From Iceland — Skin and bones

Skin and bones

Published September 21, 2009

Skin and bones

These past few years Scandinavians have been busy re-examining their history on screen. The Finns have given us the masterpiece Border 1918, which looks at the very founding of their republic and comes up with some pretty dark stuff. No less brave is the Danish Flammen og Citronen, which deals with the Danish resistance and finds it not all-heroic. The Norwegians, however, came up with Max Manus, their most expensive film to date. While visually impressive, it fails to deal with less flattering aspects of the occupation, such as local cooperation in the rounding up of Jews. Instead, we get a film that was more Heroes of Telemark than a reappraisal such as the Danes managed.
Love in a Cold War
Icekiss, which is screened at this year’s RIFF, deals with a more uncomfortable subject. Tens of thousands of Russian POW’s were sent to Northern Norway to do slave labour during the occupation. After the war ended, they were sent back to Russia, despite rumours that Stalin would immediately deport them to Siberia for the crime of surrendering to the Germans. The film tells the story of a Norwegian nurse who falls in love with an inmate. She meets him again when working for the Norwegian foreign office in the Soviet Union, and out of love decides to betray her own country. The film’s perspective, where we are made to feel for the nurse who is one of Norway’s best know traitors, is a daring one. Largely shot in St. Petersburg, the communist headquarters are juxtaposed with an image through the mist of Oslo’s city hall, and one can hardly tell the difference. An interesting piece about the inhumanity of the Cold War, although the non-linear storytelling grates a little.
General Patton said something along the lines of war making all other human endeavours seem insignificant. I would make the same argument for art, and a slew of films from Sweden and Denmark deal with artists.
Controlled Anarchism
First, there is the documentary Am I Black Enough for You? from Sweden. In fact, it has very little to do with Sweden, as it focuses on Philadelphia singer Billy Paul. He had a number 1 hit in 1972 with Me and Mrs. Jones, but his next single, from which the film takes its title, effectively ended his mainstream career. The film is an interesting overview of a little known piece of popular music history.
Probably better known, at least around these parts, is the Roskilde festival. It perhaps says something about the Danes that they have managed to pull of this annual bit of controlled chaos for almost forty years now. It seems that the hippie experiment still lives on in Denmark, in Roskilde and in Christiania. The Danes have a knack for combining the Scandinavian’s gift for organising with a more continental happy-go-lucky attitude. The result can be seen at the festival, where once a year people get to go and let it all hang out. Whether the results seem like your idea of heaven or hell probably depends on your interests. There are some decent, if brief, music segments with the likes of Placebo, Sigurrós and Sonic Youth. But the real stars are the festival goers, who seem to be every bit as imaginative as the people on stage. By the fourth day it all breaks down and people’s destructive spirit shines through. Anarchism, it seems, only works in small doses. But there’s always next year…
No skin off my back
Somewhat more scripted is the movie Applaus, about an acclaimed actress with alcohol and other personal problems who acts in a play about a woman with alcohol and other personal problems. Whether actress Paprika Steen is in any way playing herself we dare not venture, but moving between the play and her miserable personal life is an effective storytelling ploy. The Danes seem to be incapable of making bad films, and Applaus is no exception. One of the films more moving scenes is when the aging actress admires the hands of a younger staff member.
South of the border, the Germans have devoted a whole movie to the subject. In Bandaged, a teenage girl is locked in her house and tries to commit suicide by throwing acid on her face. As it happens, her father is a plastic surgeon who tries to create new skin for her. He hires a nurse to take care of her, and she and the daughter fall in love. She is the younger woman admiring the older one’s skin, and it makes for an interesting juxtaposition with the Danish offering.

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