Norwegian cinema is riding a brand new wave internationally. A growing amount of directors and actors are being exported, while back home we are finally getting used to the excitement of seeing our own productions not only partaking in festivals, but also receiving awards while there. Meanwhile distribution rights to popular Norwegian films have become more attractive on the market.
But this wave, like all others, started moving at home. For those of you interested (and those of you who weren’t – prepare to be!) here is a list that highlights a variety of different new Norwegian films, all in their own way worth a look. A smorgasbord, if you like, of what this little country (producing less than 35 films a year) has to offer.
12. Elling (2001)
Norwegian littérature and culture has a longstanding love affair with characters who, for various reasons, are dysfunctional in todays society. ”Elling”, director Petter Næss adaptation of author Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s book, successfully continues this fascination onto the silver screen.
It tells the story of Elling (Per Christian Ellefsen) and Kjell Bjarne (Sven Nordin), two men who have spent most of their lives shielded from the world – Kjell Bjarne in mental institutions and Elling living with an unusually overbearing mother.
A few years after his mothers death the two main characters are moved from an institution into a flat with a designated caretaker who wants to help them into the world of ”ordinary people”. From here on we get to watch two 40-something men on a journey of self-discovery more reminiscent of teenagers becoming men. It is funny.
It is also unironic, unapologetic and not afraid of addressing issues without lecturing. Lifting the movie out of the normal pitfalls a comedy about struggling mental illness might usually stumble into and turning it into an all around charm-trip. Many comedic moments are played quietly and Per Christian Ellefsen in the role of Elling is wonderfully sincere, delving into the quirks and anxieties of his character along with the rest of the movie.
It seems at least one light-hearted comedy about dysfunctional characters is produced in Norway every year, and ”Elling” holds up even better against most them.
11. Kunsten å Tenke Negativt (The Art of Negative Thinking) (2006)
“The Art of Negative Thinking” is a diamond in the rough with a script that shines too brilliantly to be ignored.
A small therapy group of paraplegics and depressed people, along with their peppy, controlling counselor go out to visit a new edition to the group, Geirr (Fridtjov Såheim) who is confined to a wheelchair and spends most of his time locked in his room watching war movies and getting high. He is bitter, sarcastic and crude.
And over the course of the evening he tears the fake smiles of their faces and teaches the group the art of negative thinking while their little party leads towards drug and booze fueled self-destruction.
On the sidelines are Geirrs distraught wife and the husband of one of the paraplegics. He is coming apart. Having suppressed his selfish needs for too long he complains constantly about the struggle of being supporting and his own guilt.
This hardly sounds like a comedy of any sort, but the dialogue and the over-the-top characters makes it hard not to choke on a few chuckle fits.
The message at the core of the movie is simple: If we just keep pretending everything is fine, when we’re anything but, we won’t be able to move on with our lives. Or as Geirr puts it ”… Fuck every single asshole who goes around thinking there is anything to look forward too. Fuck them! And fuck you and fuck me too.”
10. Mannen som Elsket Yngve (The Man Who Loved Yngve) (2008)
In the opening moments of ”The Man who Loved Yngve” Jarle Klepp (Rolf Kristian Larsen) stands at the back of a class field trip, looking directly at the camera. ”What did I do to deserve this?!” he laments. He is talking about the fact that he lives in the 80s.
This is an unusual coming of age film in more ways than one. In tone, style and execution it is reminiscent of John Hughes, but considering the subject matter we get something rather different.
Doubling as a nostalgia piece with it’s varied range of stock characters and jukebox soundtrack the movie tells the story of Jarle Klepp, a high schooler who’s world changes rather suddenly when a new boy begins at their school – the eponymous Yngve. Earle belongs to a group of boys who revel in their identity as ”outsiders”. They smoke, play punk rock music in a band and are politically opinionated.
Yngve is different, and Jarle feels drawn to him in a way he doesn’t quite understand at first, and when he does realize it. Feeling his identity challenged by this it creates a rift in him, and Jarle has to choose.
To call this a “gay film” would be to ignore most of its merits. Like every coming of age story there is drama, heartbreak and tragedy forging the identity of our main character and guiding him closer to adulthood. It is an engaging drama and perhaps the best coming of age films in Norwegian cinema.
9. De Usynlige (Troubled Water) (2008)
Director Erik Poppe is, to many, one of the most talented directors in Norwegian cinema. His keen eye for photography enhancing every scene and set-piece he shoots and keeps it both beautiful and natural while holding the viewers attention. ”Trouble Water”, his third film, will undoubtedly be overlooked in favor of his sprawling ”Hawaii, Oslo” and his autobiographical ”1000 Times Goodnight”. ”Troubled Water” remains is however, his most focused and intimately crafted film.
The film deals with a young man (Pål Sverre Hagen) who is released on parole after serving a sentence for killing a child. The events that lead to this are revealed to us in heart wrenching flashbacks as he gets a job as a church organist and gets close to the priest and her son.
The main character is shown struggling with his past and unable to let go of the fateful event even as he learns to ”live again” and trust himself. When the past finally catches up to him in the form of the mother of the dead child we see that she too struggles with letting go of the past, which leads them to a climatic confrontation and eventually, a form of catharsis.
The movie is filled with subtle symbolism and, mostly religious, references to what’s happening on screen. Poppe directs his small, but talented cast intimately, bringing out pain and sincerity all to well in all the right places.
8. Max Manus (2008)
The true story of a Norwegian freedom fighter during the German occupation of WWII became Norways biggest blockbuster since the early 2000 and caught up with Norwegians fascination for WWII, actor/celebrity Aksel Hennie and nit-picking historical inaccuracies.
Max Manus does not by any means mark a high point in Norwegian cinema, it is however the first time a big budget action/period film was helmed in Norway and hit all the right marks.
For some reason people expected something different from homebound directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg after their chick-flick, western-romp debut ”Bandidas” and the film polarized critics and moviegoers alike. On one hand it was genuinely entertaining and suspenseful, while also depicting several fascinating historical events (with sets such as the sunken battleship ”Blucher”), on the other hand it felt more like a Norwegian ”Pearl Harbor” than ”Schindler’s List”.
With heavy-handed dialogue and a few key performances being watered down to one-note characters the movie was still too big a deal for anyone to miss it and marks the point where ”Hollywood” came to Norway. And the steady rise in special-effect laden, action-heavy pictures it seems the trend came to stay, both for better and for worse.
7. Trolljegern (Troll Hunter) (2010)
Received as a dark comedy at home and a horror movie abroad ”Troll Hunter” was an instant cult classic upon release and remains a wonderful and fresh entry to both it’s genre and to Norwegian cinema.
The movie is shot in the tired-and-tried handheld mockumentary style of ”Blair Witch Project” and ”Paranormal Activity”, even opening with the standard disclaimer claiming all the footage you’re about to see to be real. But after a few minutes it becomes clear that this is anything but a tired, by-the-numbers, money-grab.
The film follows three film students in need of a project. They decided to make a report on the activities of a mysterious poacher named Hans (played with impressive range and depth by satirist/comedian Otto Jespersen), but soon discover that the poaching is a cover for a much greater conspiracy. Hans is a troll hunter, a secret government agent keeping these mythological creatures in check, while also keeping them a secret.
From there on the students follow Hans into a world both fantastic and frightening as the movie slyly borrows imagery and themes from Norwegian folklore (a darkly comedic scene borrowing from the beloved ”Three Billy Goats Gruff” stands out wonderfully) while also adding slight political satire to the plot.
The trolls themselves are portrayed as dumb animals, but amazingly rendered to feel just the right amount threatening and fascinating by an imaginative special-effects team.
The film knows Norwegian folklore and revels in it, while also adding it’s own twists and turns to the mythology. It is undoubtedly a richer film to those familiar with the culture (and there are a few native cameos to appreciate as well), but for anyone looking for something both fun and distinctively Norwegian this is worth a watch, bringing Norwegian folklore back to the silver screen in a big way.