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