Thursday, November 27, 2014
Because he decided from the beginning to go his own way, and continues to work, at 82, as a writer, director, cinematographer, and editor of his films, ignoring what nearly every one of his contemporaries thought was some kind of ultimate goal, and because he had the intelligence and the grace to return to his native country after a brief encounter with Hollywood, Jan Troell (1) is, in my unreserved opinion, the greatest living filmmaker. If he is known to anyone who isn't a cinephile, it's probably because of one film - actually two films - that got some, though not nearly enough, attention from critics and audiences in Europe and North America in the mid-1970s. The Emigrant Saga, as it was known in the U.S., incorporating The Emigrants and The New Land, told the story of a family of farmers who find living conditions too harsh in their native Sweden in the mid-1800s, and take the terribly risky but extraordinary opportunity to cross the Atlantic to America and seek a new life in what is now Minnesota. The fact that Troell had two great actors, Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow, playing the leads in both films helped tremendously. It did not, however, stop Warner Brothers, which had bought the rights to distribute the films in the U.S., from chopping huge chunks out of both films, reducing the running time of The Emigrants by 40 minutes and The New Land by 102 minutes.
Unfortunately, it wasn't the first time a film of Troell's had been so savagely butchered. Here Is Your Life, Troell's very first feature-length film, was released in Europe at a length of nearly three hours (169 minutes). Despite its having won numerous awards at European film festivals, the American distributor, fearful that exhibitors would balk at screening such a long film in their cinemas, promptly hacked it down to a length of less than two hours (110 minutes).(2) That missing hour of Here Is Your Life has never been shown on American cinema screens, nor have the scenes eliminated from The Emigrants and The New Land.
The son of a dentist, Troell was an elementary school teacher for nine years, an experience that he exploited in his second feature film (not shown in the U.S.), Ole Dole Doff.(3) He always had a keen interest in photography and briefly worked as a cinematographer (on Bo Widerberg's The Pram, among others), while directing his own short films for television. He asked for Max von Sydow to play in his short film, Stopover in the Marshlands, without ever expecting him to accept the role. When he did, it established a long-standing relationship between Troell and Von Sydow that has lasted the length of both of their subsequent careers. Von Sydow had just finished playing Jesus in George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told and was in the middle of making a Western. Contractural agreements promised Troell a daily fee if Sydow's participation in the Western went over schedule, and, when it did, Troell earned a fee worth more than the entire budget of Stopover in the Marshlands.
Stopover is a modest twenty nine minutes in length, but its style is characteristically and refreshingly direct. Based on one of Eyvind Johnson's leisurely anecdotal stories, the action of the film is limited to a railroad surveyor's brief expedition to dislodge a giant rock perched precariously on a hilltop that threatens the rails below. The film is alive in the story's details: the surveyor's (Max von Sydow) sunburned face, his cigarette holder which he momentarily converts into a whistle when he smilingly imitates a train while strolling down the tracks, or sucks on a lump of sugar while he sips coffee from a saucer. The task completed, he returns to the station and sits down on the edge of the platform, waiting for the next freight train that happens by.
Troell took this same fascinating naturalistic approach to his subject and expanded it to epic dimensions in his first feature film, Here Is Your Life, based on a series of Eyvind Johnson's "Olof" stories, following a young man's adventures upon leaving home and working at various labors, eventually becoming a projectionist at a cinema. By "epic" I don't mean the scale of Troell's productions, their sheer size. By Hollywood standards, Troell's most expensive film, The Emigrants (which was also the most expensive Swedish film to date), had a remarkably low budget and the number of people it took to make it was miniscule.(4)
In his review of Troell's 2009 film Everlasting Moments, Stanley Kauffmann caught the "peculiar" quality of Troell's work:
"Troell's screenplay, as has often been the case with him, exists for the fullness of its texture, not for dramatic growth and resolution. We spend two hours-plus in a thoroughly plumbed environment, with its complications of sex, family love, accustomed stratification, possible social change. Conditioned as we are by expectations of form, we anticipate - perhaps unawares - certain developments. But a peculiar truth holds about a Troell film: it is not necessarily a cumulative drama with an organic resolution. Certainly Troell has a sense of the dramatic moment, but he sees it as a moment in a life that has other moments before and after - not as an element in a growing structure. Principally, with a Troell film, the viewer relishes some richly comprehended characters, marvelously presented."(5)
Troell's next project was even more ambitious.(6) The Emigrants Saga, based on novels by Vilhelm Moberg, was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Foreign Film (it lost to ), and its success prompted Warner Brothers to offer Troell a script called Zandy's Bride. With the script rewritten, Troell was promised that he could also operate the camera, but the American cinematographers' union threatened to fine the appointed director of photography (Jordan Cronenweth) $500 every time Troell touched the camera. The result of depriving Troell of access to the camera, which introduced more cooks to the kitchen, prevented Zandy's Bride from getting off the ground.
In 1978, when Roman Polanski was relieved of his duties as the director of Hurricane, the film's producer, Dino De Laurentiis, hired Troell to take over.(7) Even with a ballooning budget, Max von Sydow to work with and Sven Nykvist as his cinematographer, Troell confessed that "I didn't feel I was doing a good job."(8) The only positive result of the experience was the large amount of money he earned, which helped him finance his next project - back in Sweden - Flight of the Eagle (1982).
The most significant reason for Troell's failure in Hollywood was much more fundamental: a filmmaker's nationality is essential to his work. Remove him from his native soil and native language - his ethos - and he is more than simply uprooted. He has lost his frame of reference, his ability to navigate the strange new world around him. Time and again, talented filmmakers leave their homelands (Fritz Lang, Renoir, Clair, Ophuls, Antonioni, Wertmuller, Malle, and even two other Swedes, Sjostrom and Stiller) for lucrative offers from Hollywood - for a film artist, the Land of No Return. None of them discovered a way to make a film in America that came close to their best work in their native lands. Some filmmakers had the good sense to go back home, but in most cases their creative lives were effectively over.
Somewhat miraculously, Troell's brush with Hollywood wasn't fatal, as his very next film, Flight of the Eagle, proved. Based on a book by Per Olof Sundman, it chronicles the disastrous 1897 exepedition of Swedish engineer - and adventurer - Salomon A. Andree and his two companions to fly a hydrogen balloon over the North Pole. After its takeoff from Spitzbergen, when its crucial guide-ropes were lost, rendering the balloon utterly unnavigable, the ultimate fate of the balloon or its occupants was a complete mystery until the 1930s, when the remains of two of them, including Andree, were discovered on an Arctic island along with numerous photographic plates. Some of these were incorporated by Sundman in his book and also cleverly interspersed by Troell in the action of the film. Troell would take up the story again in his documentary A Frozen Dream (1997), which showcases many more of the photographs taken during the doomed balloon expedition.(9)
Flight of the Eagle was shown in the States, with enthusiastic praise from John Simon, Pauline Kael, and Vernon Young.(10) The movie reviewers for the dailies, however (including Chicago's Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert), gave it a lukewarm reception or cruelly ridiculed the film, insuring its swift disappearance from American cinema screens.(11)
Undeterred, and living in a country (Sweden) that already recognized his greatness, Troell has been working ever since, scoring an occasional international hit with Hamsun in 1996 and most recently with Everlasting Moments in 2008. Amazingly, his work remains both challenging and rewarding for those intrepid filmgoers who have to go so far out of their way to find him. He has made three films that represent his extraordinarily personal style best: Here Is Your Life, The Emigrants, and The New Land.
Vernon Young called Troell "poetic naturalist":
"To watch a Troell film is to regain one's eye,not simply for the object in itself - that alone is reassurance - but for the sense of mystery in all the related things we daily refuse to relate, the living interdependence we fail to perceive or wantonly dissociate."(12)
(1) Born 1931. His last name is pronounced "Troh-well."
(2) Commercial film producers and distributors must be sensitive to the problems of exhibitors - cinema owners who screen their films - regarding the length of films, since films that are longer than usual (like most of Troell's films) can't be screened as many times a day,and can't make as much money in ticket sales for them.
(3) The title is an idiomatic Swedish version of "eeny meeny miney moe."
(4) Eddie Axberg, who also played the lead in Here Is Your Life, acted in The Emigrants and was also credited as a sound recordist.
(5) "Changes," The New Republic, April 1, 2009.
(6) Vernon Young announced in his review of The Emigrants that "The great American film has now been made - in Sweden." ("Hands Across the Sea," The Hudson Review 25, No.2 (Summer 1972).
(7) In his memoir, Roman, Polanski stupidly misspelled Troell's name as "Troller."
(8) To Michael Dwyer, "A Life Calling the Shots," The Irish Times, May 21, 2009.
(9) How and why the members of the expedition died remains a mystery, although Sundman theorizes that it could've been the trichinosis-riddled polar bear meat that they were eating that did them in.
(10) Young wrote: "This film is touched by greatness; it confirms my insistence, for seventeen years now, that Jan Troell (in this case director, co-writer, cinematographer and editor) is unsurpassed by any film-maker of our time.” The Film Criticism of Vernon Young, p.125.
(11) I will never forget them - Siskel and Ebert - laughing at a scene from the film on their syndicated TV show At the Movies.
(12) "Jan Troell: A Portrait," Jan Troell, edited by Lars-Olof Lothwall (Stockholm: The Swedish Film Institute, 1975).