At the end of the 19th century, Lasse and Pelle, father and son, cross the sea separating Sweden from Denmark in pursuit of prosperity and happiness. Lasse, a middle-aged widower, promises his son that in the new country there’s work with high wages and ‘kids are free all day.’ It’s the illusions of a hopeful emigrant. In reality they land in Denmark to work almost as slaves at a farm, bound to the owner by a poorly-paid contract that doesn’t allow them to leave until they’ve fulfilled its term.
Bille August’s Pelle The Conqueror is harsh. It’s a movie about crushed illusions, xenophobia, class differences, power, economic submission, and the cost of freedom. It’s not an easy, uplifting movie.
There are two character studies at the center of the film. We’ve all met Lasse in our life. We all know someone who is cowardly but prone to boasting, who complains about his boss but never stands up to him, who drinks when life doesn’t suit him, who makes plans but never does anything to fulfill them. Max Von Sydow gives a great performance as Lasse; he has that rare ability to subtly change his facial expressions from moment to moment, which fits Lasse’s mood swings, and he speaks volumes just with his eyes. To play Lasse, a frail middle-aged man, the actor adopts a stooped frame with slow movements, accentuating his weakness. This is one of those rare performances when an actor loses himself in the role he’s playing. Max Von Sydow alone is reason enough to watch this movie.
Pelle Hvenegaard, who was 13 at the time, also gives an excellent performance. Pelle is the main character and Hvenegaard holds his ground when he shares a scene with the veteran actor. Pelle is his father’s opposite: introspective and a sharp observer. In the farm a lively man called Erik (Björn Granath), fills Pelle’s head with new dreams about America and convinces him to save his money so the two can go together. It may turn out to be another disappointment, but it’s what keeps Pelle going. Unlike his father, he hasn’t lost hope.
This is the conflict at the heart of the film. The scene the two actors share when Pelle asks his father to leave with him is an amazing example of acting, contrasting the two personalities perfectly, Lasse’s fear of the unknown against Pelle’s determination to change his life.
Besides portraying this conflict, the movie also captures the hardships and cruelty of the farm and community they live in. Right from the start they’re discriminated for being Swedes, whom the Danish forearm considers a dumb people fit only for manual work. The foreman dictates the terms, he decides who can rest and when, he threatens rebels like Erik with the police. Pelle’s life is even worse because he can’t get along with his schoolmates. His only friend is Rut, the bastard son of farm owner and a local peasant. The movie is very critical of the ruling class too, showing its indifference and aloofness. A quick subplot neatly demonstrates the consequences of a farm girl and the son of a landowner falling in love.
Ironically, the film is beautiful to look at, especially when the camera lingers over endless ice-covered fields. There’s an atmosphere of stillness and peacefulness. Bille Auguste captures all the beauty of the landscape around the farm, even if it’s a deadly landscape, where men can freeze to death during winter. Even when the movie is beautiful its ultimate message seems to be: life is difficult.
Pelle The Conqueror fascinates me because it’s not a distant reality it depicts. Who doesn’t know what it is to have dreams crushed because of circumstances beyond our control? To be afraid of taking a chance? To submit to and confront authority? To accept life’s unexpected pleasures as they come to us? Lasse and Pelle, two opposite approaches to life – resignation or hope – are always with us. This movie is harsh but not harsher than ordinary life.
Director: Bille August
Screenplay: Martin Andersen Nexø (novel), Bille August, Per Olov Enquist, Bjarne Reuter (screenwriters)
Cast: Max Von Sydow, Pelle Hvenegaard, Björn Granath, Astrid Villaume, Karen Wegener
Runtime: 157 min