PELLE THE CONQUEROR is a great movie to watch if you’re seriously considering suicide: by the time the bruising 157 minutes of abuse, humiliation and crushed hopes have ended, you may decide hesitation is overrated. Talk about “something rotten in Denmark”; it’s quite well-made, but holy lutefisk, it may as well have been titled BLEAK.
1850s Denmark, the island of Bornholm in the Baltic Sea. Late-middle-aged and worn-down ‘Lasse Karlsson’ (Max Von Sydow, 58) and his young son ‘Pelle’ (Pelle Hvenegaard, 11) emigrate from Sweden, desperate to find work. That comes through miserable labor for a well-off farmer, who keeps his near-slave field hands under the lash of a brutal foreman and his vile son. Discrimination against the impoverished outsiders continues at the school where the naturally bright but innocently ignorant Pelle starts a rudimentary education. Whenever any light of hope flickers, someone or something brings back the darkness.
Directed by Bille August, who co-wrote the script, it’s based on “Boyhood”, the first section of the novel “Pelle The Conqueror”, written by Martin Andersen Nexø in four volumes between 1906 and 1910. The book/s are considered essential reading in Denmark (the depressing material at distinct odds with the country’s reputation for happiness). The director’s resume isn’t a cheerful lot—The House Of The Spirits, Night Train To Lisbon, Smilla’s Sense Of Snow-–but this takes the
Danish cake. It’s exceedingly well-acted, beautifully shot (in harsh conditions), and sadly accurate as a portrait of so many desperate lives, but it makes for an endlessly punishing viewing experience. At the halfway point, I surrendered hope to the certainty that the next sequence would end in pain, and that was borne out, again and again. The moments of happiness (and one of them involves someone getting literally—and deservedly—emasculated) are all setups for being crushed.
Budgeted at $4,500,000, it was, at the time, the largest outlay yet for a film from Scandinavia, and the production carefully recreates the wretched lot of the poor (and outcast, resented immigrants), the cavalier abuse from their bosses, the poignant beauty of the rare moments where dignity and decency claw at the firmament of oppression, and the baleful sub-Arctic setting. Jörgen Persson’s cinematography captures location work that is startling to witness, cast & crew subjected to gale winds in mid-winter, immersion in frigid water, desperate scampering across ice flows. These may be hardy people, but it often looks like the Polar equivalent of Werner Herzog’s jungle insanity.
The casting is remarkable, down the line. Von Sydow is quietly magnificent, a portrait of vanquished nobility that’s heart-rending, finally getting him an Oscar nomination (Best Actor) after 38 years of sterling performances. Kind and proud, fearful and trapped, hopeful and hopeless, it’s as good as anything that wonderful actor ever did, and that’s saying something. Even so, it’s really a supporting role, as young Hvenegaard, chosen from over 3,000 kids who auditioned, has the most screen time. He’s superb.
While Von Sydow didn’t take home an Oscar (the goodie for 1987 went to Dustin Hoffman’s showy, more obvious Rain Man), the production was given the award for Best Foreign Film, and it swept up many other prizes in various industry venues. No figures are available for international box-office, but it took in $2,054,000 in the States, lodging at 141st place for the year. It’s an achievement, certainly, but one of those where happiness is in short supply.
Large cast includes Erik Paaske (the horrible foreman), Björn Granath (zesty ‘Erik’, who naturally is destroyed), Astrid Villaume (‘Mrs. Kongstrup’, who takes matters “into her own hands”, as it were), Axel Strøbye (‘Kongstrup’, swine), Troels Asmussen (hapless ‘Rud’), Kristina Törnqvist (‘Anna’, cruelly victimized), Sofie Gråbøl (‘Miss Sine’, cruelly victimized), John Wittig (the unpleasant schoolteacher).