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Pelle the Conqueror is an exceptional portrayal of his early years

Tearsheets: USA Cinemas

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Directed by Bille August.

Screenplay by Bille August from

the novel by Martin Andersen Nexo.

Starring Pelle Hvenegaard

and Max von Sydow.

Now playing at the Harvard Square

and Nickelodeon Theaters.


FILMMAKERS HAVE A notorious reputation for butchering film adaptations of famous novels, and for good reason: the process of translating a story from the written page to the silver screen consists largely of throwing away the "uncinematic" elements of the novel. Few rules are iron-clad, however, and writer-director Bille August should be congratulated for making Pelle Erobreren ("Pelle the Conqueror") a notable exception. The main reason for his success is that he devotes no less than 150 minutes to adapting the first of four volumes of Martin Andersen Nexo's sprawling turn-of-the-century epic. While the end result is not completely satisfying, the film nevertheless is intelligently made and stands out as a fine example of the power of luxuriantly unhurried storytelling.

The film takes place in the late 19th century and is about a young boy named Pelle Karlsson (Pelle Hvenegaard) and his aging father Lasse (Max von Sydow). They have come to Denmark with the hopes of being hired as cheap labor for the harvest season. In addition, Pelle's mother has recently died, and Lasse is looking for a place to settle down in his old age.

Because Lasse's "too old and the boy's too young," in the words of a local farmer, Lasse and and Pelle are among the last to be hired. Once they are hired, the two Swedes find themselves on the bottom of the farm's social hierarchy, and they end up living in the farm's chicken coop and working from dawn to dusk with little respite or pay. The film covers several years as it chronicles their harsh existence on the farm, which is named, appropriately enough, Stone Farm.

The strengths of the film quickly become apparent as the film progresses. The opening shot of a sailing ship silently emerging from a low-lying cloud of fog perfectly sets the tone of the film. It is quiet and restrained, and yet it still presents a striking image that lingers long after the film ends. The acting consistently matches the quality of Jorgen Persson's cinematography, and the guiding hand of the director can be felt from beginning to end. New characters come in and quickly become as familiar as the leads.

One of the greatest strengths is that the film does not break up the linear flow with flashbacks or flashforwards. The flow of time seems at once natural and inexorable. It imparts a sense of watching history unfold in the present, and this in turn conveys the impression of watching a future legend being born. (Young Pelle grows to fulfill his ultimate destiny as a prominent labor organizer and leader.) Much of August's film works beneath the surface, but August neither romanticizes nor obscures the material he has to work with.

But where the film leaves one unsatisfied is the direction of its narrative. Nexo published his novel in four volumes between 1906 and 1910, and August has adapted only the first part, entitled "Childhood." This necessarily causes the film to seem incomplete. August has already completed a screenplay from the novel's second volume, but this is, obviously, no guarantee that the film will actually be made.

What is alarming, however, is that August told The Boston Globe that he would not consider making film versions of the third and four volumes because they are "much too political." This reluctance to address the novel's social and political concerns calls into question August's artistic judgement and does a disservice to Nexo. Nexo addressed the demands of politics as well as narrative, and to deny one half of his approach, as August's comments seem to imply, is to deny the degree to which Nexo's political concerns influenced his writing and his novel.

Nexo wrote his novel after the Industrial Revolution had spurred the emergence of Danish society from 19th century feudalism, and the lower classes were organizing and agitating as the class struggle heated up. What separated Nexo, who was dedicated to socialism and abhorred violence, from other socialist writers like Upton Sinclair and Jack London, is that Nexo was able to combine both the realist and mythological literary traditions into a single straightforward style. Hence he was able to portray his characters as simple, human beings while also infusing them with the aura of mythical liberators. August's accomplishment in this film is notable and praiseworthy, but he will ultimately be judged on whether and how he fulfills his responsibility to the remainder of Nexo's novel.

August can get by with his attitude because the first volume is not as overtly political as the third or fourth. To his credit, he does have the integrity to announce in advance that he will not film the third and fourth volumes, rather than watering down or neglecting Nex/o's concerns. Nevertheless, it remains questionable whether August should have filmed the first volume if he had doubts about filming the remaining ones. The title Pelle Erobreren applies collectively to the entire four volumes, and not just the first.