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The permeability of the Nordic Borders in Bent Hamer’s Kitchen Stories

Norwegian auteur Bent Hamer’s Kitchen Stories (2003) tells the story of a post-war friendship between an elderly Norwegian man and a Swedish scientist who is sent to Norway to document the domestic practices of Norwegian bachelors. This objective study prohibits any form of communication between the observer and the subject. In turn, the narrative serves as an interesting backdrop for the exploration of Swedish and Norwegian cultural kinship, particularly in relation to its post-WWII context. Kitchen Stories therefore comes to document a coinciding of two national spaces, where national identity is channeled through the numerous cultural escapades that unfold between the two men. In doing so, the narrative context mirrors the more recent transnational crosscurrents within the Nordic region. This interaction thus contributes to the complex interrelationship between Nordic national identity and globalization.

Kitchen Stories: Towards Transnationalism?

Nature has long been considered a synonymous and irrevocable feature of Norwegian culture. Thus, nature is considered an arterial, cultural and nationally defining marker of Norway’s film culture. As a potential indication of this films transnational sentiments, however, nature as a Norwegian cultural emblem in Kitchen Stories is somewhat neutralized. We witness how Folke is ultimately all but absorbed into the Norwegian landscape to continue life in Isak’s place. In this sense, the film introduces the notion of the local and the global amalgamating; an aspect amplified through its post-war context, where the nationalistic tensions between the two nations began to dissipate. These historical markers demonstrate how Kitchen Stories has reconstructed itself within a global film culture. The film deals with locally specific themes and attitudes whilst simultaneously mapping out transnational connectivity; Hamer’s film almost eludes classification as a result.

The parochial setting seemingly lost in a wilderness of white, offers few visual or semantic indicators of national specificity. Although the narrative follows a story about an encounter between a Norwegian and a Swede in Norway, the geographical indicators are left blank. In fact, the localized yet neutral setting of Landstad, the small Norwegian town where the experiment unfolds, becomes a point of national difference only when reference is made as to which side of the road each country drives on. There is thus an elusiveness associated with the setting. One of the key ways the film explores connectivity, however, is through the roads themselves. The roads, although they are not always visible, become a central theme running throughout the film. They become a key component between the spaces and opportunities for communication between the two nations. They are emphasized as a cross-cultural network, emphasizes by Folke’s food packages sent from his aunt in Sweden that literally feed a continuous stream of culturally and nationally significant material between the two countries. Hamer reminds us that despite the ambiguity of this whitewashed landscape; the countries are still very much connected with one another, as the roads ultimately link them. Hamer imposes on his audience a shift from the local to the global, from isolation to communication, and from stagnation to transition.

As aforementioned, although it deals with a post-war environment, Kitchen Stories adopts a new kind of synchronization and expression as a result of its contemporary production period in 2002, against a backdrop of increasingly significant transnational exchanges. The film doubles up as a metaphoric representation of the culturally significant shift in the exchanges between Norway and Sweden; something that surpasses the quantitative, empirical mantra of the Swedish study, becoming a humanistic encounter rather as opposed to one dictated by nationalistic differences. The interference of the Swedish presence into the sedate Norwegian countryside is perhaps reminiscent of the colonial history between the two countries. Also present, however, is the idea of Sweden’s neutrality during the Second World War. Here the intersection between nation and history forms another integral theme. The relationship between the two men, symbolic of the two national sites, begins to break down upon this brief yet deeply resonant discussion surrounding this rueful historical period.

National boundaries begin to dissipate as the pair grows ever closer through mutual sympathy and a desire to communicate, a factor that is revealed to be playing out amongst the other group participants and their observers across Landstad. What begins as an impartial observation develops subtly into a friendship that erases national indicators. The objectivity of the experiment conducted by the Swedes ultimately fails, instead paving the way for this transnational friendship to develop. By the end of the film, all hallmarks of national identity are deconstructed with Folke literally and figuratively substituting Isak.

National difference and identity instead become something discussed and decontextualized within the domestic space where gender stereotypes are also explored and inverted. Women remain almost exclusively absent as masculinity is diffused within the space of home. Interestingly, unlike filmmakers such as Lukas Moodysson, Hamer engages and explores national identity through the male body as opposed to the female one. There is an interesting point to be raised as to how gender comes to represent nation and nationality when taken in tandem with the deconstruction of masculinity. The national identity of the two men begins its breakdown within the kitchen. This domestic space of the kitchen and the home in general become the antithesis of the masculine outdoors, the traditional and historical space of nationalistic conflict.

Hamer’s international art cinema and auteur status is believed to have contributed to the film’s considerable success outside the Norden. It gives credence to the idea of a globalized Nordic film culture. This aspect of a director’s successful, international status often cannot be matched by a national, or in this case, Nordic market. Hamer excluded the possibility of standardizing language during the production of the film as he felt this would result in a loss of focus. Spoken Norwegian and Swedish in the 1950s for example would typically have been more disparate and challenging for each party to comprehend. This helps to further crystallize Hamer’s homogenization of Nordic culture. What is also underscored, however, is the idea that transnationalism offers us no greater framework of understanding. Although transnational cinema is still in the relatively early stages of scholarly investigation, through the very nature of its hybridity, the concept offers us a complex and often paradoxical, fusion of interconnectedness.

The neutral national space that the men inhabit seemingly raises further questions as to whom this film was aimed at, especially considering its success and circulation around other European countries beyond the Norden. The purpose of exploring an intercultural encounter between two different nations may have served as an eye on a transnational audience. Charting an intercultural encounter involves having specific cultural makers decoded, as each nation must elucidate to one another the nature of their separate traditions. In this sense, you could argue that, while the film may appear to be specifically focused on a Norwegian-Swedish encounter, the very fact that therein lies a process of decoding cultural specificity establishes the spectator in a position whereby each identity, regardless of origin, can be deconstructed and explained. This sense of unfamiliarity between Isak and Folke therefore harbours the capacity to appeal to a transnational audience.

Hamer’s international art cinema and auteur status is believed to have contributed to the film’s considerable success outside the Norden. It gives credence to the idea of a globalized Nordic film culture. This aspect of a director’s successful, international status often cannot be matched by a national, or in this case, Nordic market. Hamer excluded the possibility of standardizing language during the production of the film as he felt this would result in a loss of focus. Spoken Norwegian and Swedish in the 1950s for example would typically have been more disparate and challenging for each party to comprehend. This helps to further crystallize Hamer’s homogenization of Nordic culture. What is also underscored, however, is the idea that transnationalism offers us no greater framework of understanding. Although transnational cinema is still in the relatively early stages of scholarly investigation, through the very nature of its hybridity, the concept offers us a complex and often paradoxical, fusion of interconnectedness.

Kitchen Stories

Kitchen Stories: A National Film?

National cinemas across the Nordic region are said to retain a unique position against the backdrop of the current debates on the topic. Kitchen Stories behaves as an interesting example given its position as an indigenous Norwegian comedy. Perhaps one could debate Nordic cinema as national on a more simplistic level, as a result of its low export rates. With its comparatively minimal exportation, despite frequent collaborative efforts between the nations, each Nordic country is said to retain their individual cultural characteristics. It is important to note, however, that although the use of the term itself has only recently become part of an academic discourse, transnational cinema is by no means a new phenomenon. A shared communicative space between the Nordic nations has a long history. Despite this, Norwegian cinema is often classified as national, even amongst today’s globalizing dynamics. During the early post-WWII period in Norway there was a focus on domestic audiences, and investment in Norwegian culture was facilitated through cinema. This was despite significant investment also coming from overseas. Hamer’s film, in turn, possibly attempts to harness a subtext that appeals to a national consciousness.

Upon questioning this film’s national sentiments it would be important to return to the two prevalent themes that run throughout; the theme of the quantitative research study, and the theme of isolation. The opening sequence introduces the Swedish scientists and their rigorously tested equipment. Their aims seek to develop more efficient domestic spaces for the Norwegian kitchen, streamlining the space to home and perfect it for multipurpose use in a bid

to then hawk their designs back to the Norwegian people. Polarizing the aforementioned transnational dimensions of Hamer’s film, however, I want to propose an alternative view of Kitchen Stories, one that frames it as a reaction against globalization and an attempt to engage with a Norwegian national cognizance. The films seamless integration of a metaphor symbolic of globalization’s interference on Norwegian film culture provides a foundation for an argument that perhaps challenges the transnational notions running throughout.

The particularities of the Swedish research strategy, whose goals are to objectively observe, converge to create an analogy for the imposing forces of globalization. It becomes a direct interference with authenticity. As Folke perches on his high chair and attempts to capture Isak’s habitual kitchen activity, Isak finds himself unable to behave naturally. This mirrors how Hamer’s artistic efforts as a director are perpetually impeded upon by outside forces. As a result, he can no longer capture authenticity on camera under the constraint of pressure imposed by outside agencies. In Kitchen Stories the impersonal objectivity of the study, a faceless, anonymous venture, also mirrors the rules determined by the constant intervention of global forces. This formal objectivity is particularly evident in Malmberg’s opening presentation to the village of Landstad, where he introduces the group of Swedish observers and meticulously details the intricate mapping of the average Swedish housewife’s movements across the kitchen over a period of six weeks. Interestingly, Malmberg describes how, from the results of this study, the researchers have been able to “streamline” the kitchen in order to further its capacity to the user and therefore fastidiously tailor its every aspect. Through these scenes this pedantic and impersonal position functions as the metaphor whereby the researchers represent the forces in charge. The Swedish observers all perch on curious high chairs, ostensibly to enable to them to survey their subjects. Hamer plays into a notion of the researchers retaining a position of superiority, a position they are ultimately forced to abandon in order to fully interact and understand the subjects.

Inevitably, they make the transition from subjects to friends in the process. In a sense, it is these idiosyncratic differences that also unite the men. As a result, maintaining the national and the transnational as binaries is clearly problematic, as neither can exist without the other, crystallizing the concepts as co-dependent forces. Here we reach a crossroads whereby Hamer appears to occupy both grounds; dismantling national barriers that separate the two men and laying the ground for a deeper, more meaningful cross-over, whilst simultaneously perpetuating a nationally specific sentiment of solitude and authenticity.

The concept of socio-political monopoly between the nation state and the people within the Nordic nations was traditionally configured from the bottom up. Consequently, in Norway, this configuration found expression in a strong sense of local self-governance, attesting a considerable degree of power to the peasantry and agrarian workforce. Andrew Nestingen relays this especially relevant historical facet based on the development these power relations across the Nordic region. “…across the region discourses of egalitarian nationalism in the late nineteenth century made the peasant farmer the metonymic expression of national spirit.” (Nestingen, 2005: 25). Farmers figured prominently and established a significant political sway encompassing the formation of modern state institutions. There was a persistence of an agrarian economy following the post-war period. National developments stemmed from the free farmer and the agrarian model of regional autonomy.

Anthropologist Marianne Gullestad describes the notion of likhet in Norway, literally translated as “alike” or the “same”, a national sentiment based on equality. This notion of likhet characterises certain themes within Kitchen Stories. “Norwegian culture is fundamentally individualistic in the sense that each human being is ideologically in the foreground, but the Norwegian form of individualism coexists with a string emphasis on equality defined as sameness.” (Gullestad, 1992:192). This idea of power from below chimes with Kitchen Stories’ cultivation of friendship born out of the national idiosyncrasies of the two men, but also simultaneously draws upon the power of authenticity from below, typifying, not just the film, but Hamer as an auteur from a small nation in the midst of an age of global commercial intrusion. This is illustrated, in part, by the way in which Isak turns the tables on Folke, instead observing him from a hole in the ceiling above his head.

Setting this film against the backdrop of rural Norway, in the midst of an isolated community, Kitchen Stories draws on an era where power emanated from the farmers and peasantry, the lay people whose voices were slowly being drowned out in favour of mass production. In this respect, Hamer parallels sentiments of Aki Kaurismäki’s trope; prioritizing and celebrating the humanistic endeavors of friendship and unity in the face of global change. Ultimately, Folke’s abandonment of the study induces a true cathartic connection. As a consequence, following Isak’s death, we witness a continuation of the cycle of traditional Norwegian isolation as well as mediation with the transnational. In doing so, it is as though Hamer is operating on multiple levels, rebuking the prescriptive globalization dictated by producers, industry representatives and other external forces. As aforementioned, like Kaurismäki,  Hamer’s negotiation with globalization is tempered with a human face. This brings us to the juncture whereby different kinds of globalization meet. Hamer rejects autocratic outside global forces, yet on a humanistic level, the divides between nations, particularly the seemingly disparate nations of Norway and Sweden within a post-war context, dissolve and the two become interchangeable. While Kitchen Stories could be characterized as a text that attempts to assert a degree of national independence in the face of globalization, in doing so it highlights the symbiotic nature of the national and the global.

One of the primary facets underscored through analysing Hamer’s film is how national cinema is not an organic entity. Even within its parochial, localized setting tempered with the seemingly Norwegian national sentiment of solitude, this film remains open to be characterized as transnational through the way it projects aspects of Norwegian national culture globally. This debate has been most adequately developed by Mette Hjort Hjort and her reciprocal globalization theory. This theory posits that the projection of national culture intrinsically involves an interaction with the global, asserting a degree of irony in relation to the very foundations of national cinema on a global stage. Here we reach the paradoxical crossroads whereby national cinema’s intent on projecting national culture becomes transnational. In this sense, all national cinemas become a product of globalization. Hamer’s statements concerning the intrusion of global forces, however, mean that the film is effectively part of the multifaceted tapestry of globalization itself.

Conclusion

Kitchen Stories behaves as a pinnacle representation of a shift from the national to the transnational, one that still functions within the realm of the Nordic nations. The ultimate question asks whether or not Norwegian cinema, or indeed Nordic cinema, has always been transnational. Kitchen Stories is a Norwegian production that is informed by the transnational and continually renegotiates its identity, which is in a state of perpetual transition. It is almost as if the film exists in dual states, separate yet connected with the rest of the world simultaneously. It becomes an example of a Norwegian national cinematic production that incorporates and interacts with the local, regional and the global to form a new hybridization, reaffirming the idea of a shared human experience in one space. Hamer proves that nation is not part of our DNA.

The film embodies the current debates on global Nordic cinema and national identity. It behaves as a microcosmic site of consolidation, seemingly rejecting the shifting intrusion of the homogenizing trajectories of global forces and cultivating an image of nationally specific isolation. To redress this balance, Hamer frames friendship as a key ingredient within the narrative, a cathartic bond that transcends national parameters. The implication of Folke’s continuing friendship with Grant oversees both a breaking of national boundaries, along with a cycle of perpetual Norwegian isolation championed in the pre-welfare state. Kitchen Stories acts as a space for the renegotiation and complex synthesis of collective identities functioning as a site where the national, transnational and intercultural intersect in fascinating ways. The film also laments how the concept of national cinema is malleable and in a permanent state of transition. In the process it also exemplifies how the connections and exchanges between people forms a fundamental aspect of transnational cinema. Hamer’s film is therefore best understood as part of an emerging global discourse where the role of transnationalism is becoming ever more substantial.

References:

  • Gullestad, M., 1992. The Art of Social Relations: Essays on Culture, Social Action and Everyday Life in Modern Norway. London: Scandinavia University Press.

  • Gullestad, M., 2001. About the similarity and difference in civil society. Available online

  • Higbee, W., Lim, S.H., 2010. Concepts of transnational cinema: towards a critical transnationalism in film studies. Transnational Cinemas, 1(1), pp.7-21.

  • Higson, A., 1989. The Concept of National Cinema. Screen, 30 (4), pp. 36-47.  Hjort, M., 2005. Small Nation, Global Cinema: The New Danish Cinema. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

  •  Nestingen, A., 2008. Crime and Fantasy in Scandinavia: Fiction, Film and Social Change. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press.

  • Nestingen, A., Elkington, T., 2005. Transnational Cinema in a Global North: Nordic Cinema in Transition. Detroit: Wayne State University.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 8
Katie Moffat

Kate Moffat is a postgraduate student at Bangor University in North
Wales, where she specializes in globalization and the construction of
national identity within Nordic film culture.