Monday, 27 August 2018

Gypsies, tramps and arsonists… Fante-Anne (1920)

I saw this film at last year’s silent film festival in Pordenone and whilst I was impressed, it was slightly lost in the rush of Scandinavian and other silent treasures. Watching it again on this sparkling Norwegian Film Institute DVD/Blu-Ray pack, I can appreciate its strengths a lot more: superb lead performers, top-notch cinematography and location backdrops to die for.

All this you tend to take for granted with Scandi-silents, but this was the first Norwegian film to be made by entirely by Norwegians and not led by Swedes, Danes or Germans. It was also, wiki-parently, the first film to feature professional actors, in this case led by the formidably expressive Aasta Nielsen - a 23-year old theatre actor and not the Danish Asta (an extra “a”) already established as Europe’s leading lady.

Directed by Rasmus Breistein, Fante-Anne (Gypsy Anne) was based on the 1868 novel by Kristofer Janson and, like so many films of the North, attempts to recreate the rural past as accurately as possible with milk-maids, grizzly farm hands and romantic dramas set to rural rhythms.

Norway's Aasta Nielsen
It’s also a film with a message and in which the outsider, the un-belonging gypsy, has to fight for her rightful place in a society constricted by tradition and prejudice. There are similar narratives throughout the films of this period from Europe to the USA addressing class as well as race: given the view of gypsies even now, integration in straight society would be as unlikely as say marriage between the leads in Broken Blossoms or The Red Lantern. The times, they were, very slowly, a-changing and, as usual, liberal artistes were leading the way.

Anyway… what we have here is a gently gripping story of a love triangle that succeeds in the improbable task of confounding expectations in ways that reinforce the morality of the tale. It’s a little slow perhaps but so absorbing especially here with the new orchestral score from Haldor Krogh as played by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra which looms over the action like the peaks on either side of the valley in which the Storlein family farm is based.

Elsa Vang in a tree
Here a young orphaned girl Anne (Elsa Vang) is taken in and grows up like a sister to Haldor Storlein (Olaf Solberg) with farm hand Jon Sandbakken (Einar Tveito) like the father she never had. The two children play, and we see Anne quickness of thought and playfulness, Haldor the slower of the two and often the butt of her pranks and the one who gets caught when her mischiefs gets spotted.

The years pass and Haldor is now played by Lars Tvinde and Anne by Aasta Nielsen; the two youngsters are still very close and, more than that are united by un-fraternal affection which causes the young man’s mother (Johanne Bruhn) some anxiety: the girl is not from here and of unknown origin, she cannot marry her son.

Meanwhile Jon’s affection is far from paternal and he surprises Anna by asking her to marry him… Anne smiles it off, she loves Haldor and just doesn’t think of the poor Jon as anything other than the surrogate he’s always been to her.

Einar Tveito
We know this story, we think, and surely the young lovers will follow their hearts to break with the requirements of the rural social order? Haldor’s mother has other ideas and pushes her son to abandon his ideas and court more worthy women whose lineage is without question. Sure enough, after a month of not seeing Haldor as she works as a milk maid up in the hills, Anne discovers he has been seeing a wealthy farm girl, Margit Moen (Kristine Ullmo) and they are going to be wed.

This naturally pushes all of the wrong buttons for Anne, betrayed and humiliated by her life-long friend. Jon warns Haldor of what she might do but the young dunderhead has underestimated his old friend just as he always did when they were younger. Anne takes things to another level, torching the new house he has been building and as the magistrate investigates, surely there’s a high price to pay for this impulsiveness…

Anne and Haldor share a joke
But the true heart of the story is only just starting to be revealed and I won’t spoil it.

Cinematographer Gunnar Nilsen-Vig deserves credit for some stunning composition, a world of crystal clear close ups and magnificent vistas, the farmers often dwarfed by their hugely impressive surroundings. The Scandinavian films of this period had almost every other country beat in terms of the natural backdrops and they were also favoured by the light for at least part of the year. In North America you’d have to be Nell Shipman to find this kind of rugged beauty and very few had followed her example by this stage.

Aasta Nielsen is superb, amongst a very naturalistic cast and she looks very much at home with farm duties as well as the drama. Einar Tveito, who will later feature in Dreyer’s The Bride of Glomdal and many more, is also good as the love-lorn Jon who has the most complex story arc of all – the transition from “uncle” to suitor is not an easy one after all.

Fante-Anne is a “bunad” film – one that looks back to the rural tradition – but unlike most other films, it doesn’t over romanticise the period and obviously highlights the inequalities that came with it. Too often the past and costume dramas are an escape for audiences but not here, it looks nice yes, but it is not a fair society.

The Fante-Anne dual format is available through Amazon or direct from the Norwegian Film Institute – well worth your time, I mean, just look at the view.

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