The Sampo: good-looking film with a moral let down by watered-down story and wooden acting

Risto Orko and Alexander Ptushko, “The Sampo” (1959)

A joint Finnish-Soviet fantasy production aimed at a family audience, “The Sampo” is a very loose retelling of some of the tales in the Finnish national epic Kalevala. In the original stories, the aged bard and poet Väinämöinen is the major character but here becomes a support character with scattered screen time here and there. The film’s focus falls on the fortunes of the hunter Lemminkäinen (Andris Oshin) and the blacksmith Ilmarinen (Ivan Voronov) as they battle the evil witch Louhi of the North Country (Pohjola). The trouble starts when Louhi (Anna Oroshko), greedy for personal wealth, decides she wants a sampo made. The only person in the world with the knowledge and skill to make a sampo, a magical object that can dispense endless riches, is Ilmarinen so Louhi contrives a scheme to force him to come to her. She kidnaps his beautiful young sister Annikki (Eve Kivi) and holds her prisoner; the news soon reaches Ilmarinen. Lemminkäinen has been wooing Annikki so he and Ilmarinen leave their community Kaleva and travel together to Pohjola to rescue Annikki. Louhi demands ransom in the form of the sampo and another arduous task from both men so they oblige and eventually Annikki is released to go back home with them.

Sounds all very straightforward but some complications arise: Lemminkäinen decides Louhi can’t be allowed to keep the sampo all to herself so he swims back to the witch’s cave hideout while Ilmarinen and Annikki continue home. Lemminkäine ‘s rash actions endanger himself and his entire community in Kaleva as Louhi swears vengeance on him and tries to destroy his people by stealing the sun. Väinämöinen (Urho Somersalmi), portrayed as the community’s leader, leads his people in a cooperative effort to fight Louhi and her army of sorcerers. Unfortunately for everyone, the sampo itself ends up destroyed, its parts scattered throughout the world, and Lemminkainen is only able to retrieve a small part for Kaleva.

Viewers may quibble that a TV series with hour-long episodes would have better suited Kalevala with its different stories and their subplots: the great Indian epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were successfully televised as ongoing TV series by India’s public broadcaster Doordarshan in the 1980’s at a time when that country was much less wealthy than it is now and the special effects needed for both shows must have been a massive and hugely expensive undertaking. As it is, “The Sampo” is a series of little episodes in an overarching story about ambition and greed and the disasters they cause along with the value of cooperative effort in overcoming a great enemy. There is some redemption as well. At least the moral messages that appear compensate for the patchy good-versus-evil plot which doesn’t do justice to the epic’s complexity and dark characters. Some original Kalevala stories are worked into the movie but in a way that drains them of their power and prevents them from enriching the plot and its characters: to take one example, the subplot in which Lemminkäinen’s mother (Ada Voitsik) rescues her son and brings him back to life is so whitewashed from its original that a lesson about effort and sacrifice is precluded and so the subplot becomes unnecessary. One story that unfortunately didn’t find its way into the film is Louhi’s all-out showdown with Väinämöinen, Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen in the boat carrying the sampo; the script-writers substituted two weak episodes separating the fight and the sampo’s destruction.

The film’s main asset is its special effects: they may look cheap and some are cheesy but they’re right for the job and aren’t excessive for their scenes. (Now that would be cheesy!) Ilmarinen’s separate creations of a horse and boat from fire and metal are suitably awe-inspiring and his sampo, a slightly hokey creation of coloured crystal, actually gains credibility as a wealth generator and then as a good luck charm once in pieces. Scenes in which Kaleva is cursed with everlasting blizzard and winter and in which some unfortunate people are covered over with snow are commendable. On the other hand some effects are quite comic and probably unnecessary: the twirling bear shot merely looks weird and creepy and the scenes with a talking birch tree are laughable.

Speaking of trees, yours truly finds the main characters Ilmarinen and Lemminkäinen as solid, expressive and unyielding as wood: they don’t so much talk to each other and to others as declaim their sentences. Lemminkäinen dares just about anything and everything to knock him over – his face is frozen into expressions of resolution of varying degrees – and even death doesn’t wipe that mask off his visage. Annikki is just a McGuffin figure to get Lemminkäinen and Ilmarinen up and running to Pohjola to meet the witch. The only worthy acting (maybe over-acting) comes from Oroshko who clearly relishes playing Louhi. Believe it or not, Oroshko is female in spite of her character’s very mannish appearance with overgrown eyebrows. Some of Louhi’s sorcerers offer performances to match Oroshko in overdone drama, especially when they think of the sampo and say in wonder: “…. sampo! …” and get that dazed faraway look in their eyes, but the camera doesn’t pay much attention to these individuals.

The film looks very beautiful and colourful in a way that might remind viewers of a certain age of Walt Disney nature documentaries of the 1950s – 60s; wherever the opportunity beckons, the camera lavishes its gaze on the silvery forests, the lakes and rivers, and general Finnish countryside scenery. The impression is of serenity and tranquillity in the dark and still birch trees. Opening scenes in the movie show rural people at work cutting down trees to clear the land for planting crops. Once the focus is on Lemminkainen and Ilmarinen journeying to Pohjala to save Annikki, the film pays no more attention to portraying rural Finnish life other than showing how men and women dress and how the interiors of their houses might appear. Unfortunately being a good-looking fantasy film isn’t enough: a strong plot, lots of adventure, memorable characters tested and matured by adversity, and interactions with conflict – and the original Kalevala has plenty of these! – are just lacking here.

Pilot Pirx’s Inquest: thoughtful low-budget sci-fi film about how humans and other intelligent beings can co-exist

Marek Pestrak, “Pilot Pirx’s Inquest” / “Test Pilota Pirxa” / “Doznanie Pilota Pirksa” (1979)

A joint Polish-Estonian production, this low-budget movie about a space trip that nearly ends in tragedy examines the theme of how humans and human-like robots might co-exist if the robots, made to serve humans, realised they were superior to their masters in some ways. A corporation that manufactures intelligent androids is keen to begin mass production but meets resistance from the public and governments. It is proposed that a small crew of humans and androids be sent on a mission to place two probes in the rings of Saturn: a simple enough job but the purpose of the mission is to observe the behaviours and interactions between the humans and robots. Commander Pirx (Sergei Desnitski) is selected to head the mission. He refuses at first but changes his mind and accepts the role after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. During the mission, some members of the crew including crew physician Tom Novak (Alexander Kaidanovski) confide in him and reveal their identities as either human or robot and insinuate that other members may not be human. Pirx isn’t sure who’s telling the truth and starts feeling a little paranoid about what’s happening around him on the ship Goliath. Still he’s determined to find out who is human and who is not, figuring that knowing who is which is critical to the mission’s success. In the meantime a rogue member of the crew carries out small acts of sabotage on the ship and sends Pirx a recorded warning and threat which Pirx plays. When it’s time to insert the probes, the Goliath goes wildly off course through the ring belt, the ship is forced to accelerate suddenly and the humans on board face death from being turned into schnitzels from the incredible G-forces the Goliath encounters.

The special effects are uneven and often elementary to the extent of appearing cartoonish but they are adequate for the purposes of the film which gives the impression of being “hard science fiction” with its emphasis on scientific realism. There are just enough effects to make the society credible as scientifically and technologically advanced and at the same time a society we can recognise as ours. It’s as if the movie takes place in an alternate 1970s where the spending priorities of governments and corporations were different enough that some areas of robotics and cybernetics developed faster than they did in our 197os, and so the parallel Earth got androids and we didn’t. The world in “Test Pilota Pirxa” otherwise looks no different than what ours looked like over thirty years ago and the film itself now appears as a fictional historical drama.

The acting is low-key and straight with Desnitski dominating the bulk of the movie’s scenes. He underplays his role as do all the other actors in a film heavy with dialogue whose sole purpose is to push the plot and explore the human-versus-robot theme. As Novak who reveals his robot identity early on, Kaidanovski impresses in a minimalist, subdued way as a being who understands little of human nature and its ways yet is keen to help Desnitski. Interestingly his character and another robot voice their hope that Desnitski’s opinion of robots will be negative so that their makers can’t go ahead with mass production, otherwise the robots that already exist will lose their individual identities and won’t be able to exult in their special abilities which help form those identities. No point in being an Übermensch if you have so many millions of clones like you who can do the same things you can do; you would just feel like … well, you would just feel like yet another machine-cog in a vast network of machine-cogs.

The music soundtrack by famous Estonian holy minimalist composer Arvo Part is not impressive: it’s a mix of conventional orchestral formal compositional music, spider-like organ music that almost sounds a little electronic and some near-futuristic percussion rhythms and beats.

The plot’s resolution suggests that co-existence between humans and robots will always be ambivalent. Trying to second-guess what robots might be thinking and why they might do certain things and not others will be a major human preoccupation. As long as human and robot natures are kept separate with humans allowed to be irrational and robots restricted to acting logically and rationally, humans will always be able to control robots. Not a very satisfactory conclusion to reach; how human and robot natures will remain separate is never explained. The relationship between humans and technology already is a dynamic one in which technological advances and breakthroughs force us to change and re-evaluate our reliance and dependence on machines constantly so the same would be expected of human and android interactions.

The film can be slow and doesn’t really start until halfway through once the Goliath blasts off. The early half of “Test Pilota Pirxa” plays a little like a straight spy thriller. Once we’re in space and Desnitski begins questioning the crew, the paranoia and the tension start to increase. The climax isn’t especially dramatic and no, it doesn’t actually come when the rogue member’s identity is revealed and he meets a just punishment – it comes much later after Pirx’s court case, in which he is prosecuted for having endangered his crew during the mission, ends.

As is, “Test Pilota Pirxa” could have done better in its investigation of human-android interaction and whether humans and androids can live together amicably. It takes for granted that robots will always be logical and there will be large-scale human resistance towards them; this attitude wouldn’t necessarily exist in real life. Much depends on what the robots are designed to do and how generalised or specialised we humans want them to be. At least the film treats its audiences as intelligent and able to consider its concepts. The ambiguous conclusion suggests a reluctance on the film-makers’ part to commit to a definite opinion as to whether co-existence is possible and if so, can be successful; what could be implied instead is a plea for tolerance and a “live and let live” attitude.

 

Dead Snow: a mishmash of previous zombie movie plot twist and character stereotypes

Tommy Wirkola, “Dead Snow” (2009)

For laughs, gore and stunning mountain scenery you can’t go past zombie comedy flick “Dead Snow” but there isn’t much else to sustain the movie. The plot revolves around a group of university students going to a remote mountain cabin in northern Norway for skiing, snowboarding and sexy-time fun during the Easter holiday break. The place is so remote they have to leave their cars at the bottom of the mountain and walk with their luggage to the cabin while one of their number, Vegard (Lasse Valdal), leads the way on a snowmobile. The cabin happens to belong to his girlfriend Sara (Ane Dahl Torp) who’s making her own way there via cross-country skiing. On their first night in the cabin the kids are visited by a local ranger (Bjørn Sundquist) who lectures them on the area’s recent history: during World War II, a paramilitary death squad of several hundred Nazi German soldiers stationed in the mountains to intercept Russian-British trade and communications treated locals so badly that the Norwegians rose up against the occupiers and massacred as many as they could; the remaining soldiers fled into remote parts and were never seen again. The ranger then goes on his way and the youngsters never see him again. After that night, strange things start happening: Sara never turns up so Vegard goes off to search for her and one of the students, Chris (Jenny Skavlan), disappears after using the out-house the following evening. Next thing you know, the students hear groaning and grunting noises outside the cabin, windows are smashed inwards and the youngsters realise they’re besieged by … undead Nazi German soldiers!

At least the mountain locations and forests are beautiful and the cinematography captures the sharp look of the bright blue skies and jaw-dropping cliffs and rocky outcrops where most of the action occurs in the second half of the film. The actors look the part of a stereotyped cast: blonde bubble-headed babe Liv (Evi Kasseth Røsten), brainy brunette Hanna (Charlotte Frogner) with her hair in dreadlocks, Erlend (Jeppe Laursen) the chubby film buff, nerdy Martin (Vegar Hoel) who wears glasses, the physically attractive and natural leader of the group Vegard and another fellow, Roy (Stig Frode Henriksen); they act like stereotypes as well so Liv plays damsel in distress and Hanna tries to get help for herself and the others. Vegard singlehandedly fights off several zombies with ingenuity and his snowmobile and he even does his own running repairs, Terminator-style, with sewing needle, thread and duct tape – just don’t ask which part of himself he stitches up. Martin and Roy form a comedy duo who accidentally burn down the cabin with Molotov cocktails but then redeem themselves with a chainsaw and hammer against an army of zombies. For their part the zombies act like typical zombies of their post-“28 Days Later” generation: they run fast, they bite hard, they don’t think deeply and they do as they’re ordered by head zombie and former Einsatzgruppen leader Herzog.

The plot falls to pieces even before the zombies gatecrash the kids’ party:  why or how the German soldiers became zombies in the first place and their reverence for the gold and silver treasures the students find hidden in their cabin that they’d chase the youngsters for them, are never explained in the film. You’d think the script-writers might draw on Norwegian lore about the treasures having some kind of evil Lord-of-the-Ring or Nibelungenlied radioactive influence on the soldiers, turning their human cells and metabolism into undead zombie cells and metabolism. There would then be a lesson, however crude it be, we mortals could learn about the dangers of greed and stealing occult jewels of non-human manufacture whose powers are dangerous and not to be underestimated. Perhaps there’d even be a backstory about how Hitler ordered the Nazis to come to this remote mountain territory precisely to find this forbidden treasure that could bestow unbelievable power on the German armed forces and enable them to conquer and control Europe. The power would be real enough but the consequences of messing with it for selfish material interest would be severe. Possibly with the release of the sequel “Dead Snow 2”, we’ll learn more about Standartenführer Herzog and his soldiers and how they were transformed into the undead.

Though this is a low-budget slapstick horror film that milks previous zombie horror films for character and plot twist stereotypes, there are some artistic moments here, the major highlight being a scene in which the zombies are eviscerating one of the students through a blocked and blurred camera lens that takes the victim’s point of view. The special effects look well done and though the body count is high the killing and hacking aren’t exaggerated. The zombies look menacing and horrific with grey corpse faces.

Shame then that such a good-looking film with an interesting premise and stunning mountain landscape backgrounds doesn’t exploit its source material to make the plot more credible and the monsters more fearsome. Local Norwegian legends about dwarves making and hiding hoards of gold and precious jewels in the mountains combined with Nazi Germany’s obsession with the occult and mastering its secrets to obtain power and territory could have provided much creative stimulation for a story in which zombified Nazi soldiers become a strikeforce for unknown malevolent forces to threaten the world. Of course a small budget can cramp the creative ambitions and scope of the script but in the case of “Dead Snow”, all that’s needed is a more credible explanation for how the soldiers came to be what they are. The movie could have broken with the usual horror movie conventions about what zombies can and can’t do and allowed them to speak and remember their history. The significance of the treasure the students find in their cabin becomes an important part of the plot. Now that would be a lecture worth listening to.

Frostbiten: comedy/horror vampire story lacking in teeth

Anders Banke, “Frostbiten” (2006)

‘Tis a Swedish vampire movie that begins with a shot of the night sky against which light snow is seen falling softly but all other resemblance to that other Swedish vampire movie about two children in a dreary Stockholm apartment block ends there. Action switches instead to an abandoned farmhouse in Ukraine, 1944, where four Swedish soldiers, fighting as members in a unit in the Wehrmacht, take refuge after narrowly surviving a shoot-out. What they find there in the farmhouse proves far more deadly than several divisions of the Red Army and just one man, Gerhard Beckert (Per Löfberg) barely escapes – or does he really?

Cut to 60 years later and Beckert (now Carl-Åke Eriksson) is a geneticist in a hospital in a city in northern Sweden; he is working on a vaccine for a mysterious virus and his guinea pig is a young woman who has been comatose for a year. Into this environment arrives Dr Annika Wallén (Petra Nielsen) who’s been keen to work with Beckert for a long time. Her daughter Saga (Grete Havneskold) tries to adjust to her new high school and social set which is dominated by Goth girl Vega (Emma T Aberg). Vega invites Saga to attend a party which will include among its guests various medical students taught by Beckert among others; students like Sebastian (Jonas Karlstrom) who, seeing the red pills Beckert feeds the comatose patient, swipes them for the party. Those viewers well-versed in vampire film lore will know straightaway what those little red balls will do to Sebastian and the other party-goers (save Saga) and during the evening when the party is in full swing with people getting drunk and high on all kinds of recreational designer drugs, behold, kids start clawing and necking one another, mayhem and trashing of furniture and the party venue follow, and the neighbours frantically phone the police to complain about the kids’ monkey antics. While the police have their hands full dealing with real-live teenage / young adult ghouls and party-pooper Saga tries to fend off Vega’s sudden interest in her (or in necking her rather), mum Annika discovers Beckert’s secret and the real aims of his experiment and tries valiantly to stop him from going further with it.

Intended as a spoof and homage to schlocky comedy /horror vampire movies of the past (demonstrated in the way one part of the plot “scrolls” to another plot strand), the movie is basically about a stock mad-scientist character trying to keep his life-work of perfecting vampires as Ubermensch replacements for real humans under wraps, continually refining his experiment until he believes it ready to be unleashed in its full glory, only for other people to thwart his personal ambitions and unwittingly release the vampire plague into the outside world. Along the way, characters and situations are milked for laughs as well as suspense, and an ingenious use for garden gnomes is discovered, and once Beckert is out of the way and the police find themselves outnumbered by kids who can resist capsicum spray and tasers, the comedy /horror story has run out of steam and the movie has the good grace to get off the screen pronto.

The special effects used are very good and the sub-polar background with the long dark winter night and need for people to gather in groups provides the right environment for a vampire plague to take place. Pity that a Christmas theme is not used here for extra laughs and horror! The acting is just enough to maintain some credibility and there’s not too much over-acting though the camera lingers a little too long over howling Sebastian and blood-lusting Vega once they are fully undead. The best scenes for suspense, mood and substance are the early wartime scenes in which the soldiers first encounter the dormant vampire enemy. Unfortunately after the special effects and cinematography, there mustn’t have been much money left over to hire a decent script-writer as the story lacks a climax and stops in mid-flight. Viewers are left wondering what will happen to Annika and Saga and whether they will ever see each other again after the end credits start rolling. The sub-polar environment and its night that lasts months are nothing more than a background over which the plot chugs along until it loses blood and bite.

Corruption, authoritarianism, oppression of women and intolerance are a hidden presence in “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages”

Benjamin Christensen, “Häxan: Witchcraft through the Ages” (1922)

Intended as a study on how superstition and lack of knowledge about mental illness could have led to the witch-hunt craze and persecutions in Europe during the period from the 1500’s to the mid-1700’s, this Danish / Swedish co-production is a remarkable silent film that mixes a documentary style with fictional enactments of mediaeval beliefs about witches and how a persecution of someone accused of witchcraft might have proceeded and led to more people being accused and charged of being witches. All the way through “Häxan …” is a very detailed, earnest approach that assumes its audience knows little about witches but is intelligent enough to absorb and understand the information presented here. Although the film deals with a topic that might be assumed to interest only historians studying European culture of the time mentioned above, aspects of the witch-hunt are sure to resonate with modern audiences: in particular, the use of torture to extract confessions, usually false, from people accused of witchcraft who would then implicate other people around them, often as a way of avenging themselves, might strike people as disturbingly similar to the methods used by the US and its allies to prosecute its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other parts of the world.

The film splits into four parts, all of them highly informative if perhaps heavy-handed with an attention level bordering on obsessive and fetishistic. The first part deals with ancient and mediaeval cosmologies and how these gave rise to beliefs in Heaven, Hell and the existence of Satan and devils. This can be dry and didactic with little pointers on the screen demonstrating the obvious on animated diagrams, reproductions of naive drawings and Christensen’s own reconstructions, and this might well be the point at which most people will tune out. Leaving of course those with an interest in the history of witch-hunts to stick out the rest of the movie where the real rewards lie. The second part consists of a series of fictional vignettes, some very comical and slapstick, of witches concocting love potions, riding brooms to celebrate their sabbat or dreaming of meeting the Devil. The special effects and animation used look primitive to modern eyes but are very effective in making coins come alive or creating the impression of an army of witches in flight.

A mini-movie in which a beggar woman is accused of having bewitched a printer and causing him to die by the women in his family constitutes the third part which makes up the bulk of “Häxan …”. Much of this drama involves the woman being forced under torture by monks to confess her “crime”. The most sinister aspects of this section illustrate how readily other innocent people can be dragged into a witch-hunt panic: in one scene, a monk has sexual fantasies about the printer’s wife so the woman ends up charged with having bewitched him. The film concludes by showing parallels between the witch-hunts of the past and modern practices in dealing with mental illness and phenomena such as mass hysteria and challenges us as viewers to consider whether we are just as prone as people were in the past to fall prey to prejudices and beliefs about the nature of certain mental phenomena like somnambulism and hallucinations that led to so many people being persecuted and killed as witches.

In spite of its broad range, the film flows fairly well from one part to the next which attests to Christensen’s concept and careful construction of it as a self-sufficient whole. The actual joins can be clumsy (especially between the last two parts) but all four parts connect through common themes in the subject areas of witchcraft and demonology and of the social attitudes towards witches and other outsiders. Production values look rudimentary and in some scenes the lighting is poor or the props and sets look the same in spite of the changed context. All the acting was done by amateurs and Christensen himself plays the part of the Devil so viewers shouldn’t expect much out of the cast used; it’s enough to say the actors look and act naturally in a period of film history where professional acting could be exaggerated and look hammy. Close-ups of actors’ faces invite sympathy from viewers; when the same filming method is also applied to various torture implements and how they are applied, the effect on viewers might be unsettling. That iron collar with the spikes pointing inwards certainly doesn’t look comfortable!

Depictions of the Devil and celebrations of the witches’ sabbat are lurid and there’s always the possibility the scenes were played up as much to titillate audiences in a po-faced way as to educate them. Some nudity is shown and witches are shown kissing the Devil’s bum and eating food obtained from corpses. What’s missing from these scenes and others which would have enriched the documentary and made it more relevant to the general public then and now is some historical context: the actions as portrayed visually and as described in the intertitles are a satire on Christian ritual and the practice of Holy Communion or Mass, and might suggest that, in many parts of Europe during the height of the witch-hunting craze, Christianity or its public face at least was resisted by many people for various reasons. After all, contrary to popular belief, the European witch-hunts didn’t actually take place during “mediaeval times”: they actually took place in a period that overlaps with the spread of the Renaissance in Europe outside Italy, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the rise of nation states like England, Spain, France, Sweden, Russia and the Netherlands and their empires in other parts of the world, and the beginnings of the Age of Enlightenment. The implication is that intolerance and authoritarian behaviour in Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity increased with the rise of learning and alternative opinions that might have threatened the power of the clergy.

A sub-text of women suffering oppression within male-dominated structures and institutions in society, the results of which manifest in peculiar behaviour that might be interpreted as witchcraft practice, is present in “Häxan …” though whether Christensen was aware of this sub-text is another thing. Possibly he was but this was a touchy topic that was outside the scope of his research. At the time, psychology was still a new science and Sigmund Freud was still developing his theories of psychoanalysis. Certainly the fourth part of the film in which nuns are afflicted with a contagious dancing hysteria and young troubled women are diagnosed by male physicians as having hysteria suggests very strongly that incidents of mental illness in individuals and groups might have a cultural or social origin.  Had Christensen made his film at a later date, most likely he would have tried to incorporate some psychological theory and study to strengthen his argument about mental illness being a basis for suspicion of witchcraft and he might even address the question of why more women than men were persecuted as witches. There are also several scenes in the film showing monks and abbots denying their faults by placing the blame for them on women so there is an issue of corruption within the established Christian churches that Christensen could have addressed openly but most likely dared not.

The film can be slow in parts and the drama of the beggar woman and her accusers gets cut off just as it becomes really interesting. The visuals are perhaps the best part of the film and the last section that posits mental illness as a possible explanation for behaviour that got women in trouble as witches is interesting though limited in its scope. Christensen as a tubby Devil is laughable – WTF was he thinking when he took on that role? was he trying to make the Devil into something comic? – and scenes of the witches celebrating sabbat bring into question his aims in making the documentary: did Christensen just intend “Häxan …” as a documentary or could he have been striving for something else beyond? The film as is suggests that the art and creativity of movie-making could have gone far beyond both strictly fact-based documentary and the visual story-telling typical of most feature films that are taken for granted today: “Häxan …” is at once fact and fiction, and is more than the sum of two parts.

The Man without a Past: heart-warming comedy about need for “identity” to survive in modern society

Aki Kaurismäki, “The Man without a Past” (2002)

A heart-warming comedy about a man who is beaten up and left for dead but survives only to find he has no memory of his name or of his previous life, “The Man without a Past” is a showcase of Finnish stoicism, wry deadpan humour and eccentricity beneath an apparently conformist veneer. The unnamed everyman hero, played by Markku Peltola, has just got off a train with a large case and goes to sit in a city park. He dozes off and while asleep, is attacked and viciously beaten by thugs who take his wallet. The victim, whom we’ll call M, is taken to hospital where the medical staff pronounce him dead and leave him alone in bed. At that point, M springs up and leaves the hospital, bandaged face and all, and ventures out into the city streets and along the harbour front where he is found by two boys. They take him home which turns out to be an old shipping container where they and their parents have had to live while waiting to join the queue for public housing. So begins the new life of M among a community of homeless city people in a world that operates under the radar of mainstream society and visited only by charities like the Salvation Army, one of whose members, Irma (Kati Ouitnen), forms a romantic relationship with M.

The visual style of the film looks very clear and clean, almost innocent even; it shows a world where everything is taken at face value and any search for meaning or logic to the things that destiny dishes out to you is fruitless. The absurdism of M’s world is reflected in his encounters with representatives of mainstream society: the office manager at the construction site where M tries to apply for work tells him he can’t be paid in cash but must have a bank account so the banks can keep tabs on his spending; the bank clerk tells him he can have a Swiss bank account with just a number but he must still give his name and address details; the bank robber shoots out the CCTV camera (which wasn’t working anyway) but steals money only from his own account; and the police inspector and the lawyer appointed to defend M pull out large tomes, flip thin pages and argue over detailed technical aspects and exemptions to the law that requires M to be detained as a vagrant or possible trouble-maker. The comedy arising from these incidents is very dry and poker-faced, slightly sinister and satirical, and may say something pointed and terse about the nature of bureaucracy in Finland or bureaucracy generally.

Characters as directed have a calm, even slightly robotic, nature to them with deadpan voices and facial expressions. People accept disappointment and disaster stoically and if and when good luck comes to them, their reaction is hardly more expressive. What dialogue there is, is in the form of speeches or statements of fact; rarely do people express what and how they feel. Even in intimate scenes between M and Irma, the emotion tends to be sensed in the mood of the scene and in the characters’ very minimal body language; there is a kissing scene but the camera doesn’t hold it for long and the actions are very matter-of-fact. The scene in which M is reunited with his wife, who informs him of the divorce while he was missing, and meets her new beau is amazingly (though logical given the kind of universe the film operates in) calm and civilised; the two men debate whether they should get upset and punch each other’s lights out, then make their decision, shake hands and depart on friendly terms. Perhaps the measure of acting skill lies in actors’ ability not to crack up or smirk while delivering funny lines in comic situations and in this, the whole cast including two small boys and a dog passes the test with ease.

Some viewers might see a strong if pedantic Christian message in the film: among other things, Irma persuades M to go back to his wife even though M doesn’t remember the woman and Irma herself would become a lonely singleton again. Those passages in the movie that deal with Salvation Army characters fall in line with the absurdist nature of the universe presented: the SA members on the whole act very much like the secular characters in the film, winking at ideas and practices that possibly conflict with SA ideals and beliefs but which do no harm to others or bring non-believers into the SA fold. Scenes in which M persuades the SA musicians to update their repertoire of songs to include more rock and pop standards and to use electric guitars and a full drum-kit are droll and touching. The music in “The Man …” is very eclectic and whimsical, going from Christian hymns to rockabilly, and though the eclecticism of music choice and the result might seem weird to people outside Finland, as a proud owner of a stack of Finnish rock and pop albums ranging from electronic folk pop to black metal, I can vouch for the music soundtrack being the kind of creature Finnish society and culture accept as within the range of normal music.

The message that most viewers will go away with is that life continually goes forward and you do what you can to keep going in the face of official indifference but there is a deeper, perhaps more sinister theme. In a way, “The Man …” is a sad film: it emphasises that without an official identity, people don’t exist. M is forced by circumstances to make a new life for himself in an underground community that accepts him with no hesitation and whose values make it more alive than mainstream society where you are “alive” only because you have a name, a social security number or ongoing credit card transactions that your bank can trace. In the film, everything becomes inverted to reflect the contrast between the two societies: cold becomes warm, lack of outward emotion demonstrates inner warmth and Hannibal the fierce guardian dog is really just a friendly pooch. By the same token, outward warmth and expressiveness mask inner cold and inhumanity. Venturing into mainstream society in order to get a job and earn money to pay his rent for his own shipping container home, M falls into a world more completely Kafkaesque than anything the famous Czech writer wrote.

Perhaps not a film for everyone, and not very realistic, but in its modest way this is a very optimistic film of hope and salvation in which a character undergoes a major change and rediscovers life and humanity.

Brink of Life: sympathetic and unromantic 1950’s investigation of pregnancy and childbirth

Ingmar Bergman, “Brink of Life” (1958)

Even in these supposedly more “liberal” times when no topic seems taboo to speak about openly, a director, male or female, would need to be very brave to tackle the subject of childbirth, miscarriage, unwanted pregnancy and stillbirth in the same feature film. Imagine then that over half a century ago, when it was rare for Hollywood even to show a married couple in bed together, a director did precisely just that: make a movie about childbirth and pregnancy that didn’t romanticise the phenomena but instead portrayed them as painful and ghastly and part of human suffering. The film is “Brink of Life” and it was made by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, following soon after he made “The Seventh Seal” and “Wild Strawberries

Revolving around three women patients thrown together in a room in a maternity hospital, the movie has an ordinary look and its focus is small and intimate: the camera limits itself to the three women’s ward, the corridor immediately outside and a few other rooms. The entire film hangs on the performances of the actors playing the three women Cecelia (Ingrid Thulin), Stina (Eva Dahlbeck) and Hjordis (Bibi Andersson); fortunately all three actors rise to the challenge of playing characters undergoing their own personal crises connected with their pregnancies and all give outstanding performances. Cecelia has a miscarriage and tries to explain it away as evidence of her husband’s lack of love for her and the unborn child: she decides that they should get a divorce. Hjordis is a young unmarried girl rejected by her lover for falling pregnant; having had an abortion before, she now wants to keep the baby but is frightened that her parents will turn her away. Stina is looking forward to seeing her new baby and when her husband (Max von Sydow) visits, they make plans about what cot the child will sleep in. The birth turns out to be difficult and ends badly; the doctors are unable to explain why and how it went wrong

Each of the lead actors makes the most of her role in one scene or a few: Thulin in particular gives a wrenching performance early on when, delirious from the anaesthetic, she raves to Nurse Brita (Barbro Hiort af Ornas) about the lack of love in her marriage, her own personal inadequacies and how these affected the pregnancy. The camera focusses closely on Thulin’s face, in intense psychological pain, and, like the nurse, the viewer feels trapped yet compelled to listen. Dahlbeck has her moment when Stina goes into labour and suffers pain and panic as the baby gets stuck; the acting looks so realistic and is heart-rending to watch as doctors and nurses scurry about helplessly. Andersson perhaps steals the film from Thulin and Dahlbeck in her portrayal of Hjordis: young and not a little rebellious, yet unsure about her future and the baby’s, she has no monologues but her telephone scenes and the dialogues she has with Cecelia, Nurse Brita and a counsellor reveal a great deal about Hjordis’s background and inner turmoil about her relationships with her lover and family.

Of the support cast, Hiort af Ornas as Nurse Brita is excellent, having to be confidant to the patients in her charge as well as the authoritative head nurse giving orders, yet never really succeeding in giving the patients the psychological comfort they need and just mouthing platitudes about the joys of motherhood. Erland Josephsson, playing Cecelia’s husband, makes the most of his limited time portraying a man completely out of his depth in trying to help his wife come to terms with her miscarriage. Generally all male characters in “Brink of Life” seem self-centred and lack understanding and sympathy for the psychological and emotional issues that arise for women experiencing pain and uncertainty in a major life-changing event; they approach such problems with rationalistic views or science and technology which in the movie end up failing them. The nurses, Nurse Brita included, go about their duties quietly and efficiently but always defer to the men and their science. The hospital is revealed as remote and clinical in its culture, its staff narrowly focussed on getting results and churning through patients and babies: it’s, well, an inhospitable place. Towards the film’s end, Inga Landgre nearly sweeps away the other female actors’ thunder in a very brief but impressively forceful appearance as sister-in-law to Cecilia, urging her to give her marriage another chance

Limited to a small set of rooms, the film has a trapped, claustrophobic quality; the crying of newborn babies and the patients’ own limited movements reinforce the claustrophobia. The small scale of the movie is such that it begins with Cecelia being admitted to hospital and, in a terrifying scene, stranded in a room by herself while her foetus dies; the movie ends with Hjordis discharging herself from hospital, separating from the other two women with whom she has shared several details about herself so viewers never know if Cecilia and her husband will reconcile, or how Stina will react to news of her baby’s death. The film sometimes has the look of a play – if it had been made in the present day, it might be expected to look more like a documentary taking place in an actual hospital with improvised acting – and most of the acting does have a staged quality. Some of the dialogue that Hjordis has in expressing her ambivalence about pregnancy and looking after a baby to Nurse Brita touches on issues of human suffering which may strike some viewers as rather deep and intense for a young girl of a working-class background to express. The very ordinary, almost sterile look of the film may not win it any technical accolades but it does concentrate the attention on the actors and their lean dialogue

The premise of throwing together three women representing different social classes in the one ward hardly seems credible and the plot doesn’t explore the women’s social differences and how these might influence their attitudes to pregnancy and childbirth, and to one another. Hjordis’s social background helps to round out her character and fears about her pregnancy and what she believes will be her family’s reaction to the unexpected pregnancy but the other two women’s backgrounds seem irrelevant to their character development and the plot’s workings. At least the hospital staff treat the three women equally (as in equally coldly and unsympathetically) regardless of their social class. The film’s overall message seems to be that human existence can be grim, people don’t always live up to their potential as full human beings and provide the support women and babies need, and mothers must make the best of whatever difficult situations they find themselves in: a fairly trite message.

In spite of its limitations, “Brink of Life” is worthwhile watching for the performances given and for a complex and sympathetic view of pregnancy and childbirth in a context that should give care and support to women who need both but treats pregnancy and childbirth as strictly technical medical conditions.

Metropia: dystopian science fiction animated film offers little that’s fresh

Tarik Saleh, “Metropia” (2009)

Set in a future post-apocalyptic Europe in 2024, where all underground train networks in the different countries have been unified in one giant Metro system, “Metropia” is a dark dystopian animated spy / noir film that explores paranoia, mind control through an ingenious nanotechnology and secret corporation conspiracies to dominate society and profit from exploiting its citizens through consumer products and entertainment. The type of animation used is a computerised photomontage technique that exaggerates characters’ heads and faces over their bodies. Faces have minimal expressions, eyes barely blink and even lips barely move when speaking. One such affected character is typical worker bee Roger Olsson (voiced by Vince Gallo) who works in a call centre: he’s a frail, skinny guy with a young, smooth face whose main emotion is worry, indicated by slight creases in his forehead and eyebrows. He certainly has reason to frown as he believes society is somehow against him, to the extent that he’d rather cycle every day between his dreary, grey workplace and his equally dreary, rundown apartment that he shares with his girlfriend, than catch the trains. His paranoia increases when he starts hearing strange voices in his head and he struggles between dismissing them as delusions and wondering if they are in fact real. One day his bike is stolen so he has to use the metro and while travelling down the escalator to the platforms, he spies a beautiful blonde woman (voice: Juliette Lewis) who he recognises as the actor spruiking a brand of shampoo made and marketed by the giant Trexx Corporation which rules all of Europe. He decides to follow the woman on the trains, the woman becomes aware of his presence but allows him to follow her …

So begins an odyssey through a huge, grimy underground labyrinth of tunnels and corporation secrets, the result of which Roger realises the voices in his head are not only real but have been placed there to govern his thoughts and actions. The conspiracy is for real and the film spends its leisurely time detailing it: the plot appears to be complicated but by the end of the film, it’s not so convoluted after all and even has a little ingenious twist that absolves Roger of any crime he might have committed. Due perhaps to the limitations of the animation technique, there isn’t a lot of physical action: characters walk when perhaps they should run or jump and much of the darkness and shadowy quality of the film exists to cover over the animation problems, especially where a character might look unrealistic doing something. The focus is on close-ups of characters’ faces, eyes and expressions so viewers are likely to be disappointed that people’s facial and mouth movements turn out to be so minimal. I wonder why the particular animation method, in which photos of real people were taken and then manipulated by computer, is used here: with the emphasis thrown onto characters’ faces, together with the unrelenting bleakness of their environment, dialogue becomes important in pushing the plot but because it is about a conspiracy, characters must speak obliquely, dish out information in dollops and maintain poker-faces throughout. Viewers have to work out what is actually being said, if it’s a clue to the mystery, if it gives any background to Roger and Nina the blonde woman. The effect is to distance viewers from feeling any sympathy for these two characters who remain resolutely one-dimensional as they descend deeper into the conspiracy and get closer to its core.

The environment in which they move in is strange and not something viewers can relate to: Europe has always been distinctive for its man-made environments which imply large bustling, vibrant crowds, a deep history and distinctive cultures. The Europe of “Metropia”, even its Paris, seems mostly abandoned by people and bare of any culture except the very kitsch. Admittedly most activity takes place at night or in underground places where few people go anyway but viewers would expect that even there, Roger would meet various beggars living in and around the metro networks who in themselves would be a comment and a criticism of the society that produced them.

Aside from the animation which can be awe-inspiring, especially in scenes where the “camera” pulls back to show scenes of the devastated urban environment or the explosions that occur at the Trexx Corporation offices, the film sticks to a spy / noir story type. There’s the mysterious blonde woman with hidden secrets who befriends Roger; Roger is attacked by security guard thugs at the start of his investigations; a minor character (Alexander Skarsgård) who passes on some useful information to Roger and warns him of danger ends up dying violently; and there are two, maybe even three, climaxes in the film coming fairly close together. What could have been the film’s real strength if director Tarik Saleh had thought to emphasise it, is that Roger turns out to be a pawn in a banal family dispute, the nature of which is never clear but is sure to have major political and social consequences. The Corporation is a virtual monarchy and, like all monarchies, subject to family intrigues and disloyalties: the CEO Ivan Bahn (Udo Kier) and his right-hand man Parker (Stellan Skarsgård), both at the centre of the conspiracy, realise too late their most dangerous enemy is Bahn’s child and heir. While Roger might be lucky to pick up his old life again, the Corporation continues on, perhaps initiating new forms of mind control and mass entertainment under the new CEO and not learning any lessons from the power struggle until a new generation of Bahn heirs wants to take over. All that might be needed would be a brief voice-over narration from Roger at the end, wondering at what will happen after Bahn’s gone, whether the Corporation will continue selling its mind control products or allow the people in the united Europe more freedom in their daily lives and some say in their government.

As it is, “Metropia” is an interesting warning at what Europe might become and look like as a poverty-stricken unified state. It offers little that’s new and fresh in plot and genre exploration. The political message is undeveloped at the film’s end but there is always the possibility of a sequel that will pick up where “Metropia” ends and explore the politics of the Corporation. People with experience of living in Communist states are sure to have feelings of deja-vu when they see the buildings where people live and work and the cramped, crumbling apartment where Roger lives. The animation technique does have definite limitations in telling this particular kind of spy / noir story where characters’ expressions and minimal dialogue become more important than the actual plot and could have been augmented with voice-over narration and various visual and audio special effects at particular points in the story to add drama and tension.

Noi the Albino: film about a teenager needing a purpose and anchor in life … like a proper film

Dagur Kari, “Noi the Albino” (2003)

This is a curious film where  little happens and then all of a sudden, something happens and bang … THE END. “Noi the Albino” is a study of teenage frustration and isolation: main character Noi (Tomas Lemarquis) is a 17 year old youth who lives in a tiny village at the foot of a snow-covered cliff overlooking a bay in a remote part of Iceland. Born into a poor family that’s always been down on its luck – he lives with his grandmother Lina (Anna Fridriksdottir) and his taxi-driver father Kiddi (Throstur Leo Gunnarsson) who drifts in and out of his son’s life – Noi has the misfortune to be highly intelligent and non-conformist in a place that’s too small or narrow-minded to make use of his abilities and quirks. His folks can’t provide him with the financial and moral support he needs to advance farther in life so, unmotivated and lacking in direction and guidance, he wags school frequently – frequently enough to end up getting expelled – and spends his time hanging out at a local bookshop, drinking ginger beer at the local petrol station cafe, wandering around the bay shooting at icicles on the hill or frittering time away in his secret room in the cellar under Lina’s house.

A couple of things happen that brighten Noi’s life: the bookshop owner’s daughter Iris (Elin Hansdottir) comes into town to work at the cafe and Lina gives Noi a View-Master gadget which has images of scenes from tropical countries. Iris’s father Oskar (Hjalti Rognvaldsson) warns Noi to stay away from Iris but Noi seeks her out when he can and they end up falling in love. When he’s not with Iris, Noi spends his spare time looking at photographs of the beach and the American man in Aztec regalia on his View-Master, among other photos. On one occasion Noi and Iris break into the local natural museum and hide in a storage place; they see a map of the world and Noi discovers Iceland’s true significance – or rather, insignificance – to the rest of the planet. Iris encourages him to press a button, which he does so, and the Hawaiian islands light up on the map. This sets Noi off, dreaming about leaving his home village with Iris and heading off for sunnier, tropical climes, and trying to achieve that dream, however clumsy and stupid his methods are.

In the meantime, Lina and Kiddi try to find work for Noi – Kiddi gets him a grave-digging job at the local cemetery and Lina consults Gylfi (Kjartan Bjargmundsson), a mechanic and fortune-teller, to tell Noi’s fortune. Noi visits Gylfi who foretells death which Noi finds nonsensical. A series of other incidents follow in which Noi gets in trouble with the police and has to be bailed out by his dad. Retreating into his underground cellar room, Noi discovers his room is shaking, dirt comes pouring out of the ceiling and all the lights go out …

With no plot to speak of, “Noi the Albino” is an impressionistic view of how one teenager, an outsider in his village by an unlucky combination of personality quirks, looks (he has alopecia so he looks like an alien) and family circumstances, tries to cope with the isolation and boredom of his monotonous life with the limited resources he has. There are other local kids like Dabbi about but they are too different from him or their parents don’t want them hanging out with him. The movie gives no indication of the period it’s set in but the lack of computers in the school (the principal has no PC on his desk in one scene) or in the bank (there’s no ATM on the outside) suggest the 1970’s or 1980’s and in those days, without the Internet and the information sources and social networks it offers, loners like Noi really were loners, adrift through no fault of their own in a world cut off from everywhere else and where everyone knows you and has certain (non)expectations of you. As Noi, Lemarquis does well in portraying a youngster brought up to be stoic and unemotional yet troubled and at sea morally, needing help but refusing it when offered by people he happens to dislike. He’s clearly the type who’ll work for something that’s worth achieving but won’t do so just for the sake of being a hard worker and being disciplined: in his own way he diligently pursues Iris though whether he ends up loving her for herself or because he sees her as a life-line is another thing. Some of his problems with others arise because he figures out how to work smarter or takes the initiative to do something creative and different that would actually benefit everyone but upsets more conventional types. To take an example, the maths teacher at school complains about Noi’s use of a cassette-recorder to record his lessons in his absence, even though the arrangement would benefit him as well as Noi as he wouldn’t have to put up with Noi’s insolent behaviour. Noi is the kind of personality difficult to like on a purely social level but spend enough time with him as Iris does and you may find he’s not really a bad guy, he just needs a purpose and anchor in life, a bit more humility and something or someone to show him the way or throw him the opportunity.

The world Noi lives in is portrayed beautifully in a matter-of-fact way: repeated shots of the village, hugging the shoreline of the bay beneath a huge and brooding hill with an almost sheer cliff-face, suggests the awesome and unpredictable power of nature which drastically turns Noi’s life upside-down and fulfills Gylfi’s alarming prediction. The event might appear to some viewers as a theatrical deus ex machina device to get the film really going and finished with a climax that would justify everything that’s gone before but it didn’t seem that way to me, perhaps because I’ve heard a fair amount of Scandinavian and other northern European popular and alternative music and read about their creators, seen a few movies from that part of the world, and read a bit about its history and culture, to know that Icelanders have a perverse sense of humour which they probably developed to cope with their harsh and unpredictable environment, isolation and poverty over the centuries, and they would find an avalanche slamming into Noi’s small world and giving him what he needs blackly ironic. There’s a hint that Noi himself precipitates the event in a small way when he shoots down icicles hanging off the cliff earlier in the film so the climax isn’t entirely an after-thought. Nature affects Noi in other ways too, particularly in his dreary job as grave-digger where he must brave cold winds and dig in unforgiving permafrost. The conclusion which brings the beach photo in the View-Master to life is enigmatic, suggesting on one level that Noi finally loses contact with the real world and drifts off permanently into a fantasy world, and on another level, confirming to him that his life purpose is to escape Iceland and hinting at the possibility of a sequel in which Noi finally makes his way to Hawaii.

The film won’t suit all tastes and in spite of Lemarquis’s acting and the cinematography I did find the film uninteresting overall and it runs out of puff quickly. Elin Hansdottir as Iris is blank and it’s difficult to see what Noi might see in her, which suggests his contact with women has been very limited or maybe he does see her as his life-line out of Iceland. The relationship which should have been the film’s spine barely gets off the ground. Grandmother Lina and dad Kiddi provide humorous moments (Kiddi smashing a piano with an axe is the most exciting thing to see in the whole film, and the sausage-making scene where Lina and Kiddi are accidentally splashed with sheep’s blood is the second most exciting thing) as do some minor characters such as the French teacher who demonstrates how to make mayonnaise in class and ends up with a ruined result. Lacking a plot and with a support cast of mostly sketchy characters existing for Noi to bounce off, the film has an uphill struggle appealing to viewers emotionally. I’m not against films with no obvious narrative or plot, some of my favourite films have no plot; it’s just that a film must have something else strong to compensate for the lack. Perhaps the film could have been condensed into something much shorter, say, around 80 minutes with a cryptic message at the end along the lines of “To be continued … maybe …”, that might encourage viewers to see “Noi the Albino” as a prequel to a main event that would justify its existence and Noi’s. Yes I think Noi’s life purpose includes a proper film vehicle to make use of his talents and quirkiness.

Pusher: highly recommended viewing about small-time heroin dealer

Nicolas Winding Refn, “Pusher” (1996)

Just managed to catch this film last night after seeing a video copy for loan in a video rent shop earlier in the day. This is a gritty and very distressing snapshot of a week in the life of a small-time middle-man heroin dealer, Frank (Kim Bodnia), in an unnamed inner-city district in Copenhagen, in Denmark. Early in the film, Frank meets Swedish ex-con Hasse to set up a large drug deal. Frank goes to see his boss Milo (Zlatko Buric) to get the heroin; he already owes Milo about 50,000 kroner but Milo lets him take the heroin provided that he return immediately with the money plus what he owes. As luck would have it, as Frank goes with Hasse to conduct the exchange, they cross paths with the police, forcing Frank to flee and jump into a lake where he dumps the heroin. He ends up spending the next 24 hours in the slammer during which time he is told his friend and usual partner-in-crime Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen) set him up. On leaving jail, Frank seeks out Tonny in a pub and vents his rage on him severely with a baseball bat. (Why are baseball bats always the first choice of weapon to beat up people?) Leaving Tonny unconscious and bleeding, Frank visits Milo who refuses to believe his story about his 24-hour absence and increases the amount Frank owes him – 170,000 kroner to 230,000 kroner including the past 50,000 kroner – which must be paid by the end of the week. From this point on, Frank calls on all his clients to demand money, becoming more and more frustrated and violent when they can’t pay up, and at the same time trying to placate his prostitute girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbaek) and working out ways he can trick or evade Milo and his right-hand man Radovan (Slavko Labovic).

Milo does relent somewhat and tells Frank he will accept a token payment and forget all the other debts to end their quarrel. You’d think at this point Frank should be glad and be able to relax and think more clearly but then he tells Vic he won’t be going to Spain as they had planned so she steals all the money he had collected from some bodybuilders in a gym and flees. The last we see of Frank, he is waiting for Milo’s men and the bodybuilders to pounce on him all at once.

Shot entirely on a hand-held video-recorder, the film has a strong documentary or news article feel which gives it an air of “authenticity”. Much of the action and dialogue may well have been improvised though of course the scenes of violence and drug-taking will have been staged. Funnily, night-time and interior scenes during night seem a lot more real and hard-edged, probably because in the outdoor day-time scenes there is that soft natural light often seen in Scandinavian films, unaffected by air pollution and enhanced by open spaces and the distinctive clean lines of Scandinavian architecture and design, which endows people and objects with a purity and innocence they don’t need. At the time “Pusher” was being made, people were getting excited about the Dogme 95 manifesto that a few Danish directors including Lars von Trier had written up and signed to, and which was invigorating film-making in Denmark by laying down particular rules and restrictions that actually opened new ways of seeing and thinking about film scripting and direction. The film does look a little like a Dogme 95 film but the manifesto’s rules prohibited the use of weapons and did not allow murder to occur in any of the films made under its directions; some of the music used in the film also breaks the manifesto rule about not using music unless it happens to be part of the background scenery anyway.

The drug-dealer life-style portrayed here is unglamorous and degrading: the never-ending search for money to pay off outstanding debts and the stress, frustration, anger and violence that accompany it, along with the wreckage of friendships betrayed and love abused, strip people like Frank of their humanity as much as a job in a sweatshop factory in India, in a Chinese coal-mine or in other places recycling and chopping up discarded laptops, breathing in poisonous fumes, would do. There is a curious code of conduct that Frank and the other dealers follow, one based on people’s desire, however superficial or self-serving, to meet outstanding debt and other obligations, which helps to generate much of the tension, aggression and violence seen. A poignant and hilarious moment comes when Radovan admits to Frank that he’d like to get out of the junk-dealing business and open a restaurant as he loves to cook, and that Milo loves making cakes and dreams of owning a bakery. One lesson here is that any young person with ideas of making it big and acquiring easy riches and girlfriends in the world of drug-trafficking, or dealing in heroin anyway, ought to see this film to be disabused of such notions.

As Frank, Bodnia puts up a first-rate performance as a grubby criminal: you can’t help but sympathise with him and even root for him a bit in spite of often impulsive and self-defeating actions as he spirals lower and lower in a trap partly of his own making, a trap that squeezes him more and more to the point where he is totally stranded with no options or life-lines, and time is fast running out on him. The actors playing Milo and Radovan are notable as well, injecting some humanity, played for laughs, into their characters but Bodnia outshines the whole cast by far.

The plot may not be original and the treatment of the drug dealers as ordinary human beings with aspirations like the rest of us – why, even drug pushers might want to be on MasterChef programs! – may have been done over and over in past films. As an unflinching study of a character caught in an extreme situation by his own actions and those of others, and behaving in ways that drag him lower and lower and sap his strength, “Pusher” is hard to beat. There is no examination of Frank’s motives or why he chose to go into the business in the first place but that might have stalled the action of what basically is a brief view of how small-time dealers go about their work. While the film’s budget does not allow Refn to examine the wider Danish society and its attitude to drugs – after all, making drugs illegal drives them underground, encouraging the kind of criminal activity seen in “Pusher” – we do get something of the overall social indifference to people like Frank and Vic in the scene where Frank is being interviewed by the police: one officer insultingly tosses lollies at Frank while he is sitting mum and refusing to answer questions from the other officer.

I definitely recommend this film as a psychological character study of how an individual might react when caught in an increasingly difficult situation with no hope of escape. It’s like watching a fly zoom accidentally into a spider’s web and struggle for all it’s worth while the spider homes in on its vibrations for the kill; a certain voyeuristic thrill to see whether the victim can escape its fate in spite of the very heavy odds stacked against it comes out of that and so it is also with “Pusher”. Can Frank succeed against all the odds or will he crack up at the last minute?