Reviews Too Late: Skandinavian Film Fest!

by wjw on January 3, 2012

I’ve been having a small Scandinavian film festival of my very own, full of gorgeous images from my ethnic and spiritual homeland.  Some movies drove me to cheer, some to drink.  Herewith some brief reviews:

Troll Hunter (2010),  a Norwegian film in the “found documentary” genre, like Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield.

A group of film students, out to make a documentary about a bear poacher, encounters a mysterious, taciturn hunter who lives in a smelly, disgusting Airstream and drives a highly customized Land Rover.  Turn’s out he’s Norway’s only salaried Troll Hunter, and he’s willing to let the kids follow him around because he’s sick of having a secret, low-salaried job with few benefits.  Plus, the head of the Norwegian Wildlife Board is a complete jackass, and the Troll Hunter wants payback.

The Troll Hunter is played by Otto Jespersen, a (rather controversial) comic, though the joke here is that his character never actually makes a joke, or cracks a smile.  And that’s pretty much the style of the droll Scandinavian humor in this film, so dry that you might not even notice that it’s there.  (The fact that the trolls all look like they were drawn by Al Capp might serve as another clue that this is actually a comedy with horrifying moments, rather than a horror film with comic bits.)

The film has its pleasures, though it drags on like a Norwegian winter and the jokes get as stretched as last week’s smalahove.

I’d recommend calling in reinforcements.  With enough beer, and maybe some shots of akvavit, you could hit a kind of plateau on which you and the Troll Hunter could rollick right along.

Valhalla Rising (2009).

This is a movie about Vikings, and not taken from the book by Clive Cussler.

I would like to preface my comments with a couple questions.  (1) Have you by any chance seen El Topo (1970)?  (2)  Did you like it?

If the answers to both of these questions are yes, you’ll probably like Valhalla Rising, because like El Topo this film is beautiful,  violent, pretentious beyond description, and way, way too long.

In long-ago Scandinavia a bunch of mangy Vikings are hauling around a mute captive named One-Eye, who engages in fights to the death with local champions.  These fights take place in mud.  In fact all fights in this movie seem to take place in mud.  That’s because we are in the Muddle Ages.

(This film is so humorless than you will appreciate this joke by and by.)

One-Eye eventually gets free and kills all his captors, except for the small boy who feeds him.  They join up with some Christian Vikings who have just slaughtered a village of Pagan Vikings, and intend to ship off for the Holy Land to storm Jerusalem.  No one points out that, as there are less than a dozen Christian Vikings in this film, their plan is unlikely to go as envisioned.

(The Christian Vikings speak with Scottish accents, by the way.  That’s because the film was shot in Scotland.  All those fjords are actually firths.)

The Vikings get in their boat— the film’s budget won’t stretch to an entire ship, apparently— and promptly get lost in the fog.  There is prayer, murder, and madness, and next thing you know they’re in America, or— as the film calls it— Hell.  Their boat drifts up the mighty Hudson, or some other large river.  Just as the Vikings conclude that the land is deserted, arrows begin to fly out of the undergrowth.

Undeterred by the fact that his crew is down to four or five, the Christian Captain decides to conquer the land and build a New Jerusalem right on the spot.  He then starts hacking dissenters to bits, reducing the population of his town even more.   (Viewers familiar with the story of Freydis Eiriksdottir won’t find this too farfetched.)  Bemused, invisible Indians continue to rain arrows on them.  One-Eye leads a few faithful survivors in the direction of the sea.

There isn’t much plot here.  Because the protagonist is mute, there isn’t a lot of dialog, either.  What mostly happens in this film is that we see the strong profile of One-Eye, or some other character, silhouetted against some stark scenery while incredibly loud synthesizer chords are played over the soundtrack.  Whole hours seem to go by this way.

Since Scandinavian mythology is full of stories about a one-eyed character wandering around the landscape in disguise, and since the film is, after all, titled Valhalla Rising, I was expecting One-Eye to reveal himself in all his lordly glory at some point.  While there is some mystic stuff that happens, the All-Father as such doesn’t turn up, nor does anything interesting actually happen in the end.

No amount of beer will help.  I’d recommend showing this film to prisoners in hopes it might induce them to confess their crimes.

Arn, the Knight Templar (2007).

The American release appears to consists of two Swedish films cut together, Arn the Knight Templar and Arn— the Kingdom at Road’s End.  There doesn’t seem to be much missing, the plot rolls right along.  The films are based on a trilogy by Swedish author Jan Guillou, depicting events in the Middle East and clashes between Swedish kings of the Sverker and Eric lines.

The story opens with the Templar Knight, Arn de Gothia, rescuing a group of Arabs from a bunch of bandits.  The Arabs recognize at once that their saviour is someone they call al-Ghouti— which according to the one Internet translation I could dig up, means “My Ailment.”  (Go figure.)

One of the Arabs turns out to be the Templars’ arch-enemy Saladin traveling incognito, but by that point they’ve accepted one another’s hospitality and fighting would be dishonorable, so they agree to postpone their inevitable collision.

(The film doesn’t explain why the renowned warrior Saladin can’t kill his own damn bandits.   They didn’t outnumber him by much.)

(Saladin, played by the Bollywood star Miland Soman, is made up and photographed to strongly resemble popular images of Jesus Christ.  Can’t imagine why, but it’s really striking.)

Then we go into flashback to find out how Arn the Swede became Arn the Templar.  Young Arn is raised in a monastery, though he receives martial training from a retired templar.  He falls in love with Cecilia, who is a lay sister.

In the meantime, Arn’s family has become involved in a dispute with a member of the powerful Sverker family, which happens to include King Charles Sverker.  Arn’s father is challenged to a duel by a Sverker lord, and Arn (still dressed as a monk) steps into the ring on his father’s behalf.  The Sverker is beaten, then attacks dishonorably, and Arn chops his hand off.  Arn is the hero of the land, and in a scene featuring a grassy meadow and swelling violins promptly gets Cecilia pregnant.  The two plan to marry, but the mother superior of Cecilia’s nunnery is a Sverker, and writes to her archbishop, also a Sverker.  Cecilia is confined to the nunnery for 20 years, and Arn is sent to the monastery for the same amount of time, though he eventually receives permission to go to the Holy Land and become a Templar.  Cecilia’s child is taken from her and raised by a foster family, and Cecilia is subjected to a couple decades’ mistreatment by the nuns.

Back in the present, the Crusaders follow Arn’s strategy and ambush and defeat Saladin’s armies.   But the old Grand Master dies and Arn’s idiot rival, Gerard de Ridefort, is made the new Grand Master.

Well, anyone’s who’s seen Kingdom of Heaven knows what happens next.  The Crusader army is crushed at the Horns of Hattin.  Arn’s life is spared by Saladin, or maybe Jesus, and Arn heads for Cecilia and home.  In the meantime, King Sverker is killed by Knut Eriksson, who becomes king, and Cecilia is taken to court to await Arn’s appearance.  After twenty years, the two lovers are finally reunited, and meet their young son Magnus for the first time.

Unfortunately King Knut dies, and those darn Sverkers just won’t let our heroes alone.  Sverker II comes to Sweden with a Danish army to dispute the throne with Eric Knutsson.  Arn must train, arm, and hearten the outnumbered Swedes in order to make the kingdom safe for Erics everywhere.  (Count the number of Erics in Sweden today, as opposed to Sverkers, and you’ll see how well he succeeded.)

You won’t need any beers to enjoy this movie, assuming you like this sort of thing at all.  This was the most expensive Swedish film to date, production values are high, and the battle scenes are big and glorious.  The scenery is lovely, and nobody wrestles in the mud.  There are anachronisms, but only Anachronists will care about them.

Anyone read the books?

Kathy January 3, 2012 at 2:29 pm

I saw Troll Hunter with Walter, and it is funny, in a weirdly Norweigian way. It also convinced me that (a) Norway has fabulous scenery and (b) it rains a lot there.

Urban January 3, 2012 at 5:58 pm

The Arn movies were also made to be a 6 x 45 min TV series.
No, I haven’t read the trilogy nor the sequel about Birger jarl (real person with unknown grandfather) who in it is Arn’s grandson. But accounts of them are that in them Arn is even more of a near-superhuman than in the movies and responsible for any positive development for (what became) Sweden which cannot be historically be attributed to someone else. Or attributed to a time period before or after him.
But I’ve read other novels by Jan Guillou. He began as a journalist (still is) and writes well, but you read his novels because you “want to know what happens next” and not for the literary style or elegant plot and because you can disregard his political views, find them interesting or agree with them. (Or because you want to study how someone who makes a lot of money writing does it.) I liked the earliest novels about Carl Hamilton best, the later ones became a little silly and exagerated.
There’s nothing deliberately counter-historical in the novels. But as very,very little of that period is known that doesn’t make them historically correct.

DensityDuck January 4, 2012 at 7:16 am

“The American release appears to consists of two Swedish films cut together…”

Heh. I’m surprised they didn’t call it “Viking Assassin”, then. (…like “Shogun Assassin”? …you get it, right? …no. okay.)

Foxessa January 4, 2012 at 10:09 pm

I watched the Arn streaming from netflixen, and told BN about it, along with a couple of other middle ages crusaders flix. It’s that time of the year when I like watching these things.

The other two you mentioned, no way, though they are available.

Love, C.

wjw January 6, 2012 at 2:52 am

Hey, =I= got the Shogun Assassin joke.

Netflixen, for those of you who don’t know, is Netflix for Norwegian movies.

Steinar Bang January 6, 2012 at 9:44 am

To me, the trolls of “Troll hunter” don’t look like they were drawn by Al Capp (only known to me from a google image search). They look like they were drawn by Th. Kittelsen, which I expect is what was intended. Th. Kittelsen’s illustrations of Asbjørnsen&Moe’s Norwegian folktales, is sort of the canon for how Norwegian trolls should look.

A google image search for “Th. Kittelsen” gives quite a few of his troll pictures.

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