Here Is Your Life: Great Expectations

On Film / Essays — Jul 17, 2015
Here Is Your Life

Here Is Your Life, which came out in 1966, was Jan Troell’s first feature film. It’s an adaptation of a suite of four autobiographical novels by the Swedish writer Eyvind Johnson, and the film was not only directed by Troell but also cowritten, photographed, and edited by him—an unusual combination of responsibilities in the industry at the time, and rare enough even today. One other aspect of its first-film status stands out once you have seen it, and that is its epic length: it comes in at 168 minutes. There can’t be many other examples in film history where a young director was given such leeway to express himself—or to hang himself. In the event, the film was released in Sweden at its original length by Svensk Filmindustri, although there had been hesitations behind the scenes, and it was a solid commercial success. But one can imagine the commercial arguments that must have been mustered against the risks involved. Nowadays, the industry tends to be more flexible, and quite a few films find themselves accommodated within the two-and-a-half- to three-hour time range, but it was different fifty years ago.

Still, nothing in the arts ever comes out of a vacuum. Here Is Your Life may have been the thirty-five-year-old Troell’s first feature, but he had already completed fourteen shorts for television (one of which, 1965’s Interlude in the Marshland, is included on this release). In addition, his photographic skills had been honed by his work as the director of photography on another fascinating first film, 1963’s Barnvagnen (The Pram), by Bo Widerberg. The aleatory visual register of that movie, full of fragmentary scenes with unexpected entrances and exits, anticipates, in part, the elliptical narrative freedom that is such an enjoyable aspect of Here Is Your Life.

Yet perhaps more important than any other factor in allowing the film to take its own way was the close working relationship Troell was forging with an extraordinarily gifted young producer named Bengt Forslund, whose many skills included knowing how to take advantage of the extensive new funds made available for domestic filmmaking through changes in the law fostered by the recently founded Swedish Film Institute—including a levy of 10 percent on every ticket sold in movie theaters. Forslund, rare among producers, was also a talented writer. He and Troell share the main writing credit for Here Is Your Life, as they would go on to do with Troell’s The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972) and other ambitious works. Indeed, ambition and energy were Forslund’s hallmarks, so one can imagine him responding positively to Troell’s argument for giving Eyvind Johnson’s novels the full epic treatment. That decision in the end issued in artistic triumph: the film’s quality is absolutely tied up with its leisurely expansiveness. Yet, outside Sweden, the length did give rise to distribution difficulties, and forty-five minutes was sheared off for its modest theatrical run in North America. Only now, for the first time on the American continent, can the movie be seen widely, in its integrity, and appreciated for the masterpiece it is.

A bit more should be said about Johnson (1900–76). Little read abroad today, he was one of Sweden’s most important twentieth-century novelists—indeed, he was a Nobel Prize winner (two years before his death, he shared the award with a fellow Swede, the poet and memoirist Harry Martinson). Johnson wrote the novels that Troell’s film is based on during the mid-1930s, looking back over an interval of twenty years on the events that are recounted. Gathered under a single title, Romanen om Olof (The Novel of Olof), they paint a picture of working-class life in rural northern Sweden during the First World War. Sweden itself—studiedly neutral—was not in that war, of course, but the conflict’s distant reverberations can be felt in the book, particularly in the latter part of the saga, when the protagonist’s socialist sentiments find themselves invigorated and emboldened by rumors of the Bolshevik revolution breaking out in Russia.

As it turned out, the political path chosen by Sweden led after the war to social democracy rather than Marxism or communism. One can say that was a happy outcome; the Scandinavian model is envied by everyone. Yet that achievement did not come without its own growing pains; in the latter part of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, Sweden was a desperately poor country, riven by class conflict and social bitterness. Poverty led to mass emigration and the breakup of families. The boy Olof, in Johnson’s saga, has been farmed out to a foster mother before the story begins; with numerous siblings and an ailing father, his birth family had simply too many mouths to feed. At fourteen, he must begin to earn his living. These harsh facts form the background to his odyssey, but they are not presented militantly. Indeed, there is more than a hint of poetic nostalgia in the telling—for youth, for beauty of all kinds, and, particularly, for the discovery of the joys of the written word.

In this respect, if not in others, Johnson had something in common with a number of talented working-class contemporaries of his, such as Rudolf Värnlund (also a playwright), Vilhelm Moberg, Ivar Lo-Johansson, and the aforementioned Martinson. “Social criticism, insofar as it was wielded, tended to be oblique . . . It had to do with the past, and could be sifted through the softening perspectives of time,” writes the critic Alrik Gustafson in his classic A History of Swedish Literature (1961). “Under the circumstances [i.e., the triumph of social democracy following the introduction of universal suffrage], the working-class writer of the 1930s no longer felt forced to employ his gifts primarily as an instrument of propaganda and social criticism.” Autodidact that he was, it’s important to bear in mind that Johnson was no less a sophisticated modernist—even a formalist. During the 1920s, he’d lived for a number of years in Berlin and Paris, and he modeled his prose style on the advanced writers of the day; James Joyce, André Gide, and Marcel Proust were all influences.
There’s little doubt, however, that Troell and Forslund’s cinematic adaptation of Johnson’s novels has a wonderfully naturalistic feeling about it. Right from its beginning, the movie seems to forge its own path as an independent entity. I think this has much to do with not only the way the film is handled visually (we will come back to this shortly) but also the way that it is put together. The film’s marvelous expansiveness is countered, or shadowed, by an equally bold sense of elision. Thus the boy’s parting from his foster mother in the opening sequence is sketched in a few rapid strokes; no time is wasted on context (and the woman is barely seen again). The following sequences, showing Olof’s brief reunion with his birth family, along with the journey by rail to the logging station where he will commence his first paid labor, are intercut using an equally vivid economy—which somehow still leaves us time to savor the subjective impressions that force themselves upon the boy’s wary and intelligent consciousness. (A small example: Olof’s momentary glimpse of a soiled chamber pot beneath his father’s sickbed tells him—and us—all that needs to be told about his family’s continued desperate neediness.)

Yet no sooner is young Olof settled at the logging camp and introduced to the men who will inculcate in him the dangers of his new trade than the story veers off into an amazingly bold digression. Olof has met and been impressed by an old log floater named August (Allan Edwall), and August’s family story takes over for the next ten minutes or so. The tale begins in a quiet moment of rest from the manual labor. Olof and August are seated at the window of their cabin while the older man, spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose, gets on with a useful bit of sewing. Slowly, he gives voice to his memories of the deaths of his two youngest children. The language is simple but graphic: The boys passed on “like butter on a griddle.” “It wasn’t brutal,” he says, “but it was nasty . . . Their bodies were all twisted, as if they’d been wrung by an invisible hand.” Pausing before further remembrance, he comes up with this detail: “A week later, my wife crossed the meadow”—at which point the film moves into flashback mode: there she is, in close-up, at a well, with a scarf on her head. And astonishingly enough—for we have understood this to be a black-and-white movie—we are seeing this happen in color.

What color, too! The sequence that now unfolds must be one of the most beautiful evocations of memory in the whole of mid-twentieth-century cinema—I would say right up there with passages from Andrei Tarkovsky’s great masterpiece The Mirror. And wonderfully bold is the way the flashback contains another flashback within it: August’s memory becomes his wife’s memory, as she sees (or thinks she sees) her children in the field and follows them. Now (here is the new flashback) she is with them in happier times, her drab peasant gear exchanged for a beautiful white smock dress. There is a gramophone record and wild, happy dancing before the episode cuts to a shot of her lying stretched out on a box bed, an unknown hand closing the panel and leaving her in darkness. Two final shots bring to an end this sequence, which has been dramatized entirely without dialogue: In the first, August’s wife lies gently asleep in a hammock in a birch wood. And in the second, in black and white again, her coffin (it must be her coffin, we think) is being pulled on a sleigh by two men through an icy, hostile landscape.

We note the compression and the unexplained quality of it all. The move into color here was actually prefigured by a short epiphany on the train journey, when Olof, through the carriage window, momentarily saw the passing trees as bathed in gold. And far later on in the film, there is one more brief excursion into the color palette. Their sparseness of deployment somehow makes these color episodes all the more precious; it is as if one were suddenly in a new universe. Such painterly experimentation in cinema is rarer than one might think. It is true that the screen erupts into color at the end of Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, as also at the end of Tarkovsky’s medieval epic Andrei Rublev, while the alternation of black-and-white with color sequences is a distinctive aspect of Edgar Reitz’s celebrated mid-1980s television miniseries Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany. Otherwise, it is a device not much used outside documentaries. Black-and-white cinematography, meanwhile, remains the governing mode of looking at the world in this film. And how brilliantly Troell—his own cinematographer—reimagines this lost world of the past in all its concrete plenitude. There is a focus here on physical toil, in “real” places. Look how cleverly, for instance, Troell links the scenes of the men guiding logs down the river with Olof’s subsequent life in a sawmill by having the boy glimpse, every so often, a tall chimney stack on the far side of the torrent—without him yet realizing that that will be the next stage of his apprenticeship. The land here is lived in and known about, not merely used as a backdrop.

There is a moving continuity here with the great tradition of Swedish outdoor cinema. Right back at the time of the First World War, it was pioneer silent directors like Victor Sjöström, along with his cameraman Julius Jaenzon, who, forsaking the studio, grasped most creatively the way that human drama could be integrated into landscape. Films like Terje Vigen (1916, from Ibsen’s poem) and The Outlaw and His Wife (1917) have in certain ways never been surpassed for the purity of their responsiveness to nature. It is a tradition that continued to vivify Swedish cinema throughout the rest of the twentieth century and that, at its height, allowed cameramen such as Gunnar Fischer and Sven Nykvist to become celebrated international figures.

Those two film artists, of course, famously served as cinematographers for Ingmar Bergman, and one might want to ask, in a general way, how “Bergmanesque” a film is Here Is Your Life. Troell and Widerberg, along with contemporaries of theirs like Vilgot Sjöman and Jörn Donner, belonged to a new generation of filmmakers who, in their different ways, were reacting against the pervasive influence of the Swedish colossus (Widerberg—a critic before becoming a director—actually wrote a book denouncing the man). Certainly, Bergman didn’t go in for social drama as such; his politics, unlike Troell’s, were far from left-wing. Nor was he ever too interested in being “epic”; combat with nature is not a key theme in his cinema. Nonetheless, there are discernible reminiscences in Troell’s film, particularly in the scenes surrounding Olof’s love affair with Olivia, the circus queen. Ulla Sjöblom, who plays this character, had acted for Bergman in 1958’s The Magician, but Olivia’s exuberance and sexual freedom owe just as much, perhaps, to the delectable bohemian ambience of a movie like Sawdust and Tinsel. In short, Troell shows himself to be no less tender than Bergman was in delineating, with understanding and love, the picaresque lives of itinerant show people.

One further connection is provided by Here Is Your Life’s composer, Erik Nordgren, who had scored many of Bergman’s most famous movies—Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, etc. The beautiful flute melody that accompanies the opening shots of the curlew flight in Troell’s movie confirms that as strong as any bond between the two directors was their shared commitment to a bright poetic lyricism.

Olivia, once introduced, weaves in and out of the story wonderfully. We meet her once, lose sight of her, and meet up again, each time getting to know her better (and liking her more). It is the same with Olof’s bicycle-learning first girlfriend, Maria (Signe Stade): she too ducks in and out of the tale at different times, carefree at first, sadder and more mysterious in later episodes. By contrast, the appearances of other characters—for example, the Nietzsche-spouting dandy Fredrik (Stig Törnblom), or the blacksmith (Friedrich Ochsner), or his daughter Maja (Catti Edfeldt), whom Olof seduces, or, finally, his socialist railway friend Niklas (Per Oscarsson)—are contained within individual episodes in the cavalcade of Olof’s story, although in each case they are vividly and humanly characterized by the actors playing them. They are provided with the space and time and opportunity to express themselves. The film succeeds, somehow—it’s one of the main clues to its distinction—in making everyone Olof comes across interesting.

That is not easy to do. However it is accomplished, there they are: solidly three-dimensional, each of them. It is a knack that Troell simply possesses, and that is observable throughout his career, from the follow-up to Here Is Your Life, 1968’s Ole dole doff (Golden Bear winner at Berlin), through his “American period” of the 1970s, inaugurated by The Emigrants and The New Land, and on into such richly crafted works of later years as The Flight of the Eagle (1982), Il capitano (1991), As White as in Snow (2001), and Everlasting Moments (2008). Here, for example, we might take even so minor a character as the railway foreman Byberg (Bengt Ekerot), who, toward the end of the tale, turns up to supervise Olof’s and Niklas’s labor in the freight yards. How easy it would have been to make this man a mere caricature of an authority figure. But no one is caricatured in Here Is Your Life—not even the disciplinarian owner of the Roda Kvarna cinema (Gunnar Björnstrand): a pillar of rectitude and sternness who yet gives Olof a break when the boy needs it most. Failings, where they exist, are forgiven—or at least respected—by this director. To put it another way, he has a rich and warmly human tolerance for eccentricity. Without being the slightest bit sentimental, the tone of the film (like the tone of the book) is in the last resort benevolent.

Of course, the conditions of life described by Troell are harsh, but they are not in the least miserable. So Here Is Your Life is saved from tedious determinism and instead becomes a glowing hymn to freedom.