Judge Joel Pearce descends into the bowels of human suffering, which are located somewhere in Denmark.
"That's what getting old is like. But you're young. You can still conquer the whole world."—Lasse
This Scandinavian film won the best foreign language film at the Oscars in 1987. It has now been re-released as a new edition by Fox, replacing the old Anchor Bay version. It is a solid film, but fans will likely be let down by its treatment here.
Facts of the Case
Lasse (Max Von Sydow, Minority Report, Snow Falling on Cedars) and his son Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) have moved from Sweden to Denmark in the hopes of finding a better life. Unfortunately, the only work that Lasse can find is indentured farm labor for a philandering aristocrat, under the close supervision of a cruel foreman.
The film then follows a number of the workers on the farm as well as those living in the surrounding area. Pelle befriends a proud worker named Erik (Björn Granath), who promises to take Pelle with him to America when spring comes. As time goes on, though, it becomes apparent that escape from this life is too difficult, even for those in positions of power.
Pelle the Conqueror is based on the first of a series of novels, and it shows. Focusing closely on the misery of the Swedish labor as well as that of women and the poor, it may have been more aptly named Pelle the Sufferer. It is as accurate a portrait of human misery that I have ever seen, and it feels like the horrible first volume in a story of a boy who is able to step above his terrible childhood and make something of himself. Unfortunately for us, only the first section of this story is recorded in this film, so there is little hope until the very end.
The performance from Pelle Hvenegaard is quite remarkable in the scenes where more is required of him than observing the horrible conditions around him. It is an intensely physical role, as Pelle is put through a number of terrible experiences. Many child actors would not be able to look sincere as they ran over broken pieces of ice on a freezing cold sea, or as they are beaten half-naked by the foreman's assistant. This young man did a great job, though, even in the worst of conditions. He delivers his lines with great emotion, but childlike enough that we believe he is still a boy.
The other great performance comes, as expected, from Max Von Sydow. His portrayal of Lasse runs through a very wide range, and his delivery and physicality is a reminder that he is a world-class actor. Lasse's deterioration is so smooth and subtle that I did not realize how much he had changed until I watched an earlier scene again.
The other performances are good as well. Some of the scenes with many extras are somewhat weaker, but they do not detract from the overall impact of the film. Each of the smaller stories is as interesting as the main story, especially the one focused on Erik and his refusal to bend to the will of the Danish overseers. Also excellent are the stories of a young servant girl who gets pregnant and that of the lecherous landowner and his frustrated wife. These stories show that the poor are not the only ones who feel suffering and pain, and that the rich are also often trapped in situations beyond their control.
The cinematography perfectly matches the tone of the film, using bleak neutral colors until the harsh whites and blues of winter set in partway through the film. Many directors seem unwilling to show how dirty and unpleasant the conditions were in the past, but Bille August (Les Miserables) seems more than happy to show the dismal surroundings of these pathetic characters for what they really are. The sharp contrast between the filthy stables covered in flies and the inside of the house are shot well, highlighting the class difference between the Danish landowners and Swedish labor.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Pelle the Conqueror is an impressive film, this disc leaves much to be desired. The video transfer is as good as can be expected for a foreign film of this vintage, although it is not going to thrill home theatre enthusiasts. The whole image is washed out and somewhat fuzzy, and there are numerous instances of dirt on the print.
While the video is passable, the sound is seriously deficient. The only audio track in Swedish is the mono track, which is fairly uninspiring. The English Dolby 2.0 track is about the same quality. Max Von Sydow did his own dubbing, so it's a comparatively good dub, but many of the smaller roles are cringe-worthy. Someone really screwed up on the Dolby 5.1 track, in which most of the sound comes out of the front left speaker. It sounds worse than the other tracks, and should be avoided. The worst part about the sound transfer is the subtitle track. Considering that Fox announces on the front that this is a foreign language Academy Award winner, I would expect them to include a good translation of the original language track. However, what I found on the disc is yet another example of "dubtitles," describing every sound in the film. This is intolerable for a foreign film that has earned this much respect.
The only extra on the disc is a trailer for the film. I am not an expert in Scandinavian history, so some kind of historical explanation of the political situation at the time would have been useful, and the film is new enough that it should have been simple to get a few interviews. Considering how much Pelle the Conqueror is respected, Fox should have treated it with a lot more respect.
Pelle the Conqueror is a powerful yet wholly depressing account of human suffering and injustice. While it does run a bit on the long side, fans of foreign film that have never seen it should definitely give it a try. They shouldn't buy this disc, though, which does no justice to this modern classic.
Bille August, his cast, and his crew are free to go. Fox will be forced to work on a Danish farm until they learn some respect!
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