A Beautifully Bleak Story Where Political Reform Trumps Love in Northern Lights (1978)


A 94-year-old North Dakota man comes across a late friend’s diary and sits at a typewriter “to put down a good yarn about those old times.” John Hanson and Rob Nilsson’s 1978 treasure Northern Lights—screening at Film Forum in a newly restored 35mm print—presents the cheerful fellow, Henry Martinson (Hanson’s real-life grandfather, playing himself), as a frame around a hard past. Through him, the film enters 1915-set flashbacks involving a small community of Norwegian farmers and first-generation descendants (all photographed by Judy Irola in harsh, sharp black-and-white) struggling to survive fierce winters and crueler bosses and banks. Henry’s friend, the young farmer Ray Sorenson (played by Robert Behling), takes focus as his voiceover narrates how he was drawn into a socialist worker’s union called the Nonpartisan League until, fully radicalized, he leapt to its front. Ray’s efforts to raise the collective consciousness of his exploited fellow men, however, drew him away from his fiancée, Inga (played by Susan Lynch), whose love for him ebbed in turn during his absence. As subsequent months offer glimpses of the couple’s two isolated members, a dual portrait emerges of a man and a woman each craving to escape a socially assigned role. The rights-hungry Ray no longer wants to have to simply work to survive, like his father always did; the lonesome Inga cries out against the thought of following orders and keeping all complaints quiet, like her mother had to do. When together at night, the lovers say that if politics fail them they’ll still have each other, while admitting—in equal disclosure—that just each other isn’t enough.