Wild Child

A young boy from the Danish West Indies (Jimmy Sterman) and his pet fox hide from villagers in his new home near Copenhagen in PAW (1959) aka Boy of Two Worlds.

Prior to the 1960s, it was unusual to encounter more than a few women film directors working in Europe, much less the U.S. One of the rare exceptions was Astrid Henning-Jensen, who is considered one of first female directors in the Danish film industry to achieve international recognition. Two other female contemporaries of Henning-Jensen, Bodil Ipsen and Alice O’Frederick, were equally famous in their native Denmark but Henning-Jensen is the only one to enjoy wider recognition in America due to her 1959 film, Paw aka Boy of Two Worlds, which was an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film that year (It lost to Black Orpheus).

The American film poster for PAW (1959)

Based on a novel by Danish author Torry Gredsted, who specialized in adventure stories for young boys, Paw might look like a heartwarming Walt Disney family drama on the surface but it is actually closer to some of the more thought-provoking fare produced by Disney in the 1950s which addressed serious topics like animal death (Old Yeller, 1958) and racism (The Light in the Forest, 1958). Like the latter film which featured a young white man who was raised by a tribe of Delaware Indians and is later reunited with his real parents, Paw takes a similar but more serious look at race relations since the protagonist is non-white.

A ship captain delivers a young boy from the West Indies to his only surviving relative (Karen Lykkehus, left) in PAW (1959).

When the film opens, Paw (Jimmy Sterman), nicknamed for his skill at tracking cougars in the West Indies, arrives by ship in Copenhagen following the death of his father. His mother died years earlier giving birth to him and Paw is being returned to his only surviving relative, Fraulein Bo (Karen Lykkehus), his late father’s sister. Miss Bo is elderly, strict and set in her ways and not happy about sharing her home with her brown-skinned nephew, the product of a mixed marriage. Paw, who liked exploring the Caribbean jungle near his Danish West Indies home, doesn’t adjust easily to his new surroundings. On his first day at school, the classroom bully compares him to an ape, which sends Paw fleeing into the wetlands near his home. It is there that he meets and strikes up a friendship with Anders (Edvin Adolphson), a hunter/trapper who turns out to be the poacher who is trespassing on the property of a wealthy landowner.

Jimmy Sterman & Edvin Adolphson in PAW aka Boy Of Two Worlds 1959 Director: Astrid Henning-Jensen Copyright: Mary Evans AF Archive

Events take a turn for the worse when Miss Bo dies suddenly, leaving Paw once again an orphan. The reaction of the villagers to the native boy are either hostile or indifferent and no one wants to adopt him with the exception of Anders. The city officials agree to let Anders serve as his guardian but once the hunter is caught poaching on his neighbor’s land, he is deemed unfit as a father figure and Paw is sent off to a reformatory to learn a trade. After more bullying from racist inmates, Paw escapes into the marshland and creates a home base on an island, adopting an orphaned fox cub and a hedgehog as pets. The remainder of Henning-Jensen’s film depicts Paw’s attempt to remain free and independent while the local villagers want to catch him and return him to the reformatory. Luckily, Anders and the teenage daughter of the rich landowner prove to be valuable allies when the chips are down.

An orphan (Jimmy Sterman) who is treated like the village pariah finds a sympathetic friend in the Danish family drama PAW (1959), an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

Paw is particularly unique for its seamless integration of a children’s adventure story with a wildlife documentary not unlike the popular 1963 TV series Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom but minus the voiceover narration. The stunning color cinematography by Henning Bendtsen, Niels Carstens and Arthur Christiansen is packed with fascinating footage of various animals in their natural habitats like storks, swans, weasels, deer and other critters. There is some brief animal violence – a fox is shown attacking and killing a chicken, a duck is blasted out of the sky by a hunter – but it is a realistic presentation of life in the wild where predators and their prey is the norm. The difference between the villagers and Paw, however, is that the former often hunt for sport while the native boy lives in harmony with his surroundings and respects the local ecosystem. At one point, he states, “Nobody owns the jungle and the animals belong to themselves.”

A boy from the West Indies has a respect and love for nature and wildlife that isn’t always shared by his Danish neighbors in PAW (1959).

Anders turns out to be a kind hearted but rather unlikely parental figure for Paw since he lives like an isolated existence (he has a tragic backstory) and his poaching sets a bad example which he rationalizes away: “We all steal, you take the hen’s eggs, the fox takes the hen which is mine, and I shoot the fox.” He even encourages Paw, in one scene, to drink cognac (you won’t see that in a Disney movie!). But the main focus of the film is the racist attitudes expressed toward Paw by most of the villagers because of his skin color. Marius (Freddy Pedersen) is easily the most obnoxious of the school bullies (he even uses the offensive N word) and comes across like a junior Nazi storm trooper, who finally gets his comeuppance in the end. When the film was first released, it was considered one of the first movies to address racist attitudes in Denmark.

The Danish film poster for PAW (1959)

Seen today, Paw is noteworthy not only for exploring race relations in a family entertainment but also for contemplating the environment and importance of nature. Henning-Jensen accomplishes this in a subtle but visually compelling way without resorting to heavy-handed messaging or overly didactic dialogue. Best of all is twelve-year-old Jimmy Sterman in the role of Paw. He has a natural and easy-going screen presence and his interaction with the fox and other animals is a joy to behold. It is a shame that he never made another film although he did appear in a TV series the following year entitled Pipo de Clown.

An orphan (Jimmy Sterman, right) realizes that his surrogate guardian (Edvin Adolphson) is a lawless poacher in the 1959 Danish film PAW.

Besides scoring an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, Paw was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Director Henning-Jensen would go on to direct several other prestigious films including Winterborn (1978), which is set in a maternity ward for women with complicated pregnancies, Ojeblikket (1980), a drama about a young woman dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and Early Spring (1986), based on Tove Ditlevsen’s novel about a girl growing up in poverty in Copenhagen in the 1930s.

Danish director Astrid Henning-Jensen makes a rare acting appearance in Lars von Trier’s THE ELEMENT OF CRIME (1984).

Henning-Jensen would also appear occasionally as an actress. She has a featured role in Lars von Trier’s dystopian thriller, The Element of Crime (1984) but it is her work as a director that has secured her place in Danish cinema. Henning-Jensen got her start in the early 1940s, co-directing documentary shorts with her husband Bjarne Henning-Jensen. After sharing directorial duties on popular hits like De Pokkers Unger (Those Damned Kids, 1947), in which some kids from the ghetto solve a crime, she began to branch out with solo efforts like the 1949 short Palle Alone in the World while still collaborating with her husband. After a six-decade career, Astrid Henning-Jensen died at age 87 in January 2002.

The Danish film poster for the 1947 social drama/mystery THOSE DAMNED KIDS.

Paw is an excellent introduction to her work but currently the film is not available on any format in the U.S. Perhaps this is a situation that The Criterion Channel or their collection could correct in the near future.

A fox cub inspects a fleeing toad in one of the many nature documentary-like scenes in the 1959 Danish family drama PAW.

Other links of interest:

https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/henning-jensen-astrid-1914

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Film/Paw

https://screenrant.com/women-director-won-academy-award-best-international-film/

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