the Hill (1960). ‘In Search of Color: Kinemacolor and Technicolor’ featured films from as early as 1907 right up to the 1950s: there were the classic Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Rancho Notorious (1952), plus three of the melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk in the same decade. And there was a programme dedicated to William K. Howard ‘Rediscovering a Master Stylist’. These were films from C20th Fox, including the much written about The Power and the Glory (1933, 4K DCP). The other featured filmmaker was ‘Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholy of Helmut Käutner’. His first film was an actor in 1932, then he took up scriptwriting and direction in 1939. He worked through the war years and on into the post-war industry up until 1977.

Unter den Brücken / Under the Bridges (1945/49 – one of those films which was released after the end of the war). There was little sense of the conflict going on around the filming. The story was fairly conventional, two friends running a barge were both attracted to a young waif who fell in their way. However, the film was finely constructed and there were excellent sequences by cinematographers Igor Oberberg and M. Wolfgang Webrum of the canals and especially the bridges that cross them. Ludwig !!. – Glanz und Ende Eines Königs / Mad Emperor: Ludwig II looked good but suffered by comparison with the Visconti film. And there was no Romy Schneider and no dog. Das Glas Wasser / A Glass of Water (1960) was set in C18th Britain, the reign of Queen Anne. It was very much in the style of 1960s tongue-in-cheek period comedy: reminiscent in some ways of The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (UK 1965).

‘Under the Bridges ‘

This only gives a sense of part of the Festival but you can check out the complete programme of titles.

The final screenings saw rounds of applause for the organisers and volunteers who worked on the Festival. It ran remarkably smoothly given the complexity of the venues and programming. There was also applause for the team of musicians who provided accompaniments for all the films from the Silent Era. The majority added to the films without overpowering them. There was one guitar accompaniment which I found rather over-the-top. And the projection teams did pretty well with the range of formats for screenings.

The weather, 30% some days, and the queues were an inevitable part of a summer festival. Less acceptable were problems with people using electronic gadgets. There were merciful few ring tones in the auditoriums but there were quite a number of members who seemed to need to check their phones/tablets for the time or something similar; or even for texting. The worst culprits were a few recalcitrant’s who used their machines to take pics during the actual films. One person took something like 20 stills or video clips during a two reel film running only 28 minutes. I did report her but I was disappointed that she did not appear in the stocks in the Piazzetta Pasolini rather in the manner of Maud Hansson in 1957. Mariann Lewinsky, a redoubtable programmer presence in the Festival, did ask patrons to desist before the Carbon Arc screenings, but I think this was the only example of warning given during the Festival. I think for the future they organisers need to introduce some notices before screenings to try and prevent this.

So we now await for 2018. Apart from Battleship Potemkin we only had four pre-revolution features from Russia and a short Danish animation in the 1917  ‘Film and Politics’ section. I hope we will get a revisiting of Soviet films as we pass the Centenary year of the Great October Revolution.

The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen, Finland-Germany 2017)

Khaled and Wikström

I was pleased to finally catch the latest film from Aki Kaurismäki in cinemas. I knew I would like it and indeed I spent 100 joyful minutes in the splendid Hebden Bridge Picture House relishing every moment. Looking back I see that I spelt out Kaurismäki’s unique approach in detail in relation to Le Havre (2011). Nothing has changed. The Other Side of Hope returns us to Helsinki and the docks where a man emerges from a pile of coal in the hold of a ship and walks purposefully into the city. This is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian who has made his way across Europe, but who has lost his sister at a border crossing in Serbia. Running in parallel is a second story about a Finnish man who leaves his wedding ring with a woman (is this his wife?) and climbs into his 1950s American-style car for his rounds as a shirt salesman.  We know very well that these two men will meet and that there will be bouts of live music from a variety of performers plus some strange encounters with officialdom, retail staff and others – everything shot in the lighting and colour palettes of 1950s cinema – although this time I also thought about the exquisite production design and mise en scène of Roy Andersson with its more drab palette but similar flat feel.

The sushi restaurant crew . . .

I don’t know quite why Kaurismäki’s films work quite so well but much of the appeal is the inherent ‘goodness’ of the characters, even when they behave ‘badly’. Khaled is a young man, but the shirt salesman Wikström is just into his 60s. Like many of the older characters, Wikström is not movie star handsome but he is allowed to be smart (but not too smart) in the way he organises things. He eventually leaves his job, wins some money and buys a run-down restaurant business. Some of the funniest scenes are those showing his attempts to ‘re-brand’ the business, including as a sushi restaurant. Here Kaurismäki gently mocks the idea of appropriating cultural identities.

Kaurismäki’s characters fall neatly into three types. The villains are simply villainous (here mainly defined as racist thugs). The officials are efficient (without being super-efficient) and apply the rules of the system fairly. ‘Ordinary’ people (less important officials, workers and Kaurismäki’s usual group of marginal people living rough) are usually helpful to the Khaleds of this world, recognising the need for working-class solidarity. If only real life was like this. Yet Kaurismäki is right to think that by presenting his absurdist images of a tolerant, accepting host country, he is performing a service for audiences in countries like the UK where a handful of Syrian refugees seems like the limit (but I’m proud to live in one of the cities that has taken a significant number). In a Guardian interview he refers to the ‘shame’ of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, noting how Brexit will make things worse (too right). But he seems tired of making films and trying to keep up with changing technologies. I hope he gets over this and makes many more films that raise spirits. I wish he felt he could make a film in the UK. We certainly need his talents and humanist commitment.

A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove, Sweden 2015)

Bahar Pars as Ove's neighbour Parvaneh and Rolf Lassgard as Ove

Bahar Pars as Ove’s neighbour Parvaneh and Rolf Lassgård as Ove

I laughed and cried all through this film. It’s a ‘feelgood film’ with an edge of dark humour based on a popular novel by Fredrik Backman that has in turn become one of the most popular Swedish films of recent times. Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, it has already taken some $1.5 million from a limited US release and with a Swedish take of over $20 million it is odd that no UK distributor appears to have bought the film yet. This is even stranger when the film’s leading actor Rolf Lassgård is already well-known in the UK as the first incarnation of Inspector Wallander in the TV films based on Henning Mankell’s novels and more recently in Sebastian Bergman (2010-2013). It would be a surprise if A Man Called Ove didn’t end up on BBC4.

Ove, at least in later life, is a universal figure (not that dissimilar from the UK sitcom character Victor Meldrew). We meet him at the point when his employers of 43 years decide to ‘let him go’ aged 59. His beloved wife Sonja died just six months ago and his officious reign as the ‘regulator’ of his small block of houses also seems to under threat. Ove has had enough and decides to end it all and join Sonja. But he hasn’t taken into account the arrival of new neighbours, a heavily pregnant Iranian woman with two small daughters and a ‘useless’ (Sewdish) husband – an ‘idiot’ as Ove terms him. So far, so predictable. Three aspects of the film take it beyond the predictable. First is the power of Lassgård and the chemistry between him and his new neighbour (and her daughters). Second is the presentation of Ove’s ‘back story’ about his childhood and hesitant romance with the ever-smiling Sonja and third is that dark edge of Swedish humour. There are moments when it is possible to recognise the world of a Roy Andersson, especially in the several suicide attempts – and sudden accidents – all presented in a matter-of-fact way.

The first meeting between the student teacher Sonja and Ove

The first meeting between Ove and student teacher Sonja

Grumpy old men should love this film (I speak from experience), as will their partners and their children. Ove is rude and officious. He is very competent with all kinds of technology but rather lacking in emotional intelligence, though it is there for those with the know-how to release it in him. In the flashbacks we see Ove played by Viktor Baagøe as a boy and Filip Berg as a young man. Ida Engvoll plays Sonja. The back story introduces some of the reasons why Ove has grown up to be the man we see. In particular he’s clearly justified in being suspicious of ‘the men in white shirts’ and the pain that is experienced because of the incompetence of other workers. There is also an indication that Ove’s experience as a worker has imbued him with a sense of working-class solidarity and collective responsibility. It’s interesting to note that Ove collects into his band the physically disabled, those with learning difficulties, a young gay man and various migrants. He’s a role model for grumps!

Reading Blue Eyes (Blå ögon, Sweden 2014)

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Blue Eyes is a TV serial from SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, made as a co-production with the regional film fund Film i Väst and various other Nordic partners including the major player Nordisk and effects house Chimney Pot. Blue Eyes is very much a high-profile property and was broadcast on the UK channel More4 as one of the ‘Walter Presents’ series of European drama productions. It’s a 10 x 58 mins serial. Made in 2014 and broadcast in Sweden in late 2014/early 2015, its UK début came during the long campaign leading up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in April/May 2016. There are certain parallels between Swedish and British political developments over the last few years and this production focuses on the rise of nationalism and a ‘disguised’ far right party – not unlike UKIP in the UK. Watching Blue Eyes on ‘catch-up’, these parallels are even more stark with the senseless and tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox.

Blue Eyes is the creation of Robert Aschberg of Strix TV, Alex Haridi and a team of writers. Haridi was also a writer on Real Humans, the original Swedish drama remade/adapted as Humans, a UK/US series for Channel 4. The opening titles for Blue Eyes are distinctive and to me suggest a political thriller. Much of this comes from the music, which I find difficult to describe, but which seems very familiar with its incessant urge to sweep through public events. It made me think of House of Cards (the original UK series). The titles include low angle shots of official buildings with clouds racing across the sky. This sequence is cross-cut with similarly low angle views of ordinary Swedes involved in various mundane activities, but again with speeded up clouds hurtling across the screen. Finally, the third element is a montage of blown up TV sequences, seemingly related to political campaigns. The overall effect is very unsettling suggesting a coming ‘storm’ overtaking Swedish society.

(There is some spoiler material in what follows, but only enough to enable a description of the genre mix in the serial.)

The serial narrative offers a large number of characters, some introduced very briefly (and therefore making the links between characters later on quite difficult to follow). There is one clear central character, a young woman, Elin Hammer (Louise Peterhoff). She is invited in mysterious circumstances to return to her old job as ‘Office Manager’ for the Swedish Justice Minister at the start of an eight week election campaign. The Coalition Party is in power but is facing a fight against the growing Security Party – a right-wing populist party. Elin is possibly an ‘investigator’ in two ways. First, she wants to discover what happened to the previous Office Manager who is now officially on ‘sick leave’ but whose disappearance seems odd. Later, Elin will find herself questioning the motives of everyone in the Swedish political system, including herself – an ‘internal’ or ‘self’ investigation perhaps. This narrative alone would make a political thriller, but a second narrative combines politics, crime and family melodrama. Sofia (a striking portrayal by Karin Franz Körlof) is a working-class young woman in a bad relationship with an abusive man whose behaviour threatens the couple’s young child, ‘Love’. Sofia has a teenage brother Simon and her mother Annika has been selected by the Security Party as a local spokesperson. What makes Blue Eyes so powerful – and disturbing – is that this family group becomes the locus for a discourse about working-class life in Sweden. When a tragic incident occurs, Sofia is pushed into joining a violent right-wing group with terrible consequences. But despite her fierce looks and aggressive stance as well as her extreme political views, Sofia remains a figure that many audiences will find sympathy for. In addition, there is at least one Security Party politician who also evokes some sympathy. At the same time, the Coalition Party is not all ‘above board’ and Elin will find various rotten apples in the barrel.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

The second narrative involves Sofia and Simon with a neo-Nazi group intent on terror aimed at breaking Swedes’ trust in their democracy. The terror is created by extremely violent actions (a reference to the activities of the Norwegian extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011?) and simply by the two central characters responsible for these actions – one, older and seemingly ‘respectable’, one younger and highly-focused as a killer. There is a connection between the two narratives – involving problems at the heart of the Coalition Party. The key to this is briefly introduced in the first few minutes of Episode 1. Many viewers (me included) will struggle to remember these few minutes when the link becomes more obvious later on. Along with the resolution of the overall narrative (which leaves the possibility for a second series) and the large cast of characters, I think this makes the series a difficult (but still absorbing) watch for viewers outside Scandinavia. Reading subtitles is always a trade-off against missing visual cues and is also subject to the difficulties of translation. I’m not sure that the Swedish secret service organisation Säpo is ever properly explained. Also confusing for overseas viewers is the geography of the action. The Swedish government offices are in Stockholm, but much of the action takes place around Uddevalla, a small coastal town in Västra Götaland County on the other side of the country. This is where Simon, Sofia and their mother live – again a parallel for the run-down industrial towns of North-East England which have suffered from austerity and voted for UKIP and Brexit. Presumably this plot detail was necessary to justify funding from Film i Väst by filming in the region. The genre mix in this serial is unusual and that too might work against it. It was a massive hit in Sweden and perhaps the DVD box set may allow a more leisurely ‘reading’ environment. Kudos to Channel4/More4 for showing this but I do find the long advertising breaks tedious – I wish it had been on BBC4. But if this has crept under your radar, I recommend tracking it down

A War (Krigen, Denmark 2015)

Under fire in Afghanistan.

Under fire in Afghanistan.

Over the last seven or eight years Danish film and television has become almost familiar in the UK. The major TV serials from the Danish public service broadcaster DR have attracted audiences of around 1 million each week for BBC4 – far larger than for any foreign language films in the cinema. But the same lead actors, writers and directors have also begun to feature in both ‘Nordic’ and Anglo-American films.

Tobias Lindholm is at the centre of much of this activity as a writer and also as a director. Between 2010 and 2012 he wrote 20 episodes of the TV serial Borgen and then the script for the Thomas Vinterberg film The Hunt before writing and directing his own second feature A Hijacking (2012). That film, about a Danish ship boarded by pirates off the Horn of Africa, had lead roles for Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling and Dar Salim – three of the actors who became known to UK viewers via Borgen and other Danish serials. The same trio appears in A War and Pilou Asbæk’s high profile in Denmark is an important factor in how the film works.

Danish shipping is central to Denmark’s profile in international affairs, as is the country’s role in NATO and its participation since Iraq in the so-called “coalition of the willing”, including supporting the Americans in Afghanistan. The aftermath of military service in Afghanistan was the setting for a crime thriller in The Killing 2 serial, but A War offers a rather different narrative in which the focus is on one man’s decision in the midst of battle and its impact both immediately and as examined in a tribunal back in Denmark.

Anti-war? Realism and personal stories?

Tobias Lindholm has made several statements about his film after its selection as the Danish entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2016 Oscars – where it was nominated as one of the five finalists. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it received a great deal of attention in the US, including from other filmmakers such as Kathryn Bigelow, director of Zero Dark Thirty (2012).

I wanted to make a film that you couldn’t tell in short words. We wanted a story that was complex and challenging enough that you would bring it back home, and confront your own self-image. I am sick to my stomach; every fibre of my body hates war and what suffering war is creating, so I thought, what if I could make a story where I could start to sympathise with a war criminal and even get the audience to cheer for him — then we’re getting closer to the complexity of the world. It became a private obsession of mine. I used my good old socialist Scandinavian mother as a role model for this. How do I make her feel sympathy towards this guy? (Tobias Lindholm interviewed on IndieWire: blogs.indiewire.com)

In the same interview Lindholm explains that he developed the script with soldiers who had been in Afghanistan and several of them appear in the film supporting Pilou Asbæk. Lindholm also worked with Afghan refugees from a camp in Turkey (where part of the film was shot, as well as Jordan, Spain and Morocco). Apart from a few key lines of dialogue much of the script was improvised/developed by the soldiers themselves, ‘reacting’ to the situation. In the same way, the interpreter gave Asbæk a ‘live’ translation of what the Afghans said during each scene. Lindholm also used the same technique for the Danish scenes of family life – the children were left to behave more or less as they would do at home with relatively few set lines of dialogue. All of this tends towards a mode of realism often associated with Ken Loach and others influenced by Italian neorealism. 

The audience I watched the film with seemed to feel that Lindholm did indeed present the complexity of the situation. Claus Pedersen is a company commander in Afghanistan who, because he feels close to and wishes to protect his men, perhaps becomes too involved in the day-to-day routine patrols the men carry out. As a consequence he finds himself in a situation in which he makes an error of judgement – one which is quite understandable but as the senior officer he must be called to account when things go wrong. Back home in Denmark we see the effects of his absence on his wife Maria (Tuva Nuvotny) and his three small children – and we know that whatever awaits him after a tribunal, his family will also suffer. We are asked to think about the deaths of families (men, women and children) in Afghanistan alongside the dangers for Danish soldiers and the effects on their families. Only the deaths of the Taliban (seen here only in long-distance shots) seem to be ‘collateral damage’. But the Taliban didn’t invite the Danes to come and be shot – perhaps there is an argument that the Taliban (and their supporters too) should be humanised?

Pilou Asbæk as Claus Pedersen facing lay assessors at the tribunal (with his men behind him in the gallery)

Pilou Asbæk as Claus Pedersen facing lay assessors at the tribunal (with his men behind him in the gallery)

The political context

There are several key ‘absences’ in the film. We don’t see any media representations of what would presumably be a significant legal action in the military tribunal and we don’t hear any debates about why Denmark is in Afghanistan. Although we see a few TV vans in the distance and there are reporters in the court room, we don’t hear politicians or media commentators and the soldiers are not ‘doorstepped’ by the tabloids. Though the country is identified, the (English) title implies this is not specifically about Afghanistan but rather about ‘war’ in general (Lindholm’s previous film was ‘A’ Hijacking). For the World Socialist Website (wsw.org) this won’t wash at all:

A War is one of those ‘non-judgmental’, ‘apolitical’ films that is, in fact, thoroughly judgmental and political – its assumptions are simply so in tune with official public opinion as to go unnoticed by the filmmaker and critics.

There is something in this charge and it is certainly a valid point to make about many of these films about Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m not sure about the Danish polity but it would be fair to say in the UK that while a majority has been opposed to involvement in Afghanistan (post Blair and the Iraq fiasco) there has also been widespread support for the men and women who have been sent to Camp Bastion (where the Danes were also stationed up to 2014). But that seems to be Lindholm’s point. He wants us to sympathise with Claus Pedersen while at the same time considering what he has done and what the effects are. 

I was surprised by the ‘coolness’ and ‘flatness’ of the film in that it deals with quite shocking and emotional material. I found that I was engaged and I cared, but also that I was aware of the issues. Lindholm avoids all the genre trappings of the usual courtroom drama. It is a ‘lay court’ comprising three assessors hearing evidence presented by a judge-advocate with Pedersen defended by a lawyer (Søren Malling). By UK standards the tribunal is remarkably calm and civilised (and takes place in a typically low-key, modern setting). The film has a simple narrative and direct, often hand-held cinematography by Magnus Nordenhof Jønck. Lindholm makes the most of small scenes and, for all the improvised acting, a carefully-written script in terms of structure. The WSW criticism lambasts the film for not ding many things and ends up claiming that Lindholm:

seems to be making an effort to create a national-patriotic mythology, portraying the Danes as hardy, stoical and ‘straight-shooting’, precisely at the historical moment when anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment is being stoked up in the country.

I don’t agree with this and a film which tried to do everything that the WSW demands would be very difficult to produce. Lindholm cast Dar Salim (a prominent actor who was previously a soldier) as Pedersen’s second in command and close friend placed in a difficult position. He also cast Dulfi Al-Jabouri as ‘Lasse’, the soldier whose welfare Pedersen seeks to protect and who unwittingly becomes central to the incident which leads to the tribunal. Is this contrived casting to skew the argument or is Lindholm trying to act positively to represent Denmark’s immigrant communities? I don’t know, but I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

A War is definitely worth seeing and provides further evidence of the strength of Danish/Nordic production. The film is distributed in the UK by StudioCanal and I’m disappointed that one of Europe’s leading film companies hasn’t made a better job of promoting the film. I couldn’t find a Press Pack and the DVD (no Blu-ray?) is a barebones affair. As a film that deals with military procedures, one of the difficulties is that it is almost impossible to tell what rank Pedersen holds and as someone pointed out to me, in the British Army Pedersen would have been supported in the field by senior NCOs, experienced men with authority. Is the Danish Army different, just like the Danish legal system? It would be useful to know.

Official Trailer:

The Here After (Efterskalv Sweden-Poland 2015)

HereAfter

John (Ulrik Munther) is made to stand in class when the teacher introduces him on his return to school.

The Here After is a début feature from Magnus von Horn, a Swede who attended the famous Łódź film school in Poland where he teamed up with a Polish student, Mariusz Wlodarski. After several prize-winning short films and a documentary, The Here After produced by Wlodarski with a partly Polish crew was an official co-production, shot in Sweden, in Swedish. The film, like many other European films, tapped into the regional film fund of Film i Väst and the credits also suggest some form of support from the National Film and TV School in the UK and the French film school Fémis. The Swedish production company involved is Zentropa International, one of many ventures associated with Lars von Trier who started the Danish Zentropa with his colleague Peter Aalbæk in 1992. Zentropa is now 50% owned by Nordisk and ranks as the biggest Scandinavian producer. With this kind of muscle it isn’t surprising that The Here After screened in Cannes and that it has received a release in Poland, Scandinavia and UK with France due in May.

Von Horn has adopted the strategy of telling us nothing about the characters or the situation and forcing us to learn as much as we can as the action unfolds. We see a young man, John (played by a well-known young Swedish pop singer, Ulrik Munther) who appears to be being released from some kind of secure institution. His father has come to collect him and drives him home to a farm where we meet his younger brother, his grandfather and the family dog. John’s mother is never mentioned. There is a great deal of tension between John and the three other family members but his situation doesn’t become clear until he returns to school and an extremely hostile reception from the other students. What has he done? We will eventually find out, but again not directly, only through piecing together what’s said and following the action. John will make a new friend in Malin, a girl who is new to the school and doesn’t know the history (but who is inquisitive). Otherwise, virtually everyone is suspicious if not aggressively hostile.

At first, I felt quite hostile towards the film, partly because von Horn adopts a visual style with lots of shallow focus and which along with other devices such as shooting through windows/doors, often in long takes, helps to distance the audience from the narrative. I understand that this expresses John’s state of mind but it isn’t easy to watch. I was surprised to discover afterwards that the film was shot by Łukasz Żal, the Polish cinematographer who was one of the two contributors to the look of Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013), one of the most astounding visual treats of the last few years. Much is made on the film’s website about the meeting of Scandinavia aesthetics and Polish emotional intensity:

“An over-aesthetic Scandinavian world clashes in the film with Polish sensitivity, creating a new Polish-Swedish quality in world cinema.”

and:

“Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, enclosed in the sombre, sophisticated visual layer of the movie, enables the transition of the pain which accompanies the main character of ‘The Here After’ into an aesthetic experience. The world where John is doomed to live is meticulously scrutinised by the director. Von Horn and Żal have managed to wrap the bitter story in a soft, poetic form, giving rise to a remarkable sensitivity and a coherent cinematic language.” (See http://www.the-here-after.com)

There is a danger here of getting just a little too precious. As far as I can work out, the images are either drained of colour or it is particularly gloomy in Sweden in March (or May? – I couldn’t quite read the calendar on the wall). Either way, this is a world of predominantly blues, greys and greens. I think that I did eventually manage to gain some kind of entry into John’s world and the struggle may well have been worthwhile to experience ‘poetry’ and ‘sensitivity’. But I’m not sure that is what I wanted or expected from the film. I want here to speculate on issues of genre and representation. The Here After signs itself as an art film and as such has succeeded in getting widespread support. But I was also reminded of two other relatively recent films with similar narrative elements. The Swedish film Flocken (2015) has a similar visual style, a not dissimilar location and concerns a younger school student ostracised in her small community because she accuses a boy of sexually assaulting her. Flocken has not got a UK distributor and I wonder if it is thought too generic and not sufficiently ‘arthouse’? Another film which has something of the tone of The Here After is Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (Ireland 2012). This latter film did get a release and Abrahamson has become a very successful director straddling arthouse and mainstream ‘quality film’. All three films share a narrative in which a teenager does something that ‘shocks’ a relatively small tightly-knit community, leading to disturbing group behaviour and the sense that the various social institutions involved are less effective than they should be – implying perhaps some kind of metaphorical statement about a failing society. I think this is potentially a genre topic and relates to a wide range of films that play with morality, group behaviour and sensitivity around youth and adolescence. Back in the 1960s this would have been classed as a ‘social problem film’ in the UK. Then the narrative would have been expected to deliver an authority figure who would ‘solve’ the problem, but in these recent films a lack of narrative resolution has almost become conventional.

John with his father (Mats Blomgren) attempting to bond over shooting practice.

John with his father (Mats Blomgren) attempting to bond over shooting practice.

The Here After takes place in an unspecified region, although both the director and the young lead are from Halland county in Western Sweden. It seems to me that there are several films which portray life for adolescents outside Sweden’s main cities as tedious and dull. One of the best known is Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Sweden 1998). The original title of the film is the cry of teenage girls bored to death with living in Åmål. (The film was sweetly re-titled Show Me Love for release in the US and UK.) The Here After focuses on the more violent behaviour of teenage boys, but also on the way in which some of them are supported by parents for whom group solidarity is more important than any form of moral behaviour or social justice. Like What Richard Did, The Here After is based on/inspired by a news story. Even if there is a ‘truth’ in such a narrative, it still seems to me that there is a danger of ‘typing’ small town Scandinavia as particularly dismal in terms of social relations. Perhaps there is some Swedish scholarship on these kinds of films?

The Here After has received almost universal acclaim – though not too many screenings. It opened on just 10 screens and on its first weekend took only £330 per screen. None of the reviews I’ve read seemed interested in the kinds of sociological questions I wanted to ask. If this is meant to be Sweden, the judicial system and the rehabilitation of offenders seems out of kilter somehow. Of the various reviews, Jonathan Romney makes the most telling point when he describes Ulrik Munther as ‘delicately handsome’ and suggests that his pop star profile is well exploited (at least in a Swedish cinema market context). But too many reviews simply see von Horn as a diligent student of Michael Haneke. I was impressed by Munther’s performance and I certainly appreciated the way tension was built up but I would have liked more in terms of narrative development and more for the audience to chew on.

Official trailer:

The Idealist (Idealisten, Denmark 2015)

Idealist3web

This is a political thriller which received its UK premiere at the Leeds International Film Festival. It is based on actual events in 1968 when a B52 bomber, loaded with nuclear weapons, crashed at the US Airbase at Thule in Greenland. Greenland was a territory administered by Denmark and in both cases there was a ‘nuclear free’ policy. At the time the USA and Denmark maintained that the accident site was cleared and the weapons accounted for. In the 1980s workers involved in the clear-up in 1968 started showing signs of illnesses linked to radiation. The investigations led on to evidence of both contamination at the time and of a cover-up over the incident. The film explores this story focusing on a radio journalist, Poul Brink (Peter Plaugborg) who researches and reports the story. There is a full account of the historical events on Wikipedia: the film has obviously simplified the process for dramatic effect.

The film in many ways falls into the genre of the investigative journalism uncovering secrets: films like All the President’s Men (1976) or Defence of the Realm (1986). So we get light and shadows, the neon lit urban areas at night, basements, [but not underground car parks], the following car, the officious sectary or policeman, and the missing files, either hard copy and on computers. There are also the humorous moments when irony is lost on some official or bureaucratic rules lead to unintentional revelations. However, the film also achieves a distinctive treatment through the use of archive film: bonus point, these are all in the correct aspect ratio. This footage is in black and white and colour and includes television interviews and reports and an unintentionally funny US military promotional film for the airbase.

The cast is generally very good, especially Peter Plaugborg. I thought the victims of the  incident were credible, though not the main focus. And the members of officialdom, with those hiding something and those letting something slip, were very good. The film is well photographed by Laust Trier-Mørk. The landscape in Greenland offers great opportunities: there is one splendid shot of the Thule Base at night, shrouded in darkness. It well edited by the team of Olivier Bugge Coutté, Janus Billeskov Jansen, Molly Marlene Stensgaard. And director Christina Rosendahl  has exercised very effective control over her team.

The film was shot on an ARRI Alexa and is screened from a DCP in standard widescreen. It runs 114 minutes, slightly long as some scenes drag a little, though overall it works well. The film has English subtitles. The film does not have a UK distributor yet but it is good enough to warrant that.