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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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