Tree of Knowledge
By Christian Monggaard, film critic and reviewer at Information, 2006
Do you remember the first time you fell in love? Your first kiss?
Nils Malmros remembers and this is the subject of his dramatic and humorous film, Tree of Knowledge. The episodic film is based on his own school days in Aarhus in the 1950s. And the picture of the period, the dialogue and the children’s performances are surprisingly genuine, showing sympathetic insight.
The film follows the pupils of a school class over two years, when they are 14 to 16 years old. We see them at school parties and camps and learn how the natural, social hierarchy in the class works. It is often funny, but also painful.
Elin is very mature. This makes her attractive to the boys and vulnerable to insults and jealousy. Bullying ruins her school days. The other pupils whisper behind her back, she is called names and frozen out. Cliques are formed, intrigues are hatched, and an unspoken drama forgotten by many adults unfolds among the children. Often the children hurt each other unknowingly. It is not until the end of the film - when the children are well on their way to adulthood - that they realise what in fact happened and how they treated Elin. The film was shot over two years and the actual physical and mental development of the actors is thus reflected in the development of the characters on the screen.
Straightforward and harsh
Tree of Knowledge came after Nils Malmros’s first two highly praised films about schoolchildren, Lars Ole, Class 5c (Lars Ole 5c) and Boys (Drenge). Nils Malmros is working on a successor to Tree of Knowledge. Due for release in 2009, the new film follows the same characters during upper secondary school. The title will be Love Trouble (Kaerestesorger). Tree of Knowledge can be seen by older children and adolescents but some of the scenes are shockingly straightforward and harsh. Nils Malmros primarily makes films about children, not for children. But he identifies himself with the children and enters into their special world. So it is not hard to recognise yourself in some of his characters.
Did you know?
It is not always great to be a young celebrity. Line Arlien-Søborg, who played the intriguing Anne-Mette in Tree of Knowledge, once had to escape to a toilet on the Kalundborg ferry when she was hunted by a whole school class who wanted her autograph. She tried to say she was Anne-Mette's sister, but that didn't help.
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Film, 2006
The fragility of puberty has often been portrayed in Danish films, but never so precisely as in Nils Malmros’ Tree of Knowledge, which rightfully stands as the director’s chef d’oeuvre and the work against which other films with similar themes are measured – and they pale in comparison. The film was the culmination of a trilogy that had a starting point in the director’s own recollections of childhood in 1950s Århus and followed Lars Ole, 5c (1973) and Drenge (1977).
The plot takes place in 1958–60; however, the film is much more than a snapshot of the period, as the psychological mechanisms described by Malmros with sharp, penetrating vision will unfortunately never lose their relevance. The film is a group portrait of a second-year class at Århus Cathedral School; the central character is Elin, who is a little more mature and her classmates – and therefore popular among the boys. But when she rejects one of them, the whole class turns against her, and in its own quiet way it becomes a chilling, uncomfortable portrayal of a Denmark in miniature.
The framework, dialect and period snapshot are very Danish; however, the drama is universal and has never been portrayed so surely in the children’s own universe. Malmros tells the story discreetly, with expressions, movements and situations familiar to all. The characters are found in every school classes: the petite bourgeoisie, the wild child, the nice and the bullied – but all are allowed to express themselves, become flesh-and-blood individuals and develop throughout the film.
The film was made over two years, and the children’s development is physical as well as psychological. Malmros has never hidden his love of the French new wave, and François Truffaut in particular; but despite the fact that this influence was clearer in his earlier, less strictly composed films, his unfailingly secure grip on the young, inexperienced actors and the ability to get them to show emotions is fully at the same level as that of his icons.