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Film masterpiece shows how efficiency replaces happiness in Sweden

Tearsheets: MFA

Suggested headline: Swedish LAND OF DREAMS is beautiful and lyrical



Directed and photographed by Jan Troell.

With Johanna, Rollo May, Ingvar

Carlsson, and Tage Erlander.

Plays tonight, at 7:30 pm only, at

the Museum of Fine Arts.


EVER SINCE INGMAR BERGMAN retired from active filmmaking, most Americans have lost whatever contact they once had with Swedish cinema. In fact, Lasse Hallstr"om's My Life as a Dog is the only Swedish film that has recently been distributed in the United States. Ironically, that charming and poignant film re-introduced Americans to Swedish cinema just as a wave of quality Swedish filmmaking was ending. Swedish cinema went into a slump in the mid 1980s, and -- like the state of American cinema during the 1930s -- documentaries have since become the prime source of innovation and vitality in Sweden today.

Jan Troell's Sagolandet ("Land of Dreams") is one of these new documentaries, and in less than ten minutes it completely surpasses any expectations one might have for a 185-minute documentary about life in modern-day Sweden. At once intensely personal and of universal value, the film is a poetic masterpiece that transcends its immediate relevance: the film not only keeps the spirit of originality and creativity alive but also sets a new standard of excellence for documentary filmmaking. The film is so successful as a whole that its momentary lapses are easily forgiven and quickly forgotten.

Time and time again, Troell's film paints a bleak picture of a land where order, rationality, and efficiency take precedence over happiness, joy, and imagination. Troell protests that the long record of human violence against nature has in turn dehumanized humans themselves, and the film yearns for a "Land of Dreams" that would encourage exploration of individual potential rather than stifling it. This theme might be summarized as the value of imagination versus the benefits of rationality, and Troell gives it much more thought than any simple get-back-to-nature message or anti-technology diatribe. Furthermore, Troell is eminently successful in translating the thematic generalities into terms particularly relevant to the Sweden of today.

Sweden has, for example, taken giant strides toward securing political and economic security for all its citizens. In fact, progressive reformers in other countries have long pointed to Sweden as the success story of the modern welfare state. Few foreigners realize, however, that Sweden's material prosperity has imbued Swedish culture with a certain sense of coldness, emptiness, and even sterility. This is the fundamental contradiction of Swedish culture, and Troell astutely recognizes that it has several dimensions, ranging from the broadly political and economic to the personal and practical. Troell explores all of these considerations from the inside out as he gives passionate expression to their implications.

Because Troell engages his viewers with both personal and cultural introspection, his film is already praiseworthy in and of itself. If that were all the film did, however, it would merely be a notable accomplishment. What makes this film into a palpable masterpiece is the intimate and symbiotic relationship between the film's cinematic styles note that styles is deliberatley pluraland Troell's reasons for making the film. Each benefits from the other, and Troell consistently manipulates the two brilliantly.

Consider, for example, just the first five minutes of the film. The opening shot is a ground-level closeup of a red flower waving back and forth in the wind. An adult male voice (presumably Troell's) says in voice-over in Swedish that "As a child I would stand in the grass with outstretched arms, my face toward the sun. Then I'd close my eyes, and spin 'round, 'round... I felt then, that I experienced God." The film cuts to a slow-motion shot of a young boy jumping around in a field of white flowers in obvious delight. On the soundtrack, a piano softly plays "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

Then the film cuts to a right-profile shot of a well-dressed elderly man who speaks in English with an American accent: "Joy is the experience of something new, that one has not known before. Happiness is the fulfillment of one's past aims. The joy is the discovery of new aims, the sense of being in a new country." The film cuts back to the young boy jumping and twirling about, again in slow motion. This time, two puppies cavort at his feet with him, and the final movement of Beethoven's Choral Symphony is heard joyously on the soundtrack.

Abruptly, the music stops and the film cuts to a full-body shot of a scarecrow made of some black-colored clothes erected over a wooden cross. Ominous synthesizer chords begin to play on the soundtrack. The camera zooms back slowly to show the bleak, unplanted landscape the scarecrow guards over. Then the title "SAGOLANDET" appears onscreen in large black letters split in half like computer printout characters. The letters fade, and the film continues on.

Clearly, Troell is combining lyrical moments with strong documentary footage in these scenes, and he makes the most of every single element: The opening narration over the red flower immediately stresses the value of childlike imagination and wonder. Troel drives home the difference between joy and happiness by placing the elderly man's observations between shots of the boy twirling about happily. (The man is, by the way, the American psychiatrist Rollo May.) The bleak field suggests the spiritual emptiness of the rational landscape, and the computer-like font of the title letters suggests the film is a hard-nosed documentary examination of a mystical or mythical place -- the "Land of Dreams."

The opening sequence combines lyrical moments with strong documentary footage and begins to clarify the vital difference between joy and mere happiness, a distinction important to the film's theme.

The above analysis, though, barely begins to convey the tightly coherent structure Troell has created out out of 80 hours of raw footage.

Troell creates a tightly coherent structure drawing from over 80 hours of raw footage. Just after the opening credits are over, for example, Troell includes footage of a dog show. Some time later, the film shows loggers employing large machines to cut down trees in less than 10 seconds each. Another sequence follows a professional dog-killer (at a dog pound) as he disposes of dead dogs in body bags. A third sequence explains how another group of loggers use a powerful bolt gun to shoot glyphosate capsules into birch and aspen trees. The glyphosate slowly kills the trees to make room for more profitable pine trees. The same bolt gun, it turns out, is used by the dog pound to dispatch stray dogs "instantly" and "painlessly."

These seemingly disparate moments are in reality closely related because they show how the pursuit of efficiency can transform passive dominance into active destruction. Troell is at his poetic best while pointing out such relationships, and the above sequence is but one example of how intricately Troell constructs his film.

In terms of overall structure, the film is divided into several sections. Each section focuses on a specific place or group of individuals and then cuts back to quiet philosophical commentary by the American psychiatrist Rollo May, whose statements about joy versus happiness begin the film. Also recurring are some political arguments between Ingvar Carlsson and Tage Erlander -- whom most viewers won't recognize as the present and past prime ministers of Sweden. Neither of the two look, talk, or act like typical politicians, which is probably why Troell was interested in interviewing them in the first place.

. With impeccable documentary technique, Troell gets his subjects to open up to the camera, and he zeroes in on the essence of each interview. Who is being interviewed is nowhere near as important as what he or she is saying. Consequently, most Americans won't even realize that Carlsson is the prime minister of Sweden and that Erlander is a former prime minister -- which is as it should be. Neither look like, talk like, or act like typical politicians, Also seen throughout the film is Johanna, Troell's young daughter. Troell began photographing her from birth; he shows her learning to walk, climbing stairs, riding happily on a circus merry-go-round. Not once, however, does the film resemble a home movie. Rather, Troell photographs Johanna to express his own joy -- in the true Rollo May sense of the word -- at becoming a father for the first time at age 50. Troell can share his intensely personal emotions with viewers in a meaningful way because his emotions point to the essence of what he is addressing in his film. The presence of Johanna throughout the film powerfully underscores how inseparable Jan Troell is from his film. The two are one and the same.

No other filmmaker in recent memory has created an intimate documentary with so broad a value as this. Sagolandet supplants factual objectivity with poetic creativity and therefore works in markedly different ways from the typical cinema verite documentary. While one might take issue with Troell's point of view and the film's arguments, the film is an indisputable masterpiece on an artistic level. Because the film embodies the very same qualities that it says are missing from Swedish society, the film maintains its self-consistency at the same time that it adopts a leadership role. For all of these reasons, and many others left out, Sagolandet is a crowning achievement of international cinema and a supreme personal triumph for Jan Troell. One can only wonder to what heights Troell will climb from here.