The first English language feature by the Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier, Louder Than Bombs, was released on MUBI as part of the lead up to the launch of the director’s latest film, The Worst Person in the World (Norway 2021) in the UK. I remember the original release of Louder Than Bombs, because it seemed to be part of a cycle of films related to journalists in war zones. I’m not sure why I didn’t watch it at the time but I realise now that it is a more complex form of narrative. It represents a particular kind of European filmmaking presented in an American context which has divided audiences and it is a particularly interesting film for this blog.
Trier joins a long list of European filmmakers buoyed up by success at Cannes, Berlin or Venice who then attempt to move into productions with bigger budgets and the kind of distribution muscle that international stars and English language dialogue provide. The results are often varied, but North Europeans and Scandinavians in particiular often have the advantage of more ease with English. The Danes, such as Susanne Bier, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier, have made a number of English language films and Lone Scherfig has been particularly successful in the UK. Joachim Trier to a certain extent hedged his bets with an international co-production and four lead actors with recognition in both Europe and the US (though primarily more in relation to American Independent cinema perhaps). Trier worked with his usual writing collaborators Eskil Vogt, music composer Ola Fløttum and cinematographer Jakob Ihre.
The film’s title is a play on the different effects of the trauma of war. (It’s also the title of an album by The Smiths.) The journalists here are Isabelle Huppert as ‘Isabelle’, a photojournalist and Richard (David Strathairn) who appears to have worked for the same agency. But the narrative is mainly concerned not with the direct experience of conflict reporting but with the trauma that it causes in Isabelle’s home life. In fact the narrative begins a few year’s after Isabelle’s death when her husband Gene (Gabriel Byrne) is being shown a short video about his wife that will appear as an installation in a retrospective exhibition of her war photographs. Gene agrees to the video and learns that Richard has also been commissioned to write a newspaper piece about his colleague. Gene realises that he is going to have to speak to his sons Jonah (Jesse Eisenberg) and Conrad (Devin Druid). Jonah is a university teacher and a new father but Conrad is still in high school – the same school where Gene is a teacher. The narrative enigma involves Isabelle’s death in a road accident. Did she fall asleep at the wheel or did she deliberately allow herself to lose control? David tells Gene he doesn’t want to romanticise Isabelle’s death, implying that the strain and stress (and excitement) of reporting conflicts ‘has its toll’. Gene can’t be sure exactly what David means but he is aware of what was happening in the family. Now he must talk to his sons to prepare them for what the exhibition and David’s piece might mean for all three of them.
Why has the film divided audiences, especially in the US? I think it may be because Trier does not confirm a specific linear narrative, providing a clear resolution. Instead he offers different stories concerning the father and two sons, bringing them together at various points when they overlap. We follow the grieving Conrad through some familiar adolescent rites which don’t get any easier for him when Jonah and his dad attempt to intervene. They have their own problems and memories of Isabelle are interwoven in their separate stories. The presentation too is not conventional, though with Eisenberg and Strathairn being familiar from various independent films we perhaps accept this and don’t expect ‘Hollywood’. Conrad’s story includes his fascination with a particular online videogame but the music and other elements of teen films are not there. As one reviewer suggests, the film does take teenage grief and depression seriously and there is a real attempt to explore what grief means to each of the family members. Trier presumably wants us to pick up clues but doesn’t make this easy for us. For instance, Gene was once an actor and we see a clip from a fairly obscure film featuring Gabriel Byrne (Hello Again, US 1987). We don’t see Gene teaching and I had to freeze frame the image to see that a whiteboard carried notes about analysing Moby Dick is in the classroom where he unpacks his briefcase. It could be another teacher’s room, but an English teacher seems most likely.
I was engaged by the film but there is something about its presentation that I couldn’t quite clue into. I think I liked the story about Conrad the most and I felt it worked better than those concerning Gene and Jonah. I usually respond to Jesse Eisenberg’s performances but I did find Jonah to be an odd character. I don’t think his strange hairstyles helped but it his interactions with Conrad, which we might expect to be difficult, didn’t work for me at all. According to IMDb the budget for the film was around $11 million. I wonder if this is just an American production mark-up on a standard European budget for a film that seems to have been made mainly around the small town of Nyack in the Hudson Valley north of New York. Did Trier have to pay more for Huppert, Byrne and Eisenberg? Was it really necessary to cast Huppert as the photojournalist? I’m always happy to see her in any role but here she is inevitably more like an iconic portrait or a memory on tape. Would a less well-known face make for a different kind of memory? But perhaps I’m arguing for a different film. This one has introduced me to Joachim Trier and I enjoyed it enough to look forward to watching his latest film and perhaps exploring some of his other early work also on MUBI.
Kraftidioten got very good reviews at the Berlin Festival in January but has been released by Metrodome on just 25 screens in the UK. That’s a shame because it is an enjoyable black comedy with a star cast offering great entertainment value. The film’s Norwegian title refers to the ‘power idiots’ who operate in part of the Norwegian north country (represented generically rather than precisely in a snow-covered mountain landscape with occasional trips to the city which looms out of the snow like Oz). The ‘idiots’ are two groups of gangsters controlling the local drugs trade. Unfortunately, one group has incurred the wrath of an upstanding ‘citizen of the year’ played by Stellan Skarsgård as the driver of giant snow-clearing trucks. Provoked beyond his tether by the murder of his son this character proceeds to ‘eliminate’ gang members one by one until he finds the real culprit – thus the English title. Each ‘disappearance’ is marked by a simple death notice.
The chief idiot is a Norwegian gang leader from a local crime family. He’s a pony-tailed vegan living in a show house stuffed with designer monstrosity furniture who compounds the initial idiocy by wrongfully attacking the Serbian gangsters who control the other half of the market. The film is marketed as a ‘thriller’ and a ‘comedy’. It is extremely violent but there is plenty of dry and dark Nordic humour, which I think should appeal in the UK. I’ve read at least one comment from elsewhere which thought the film was a serious drama.
Alongside the Swedish star Skarsgård the starry cast includes Bruno Ganz (Swiss) as the Serbian gangster leader and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Katrine from Borgen) as a divorced wife (otherwise this is a very male film). The international casting reflects the usual co-production arrangements of the three Scandinavian countries with Germany. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to both Tarantino and the Coen Bros films, especially Fargo. There is something in these comparisons and they may well have influenced Danish scriptwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson and Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland – two highly-experienced creatives. However, much of the humour strikes me as Norwegian/Swedish, drawing on representations of a welfare society and the familiar discourse of ‘new immigrants’ in Scandinavia. Skarsgård’s character’s Swedish identity is highlighted when he is praised for being the best kind of Swedish immigrant. In contrast, the Norwegian gangster insists that the Serbians are actually Albanians. The nearest comparison I could make is with Morten Tyldum’s adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film was a big success in the UK and if you enjoyed it, you should enjoy the slightly drier and more comedic scenes here. I should add though that this is slightly less of a thriller and its relatively slow pace stretches to 116 minutes.
The UK Trailer (which does include some of the best moments, so don’t watch if you already know you want to watch the film):
I missed this on release – I don’t think that Arrow made too much of an effort in 2012 when a DVD release was their prime objective and that’s a shame because this is a CinemaScope flick which would look very good on a big screen. I’m just grateful to BBC4 for showing it in its Saturday night slot usually reserved for noir crime fiction. It still looked good on a small screen. The English title is a typical marketing scam, depending on on Anglo viewers’ memories of Papillon and other films set on the notorious colonial prison in French Guiana. It’s not a very helpful title as this is about a brutal boys’ reformatory school on Bostoy island in the Oslo fjord in 1915. Based on a historical incident this was the second of the recent cycle of homegrown ‘blockbusters’ in Norway, following Max Manus and preceding Kon-Tiki. A blockbuster like this in Norway has a budget of around 50 million kroner (about £5.7 million) and attracts an audience of around 200,000.
Nordic films often need to be co-productions to raise the finance for a large scale production and this film has several co-production partners. It was mostly filmed in Estonia and its Swedish star, Stellan Skarsgård, never actually set foot in Norway on the shoot. VFX were also used to create a sense of historical and geographical accuracy. Skarsgård is a genuine star presence but in this case I think he is upstaged by the largely non-professional cast of boys and the two leading young actors, Benjamin Helstad as Erling and Trond Nilssen as Olav.
The film succeeds partly through spectacle with the CinemaScope frame used very effectively by cinematographer John Andreas Andersen to portray the bleak conditions on the island, especially in the final scenes during the winter. The story is familiar with a new ‘inmate’, Erling, arriving and being assigned to a dormitory in which Olav is the ‘trusty’ leader – a boy who has been in the home for many years and is only a few months away from release. Olav’s original crime was trivial but Erling has done something pretty serious. He also comes with a backstory – he has been on a whaling boat and experienced the death throes of a whale. The narrative develops with a conventional triangular structure. Erling and Olav have to develop a relationship in difficult circumstances, with a potential conflict between them in terms of fighting the authoritarian regime of the Governor and the dormitory ‘house master’, Braaten. This is one of those films that endlessly reminds the viewer of other titles. I thought at first that it would be like Scum and then wondered if it was becoming like if . . . . Other commentators have referenced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Cool Hand Luke. I’m sure that Shawshank Redemption will be another touchstone for some. I think that it is more a ‘youth picture’ than a conventional ‘prison film’ and the narrative turns on the fate of another new boy who arrives with Erling, but who is less likely to survive. It’s also probably a mistake to look only at Anglo-American films for clues to category/genre.
Staying true to the historical incident, the film develops into a type of Nordic story that seemed recognisable to me from several key Swedish films with young and potentially romantic ‘rebel’ heroes hounded by repressive forces – I’m reminded of Bo Widerberg’s films such as The Ballad of Joe Hill. Erling and Olav are nor ‘political’ in any way, but they do represent heroic figures in the face of brutality and criminal behaviour by men in positions of authority, even if Skarsgård’s performance ‘humanises’ the Governor a little. The film won prizes in Norway and Sweden but bizarrely does not seem to have attracted audiences in either Sweden or Denmark, confirming the odd observation that Nordic films rarely travel to neighbouring countries. Audiences seem to go only for Hollywood or ‘national’ product. That’s a poor choice in this case. I don’t think Hollywood could make a film with the discipline shown by director Marius Holst here. I certainly recommend the film. The original institution on Bastoy is now a very progressive and seemingly successful prison where rehabilitation appears to be working.
I’m sure I’m not in the target audience for this intriguing little film (76 mins) but I enjoyed it and I’m very happy to support it. It topped the Norwegian chart on its cinema release which is no mean feat for a low-budget picture without much of a plot. But it succeeds because of its central performance and because of the approach of director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen towards what is strangely a rare topic for films – the sexuality (indeed the lust) of teenage girls.
The film is based on a novel by Olaug Nilssen which offers three linked stories about different women in a small Norwegian town. Director Jacobsen chose to focus on just one story – about Alma (Helene Bergsholm), tall blonde and beautiful and still only 15. She lives with her mother in a tiny town in Western Norway, set in beautiful countryside but with virtually nothing for teens to do except get drunk at parties or behind the youth centre. We first meet Alma furiously masturbating to the (rather jolly) chat of Stig the phone sex operator. Her mother is commendably unphased by her daughter’s horniness (but appalled by the phone bill). Alma’s fantasies extend to imagined lovemaking with a classmate, Artur – and potentially with other desirable males. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish what is fantasy and what is reality but Artur appears to do something to Alma that she reports to her friends, the sisters Sara and Ingrid. Before long her story is out and she is ostracised by all the teens in the area. This is the real social issue – growing up in small towns where everyone knows your business. The sub-plot involving Alma’s best friend Sara supports the central theme of representing ‘real’ young women. Her sister Ingrid represents the ‘opposition’ and her older sister now at university also plays an important role (hers was one of the other stories in the novel). Jannicke Systad Jacobsen was careful to create a fictitious small town made up of locations in Western Norway and to cast the roles in the Loachian manner, i.e. young people from the region itself. Both Helene Bergstrom and Malin Bjorhovde were high school students without any acting experience before they took on their roles.
Turn Me On, Dammit! reminds me of the Swedish film Fucking Åmål! (1998) (boringly re-titled Show Me Love in the UK and US). Åmål is a small town in Western Central Sweden and the film explores the romance between two teenage girls who despair at living in ‘fucking Åmål’. The ‘taboo’ in that film was the possibility of teenage lesbian sex, but the real problem was the language of the title. The film however became the biggest film of the year in Sweden. Turn Me On. Dammit! has been very well received in North America, but has only now been scheduled for release in the UK – and only on DVD.
I found the film enjoyable precisely because Helene Bergsholm as Alma seems so ‘normal’ and Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s approach is very refreshing. The slide from reality into fantasy and the desire to communicate that is frustrated by lack of confidence and experience is something that most audiences are likely to recognise from their own adolescent fumblings. It’s really for young women to say whether the film ‘works’ and there are many reviews out there and some suggestions as to why this is an important film as well as an enjoyable one. Mainstream film and TV is obsessed with comedies about teenage boys losing their virginity but teenage girls are too often trapped in a version of the Madonna/Whore typing. They are either ‘dangerous nymphets’ or princesses waiting for Prince Charming. It would be fascinating to study this film alongside American teen sex comedies and the Twilight films.
I urge all film and media teachers to check out the film and decide for themselves whether this shortish feature would be a worthwhile teaching text. The DVD is released in the UK on 25th March by Element Pictures Distribution and can be ordered from Amazon UK.
New Yorker Films has created a very good ‘official website’ for the film’s North American release with stills, a press book and very good background texts.
. . . and the North American trailer (with added Orson Welles soundtrack!):
Max Manus is interesting for three reasons. It is one of the most successful films ever at the Norwegian box office. It is part of a current cycle of Second World War films produced locally in countries that suffered Nazi occupation (see our recent post on Flame and Citron). It’s well made and feels genuine in its attempt to tell an important story.
Max Manus himself was an authentic hero of the Norwegian resistance – or more properly a soldier of the ‘Norwegian Independent Company’, the Norwegian force created in the UK after Norway fell. The UK DVD carries a documentary about him and the ‘making of’ the film made by the Norwegian public service broadcaster NRK. He survived the war and died only in 1996. The events portrayed in the film all happened more or less as they are represented with only a few minor changes such as compositing several lesser characters to make the narrative more manageable. Manus published his own accounts of his adventures soon after the war and these provided material for the script.
Early in 1940, Max, a rather wild and rootless young man in his mid-20s without close family ties, decided to volunteer for a small Norwegian contingent fighting on the side of the Finns against an invading Soviet Army in the so-called ‘Winter War’ (see our post on the Finnish war film with that title). Injured in battle, Max returns to Norway to discover that his country has been invaded by the Nazis. He links up with Oslo friends and becomes involved in acts of resistance. Captured by the Gestapo he escapes and sets off on a journey that would take him several months and halfway round the world before he reaches the UK where the Norwegian government in exile is based. In a training camp in Scotland he learns the skills of a saboteur and resistance fighter and is eventually parachuted back into Norway. For the remainder of the war he carries out various raids on German ships in the port of Oslo, retreating for bouts of ‘rest and recreation’ in neutral Sweden where he meets Tikken, the Norwegian wife of a British diplomat.
The film covers a range of actions and a range of sub-genres. There are sequences which relate to the urban intrigues with the Gestapo and others which focus on the commando-style sabotage attempts on German shipping on Oslo’s waterfront. The scenes in Stockholm seem more part of a Casablanca type of spy/romance. Much of the action was shot in Oslo with its distinctive architecture but the overall presentation is fairly conventional. Really this is just a cracking good story with real-life characters who were clearly very brave men and women. At the centre is a small group of young men who have known each other since childhood. This is what distinguishes the film from others, like Flame and Citron, in which resistance proves to be a more confusing process. Max Manus tells us a story that few outside Norway will know and since it is so engaging the film should prove both enjoyable and informative for any audience. Max is played with exuberance by Aksel Hennie, currently wowing audiences in the UK as Roger Brown in Headhunters – a very different role.
Headhunters offers an interesting case study in how to adapt a crime fiction novel into a mainstream thriller. Jo Nesbø is beginning to get the kind of coverage that Stieg Larsson received in the UK, although Headhunters is a one-off narrative not related to Nesbø ‘s bestselling Harry Hole series. It has been adapted by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg, the latter having previously worked on the third film of Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest). Gudmestad is reunited on Headhunters with director Morten Tyldum and star Aksel Hennie after their 2003 success Buddy.
The novel of Headhunters is quite short (certainly by Nesbø ‘s standards) but even so the adaptation leaves out significant sequences – mostly of ‘talk’ – in order to create a 98 minute comedy thriller. The effect is rather like that of the adaptations of the Millennium trilogy, producing a perfectly serviceable film narrative but losing some of the interesting nuances of the novel.
Unlike the Millennium trilogy, Headhunters as far as I can see is not available with a dubbed option in UK cinemas. part of me thinks this is good – and another part wonders whether it will restrict the audience. Even though most of the films I watch are subtitled, I sometimes struggle at the start of films to deal with the first few titles. One thing I’ve noticed is that voiceovers are particularly problematic as the character tends to be doing something else as they speak – so you really do have to look at two different things at once. It isn’t easy. The UK Film Council did some limited audience research on the reception of the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – which was screened in both subtitled and dubbed versions. They found that audiences preferred to have the choice, but of the two, the audience for the subtitles were happier with their choice than the audience with the dubbing. The jury is still out but dubbing doesn’t look like coming back just yet.
The plot of Headhunters sees Roger Brown (not as unlikely a Norwegian name as you might think, but not really explained in the film) played by Aksel Hennie as the ‘headhunter’, a prized employee of a recruitment agency. Unfortunately, Roger has very expensive tastes largely related to his wife Diana, a much taller blonde who runs an art gallery. In order to fund his impossible lifestyle, Roger has devised a system for using his interviews with clients to discover artworks that he then steals. Always a precarious construction, Roger’s world comes crashing down when he meets Clas Greves, a business executive with an ‘unknown’ Rubens worth 100 million kroner. Before he knows what has happened, Roger is turned from hunter into hunted – and Clas is an expert hunter. How will Roger turn the tables?
Headhunters is in some ways a ‘romp’ which is often very funny, at other times very gory and in one sequence extremely gross. It succeeds I think because of tight scripting and direction and a star turn by Aksel Hennie who, from what I’ve read, tends to divide Norwegian audiences. He works for me. One of Nesbø ‘s strengths is the scenarios he devises. He’s a very inventive writer and he gets the details right – of course, some of the details don’t make it into the film. I’ve seen comments that equate the film’s tone with the work of the Coen Brothers. I can see this and Fargo is an obvious connection, with its Scandinavian-American flavour (and Aksel Hennie sometimes has the look of Steve Buscemi). Nesbø is very interested in American popular culture, including crime films and crime fiction as well as rock music – but he’s also very rooted in Norwegian culture.
Clas is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a middle ranking Hollywood actor who is currently in the cult TV series Game of Thrones. The actor is Danish which means that Clas’ nationality has to change (he’s Dutch in the book) and then several other plot points have to change as well. I wasn’t convinced by this casting decision as I’d pictured Clas as older but harder and more authoritative. Coster-Waldau strikes me as too smooth and good-looking in a conventional way – but I’m guessing that the producers thought that he would help sell the film. It took over $2 million in Denmark, so perhaps they were right? Harry Hole fans should know that the book has some of the elements familiar from the Harry Hole series – in particular, both Roger and Clas are familiar with FBI interrogation techniques and Roger will learn eventually about the attraction of fatherhood (surrogate fatherhood in Harry’s case). Headhunters also features a TV appearance by a preening Kripos (serious crimes squad) investigator – I can just imagine what Harry would make of that.
So, Headhunters is a diverting entertainment – but Nesbø fans will be awaiting whatever Martin Scorsese does with The Leopard with even more eagerness.