Screen Gems Pelle the Con­queror

PELLE THE CON­QUEROR, drama; in Sca­nian, Dan­ish, Swedish, and Fin­nish with sub­ti­tles; The Screen, 4 chiles

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Hope was the only thing that re­mained in­side Pan­dora’s box when the plagues of the world were loosed from in­side of it, and the 1987 film Pelle the Con­queror be­gins and ends on notes of hope. It starts with wid­owed Swedish farm­hand Lasse Karls­son cross­ing the Baltic Sea with his son Pelle in hope of a bet­ter life in Den­mark dur­ing the early 20th cen­tury. Lasse fills Pelle’s head with vi­sions of a fu­ture life that prove too good to be true. He tells his young son that the wages are so high in Den­mark chil­dren don’t have to work and can play all day. “It will be a dif­fer­ent coun­try,” he says. “One hardly be­lieves one’s eyes.”

The re­al­ity of their ex­pe­ri­ence in Den­mark, how­ever, is one of ex­ploita­tion, hos­til­ity to­wards im­mi­grants, and hard la­bor. Lasse (Max von Sy­dow, in an Os­car-nom­i­nated per­for­mance) is a poor, ag­ing la­borer who has come to Den­mark in search of work. Once they ar­rive, he watches as all the younger men from the boat get se­lected for em­ploy­ment un­til he and Pelle (Pelle Hvene­gaard) are the last that re­main. After some con­vinc­ing, they se­cure a po­si­tion work­ing the land of a farmer named Kongstrup (Axel Strøbye) who em­ploys a cruel and sadis­tic fore­man (Erik Paaske) to watch over the field hands, dic­tat­ing when they can rest and when they can eat the piti­ful meals their ser­vice gar­ners. The fore­man has a par­tic­u­lar dis­like of Swedes. Karls­son and his son live among the farm an­i­mals they care for and are treated no bet­ter. In­ter­spersed with images of quiet beauty — ships rolling in through a fog bank, windswept fields, and misty coastal land­scapes — are scenes of the toil and hard­ships faced by Pelle and his fa­ther dur­ing their first year in a new coun­try.

Pelle the Con­queror, di­rected by Dan­ish film­maker Bille Au­gust, is an emo­tional look at self-dis­cov­ery amid class strug­gles. It won the Os­car and Golden Globe for best for­eign lan­guage film and earned Au­gust the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Yet the film seems largely for­got­ten to­day. The Screen is show­ing a gor­geous re­stored ver­sion in honor of the movie’s 30th an­niver­sary. Given the anti-im­mi­grant sen­ti­ments be­ing stoked in the U.S., its hu­man­iz­ing fo­cus is timely and rel­e­vant. The film, based on Dan­ish au­thor Martin An­der­sen Nexø’s novel, is a mov­ing com­ing-of-age tale that deals with en­durance and dig­nity in the face of hu­mil­i­a­tion.

Pelle, the story’s pro­tag­o­nist, is young enough to look to his fa­ther for pro­tec­tion and guid­ance but must con­tend with the fact that his fa­ther is weary and has lit­tle fight left in him. Pelle, how­ever, holds to the dream his fa­ther planted at the start. Their hard­ships, in his eyes, are not their ul­ti­mate fate but only ob­sta­cles. Lasse has spent too long sub­jected to the hu­mil­i­a­tion of poverty and is re­signed to a life of ser­vice, al­though it pains him and he rages at the in­jus­tice. Von Sy­dow’s

af­fect­ing per­for­mance is among his best. Lasse is good-na­tured, though prone to drink in ex­cess. He is boast­ful but cow­ers eas­ily in con­fronta­tions with his su­pe­ri­ors. It’s a les­son for Pelle, who learns that his fa­ther will not al­ways be there to pro­tect him.

Kongstrup pre­sides over the farm from a dis­tance, oc­cu­py­ing a big house sep­a­rate from the work­ers where he lives with a wife who drinks all day while he in­dulges his lusty pur­suits of women. A se­ries of in­ci­dents in­volv­ing his in­dis­cre­tions, which in­clude a for­mer mis­tress who bore his child, un­der­scores the ex­ploita­tive na­ture of the mas­ter-ser­vant re­la­tion­ship and leads to tragic con­se­quences. Kongstrup’s sta­tion isn’t much bet­ter than that of those who work for him. He’s not a pow­er­ful man or a man of much in­flu­ence, ex­cept among those with less than him. He’s de­spised as a petty tyrant, and it seems his fate is tied, like the work­ers’, to the vi­cis­si­tudes of life.

The fo­cus of the film is on char­ac­ters whose lives are dic­tated by the sea­sons. They take what sim­ple joys and plea­sures they can, and there is danc­ing and laugh­ing out in the fields, but these brief, cel­e­bra­tory mo­ments in­evitably give way to the anger, re­sent­ment, and rage seething be­low the sur­face. These sen­ti­ments boil over when a sim­ple farm­hand named Erik (Bjørn Granath) rises up against his op­pres­sor, pitch­fork in hand. The re­sult of the out­burst, how­ever, is all the worse for Erik, who suf­fers a blow that leaves him per­ma­nently dis­abled. But the film is not with­out po­etic jus­tice, as a late and bru­tal scene — one with an air of in­evitabil­ity about it — shows. Let’s just say there’s one farmer in Den­mark who won’t be lay­ing any more seed.

Pelle the Con­queror is at its most af­fect­ing when deal­ing with a fa­ther and son whose deep love for one another sus­tains them. A tear­ful Lasse laments his own sorry fate and in­vests his hopes in Pelle, who longs for some­thing bet­ter but comes to un­der­stand that he must find it on his own. The con­clu­sion of the film is tinged with the sor­row that ac­com­pa­nies painful good­byes but con­tains the prom­ise of a greater fu­ture for its con­quer­ing hero. — Michael Abatemarco

Max von Sy­dow (fac­ing) and Pelle Hvene­gaard

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