Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Here's Your Life (Här har du ditt liv)

Director Jan Troell on the set of Here’s Your Life (Här har du ditt liv), 1966

HERE’S YOUR LIFE (Här har du ditt liv)        A                    
Sweden  (169 mi)  1966  d:  Jan Troell  

A beautiful example of a young filmmaker’s first feature film, though Troell was 27-years of age at the time, but he’s also the cinematographer, the editor, and the co-writer of the screenplay along with Bengst Forslund, adapting the second semi-autobiographical novel Romanen om Olof (A Novel of Olof) in a series of four novels by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Eyvind Johnson.  The film has a greater reputation in Sweden where the epic three-hour drama was originally seen on Swedish television and was immediately pronounced a masterpiece, with Ingmar Bergman calling it “one of the uncompromising masterpieces of Swedish film history,” a searingly realistic coming-of-age drama of a young 14-year old working class boy Olof Persson (Eddie Axberg) as he grows up in a small village of Norrland province in the north of Sweden during the First World War.  Winning the Gold Hugo for Best Film and another for Best Director at the Chicago Film Festival in 1967, the film was cut considerably for the American release a year later, cutting as much as an hour, which is unthinkable, where the film has rarely been seen in its full version outside Sweden.  Born in Malmö, Troell worked professionally as a teacher in a Malmö school for nine years, while at the same time making amateur movies.  His film career started with television, making educational films and shorts for children before working as a cinematographer on several Bo Widerberg films.  What’s immediately striking is his visual style, obviously influenced by the French New Wave, using freeze frames, jump cuts, changes of speed, and spectacular location shots, as the sparsely populated Norrland province is known for wide forests, large rivers and untouched wilderness. Opening with several different freeze frames of a bird in flight, the film follows the journey of a young boy who is about to leave the hospitality of another family to return home to see his sick father.  As the family can’t afford to provide for him at home, Max von Sydow plays a friend of his father who helps find him a job and a place to live in a remote lumber mill, where the intimate portrait of these veteran workers is startling, seen hauling around trees in the snow in preparation for the industrial saw.  Shot in black and white, these early close-up shots of workers performing their jobs in the immensity of the natural splendor all around them are among the best sequences in the film, reminiscent of Alexander Dovzhenko’s EARTH (1930), one of the most impressive films of the Soviet era, a film that pays tribute to peasants working in the fields, elevating their work to a kind of cinematic high art. 

After an even younger boy gets killed in an unfortunate accident at the mill, Olof develops some deep-seeded resentments against the indifference of the owner of the plant, who expects the men to get back to work afterwards as if nothing has happened, telling them in the most patronizing manner that they ought to be more careful, never once acknowledging that the worker killed was only a child.  Eventually Olof gives the owner a piece of his mind and sets off for the city, where he meets Lundgren, Bergman actor Gunnar Björnstrand, who runs a movie house, hiring Olof to sell candy and bon-bons to theater customers while also pasting up flyers around town of upcoming events.  Here he’s able to wander around town and get into discussions about the role of the working man in society, where one amusing point of view is that workers are better off uneducated, as the more educated they are the more likely they’ll turn into socialists.  Olof is seen reading at every available opportunity and becomes a devout believer in worker’s rights, where one of the more intriguing shots is his first march in a May Day parade, where the rousing music played interesting enough was La Marseillaise, France National Anthem - La Marseillaise (Instrumental YouTube (1:19), signifying an end to war in Europe.  Sweden was subjected to food shortages and severe economic hardships during the war, as the Allied forces blocked trade with Germany, one of their largest trading partners, a situation that only grew worse when the United States entered the war and utilized submarines.  The visible deprivation seen throughout the land is one of the unforgettable aspects of the film, where there is no discussion about the family turning away Olof during hard times—it is simply a fact of life.  At 14, he is expected to drop out of school and earn his keep as an adult, even though it’s clear he’s still a child.  Still working for Lundgren, he’s again taken under the wing of another eccentric character, Nicke Larsson (Ulf Palme), who’s like an old sailor back on the high seas as they go on the road together projecting hand-cranked movies in small towns, where they actually have to light the lamp of the projector, but audiences are shocked by what they see on the screen, from newsreels to melodramas, where they are brought to tears by some of the stories.  Olof is more shocked by Olivia (Ulla Sjoblom), one of Larsson’s sultry old flames working in a circus shooting gallery, who takes on the characteristics of a Fellini woman that young men are expected to have their first sexual experiences with.  But rather than be goaded into it, Olof passes, but doesn’t forget, as he returns to her again much later under different circumstances as her business partner.

Instead he’s back on the road again, this time working for a blacksmith who has beautiful sirenesque daughters at home, where Olof decides to tell them he’s on vacation, as this seems like an idyllic paradise to any young boy.  It’s here that he has his first sexual encounter, frolicking in the woods free as a bird, INSTANTES: Här har du ditt liv aka Here's Your Life (1966 ... YouTube (3:07), where he’s quickly on his way again afterwards.  Reading Homer’s Odysseus, Olof’s life is another episodic journey from one adventure to another, where the people he encounters along the way are fully written, broadly developed, world weary characters that help him overcome his adolescent fears and develop his own worldly views, where he grows from being a passive observer to an active participant, freely expressing his views, all set in the bleak economic conditions of the times.  Often playful and humorous, with a feeling of drifting through life, the film adds a deeper complexity when he begins projecting early cinema shows, as his own journey parallels the birth of cinema, where the vintage clips couldn’t be more fascinating and are beautifully integrated into his young life.  Using abrupt mood shifts, some of his own flashback thoughts are rendered in color, while that bird in flight becomes an animated image that follows him on his journey, where perhaps the most prominent visual theme is the impressive scenic beauty, where the unique splendor of the natural environment covered by a blanket of snow can be breathtaking.  Unlike the populated cities of the south, there is a harsh realty in the rugged, individualistic work ethic that each man must confront in the north, as this test is traditionally how a man measures up in society.  Olof’s propensity for reading and educating himself however helps him make the progression to a more independent thinker, whose view of man transcends brute physical labor, where his sense of societal injustice forms his political and social consciousness, where a man’s value is ultimately based on what he can contribute to social change.  Carrying cinema as his message, Olof’s future is wide open as the road ahead of him is surrounded by the most incredible expanse of unexplored wilderness.     

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