September 30, 2016. Norway has submitted its entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the Oscar race this year. It’s the docudrama Kongens Nei (“The King’s No”), which is based on the true story of three gut-wrenching days in April 1940, when the Nazis invaded Norway and presented their ultimatum to parliament and the king: surrender or die. Needless to say, the film has broken box-office records here, and Matthew and I were hoping to see it. Not as easy a task as you might think.
I’ve mentioned before that seeing a film in Norway can be a bit of a challenge. First you have to purchase your tickets online and reserve your actual seats. Forget a spontaneous, last-minute decision like, “Hey, how ’bout a movie tonight?” If it’s even a mildly popular film, you’ve gotta book at least a day in advance. Especially if you don’t want to be sitting in the front row.
Then, there’s the language barrier. The good news is, if the film is in English, it doesn’t get overdubbed in Norwegian, just subtitled. (Unless it’s an animation, then Norwegian actors do voiceovers.) The bad news is, if the film is in Norwegian, it’s rarely transcribed into English — unless it’s being considered as an Oscar contender. Then you’ve typically got a three-day window to see the English subtitled version before it’s back to Norwegian only. And that’s kind of a bummer because Norway has put out some interesting films since we’ve been here that shed light on the country’s past and present. So for those of you with American Netflix, try checking out the following films. I’ve included links to trailers to whet your appetite.
Last year we missed Norway’s Oscar submission — Bølgen (“The Wave”). It’s a cheery little disaster flick about a town that gets wiped out by a 300-foot-high Norwegian tsunami that crashes through the Geiranger fjord. The storyline isn’t as farfetched as it seems. Like the tagline says, “It has happened before. It will happen again.” Apparently, many of the mountains above fjords have unstable slopes. When these loose plates of rock slough off and hit the inlet, they create a massive splash that builds into a towering wall of water as it careens down the narrow valley.
Throughout history, these homegrown tidal waves have destroyed several villages and taken hundreds of lives. The week the film was released, headlines and news programs highlighted ominous reports from geologists who’d calculated the potential for tsunamis in various fjords throughout Norway. I wonder how much damage was done to tourism that month? (Watch the clip in the link above, and you’ll see why I felt lucky to have survived our trip to Flåm last year.)
Another film we’d hoped to catch in the theater is Birkebeinerne, with the English title of “The Last King.” It tells the treasured legend of the Birkebeinerne, which literally translates in old Norsk as “birch legs” — men who were so poor that they had to make their leggings from birchbark. The tale takes place in 1206 during the middle of Norway’s civil war, when traitors poison King Håkon III. His loyal followers, the Birkebeiners, take his illegitimate baby son on a crazy, cross-country ski trip to ensure the boy will live to inherit the throne. They succeed, and the child eventually grows up to become Håkon Håkonson, revered even today as Norway’s greatest Medieval king.
By the way, the movie was filmed mostly near Lillehammer, the site where the epic ski trip began. Norwegians commemorate the event every year with Birkebeinerrene, a cross-country ski marathon where participants must carry a backpack weighing 3.5 kilograms (the estimated weight of the one-year-old Håkon Håkonson). Ski authorities, who apparently have lots of free time on their hands, have calculated that the original 33.5-mile flight over perilous mountains on Medieval skis took about five hours. I bet today’s participants are just happy they don’t have to wear skis from the Middle Ages or get shot at by crossbows along the way.
In the race for Norway’s Oscar submittal this year, Kongen’s Nei also beat out another docudrama. Pyromanen (“Pyromaniac”) is based on the true story of a small town in Norway plagued by a series of unexplained fires in 1978. As usual, everyone looks for an outsider to blame and is shocked when the culprit turns out to be the local fire chief’s son — a young man who’s just finished serving his stint in the army and can’t find his place in society. The themes of alienation, denial, disenfranchised youth, and hometown terrorism seem particularly poignant considering recent headlines across the globe.
One other film originally considered for Norway’s Oscar bid this year also had a ring of truth to it. Welcome to Norway is a dark comedy about the racist owner of a family-run mountain resort, who’s down on his luck and tries to rescue his business by turning the place into a refugee reception center. As you might imagine, the film deals with the timely but difficult subject of immigration. Check out the comments on the YouTube trailer of the film, and you’ll see just how polarizing (and scary) reactions have been.
Immigration is a particularly touchy topic in Norway, a nation that has remained homogeneous longer than many European countries and has struggled with xenophobia in unimaginably difficult ways. Remember Anders Breivik, the right-wing extremist who, in 2011, killed 69 people at a youth camp? Most of his victims were the children of Norwegian Labor-party politicians whom he blamed for supporting immigration, Islam, and feminism — tenets and practices he saw as “the downfall of European culture.” (Sound familiar, U.S. voters?)
Bizarrely, Breivik boasted that if “stopping Islamic colonization” has made him “the greatest monster since Quisling,” then he’s “okay with that.” Which brings us back to Kongens Nei. Invoking Quisling’s name in Norway is akin to calling someone a Benedict Arnold (a traitor) in the U.S. A fading politician who shared Hitler’s fascist and racist ideals, Vidkun Quisling convinced Germany that he could deliver both king and government once the Nazis invaded Norway. And this is where Kongens Nei kicks off its storyline. (Check out the clip.)
At this point, I’d like to say: spoiler alert. But if you’re a fan of WWII history, or if you’ve read my previous post, Norwegian Resistance, none of the following info will come as a surprise. The film begins with news that Germany is on the move and has Norway in its sights. Hitler demands the Norwegian government’s cooperation, with Quisling acting as the new Head of State. Parliament, King Håkon VII, and Crown Prince Olav are all keenly aware that the country doesn’t have the resources to fend off an attack.
Parliament leans towards accepting Quisling to avoid a bloody confrontation. The Crown Prince favors resistance, believing invasion rather than alliance is Germany’s true goal. King Håkon seems caught in the middle. But on April 9, 1940, Germany’s intentions become clear when a Nazi flotilla running dark and silent attempts to take the Oslo fjord. The quick-thinking colonel who’s in command of the outdated Oscarsborg Fortress manages to take out two key warships, delaying the invasion long enough to give the Royal Family, Parliament, and Cabinet time to escape Oslo.
During the retreat to the town of Elverum, a harrowing Nazi air attack convinces the King and Crown Prince that it’s time to split up the family, so the Crown Princess and her three children head for Sweden (and later to the U.S., where they will live with FDR and Eleanor for the duration of the war.) The next day, the German Minister to Norway meets with King Håkon to offer the final ultimatum. And I think it’s this pivotal moment that gives the English version of the film its erroneously translated and weaker title, “The King’s Choice.”
In reality, he didn’t have a choice. And during the turning point of the film, King Håkon gives a moving speech explaining exactly that: he was chosen to be king by the people, and the people have made it clear that they won’t accept Quisling or Germany. (To explain, King Håkon didn’t inherit the throne. As a prince of Denmark, he was invited to take the newly created position of King of Norway upon its independence from Sweden.) To fulfill his duty as an elected king by upholding the will of the people, he must say no to the Nazi ultimatum. He understands the power of “The King’s No” — that it will launch war, separate his family, and result in the death of his people and the devastation of his country.
His real struggle is not in making the decision to abide by his people’s will; it’s in resigning himself to its inevitable consequences. We don’t get to see those consequences in the film (which is over two hours long), but history records them. Norway became the most heavily occupied country in WWII, with almost 375,000 Nazi soldiers. Thousands of Norwegian Jews and Norwegian resistance fighters were deported and executed. Thousands of Norwegian women and more than 12,000 “half-breed” children endured imprisonment, lifelong cruelty, and shame as part of Hitler’s Lebensborn Project.
The film ends with a scene showing the reunion of King Hakon and Crown Prince Olav with young Prince Harald (who is King of Norway today.) I read one review that criticizes the film as dangerously nationalistic. Although I think the film does an incredible job of portraying historic events and decisions — some which seem eerily similar to those we face today — I completely understand the reviewer’s perspective. It’s a slippery slope from nationalism and populism to fascism and dictatorships.
Do we let right-wing extremists use fear to usher in an era of discrimination, intolerance, and bullying, all under the guise of patriotism? Or, do we insist on freedom for all, no matter the country, creed, color, or gender? I guess for the U.S., we’ll find out on Election Day. (Matthew and I spent $100 to FedEx our ballots six weeks ago, just to make sure our votes for the kind of country we want to live in would be counted.)
And on a lighter note, I guess we’ll find out in January whether the Academy board selects Kongens Nei as one of the Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film ….