Pelle the Conqueror (1987)

Summary: A father and son from Sweden immigrate to Denmark where they struggle to start a new life for themselves on a farm where immigrants are not made to feel very welcome.

Thoughts: For some reason, I have a particular interest in father-son relationship stories, and the relationship between this older widower father and his young son is considerably tested through the course of the film by their new surroundings.  Pelle’s father, played by Max von Sydow, wants to get remarried for practical purposes; he’s older and he wants someone to look after him.  But his search in an already prejudiced anti-immigrant environment does nothing to help Pelle, whose peers consistently bully him and his poor pathetic father.  Pelle’s only friends, if they can even be called that, are other outcasts.  When the father promises to beat up those who bullied his son, Pelle looks forward to it, but when confronted, his father does not in fact have the backbone for it.  Later, when a lead for a new wife comes to a dead end, the father searches for relief from his grief in drink, leaving his son to come home to find his father drunk and stumbling about.  Still, the father resolves to carry on for the sake of his son, to whom he promises that the world can be conquered.  Max von Sydow gives a great performance in this film.  Unfortunately, though, the story just seems to fizzle out at the end, leaving us in a rather dramatically ambiguous place, probably feeling emotionally empty.  In retrospect, it didn’t seem the overall story was about anything in particular, just a series of related episodic conflicts.  That is, I’m having trouble understanding what, if anything, Pelle learned through the course of the film, or if the whole things was just about torturing the poor characters.

About: The film is based on the first part of the novel Pelle Erobreren by Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexø (1869-1954), which was published in four parts from 1906 to 1910.  (An English translation is available from Project Gutenberg.)  Perhaps that is why the story feels so incomplete; it is based on just the first part of a much larger story.  Interestingly, the actor who played young Pelle was himself named Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard), named after the character from the original book.

The film won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.  The film also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; the year before, another Danish film had won the award—Babette’s Feast.

Yikes, what bad TV graphics they had in the late 80’s.  Looks like Pelle had some interesting contenders.  A psychic Nazi film?