I may be taking liberties with what is officially Scandinavia here, as I have included a film from Finland, which is not normally included in this region. As they say in America, ‘so sue me’. Sweden has a claim to the crown of Scandinavian Cinema to some degree, as the home of the critically-acclaimed, and much-loved director, Ingmar Bergman. Accordingly, I have decided not to include any of his films. Two of the choices are films set during a war, again reflecting my own love of war films, but also to show conflict from a different theatre of war, making a refreshing change.
Ofelas. Not to be confused with the later film, ‘Pathfinder’, a poor remake, this Norwegian film from 1987, is little known, despite an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. It was shot in the Finnmark region of Norway, part of what is generally known as Lapland, and home of the Sami people. The setting is the 11th Century, during a time of conflict between the Sami, and their fierce neighbours, the Tchudes, a wandering tribe of warlike raiders. The main character is a teenage boy, Aigin; he sees the Tchudes attack his village, and murder his family. When he is eventually captured, he is forced to become the ‘Pathfinder’ (Ofelas) of the title, to lead the murdering band to other Sami villages, that they hope to plunder. He conceives a plan, and plays along with the Tchudes, until he can get revenge for the loss of his village, and his relatives. I know that this short synopsis may not inspire you to seek out and watch this film. However, it is the scenery and weather that will make it worth your while. Famously filmed in temperatures of -45 C, and featuring lots of snow and ice, and some of the bleakest and remotest scenery on Earth, it will literally take your breath away. And the story is not too bad, either. Here is the official trailer.
The Winter War. One month after the outbreak of the Second World War, in 1939, Russia invaded Finland. Neither country was allied to any side at the time, and the Russians were seeking to regain the disputed region of Karelia, in southern Finland, and hopefully to conquer the whole country. This film was made in Finland in 1989 , to mark the 50th anniversary of their partial victory over the Russians, who eventually gained very little from their invasion, and lost countless thousands of men in the process. The story of this short war is complex and involved, so I will dwell on it no further. The film is an old fashioned war epic, and is one of the best ever examples. Following a unit from a small town, all men who know each other, and containing brothers, and other close relatives. The characters are developed early on, and the background detail is comprehensively included, as the group prepare to leave for the front line. Despite the huge differences in the comparative sizes of the opposing armies, and the Finns lack of modern equipment, they are determined to defend their country at all costs, and to fight off the Russian invaders. We might be forgiven for thinking perhaps, that the Finns later association with the Germans is better forgotten. However, for the war film fan, it doesn’t get much better than this. It has a marvellously authentic feel, from the mixed bag of characters in the featured company, to their poignant visits home after being at the front. This is not a glossy film about heroes and sacrifice, rather a gritty, realistic depiction of the cost of war to both sides; with the Russian conscripts forced forward in suicidal frontal attacks, and the desperate, outnumbered Finns, fighting hand to hand in frozen trenches. Truly a film that you will remember, and a must for any war film buff tired of the same old output. This trailer gives a fair idea of what to expect.
Let the Right One In. This brilliant Swedish film from 2008 is about two children, one of whom happens to be a vampire. Forget any prejudices about ‘Twilight’, or Hammer films, this re-writes the genre. Set in suburban Stockholm, on boring housing estates, the whole thing feels uncannily real, and completely authentic. Young Oskar is a lonely and neglected boy, living at home with his mother. Bullied and harrassed, he finds company with the strange young girl Eli, and a bond slowly develops between them. Meanwhile, Eli’s ‘father’ is carrying on a campaign of mass murder in the neighbourhood, to obtain the necessary blood to keep her alive, as she educates Oskar on how he can defend himself, and stop the bullying. We see him grow in confidence, and his personality begins to change, as the love for Eli gives him purpose and comfort. A dark film, slow in pace, and minimal in design and effects, it grows steadily, and haunts the viewer long after. Choosing not to go for a pat happy ending also gives it a dignity and power unusual for this sort of film. Avoid the American remake, and revel in the best from Sweden. Here is the trailer.
Max Manus. Again in 2008, this time from Norway, this is the true story of a famous Norwegian underground fighter. After serving as a volunteer with the Finnish army (see Winter war above) against the Russians, Manus returns home, to a Norway invaded by the Germans. Led by a collaborationist government, headed by the notorious Quisling, many Norwegians are welcoming the invasion, and some are even serving with the Germans, in the Waffen SS. Manus at first tries to sabotage the German war effort in his country, but eventually flees to Scotland. There, he is comprehensively trained in the arts of underground warfare, and returns to Olso, to become the leader of the official army of resistance there. The film shows various acts of assassination and sabotage, as well as the political problems strangling the successful progression of the anti-German forces in the country. The occupiers appoint a unit to hunt down Manus’s group, and he begins to lose his friends and colleagues, which has a profound affect on him. Always worthy, and never less than completely authentic in atmosphere and period feel, this film takes the familiar theme of civil resistance against a German occupier, and gives it a completely fresh feel, in a different country, under unusual circumstances. Very moving indeed. Here is the official trailer.
Pelle The Conqueror. This film dates from 1987, and stars the Swedish grand actor, Max Von Sydow, alongside the young Pelle Hvenegaard, in the title role. It deals with Swedish migration in the early 1900’s, on this occasion to Denmark, looking for work, and hoping to escape certain poverty in their homeland. This is a film dealing with a familiar subject in an unfamiliar setting once again, and follows events almost unknown outside Sweden and Denmark. The immigrant Swedes are treated badly by their Danish employers, and regarded as unwanted itinerants by the population as a whole. They struggle on the farms, lorded over by cruel overseers, and working in all weathers. Pelle manages to learn to speak Danish, but still gets little acceptance; and his father is too old, and too bitter, to make any progress in this promised land of work and opportunity. The old man eventually finds some solace, with the wife of a sailor, lost at sea, thus giving Pelle the chance to move on, and escape the harsh life. A touching, yet powerful film, beautifully shot, and a real escape from the run of the mill. Here is the overblown, American trailer.
It is indicative of just how good Scandinavian films are, that so many are remade in America, including two from this short list. Give the subtitles a chance, and you will realise just what a pale imitation those remakes are; and you will have been able to enjoy a valuable European Cinema experience.