A Luminous Century: Celebrating Norwegian Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theatre (November 12-29, 2005) is built around the happy coincidence that movies and Norway are both roughly a hundred years old. With titles dating back to 1921, a year after the first Norwegian feature, the series includes films from every subsequent decade, right up to this year’s Next Door and An Enemy of the People.
Like the country, Norwegian films are marked both by an inferiority complex and by otherworldly landscapes. The former often leads to muted stories about thwarted characters: a doctor who quits her practice, a journalist who quits his channel, a young girl who runs away from home. Many of the films in the series share a restrained, almost stoic style that is as pessimistic as their Swedish counterparts. The Betrayal, a 1981 coming-of-age story directed by Vibeke Lokkeberg, wallows in the sort of close-up misery perfected decades ago by Ingmar Bergman. Set in Bergen during World War II, it has something to do with collaborators, failed marriages, a cobbler, a baker, and forty thousand kroner, but all you’re likely to remember are glimpses of the remarkable fjords outside the city.
Many of the directors here shy away from depicting landscapes, fully aware that the average Norwegian background is so majestic that it will drain attention away from almost any story. In his clever updating of An Enemy of the People, director Erik Skjoldbjaerg lets mountainsides, waterfalls, farms, rivers, and the incredible Arctic sunlight nearly upstage his actors. Skjoldbjaerg sets the Ibsen play in a world of reckless television reporters, instant polls, and reality TV, and it makes surprisingly good sense. The original’s Tomas Stockman becomes a media celebrity who hopes to rescue his remote hometown by turning its bottled water into a national brand. Skjoldbjaerg was summoned to Hollywood after the success of his Insomnia, only to become a victim of the Miramax machine with his next film, an adaptation of Prozac Nation. It’s hard to resist reading this film as a metaphor for his career, but is his curt, graceless, extremely smart film directed at us or Norway?
Pal Sletaune was part of a new wave almost a decade ago of Norwegian directors that included Skjoldbjaerg. Junk Mail, a shaggy-dog slacker tale about a mailman who tossed his mail into the garbage rather than delivering it, had a low-key charm. Sletaune formed a production company that helped finance Lars Van Trier’s Dogville. His dank creepfest Next Door veers into the same psychological territory exploited by J-horror.
The older features in the series share a sort of dogged intensity that can be endearing or off-putting, depending on your tolerance for tight-lipped heroes and long-suffering women. The 1921 The Growth of the Soil, based on a the novel by Knut Hamsun, spins out a saga of a farmer and his offspring with a primitive forcefulness. Hamsun, the patron saint of Norwegian literature until he collaborated with the Nazis, perfected a combination of bitter self-loathing and mordant humor echoed by Edvard Munch, as well as by contemporary filmmakers. While the film can’t do justice to the novel’s layers of ambiguity, it is a startling achievement, and again offers unparalleled locations.
More emblematic of the series is Nine Lives, a harrowing survival tale based on David Howarth’s book We Die Alone. It details the amazing if grueling true story of Jan Baalsrud, a WWII resistance fighter pursued across the northern mountains by Nazis. Filmed on the same locations where the story took place, the film, directed by Arne Skouen, holds up remarkably well. The snowy mountains, harsh weather, and unforgiving fjords have a bleak beauty that’s matched by the actors’ stoic restraint. No one mentions the danger posed by Nazi patrols, or why people disappear, or the consequences of one false step, one misplaced trust. Even so, the film answers questions you may not want to know about self-amputation and the intricacies of hallucinations.
The series suffers from its share of clinkers. Betrayal is personal filmmaking of the worst sort. The Ice Palace proves only that Sapphic love can exist in Nordic climes, and of course the pernicious effect of Hollywood on impressionable youngsters who feel compelled to plaster photos of sexpots on their bedroom walls. It’s adroitly filmed, heavily scored, soft-core pornography that poses as an examination of childhood friendships, complete with a subjective camera that gazes fixedly on chairs, sinks, and faces frozen in grief.
Too Much Norway is a genial compendium of archival footage that purports to give a social history of the country. Just about anybody could come up with a similar film by rifling through national archives. The musty political speeches, dated sports achievements, quaint ethnic costumes, old folk dances, and eugenics propaganda exist in too many museums. But only a Norwegian would turn it into a disquisition on the inadequacies of Norway itself.