Nils Malmros: Lars-Ole 5C
One of my favourite movie directors is Danish director Nils Malmros. Most of his DVDs are released without foreign subtitling, something that irks me to no end, as they are – rightfully – internationally acclaimed (his movie Kundskabens træ [“Tree of Knowledge”] having received the Lübecker Nachrichten Audience Award in 1982, several of his movies having been shown at the Cannes Festival), and I would love to be able to share my love for them with the world. However, I figured that writing about the movies here on the blog might be a way of raising some curiosity about the movies and thus – perhaps – a teeny tiny step towards an international edition of the DVDs.
And so I will be reviewing a number of Nils Malmros-movies, starting with one of his first movies, Lars-Ole 5C (“Lars-Ole, 5th grade”) from 1973, and ending with his most recent production At kende sandheden (which has been given the international title Facing the Truth). I regret that I am unable to review his movies En mærkelig kærlighed [“A Strange Love”] (1968 – Malmros’ first movie), Drenge [“Boys”] (1977), and Barbara (1997) as I have not been able to get hold of the films anywhere.
Lars-Ole 5.C was Nils Malmros’ first real success and a very important movie for the director. Five years earlier his movie En mærkelig kærlighed had been released and it had been a huge fiasco, the critics dismissing Nils Malmros as a bad impersonator of Francois Truffaut (by whom Nils Malmros was indeed very inspired, as he has stated openly several times). With Lars-Ole 5.C, however, Malmros started on a narrative style that has arguably become his signature as a director: The school-yard retrospective, that is, the capturing of a budding adult hurt, frustration and passion through the depiction of adolescent children manuvering their way through the micro-cosmos of the school yard, the school dance, the camp school – the limits of a child’s world. The movie was a success and took that year’s Bodil award (the Danish movie awards) in the category “Best Movie” and received some attention at the Cannes Film Festival. Shot entirely in humble black and white, Lars-Ole 5C is definitely a good movie in its own right, but seeing it, as I did, for the first time only after having seen Malmros’ later movies it is impossible not to regard it as a kind of study for these later works (Kundskabens træ in particular), and it is partly as such that I will be reviewing it here.
Don José, 5th grade
In Lars-Ole 5C, we meet 12-year-old Lars-Ole (Søren Rasmussen), an average 5th grader who is in love, likely for the first time, in fourth grader Inger. Inger is, however, in love, and “going steady”, with Hanse, a friend of Lars-Ole’s. Distraught from jealousy Lars-Ole tells on Hanse who gets blamed and physically punished for a mischief, and Inger dismisses Lars-Ole as “mean”. At a school dance the still smitten Lars-Ole steals a dance from Inger during the rheinländer polka. That is really all there is to the story, but Nils Malmros tells it with a painstaking earnestness and an attention to detail that bears witness of an almost photographic memory when it comes to this tumultuous time of a person’s life, so that it is impossible not to get sucked into the story, remembering one’s own adolescent, and seeing the depiction of this particular adolescent as a monument over human sorrow and frustration.
Lars-Ole is a somewhat plain-looking boy and not remarkable in any other way than because of the passion that shines from his eyes that follow his beloved with the strained watchfulness of jealousy. Even his name is plain and common, and the movie title Lars-Ole, 5th grade will bear connotations of an almost comical commonness to the average Dane, harking of a clumsy hand-written characters on the torn cover of a much hated math book, and this wouldn’t have worked as well with a more exotic name like Hanse. This is hardly a coincidence: the poignantly plain young man, Lars-Ole, constitutes a type that is to be repeated throughout Malmros’ cinematography: The nice, but somewhat paralyzed male character who loses his great love to a more radiant, although often dubious, personality. A Don José, one might call him, losing his Carmen to the more interesting Escamilio, and it is obvious that Malmros has much sympathy for this kind of character. His name is Lars-Ole in this movie, it is Niels-Ole in another (Kundskabens træ), while he takes the form of a struggling Danish movie director in a third movie (Århus by night), and one might see him as Malmros’ alter ego – the character almost being Malmros name-sake in Kundskabens træ and sharing his profession in Århus by night.
Inger (Judith Nysom) getting something whispered in her ear, the image of aloof and esoteric feminitiy and delicacy in the eyes of a clumsy 12-year-old boy.
Ass-jokes, secret spatiality, and falling from grace
Lars-Ole’s main problem, as well as his fellow Don Josés’, is that he is still so very insecure about himself and so uncomfortable with his own sexuality. This youthful character trait is particularly evident in Lars-Ole who is still partly caught within a kind of untimely “anal phase” (as far as Ericsson’s study of a child’s psychological development goes), and he and his friends are preoccupied with farts and ass-jokes which they tell each other amidst much giggling whenever the grown-ups aren’t around, with all the excitement and passion of young lovers throwing gravel at their beloved’s windows at night. This is as far as the boys have come when it comes to sexuality, but it’s something that they have to go through. The physical frames in which this anal preoccupation takes place is also significant: Lars-Ole and his best friend John find and explore a secret room and hallway in the deserted part of an old factory where they start meeting to exchange their boyish pranks and jokes. Secret rooms, hallways and other such cave-like spatiality is a theme that Malmros returns to later on in his cinematography, in Århus by Night, and it works as an efficient symbol of young boys’ exploration of their own subconsciousness.
The grown-ups in Lars-Ole’s life definitely constitute the super-ego to the id this secret spatiality provides, and while Lars-Ole comes from an attentive and caring home (personified by a loving mother), it is remarkable how poorly the adults tend to administrate the power they possess in their relation to the unruly boys. The boys’ school teacher, a grim-looking, elderly man, is a constant threat in their lives, his big, stern hands dealing the boys slaps by way of punishment. Corruptly so even; the teacher plays favourites and puts force into the blows he deals his pupils according to his personal preferences. Lars-Ole and his friends probably find their first impersonations of evil in this man, and the importance of the movie lies in the fact that the action takes place around the time when the children lose their ability to preserve their goodness and innocence and stand up to this evil. Lars-Ole ought to stand by his friends, but his sense of moral and ethics is weakened by his adolescent love for Inger and the jealousy he feels against Hanse because she is his girlfriend, and Lars-Ole fails to protect Hanse. This incapability embues the love-struck Lars-Ole’s story: He is similarly unable to make a difference as he finds out that his younger sister Marie is getting bullied by classmates, and he abuses his mother’s credit account at the local bakery in an attempt at buying himself friends with cakes and treats.
Cameradery betrayed – Malmros’s lense catches the easily overlooked hurtful glances between 12-year-olds.
It is this dilemma that lends Lars-Ole 5c its strength and impact dramaturgically and makes it into more than just a story of puppy love, and Nils Malmros’s directing provides for the artistic expression of the dilemma. Malmros is famous for his ability to direct children, and the boy actors’ loud and limit-seeking behaviour appears almost uncannily natural, as if they weren’t acting at all, the film simply depicting a random group of boys (this is not the case). The camera follows Lars-Ole’s dark eyes and their painfully heavy, lingering and longing gaze, contrasting it by delicious capturing of pretty little elf-like Inger’s dancing movements and the coquette, swiftly sweet smiles. Unrequited love and human failure are by no means innovative themes for a filmmaker to take up, but the photography of Malmros’s movies prevents the movie from veering off into the contrived; Malmros has the ability to position the camera so that a single cameo may tell a thousand stories, and a haunting scene shows Lars-Ole from his younger sister’s perspective. Her older brother walks away from her and leaves her on the lurk, his frame becoming smaller and smaller from her point of view, flanked by the wall-like forms of her bullying classmates who are cornering her.
The black-and-white photography gives the film a raw, somewhat primitive air, rather than an artsy one as is sometimes the case with anachronistic black-and-whites, and Lars-Ole 5C does have something stumbling and fragmentary to it that is not there in his later, more wholesome films. But there is something very appropriate about fragmentary in the formality of a movie about adolescent life, and all in all Lars-Ole 5C is a little masterpiece and definitely recommendable to anyone who has the courage to re-visit the optics of those years of constant insecurity, of pimples and awkward explorations, that most of us are more than happy to have put behind us.
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