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An American Dream in Denmark

“Pelle the Conqueror was set to be a book about the Proletarian – the vulnerable man himself – who is only filled with health and appetite, and the man who is only in service of life. It’s about the workers’ broad walk across earth on the endless – almost unconscious – search for the light!”

With this prologue Martin Andersen Nexø sets the tone, environment and ambition for his novel. He uses Pelle as a representation for his own socialistic believes, and creates him to be a symbol for the upcoming rebellion against the upper-class.

Swedish hatred and the land of no opportunities

In the very opening of the film – together with young Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) and “Lasse-dad” (Max von Sydow) we are starting a new adventure on the beautiful island Bornholm. 

Lasse-dad; “They put raisins in the pork roast and butter on the bread. They put a lot of butter on the bread. Brandy is cheap as water and it is so strong that it knocks you off. But your father can take it, Pelle, because he’s strong.”

Pelle: “And the children are free doing the day.” 

Lasse: “Yes Pelle, the children are free during the day.” 

Denmark is indeed the country to start over in the early 1900’s as a Swede, but unfortunately the Danish dream becomes more like a Danish nightmare for father and son.

When the boat has turned anchor, it dawns on them that this far away from paradise. The landlords that represents the different farms are quickly finding new fresh people to work on their farm. But nobody wants Pelle or his dad, they either too young or too old to work. Lasse acknowledges that they are unpopular and leaves Pelle outside in the cold, to drown his own sorrows and few coins in cheap brandy. While being outside and freezing – Pelle sees their new hope arriving on a horse. One of the managers has ran late, and he is still in search to find somebody to bring back to their farm. Though he is clearly disappointed in the poor selection, he accepts young Pelle and drunk Lasse for the price of almost nothing. And with this trade, the ascription is forever in the landlords favour.

The story takes place on a freehold farm belonging to the upper middle class in around 1900’s. It’s a farm which is placed isolated in a dark rural setting consistent to the environment of the story. The farm is owned by the Kongstrups: a middle-aged couple without any kids. It was the custom at that time, that rich farmers like Kongstrup were living in relatively luxurious conditions, while workers such as Pelle and Lasse slept in a stable among the animals and lived, slept, ate and were treated nearly as animals. Although its unidentified to the viewer how they lived in Sweden, it is clear that the new life in Denmark is not going to be much better.

Cultural heritage list and an international focus on Denmark

Only one year after the first Academy Award was given to Denmark and Gabriel Axel for best foreign language film in Babettes Feast, Denmark won again with Bille August’s Pelle the Conquerer. The movie is from 1987 and won a Bodil Prize and Robert Prize (both Danish film prizes) and then the golden Palm Award and last but not least the Academy Award in 1988. It didn’t only achieve a lot of both national and international prices and recognition, but it also made the way into the heritage list, which is a list of 108 works of art, which officially is essential to the Danish cultural heritage. Young pupils in the elementary school need at some point to deal with some or all of the pieces of the heritage list, therefore it’s a great achievement to be added to this list.

Denmark has always had a rich intellectual and cultural heritage. Philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, psychics like Niels Bohr and important filmmakers like Carl Th. Dreyer has paved the way for the international spotlight on little Denmark. But it was with the international prizes in the late 80’s Denmark for real came on the map with a broader international audience. And that was only the beginning for a big Danish film industry. A couple of years later Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier, Thomas Vinterberg and Lone Scherfig brought more international recognition to the Danish film heritage. And with popular tv-series like The Killing, Borgen, Arven and The Bridge it’s only heading one way – and that is forward.

The literary breakthrough of the people

Previously literature has been reserved for the elite. Both when it came to writing and reading it. Around the 1900th a new wave in Danish literature began, and that was the literary wave of the regular people – more concrete the lower middle class and the working class. The period extends from the 1900’s to the 1920’s and is partly an extension of the literary period ‘the modern breakthrough’ were religion, sexuality and parenting was brought off for debate.

The ideal of realism is shown again in this period, but particularly the characteristic of the period is that they are now focusing on the realistic portrayal of the smaller people. Little people like servants, laborers, farmers and landlords. But the literature now is also being written by authors with roots in the environment – hence the name: the the literary breakthrough of the people.

The literature of this period is primarily characterised by great contemporary novels, such as Jeppe Aakjærs ‘Children of Wrath’, Martin Andersen Nexø’s ‘Pelle the Conqueror and Ditte human child’ and Johan Skjoldborgs ‘Gyldholm’ and ‘A Fighter’. What these novels have in common is that they portray the everyday life of poor workers in the country, for example their struggle for survival, miserable working and living conditions and repression of violent and unjust big farmers and men’s men. Often, the novels are based on biographical material from the authors’ own life and how it is growing up in the countryside, which is also the same with Martin Andersens Nexø’s “Pelle the Conquerer”. On one hand, the authors attempt to portray the particular popular culture on the countryside, which at this time is disappearing due industrialisation and migration to the cities. On the other hand, they deliver a harsh social criticism of the appalling conditions as servants and workers had to live.

The book versus the movie

The novel ‘Pelle the Conquerer’ is written by the Danish author Martin Andersen Nexø in the period from 1906-1910. The book consists of four volumes: Childhood, Years of Education, The Great Struggle and The Day Break. Pelle 3The main focus is on the character Pelle the Conquerer and his struggle to beat his social status and to conquer the world. It is only the first book ‘Childhood’ which is being filmed therefore we only follow one phase in Pelle’s life.

The book deals with the individual’s place in life. Nexø’s hero comes completely from society’s deep and finds meaning in cohesion with the proletariat and socialism as the path to happiness here on earth. The socialist idea is the core of the novel, but poetic manufactured in a variety of assumptions and contradictions and manifestations, given in the form of life, in a diversity of living and different fates.

One can observe that the stronger the novel rests on the outer action, the wider it can be as film version. In Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror the scenes succeed best when the model is purely theatrical. Many scenes have a theatrical vibe over it – which makes it easier to adapt to a movie. For instance the scene where the brawny fellow Erik, followed by the other harvest farm hands, doing his rebellion attempt against the manager:

“It startled the manager when he saw him – and there through the gate came the other panting. He measured the distance to the stairs, but thought better of it and turned directly to Erik; stuck behind a wagon and had an eye on each of Erik’s movements while he sought out a weapon. Erik followed him around the wagon; he went and grinding his teeth, his eyes ran diagonally from the bottom up. The steward went round and round on the bandwagon and made six movements, he could not rally themselves…” 

Here Nexø describes the situation completely objectively and clear. The scene can be filmed because everything told refers to actions and physical conditions; it can actually be read as a film script. The film has indeed made changes – but has the same powerful simplicity. This was perhaps the film’s best scene, because the action speaks for itself.

Comparing the book and the film is of course challenging, hence it’s two different artworks. And you have to take in consideration that it is brought to the daylight over two periods of time and they are not totally similar (August only uses one book, and something always needs to omitted when filming a novel).

Great characters created by Nexø and utterly casted by August

It’s hard to find a fictional character like Pelle in films, for whom develop such a deep and powerful relationship to. You keep asking yourself these questions throughout the movie – Will this suffer and pain ever stop, will Pelle ever find his America and fulfil his dreams and will Pell ever just be a boy? It seems so wrong and unfair that a young boy who is only 7 years old would see and experience so much at such a young age. But Pelle was never just a young boy. The day Pelle sets Pelle 2his feet on Bornholm and was confronted with the harsh realities of child labor, grim living conditions, a weak father and an overall Swede hatred on the island – Pelle’s transition from a child to a man began. Pelle is the young hope of the proletarians and it is up to him, to form his own future and leave the bad conditions at the farm to find his own America.

Despite the fact the Pelle is being a victim for both psychical and psychological torture and violence, he still manages throughout the movie to establish a good reputation for himself. It is his own strong acceptance, his intelligence and the unbreakable belief that paradise on earth is waiting for him that makes him a respectable young man. He quickly learns to be Danish – what all this implies and the escape to America and new opportunities is what keeps him going. But it’s not only the thoughts that keeps him going, he is in fact the only character in the whole story that takes affair and actually does escape the misfortune-farm.

Lasse Karlsson or better known as ‘Lasse-dad’ is the father of Pelle, and a symbol of the belief of the older Swedish immigrants – that indicates that it is never too late to make a better living for yourself and family. Hope he has for himself and for young Pelle. But the miserable life in Denmark quickly becomes a coldblooded fact – and it feels like he loses himself and his belief in the good. In many scenes in the movie he gets humiliated in front of Pelle, which makes his character look very weak. Rumour says in town that he is a weak man, a drunk and a prostitute when he is trying to form a new life with Madam Olsen who lost her husband at sea. The only time in the movie where it seems like he has a bit of hope for himself is when he is thinking about moving in with this woman, so he and Pelle can have a good life with coffee on Sunday morning. Unfortunately it is too good to be true and the man who is lost on the sea returns to his wife, and Lasse-dad returns to his stable again. Though he is an old man and needs to find his own adventure in Denmark, and not America he still doesn’t stop Pelle’s dreams and encourages him to seek out in the world alone.

Erik is like Pelle and Lasse immigrated from Sweden in search for a better life. In Denmark he dreams about saving his money up and then travel to America, ‘the negroland’, Spain and China.

His visions for himself have a great impact on Pelle, and together they dream and plan of conquering the world when it is turning spring. Erik is the most important role-model for Pelle and he gives Pelle and the rest of the people on the farm hope for a better life. He is a spokesperson for the people, and stands up for them whenever the manager tries to correct them or have unreasonable demands. But in the end the manager gets tired of being embarrassed from a low working rat, and challenges him to work in the field without getting breaks – and if he does not, he will take all the money he has saved up, which means no travel to America. Erik refuses to work under inhumane conditions, and starts a rebellion. This results in probably the most beautiful scene in the movie: he goes up and challenges the manager with all the workers behind him, hits him and it looks like he is going to win. But then he is hit in the back of the head with a filled water bucket, and he immediately becomes like a vegetable. At that moment both his and Pelles dream is being crushed and the only role-model Pelle has had and who he could share his vision with – is gone. Erik lives together with the horses and can’t talk or communicate, the only one he listens to is the manager. When Erik is released of his contract and thrown out of the farm because he is no longer the managers responsibility, It occurs to Pelle that it is spring and they were supposed to travel together – he escapes himself the same day and Erik’s spirit.

Scenes that will haunt you forever

At my young age of 21 years, I’ve only watched 3 movies that made me feel sick inside and outside on my body. We are not only talking goosebumps – but a painful disgust still combined with a satisfaction of seeing something unique. I’m referring to about Christiane F which I saw when I was 11, Monsterwhen I was 12 and then Pelle the Conquerer when I was 13. Sometimes you have scenes that will never leave your memory, because they are so different or they make a special impact on you. Sometimes you just remember things more clearly, because you saw them in the wrong age where you couldn’t understand them. Anyway I have 3 very important scenes from Pelle the Conquerer, which have haunted me and still will haunt me for the rest of my life.

1. Pelle hits Rud

Throughout the movie you follow Pelle. You admire his ambitions and you respect his personality because no matter the constant adversity he meets on his way – it seems like he always comes out on the other side with his moral and values still intact. Well that is until he hits Rud. Rud is Kongstrups ‘whore child’ because his mother who circles around the harbour had an affair or more exact an intimate relationship with Kongstrup. Everybody in the area knows about the affair and she also comes to the farm once a month to get her child support – to great embarrassment of course to Miss Kongstrup. But one thing is that Pelle hits Rud another thing is that he does it to his best friend, and the only person who could look through his Swedish roots and accepted him for who he is. Even though he is frequently called freak and doesn’t have a lot of educational ambitions for himself, he sees himself as the perfect clown in the circus. After an intense scene in which Pelle get’s spanked by the landlord for sneaking around the property without permission, he goes peacefully in the stream to cool himself off and stares dreamily on his 50 cent while dreaming about a safer place. Rud shows up and shows interest in the 50 cent, of course 50 cent back in the days were a lot of money for the poor and Pelle declines with “are you crazy?”. Rud however, is so fascinated in the coin that he offers Pelle to spank him with a handful of Nettle as long as he likes. Pelle accepts the challenge and it’s like seeing freaky Quasimodo in a newer version being spanked all over. But the pain doesn’t stop immediately it goes on and on and hurts Rud equally as the audience, even though Rud begs to stop and keep the money. Obviously Pelle is just bringing all the pain and suffering he has been carrying around – finally someone weaker than him, but for a very pricy expense – his only friend’s friendship. This is the first time Pelle is not standing out as a dreamful conquerer, but as a broken soldier.

2. Floating dead baby in the water

If I would write about all the interesting side-stories in the movie my review would probably be longer in a book, and though this scene (which is the scene I already dreaded the most to re-watch) consists of two persons it is without doubt the most traumatising scene I have ever watched my entire life and therefore it’s important to mention. There is a girl who works on the farm as a young-lady in the house who obviously comes from the lower middle class/ working class. She is indeed very beautiful and very much in love in one from the upper middle class. They share in the beginning of the movie a very intense relationship by starring at each other and wanting each other, but without actually doing anything about it because the guy comes from another class – the upper middle class. When the relationship develops from just wanting each other to actual getting each other all hell breaks loose. Without any prevent articles at the time she get’s pregnant and needs to hide it. When she finally gives birth – herself and the love of her life see no other option, than to murder it by drowning it in the water. The next day the washerwomen find the corpse in the stream, and there is no spare to the washerwoman or the audience – there is literally a dead baby corpse floating around in the stream on one of the only three scenes in the film where the sun is actually shining. A very intense scene with a very big contrast between the beautiful and bad. The authorities get her quickly and put her to jail, the guy gets spared the jail (even though the killing was his idea) and is only left with the haunting thoughts of never going to heaven. He dies shortly after – ironically by being drowned himself, a strong symbol that he is going down to hell instead of going up to heaven.

3. Fru Kongstrup cuts her husbands penis off

I think that the role of Miss Kongstrup is an underestimated role when analysing Pelle the conquerer. Taking the time in consideration she clearly brings a lot of attention on herself and provokes her husband more, than you would imagine is possible at the time. Mr Kongstrup is a womaniser and that is a fact, though he can make bastard children outside the marriage he can’t conceive them in his own house. A fact Mrs Kongstrup finds difficult to forgive. But the cold relationship was starting to get warmer between those, when he invited a young niece for a visit at their farm. Finally she can socialize with family, and she loves the company of her young niece “Virgin Sine” played by the very young and beautiful Sofie Gråbøl. But she is not alone to love the young virgins company, because Mr Kongstrup has a good eye on her as well when they are outside the farm. Virgin Sine is not so virgin anymore after a drunk night near the stream at the annual summer lunch (apparently, here unlucky scenes happens) and decides to leave the island and go back to Copenhagen. When she announces this, Mrs Kongstrup is very upset and doesn’t understand why. It is first when the woman with the whore child comes for the monthly child-support collection, that she recognises what actually happened. The ex-acquaintance with the whore child watched the little session of Mr Kongstrup and Virgin Sine near the stream and is quick to shout that Virgin Sine is not a virgin anymore, and why she is not a virgin. From that moment Miss Kongstrups snaps and gets control. In the middle of the night there is an inhumane and ongoing scream from Mr Kongstrup, and everybody who works on the farm including Pelle and Lassefar runs up to the private bedroom (which they normally are not aloud to enter) and watch the Mr Kongstrup screaming with blood in unlimited amount all over the white sheets. What is interesting here, is the face of Mrs Kongstrup while lying on the bed next to him. She has this sort of grimace on her face “Fool me once shame on me, fool me twice shame on you”. The fact that she allows all the workers to be there and witness the whole session, shows that she is in charge now.

An important movie showing the heritage of Denmark

I guess throughout this review and my reflections on the movie, that it is quite obvious that i’m very enthralled about the film. The film does not only show a very important time of the danish heritage, and a whole new voice you’ve never heard before – no it is also very strong made by Bille August and wonderfully casted. Being a fan and enthusiast of Max von Sydow – who I have always admired in Ingmar Bergmans films, plays here the role of his life. The vulnerable father he manages to play intensely and beautifully so it doesn’t even feel to the audience like he is acting, it feels like he is in fact Lasse-dad. He was also nominated for an Oscar for his role, which is of course rare taking in consideration that it’s a foreign film. He didn’t win an oscar, but he won our hearts with the film. Pelle Hvenegaards portrayal of Pelle showed an upcoming star potential, and playing the character convincingly as a young conquerer. Just these two performances are reason enough to see the film, but also the setting and the contrast in the landscape is so unique and makes the film even more beautiful. 

It seems like the island of Bornholm which is normally in Denmark referred to as the “Sunshine-island” is a place where it is always dark, cold and winter.It is only summer in one scene – which is being clouded away by cheap brandy and bad folk music. The setting and the landscape match– interestingly the dark atmosphere of the movie, making the audience wait for a long time together with Pelle for the far-away spring. The film is probably one of the most important and beautiful Danish films ever made. A movie to watch, no matter how dark it feels. Even when the sorrows never seem to end, the movie ends very well for Pelle. Since this is the first book which was adapted to the screen, only the cinematic ending is shown for Pelle’s destiny and not for Martin Andersens Nexø.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 6
Sandra Fijn van Draat

Sandra Fijn van Draat is pursuing her passion for film making by studying Multiplatform- Storytelling and Production in Århus, Denmark.