My Swedish Education

For years I held the opinion that Swedish director Jan Troell and his films were generally overrated by movie critics and scholars until the 2008 Telluride Film Festival where a retrospective of his work proved to me that I had been sadly mistaken. The two films that changed my perspective were the American premiere of Everlasting Moments (original title: Maria Larssons eviga ogonblick, 2008), a turn-of-the-century drama about a working class mother who becomes a professional photographer, and Here’s Your Life (original title: Har har du ditt liv, 1966), which marked his feature film debut. The latter film, in particular, was a revelation and remains one of my all-time favorite movies. 

The Telluride tribute also included the documentary En Frusen drom (1997), which focused on the polar expedition of S.A. Andree and had been dramatized in Troell’s 1982 epic, The Flight of the Eagle, and the two movies he is best known for in the U.S. –  The Emigrants (original title: Utvandrama, 1971), which was nominated for four Oscars including Best Actress [Liv Ullman] and Best Picture and The New Land (original title: Nybyggame, 1972), an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow play a Swedish couple who make a new life for themselves in America in The Emigrants (1971) and the sequel, The New Land (1972), both directed by Jan Troell.

During the initial theatrical release in the U.S., I had seen Troell’s epic two-part adaptation of Vilhelm Moberg’s quartet of novels about Swedish immigrants coming to America in the 1850s and struggling to build a life for themselves despite countless hardships. Both The Emigrants and The New Land, which had been shown on Swedish television as a mini-series and were edited down into two features for U.S. distribution, offered a unique perspective on the American pioneer experience through the eyes of a Nordic culture. The movies were visually captivating with naturalistic performances by the Swedish cast and an almost documentary-like realism that placed you firmly in the moment. As a result, it was often an emotionally grueling drama, one where you felt as drained and as exhausted as the settlers after watching them sweat, bleed, get sick, lose a child, survive failed harvests and start all over again.

A scene from Jan Troell’s historical drama The Flight of the Eagle (1982), which focuses on a North Pole expedition.

As impressive as the films were, their austere tone and leisurely pace didn’t encourage me to seek out other films by Jan Troell right away. Nor did I have any desire to ever revisit The Emigrants or The New Land. I did, however, attempt, several years later, to make it through Troell’s 1982 historical drama The Flight of the Eagle, another Best Foreign Language Film Oscar contender. I found it just as austere and as punishing as those two earlier epics. So it was with some trepidation that I attended a rare showing at Telluride’s Le Pierre theatre, with Troell in attendance, of his first feature length film, Here’s Your Life, a 169-minute adaptation of Eyvind Johnson’s Romanen om Olof, which was a semi-autobiographical, four novel account of the Swedish writer’s youth between the years of 1934 and 1937.

Eddie Axberg stars in Here’s Your Life (1966), a coming of age drama directed by Jan Troell in his feature film debut.

Here’s Your Life was the surprise hit of the festival and such an emotionally rich and visually dazzling experience that I was even tempted to see the special screenings of The Emigrants and The New Land again (even though that would have taken up an entire day of festival film screenings). The print, provided by the Swedish Film Institute (Svenska Filminstitutet), was the original version shown on Swedish television and not the edited version prepared for international release.  Troell said in his introduction that he preferred the latter version, but I can’t imagine cutting a single frame of this poetic, totally original coming-of-age drama that now looks like a showcase of who’s who in Swedish cinema circa 1966. Among the now famous cast members are Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand (both of whom are best known for their work with director Ingmar Bergman), Per Oscarsson, Ulla Sjoblom, Bengt Ekerot, Allan Edwall and Eddie Axberg as Olof, author Johnson’s young alter ego.

Max Von Sydow is one of several well known Swedish actors who appear in the coming of age drama, Here’s Your Life (1966), directed by Jan Troell.

Axberg, who wasn’t quite twenty at the time and looks younger, makes an ideal Olof. In the first half of the film, he serves as a mostly passive observer, soaking up all that he sees and experiences. But he begins to emerge as an active character who takes control of his fate at the film’s mid-point, revealing his innate curiosity and hunger for knowledge, some of it spurred on by reading.

Eddie Axberg (left) is a young man from rural Sweden whose life and ideas are shaped by his exposure to older and more experienced people in Here’s Your Life (1966), directed by Jan Troell.

Troell, who not only directed but also photographed and edited Here’s Your Life, had obviously been influenced by the French New Wave since his first feature film abandons the controlled environment of a studio film set once typical of the Swedish film industry. Instead, Troell shoots on location in natural, often bucolic settings, employing frequent use of hand held cameras and a minimum of background music, concentrating on natural sounds. The dialogue, especially in the film’s first half, is sparse with Troell preferring to tell Olof’s story in almost purely visual terms.

A bucolic nature scene from the visually stunning and evocative coming of age drama, Here’s Your Life (1966), directed by Jan Troell.

Also evident is an untraditional editing style which results in abrupt mood shifts, a subtle but wry sense of humor and an experimental, playful approach to the narrative that can go from an evocative black and white close-up suitable for framing to a sudden burst of music for dramatic effect to a flashback sequence rendered in color.

Olof (Eddie Axberg) accompanies his mother as he sets out on a journey toward a new life in Jan Troell’s Here’s Your Life (1966).

Here’s Your Life opens with thirteen-year-old Olof being sent by his mother to live with a foster family due to economic necessity. Olof, who has dropped out of school, goes to work as a common laborer in a timber camp which is followed by a succession of menial jobs, each one bringing him into contact with a variety of diverse individuals who, in their own way, encourage his development as a writer and a man.

Olof (Eddie Axberg, left) and an older friend sunbath after a swim and reflect on the world in Here’s Your Life (1966).

The movie has the flow of real life with the advantage of dropping in and out of Olof’s chronology so that Troell just gives us the essence of each passage along his pilgrim’s progress. Memorable characters drift into Olof’s life and just as quickly drift away, some to reappear later and some to never be seen again.

A sequence in which Olof (far right) experiences the dangers and physical challengers of being a logger is one of many memorable moments in Here’s Your Life (1966).

The early sequences with Olof working as a logger, then bricklayer and sawmill employee capture the isolation, boredom and sexual frustration of men living in some remote location, often risking their lives performing dangerous physical tasks under adverse weather conditions (one logger is killed in the river, a young boy is crushed by a log collapse, etc.).

Olof (Eddie Axberg, right) and one of the older loggers who mentor him are featured in this scene from Here’s Your Life (1966).

Despite the often bleak portrayal of the dire economic conditions of Sweden in the thirties, Troell often counters this by his lyrical celebration of the natural elements and moments of joy that arise unexpectedly amid the harsh daily routines. This movie is alive to the moment and we often experience the world through Olof’s eyes – a fly buzzing against a cabin window on a sweltering summer day, the flight of a bird as it soars higher and higher into the sky, the sight of tall grass and clover obscuring the face of Olof’s teenage girlfriend as they make love in a field for the first time.

A typically lyrical composition from Jan Troell’s poetic coming of age drama, Here’s Your Life (1966).

Olof soon trades his lonely existence in rural settings for village life and becomes an assistant to Nicke (Ake Fridell), a cinema projectionist who travels from town to town. During their brief time together, Olof is introduced to the pleasures of good food, alcohol and smoking. He also receives a most welcome education in sexual pleasure from Nicke’s sometimes mistress, Olivia (Ulla Sjoblom), a gypsy-like free spirit who runs a traveling concession stand and makes Olof her unofficial business partner for awhile.

A traveling projectionist (Ake Fridel, left), his assistant Olivia (Ulla Sjoblom) and young Olof (Eddie Axberg) tour the countryside with their movie show caravan in Here’s Your Life (1966).

From his exposure to the injustices of the world through the newsreels and movies he projects and his own experiences on the road, Olof becomes involved with the rising Syndicalist movement which viewed labor unions as the key to revolutionary social change. The remainder of the film follows Olof’s progression toward the independent thinker and writer he would become with episodes involving a rebellious phase as a railway worker, his initiation into society through a romance with an upper-middle class girl and his departure for points south where a more prosperous future awaits.

Olof (Eddie Axberg) experiences the joy and pain of young love in Here’s Your Life (1966), directed by Jan Troell.

Here’s Your Life weaves a hypnotic spell as it unfolds and takes you back to your own youth with its evocative recreation of life-defining moments – the death of a parent, a first sexual experience, a chance encounter that leads to a career, an injustice that forms your political and social consciousness. It’s all here and more.In July 2015 The Criterion Collection released a director approved Blu-Ray and DVD special edition of Troell’s Here’s Your Life and it is a must-have collectible for fans of the film. Besides a stunning digital restoration of the film, the extras include a new introduction by British director Mike Leigh, new interviews with actor Eddie Axberg and producer/screenwriter Bengt Forslund, a new conversation between Troell and film historian Peter Cowie, a 1965 short film by Troell starring Max Von Sydow, Interlude in Marshland and other features. 

Jan Troell is still with us at age 87 but his last film to date remains The Last Sentence (original title: Dom over dod man, 2012), which is based on the life of journalist Torgny Segerstedt who warned the public about the rise of Fascism in the 1930s.

Swedish director Jan Troell on the set of a film

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2 thoughts on “My Swedish Education

  1. I am catching up on your blog and HERE’S YOUR LIFE is also one of my favorite films. Great to hear that our Tribute to Jan Troell at Telluride had such an impact on you. We really wanted to give people a chance to rediscover his work. Mike Leigh became a fanboy and with our encouragement Criterion moved forward on the very complicated rights clearances on most of Troell’s films.

    Jan’s wife was here in the San Francisco area a few weeks ago working on a documentary about the Gold Rush. She showed EVERLASTING MOMENTS at BAMPFA and it is still wonderful. We got together and I am happy to report that Jan and his daughter Yohanna are working on a dramatic film about a little known story about Charles Dickens.

    • Gary,

      Thanks for your comments. I have to say that the retrospective programming at Telluride was always a highlight for me. I remember the first year I attended in 1981 there was a secret TBA screening of Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry (at the time still tangled up in rights issues). It was not re-released theatrically until 1984. Later favorite moments were screenings of Vittorio De Seta’s Bandits of Orgosolo, Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger is Dead, Giorgi Shengelaia’s Pirosmani, Antonio Pietrangeli’s I Knew Her Well, a rare digital screening of Claude Sautet’s Max et les ferrailleurs and open air screenings in the park of Milos Forman’s Taking Off (introduced by Buck Henry!) and Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point. Some of these still beg for a Criterion-style release but to be able to see them on the big screen with audiences was so unique and memorable. Thank you for your involvement in making these things possible! I haven’t been to the TFF since 2012 and probably won’t ever go again because I know it can’t match my memories of the past when it was a smaller town and less media hyped. I have actually found the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville to be a wonderful alternative to those earlier years in Telluride with fewer celebrities in attendance as well as industry and media attendees. And there’s an eclectic mix of more than 120 films.

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