Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Pelle the Conqueror

(Danish: Pelle Erobreren. Swedish: Pelle erövraren, Denmark, Sweden, 1988)

The novel this is taken from is apparently the Danish equivalent of the French Les Miserables or the American Huckleberry Finn, sort of required reading, the novel that is most about Denmark. Which is a little ironic, since it is about a Swedish father and his son immigrating to Denmark to find work. But it was a four-volume work, published in 1910, and the director, Billie August, only made the first volume, which covers Pelle’s youth. Subsequent volumes took him away from the horrible dairy farm and into the big city, where he became a unionist and champion of work reform. I wonder why those parts have never been filmed? It would make a terrific long movie, like Fanny and Alexander, or War and Peace, or Lonesome Dove.

Max Von Sydow (still alive and working at 88) is the father, an aging man desperate for work, who takes a job at a dairy farm. He is not a very smart man, his strength and courage have left him, but he has a lot of heart. He and his son are treated badly, called dirty Swedes by the children. I hadn’t known there was this cultural divide and disdain between the two Scandinavian countries, but it looks like there was. Pelle is ten or eleven, and the story covers him for two winters. It is filled with events but, being just the first part of a longer story, there is little in the way of plot. Bad things happen, a few good things happen, and at the end young Pelle sets out without his father to seek a better life elsewhere. The lack of plot didn’t bother me at all. The film is beautiful, and harsh, and angry, and sad, with hope at the end. I don’t really need much more than that.

Von Sydow was nominated for the Best Actor award, but lost to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. And in a sweet irony, the actor who played Pelle was a wonderful little kid called Pelle Hvenegaard … and he was named for the Pelle in the book!