Pelle the Conqueror
By Christian Monggaard, film critic and reviewer at Information, 2006
Raisins in the roast pork
Out of the fog they come, Pelle and his father Lasse. On board a boat packed with poor Swedish immigrants who sail to Denmark hoping to find a job. This is the beginning of Bille August’s harsh yet poetic period drama Pelle the Conqueror that takes place around the year 1900. The film is based on the first part of a contemporary novel by Martin Andersen Nexoe.
In Denmark they eat raisins with their roast pork and slivers of meat on every slice of bread, father Lasse (played by the leading Swedish actor Max von Sydow) promises his boy. Children don’t have to work in the daytime, but can play as much as they want to. It all sounds like heaven on earth, thinks Pelle (played by 11-year-old Pelle Hvenegaard, who is actually named after Pelle the Conqueror).
In real life though the two end up as herdsmen at the horrible Stone Farm where a sadistic master and his apprentice treat workers like slaves. Only Big Erik has the nerve to stand up to them. He wants to travel around the world and promises to take Pelle with him. In two years’ time, when the snow melts. But a confrontation with the master builds up and it is extremely doubtful whether Erik will be able to keep his promise. All around him, Pelle sees the socially weak being oppressed, an experience he himself shares with them. His beloved father Lasse is humble and lets Pelle down and it begins to dawn on the boy that not everyone can be strong in this life and he realises that he must get away in order not to become part of the unfair system.
Father and son
The book by Martin Andersen Nexoe, who became a communist later on, is a sharp social criticism and a tribute to the struggling proletarian. August tells a more personal story about an oppressed person who has to escape in order to survive. At the same time the film is a warm story about the love between father and son.
The film Pelle the Conqueror won the Palme d’or at the film festival in Cannes in 1988 and the following year an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, launching Danish film director Bille August’s international career.
Did you know?
Max von Sydow has been in over 120 films, but Pelle the Conqueror has a special place in his heart: "My best role is undoubtedly that of Lassefar. It has meant the most to me because it was a role in a wonderful story, based on a wonderful novel, and I had an excellent instructor in Bille August ". Max von Sydows Lassefar gave the actor a nomination for an Oscar for best lead.
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Film, 2006
Pelle the Conqueror tells the story of the humble remnants of a family that arrive in Denmark dreaming of jobs and a new life. Lassefar, portrayed by Max von Sydow in a gripping performance, is a weary but strong land worker, who in this world has only his son and his self-worth. He comes to lose both of them.
Bille August takes as a starting point Martin Andersen Nexø’s 1906 memoir Barndom. However, he has a free relationship with his source and creates a major epic drama in which the turning point is in immigrant couple, father and son, confronted with an inhospitable Denmark.
The film portrays a grim version of land workers’ terrible situation in the workplace, the large farm where Pelle’s and Lassefar’s lives are played out on the same level as the animals, whilst the lady of the farm cries in the night in sorrow over her husband’s sexual excesses. Lassefar dreams of finding a wife and helping his son to have a better life; however, the marriage fails, and when Pelle is eventually offered an education as an agricultural student, he refuses it and goes out into the grey Danish winter. Tired of his father’s pride. Alone. Yet on his way out into a new world.
Bille August is able to incorporate nature as an emotional barometer for his characters. As no other Danish director has ever done. The land workers’ joy is the summer and the white nights – whilst the winter is merciless. Viewers are shocked to see the dead, frozen fishermen in the open boat and the bullied and tormented Pelle who desperately throws himself into the cold water to show how tough he is.