Norwegian movies for American friends

Most Norwegian movies are best enjoyed in Norway by Norwegians, but every now and then something comes up that is passable outside the borders. So as a service to my American friends, here are a few recommendations, all available on Netflix over the Internet:

The Troll Hunter is a mockumentary about three film students from the Volda regional university, who tracks Hans, a mysterious figure they first think is a bear poacher. It turns out he is an official, secret, government-employed troll hunter, charged with tracking down and killing trolls that escape their reservations (fenced in by power lines, no less).

Normally, I don’t like to watch movies about monsters and supernaturals – their many blatant falsehoods and gaping plot holes irritate me. The Troll Hunter, however, I watched with pleasure after being told about it by someone in the movie/media business. He raved about the performance of Otto Jespersen, normally a comedian, as the laconic and gradually more disgruntled troll hunter, fighting bureaucracy and trying to cover up the trolls’ cattle rampages by purchasing dead bears from Polish smugglers to be left near the scene. The film students are brilliantly naïve, and some of the lines are classics:

– Is it absolutely sure that we have no Christians here [trolls can smell Christian blood.]
– I’m a Muslim, is that all right?
– Hmm..don’t know.

The movie is rather low-budget, but with surprisingly good CGA of trolls of various kinds. The best parts are the carefully worked out troll details (including a great mock-scientific explanation for why trolls either turn to stone or explode when they are exposed to sunlight), and all the various mechanisms and technologies the Troll Security Service and Hans the Troll Hunter have come up with to manage them. Like most good Norwegian movies, it subtly makes fun of its characters, from the semi-ambitious film students to the stone-faced bureaucrats trying to hide the fact that trolls exist. It carefully balances satire with a just enough of a touch of action/horror movie to stop it from being too local or too snarky. Enjoy!

Max Manus (English title Man of War) is a movie about the Norwegian war hero and saboteur Max Manus, brilliantly performed by Aksel Hennie. The movie is the most successful Norwegian movie ever in terms of viewers – most of the population has seen it, and it is one of those films where the entire audience sits through the credits, in silence. The movie gives an (almost) historically accurate rendering of the life and times of Manus and his contemporaries, running sabotage in and around Oslo. (The main historical inaccuracies lie mostly in removing material as well as having to use different buildings than the originals, Oslo having changed quite a lot since 1945.)

Max Manus was the action-oriented, slightly irresponsible leader of the Oslo Group, one of the foremost resistance groups in Norway. He sees his friends gradually being killed by the Germans towards the end of the war, but manages to effect significant damage (blowing up troop transport ships, destroying the national labor archive) in return. The movie is action-filled and exciting, yet rather low-key: Some of the most exciting episodes, which would have made for excellent material, is deliberately left out. (One example is Kolbein Lauring (one of Manus’ close collaborators) escaping by gunfire and hand grenades from a patrol trying to arrest him in his home.) Excellent performances by Agnes Kittelsen as “Tikken”, Manus’ later wife; Nicolai Cleve Broch as Gregers Gram, Manus charismatic best friend; the German actor Ken Duken as Gestapo chief Siegfried Fehmer; and perhaps best of all, Knut Joner as Gunnar Sønsteby, the 26-year old (at wars end) brain behind most of the resistance in Oslo, who thanks to his anonymous appearance and brilliant memory could move all over Oslo and southern Norway managing hundreds of resistance fighters and more than two score false identities.

The movie draws very believable portraits of the various characters, showing their heroism and the toll the actions take on them, both in terms of comrades lost and nightmares endured. Most Norwegians have some memories from grandparents and parents telling about the war. Much of the movie is shot on location – the entire main street of Oslo was changed into its 1940 appearance for one scene, including flying a Nazi flag from the Parliament building. This makes it very real for most of us, including me (my grandfather was in the resistance and was tortured by the Gestapo, an experience which left its tracks, and was in a concentration camp from 1943 to the war’s end). Norway is a small country: I have met Gunnar Sønsteby on a few occasions, have walked the streets and been in some of the buildings where the actions took place, and when the saboteurs paddle in canoes to blow up ships, the go right by the house I live in. The movie is accurate, exciting, sad, and makes an impact. Highly recommended!

Elling, nominated to an Oscar for best foreign language film in 2002, is something different altogether. It tells the story of Elling (brilliantly performed by Per Christian Ellefsen) and Kjell Bjarne (equally brilliantly portrayed by Sven Nordin), two nervous middle-aged boys released from a psychiatric hospital to make their way in the world with the assistance of social worker Frank and eventually their neighbor Reidun and former poet Alfons. It is based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, on of Norway’s foremost authors.

Elling is one of those movies that create language – you can refer to someone as an “Elling” or “Kjell Bjarne” in Norway and people will understand what you mean. Both men suffer from anxiety attacks and various phobias, and create little stratagems to manage their tentative entry into society. Elling is an overintellectualized shut-in with a mother complex and a cleaning mania, secretly dreaming about becoming an undercover poet. Kjell Bjarne is a shy giant, traumatized by abusive parents, who admires Elling and wants to listen to his fantasies, but also represents the voice of reason, entering into a relationship with the neighbor upstairs and helping Elling gradually explore the world outside their apartment.

The movie is howlingly funny in a very low-key fashion, making each of Elling’s small victories (managing to go to the store, having dinner in a restaurant, going to a poetry recital) feel as real to the audience as it does to the character. The characters are frequently humiliated, but manage to maintain a shaky dignity through it all, to a satisfyingly happy conclusion – helped by a seemingly aloof social worker who for once is not portrayed as a monster. If you feel down in the dumps, this is a terrific pick-me-up movie, enjoyable from start to finish.

File:Lilyhammer1.jpgHawaii, Oslo; Buddy and Lilyhammer I recommend with some reservations. The first is an intense magic reality movie about a character who feverishly tries to stop a bad event from happening. I remember it as great – but I don’t remember much about the plot. Buddy is a story about a group of friends who has to deal with sudden fame, again an enjoyable movie about which I have forgotten the plot – though I liked it. Lilyhammer is downright weird – a TV series about a New Jersey gangster (Steven van Zandt) who moves to rural Lillehammer, Norway, (chosen because he liked the scenery from the 1994 Winter Olympics) as part of a witness protection program. The concept is great, but I am not sure how well the jokes would play outside Norway – and I thought Little Steven’s performance a bit wooden and the jokes rather lame even in Norwegian. Norwegian rurals can be easy to make fun of, but they are not as inbred as comes over in this series. But it is is available – in fact, coproduced with – Netflix and, well, chacon ca gout, I presume.

And that is it – there are quite a few more (Flåklypa Grand Prix, Secondløitnanten, 37 1/2, Detektor) I have enjoyed, but I am not a film buff and this post sticks to what is on Netflix and I am reasonably sure you would like. So, go forth and explore…

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