Scandinavia at the Chicago International Film Festival

Scandinavia showed up in full glory at the 50th Chicago International Film Festival. A Swedish film even won the coveted Best Foreign Film Audience Award. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, directed by Felix Herngren, is an entertaining, hilarious Forest Gump-type send-up of the history film genre. Many references are made to world figures and events as our hero gradually reveals his life story in between scenes of his current crisis of being chased by a violent biker gang after he accidentally ends up with their stash of money. And you can bet there are a lot of life stories in his 100-year span. His escapades are fantastic and ludicrous. After being orphaned by a father who was killed as a revolutionary in Czarist Russia, he develops a passion for explosives and spends his life blowing things up, resulting in several stays in mental hospitals and jails. His fate takes him to the Spanish Civil War, where he fights with the resistance – then ironically ends up dancing with Franco himself. He travels later to the U.S. and participates in the Manhattan Project, where he gives Oppenheimer some suggestions for improving the bomb. He later meets Truman on the day Roosevelt dies and becomes a Cold War spy, eventually becoming a double agent for Russia, where he also gets to dance with Stalin. One unbelievable adventure after another leaves the viewer exhausted and bewildered, but the acting and story line are so fresh and creative that this film will satisfy most everyone.

Another stylish film from Sweden is the Cannes winner Force Majeure, directed by Ruben Ostlund, which addresses a poignant moral concern. How would you react to your loved ones in a panic situation? A family vacationing in the beautiful snow-covered Alps is having lunch on the deck of a hotel when a controlled avalanche seems to go out of control and advances towards the deck. After shouting orders, the young father unthinkingly abandons his wife and kids to escape the threat. They all recover quickly and life goes on, but the family unit begins to crumble as the wife questions his morality and the role of the male as protector of the family. Ironically the wife is confronted with the same crisis situation near the end of the film when she unwittingly abandons husband and kids escaping from a runaway bus. The film gives new meaning to the color white, as quite often the entire screen is totally white with one or two small skiers moving across the frame. But it’s a moral tale above all else. The pacing of the direction and fine acting make it an award-winner – and the accordion music score is thrilling.

Another Swedish winner at the Festival, receiving the New Director’s Gold Hugo award was Underdog, a working-class tale of status and human relations, while addressing the historic battles between Norway and Sweden. A young Swede comes to work as a housemaid for a Norwegian man supposedly nearing divorce. While his wife is away for an extended stay in Africa, relations develop between the two and his two young  daughters, eventually evolving into much complexity as the wife returns unexpectedly. The sensitive and insightful story offers much to think about in the way of family roles, class differences and human emotions.

There were several other great films from Scandinavia at the festival. The famous Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, was represented by a revival of his epic autobiographical classic, Fanny and Alexander, considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. Bergman’s famous leading lady, Liv Ullmann, now turned director, appeared in person to present the opening film of the festival, Miss Julie, her filmic take on August Strindberg’s classic play of class and power. A documentary exploring the effects on the Polynesian islands from French nuclear testing in the 1960s and ’70s, Vive La France, also addresses the social and political consequences of French colonialism. The human drama, 1001 Grams, won the Best Cinematography Award and is Norway’s official submission to the Oscars.

Danish master filmmaker, Lars Von Trier, was represented by a revival of his early groundbreaker, Breaking the Waves. Look of Silence, although produced in Denmark, was filmed in Indonesia and is the sequel to The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s shocking exposé of rightwing brutality in the island country. They were both reviewed favorably in earlier columns.

There were many other Scandinavian films at the Festival, several award winners that I was unfortunately unable to view. But one of the most striking and memorable films was another award winner, this for Best Costume Design, although it’s certainly deserving of many other awards. Speed Walking is a realistic and humanistic recreation of the sexual norms of the 1970s in Denmark, where the liberation of porn had a strong influence on society. Its frankness and honesty about sexual awakening in the youth of that time would probably raise some eyebrows in some countries. Director Niels Arden Oplev confessed in the Q&A, “If I directed this in America I would probably get arrested.” But he wanted to be true to the more liberal times of the 1970s, representing it honestly and graphically. The award-winning costumes, sets and props lend a high degree of presence, along with some of the finest acting in memory. Laughs, cries and gasps came from the audience when three 14 year-olds were discovering love for the first time, but in a most sensitive and beautiful manner. The film contains very touching portrayals and is amazingly without any nude scenes. “I didn’t want to create a film pedophiles would want to download, but yet I wanted to be honest about the story,” said Oplev, who directed We Shall Overcome and the blockbuster crime thriller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This newest film of his is based on a popular book in Scandinavia, and offers a refreshingly, oddly innocent, vulnerable look at burgeoning sexual awareness. And it’s very entertaining.

Photo: “The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” Swedish poster.


Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.