Sometimes the mezzobrow film-culture deadlands of the 1980s looked like it was populated almost entirely by opal-eyed European children, spying on hayloft sex and weathering the neglect of peasant elders. That tame moment found its homogenizable directors, particularly Scandinavian teddy bears, imported to Hollywood. Such was the fate of Bille August, who went from winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Pelle the Conqueror in 1988 to directing episodes of Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in five short years. His résumé looks like a struggle, but Pelle itself, rather surprisingly, is a natural, organic epic, and one that opens a window on a meticulously detailed bygone world that, by film’s end, you might feel as though you’ve visited.
Who knew 19th-century Sweden was so rotten you had to migrate to Denmark just to work as a serf? Based upon the first quarter of Martin Andersen Nexø’s classic mega-novel, Pelle opens on a paradigmatic refugee boat, ferrying elderly Lasse (Max von Sydow, straining for an Oscar but getting only the nom) and his young son Pelle (too-cute Pelle Hvenegaard) to a new life, where of course they are dismissed as unwanteds and have to settle for bonded servitude on a large estate farm. Sleeping in the barn with the chickens and cows, always crawling with flies, the beleaguered couple faces the classic penniless immigrant’s trials, battling with language, racism, exploitation and the impossibility of their own dreams. From there, the boulders of Nexø’s big-boned memoir-ish melodrama roll at you, from a sadistic young foreman’s tortures and a maid’s tragic pregnancy to the merciless estate owner and his deranged (and eventually knife-happy) wife.
The story sounds stock in synopsis, but the film itself is eye-popping, wide-screen time travel, shot with sun-burnished care, drenched in details and almost nonchalant about its arresting images: a rigged tall ship floundering and collapsing in the stormy shallows; cloud shadows moving over an auroral George Cole harvest field; a skiff of three frozen corpses (more desperate refugees?) towed back to shore; school bullies chasing Pelle out onto a fog-shrouded ice floe. August and his cinematographer Jörgen “Lord of Light and Mist” Persson brought a luxuriant attention to landscape that was rare in the ‘80s and is rarer today; it’s long-lensed and David Lean–esque, harkening back to the muscular on-location imagery of silent-film giants like Mauritz Stiller and Abel Gance. The genuineness of it, uncorrupted by Adobe repainting, can make your eyes water.
Try as he might with this archetypal role, von Sydow cannot help but be overshadowed by the natural mise-en-scène; his five-minute performance the year before in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters is the deeper work. August’s film is primarily a visual immersion, overcoming the “classical” material (a book still assigned in Scandinavian schools) by sheer dint of pure movie-ness.
Pelle the Conqueror
Directed by Bille August
Opens February 24, Film Forum