In the 1920s, Knut Hamsun, Norway’s preeminent man of letters, was asked his opinion of cinema. “I don’t understand film and I’m in bed with the flu,” he responded. Luckily, not all Norwegians agreed with him. This series of 29 features, organized to coincide with Norway’s centennial, reveals a distinctive cinematic sensibility, formed at the far reaches of Europe.
Gunnar Sommerfeldt’s The Growth of the Soil (1921), an adaptation of Hamsun’s Nobel Prize–winning 1917 novel, helped jump-start the country’s silent-film industry. In this episodic, multigenerational saga about a fiercely independent homesteader who stakes his claim on a no-man’s-land in the far north, reindeer herds and skiing Lapps traverse a glacial terrain gradually tamed by man’s labor. But the harshness of frontier life, where women give birth unattended in bare log cabins, is hardly glossed over.
The fantasy of a remote idyll, far from civilization’s corrupting influence and menaced by the arrival of outsiders, haunts Edith Carlmar’s The Wayward Girl (1959). Twenty-year-old Liv Ullmann, in her first film role, radiates both childlike confusion and intense sensuality as Gerd, a lost young woman whose middle-class, madly-in-love boyfriend attempts to run away with her to a cottage in the wilderness. Carlmar, one of Norway’s numerous distinguished women directors, took an utterly frank yet complex approach to her characters’ sexuality, astonishing for its era. While Gerd and her beau frolic naked, her single mom calmly tells his straitlaced parents that her daughter is unlikely to marry.
The heroine of Kissed by Winter (2005), Sara Johnsen’s debut feature, also leaves the city, fleeing a tragedy whose dimensions are only gradually revealed. Working up north as a country doctor, she buries her feelings under mounds of repression as deep as the surrounding snowdrifts, but slowly, she’s drawn into a human drama that echoes the one she’s escaping. Annika Hallin’s nuanced starring performance and a subtle script that leaves much unspoken make this a wrenching drama about the power of grief to suspend life indefinitely.
Finally, P Sletaune’s Next Door (2005) is a romantic comedy turned sexual horror story with nods to David Lynch and Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. John (Kristoffer Joner), having broken up with his girlfriend, gets to know his neighbors, two attractive if somewhat abject and feral young women, who invite him into their ominously cluttered, maze-like apartment. With brilliant art direction and a gift for tension, Sletaune keeps us guessing for the first hour, but all that talent can’t keep his film from devolving into a classic misogynist panic, with a female corpse at its center.