Zero Motivation, (2014) Israel. Zohar (Dana Ivgy) and Daffi (Nelly Tagar) are two young Israeli soldiers serving on a remote army base. Stuck in the Human Resources Division, the girls are bored pencil-pushers who spend their days playing video games, singing pop songs, flirting with handsome male soldiers, and dreaming of escape to Tel Aviv. An Israeli version of MASH (1970), or Stripes (1981), it was a huge hit in Israel. Simultaneously hilarious and touching, Zero Motivation is, ultimately, a military coming-of-age movie that offers a unique glimpse into Israeli society. Netflix.
A little girl searches for her lost dog. The landscape is sheeted with snow and ice. Bundled in thick furs, the child approaches a stand of birch trees. She lifts her eyes and spies a discordant note: in the whiteness of the snow, among the white trees, is a band of men draped in filthy black skins. The girl is frozen in terror. A crossbow decorated with the grinning skull of a small animal is aimed, the trigger released, and—
It is Lappland, approximately 1000 CE.
The Pathfinder (1987) is a tale of utter simplicity, but endowed with mythic power.
Based on an ancient Sami legend and the first film shot in the Sami language, The Pathfinder tells the tale of Aigin, a young hunter who returns home to find his family slaughtered by the Tjuder, merciless bandits who look like a cross between jihadists and ninja assassins.
Aigin flees to another village where he tries to rally the peaceful hunter gatherers to make a stand against the genocidal Tjuder.
It’s a classic set-up with the reluctant hero trying to gain support against a blood-thirsty conquerer who cannot be appeased, whose only goal is murder and pillage. The Tjuder are never seen eating, tending fires or hunting for food. There are no women in their band and they don’t even bother to rape. They are, quite simply, creatures who have climbed from the bowels of hell, evil incarnate.
Rarely has film presented such nightmarish antagonists. Compared to the Tjuder, the bandits in Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, are unruly frat boys.
Set in a pre-Christian culture, the film lovingly documents a world ruled by spirits and ghostly reindeer. After a Shaman kills a ferocious bear, the villagers will only gaze at their Shaman through a protective amulet or risk the immolation of their souls.
As the medieval Sami enacted their pagan rituals, Seraphic Secret felt right at home, identifying with the characters, their reliance on religious ritual, community, and their feelings of terror and awe before the inexplicable universe and the evil that threatens their very existence.
At one point in the film Aigin poses the ultimate question to the Shaman: Why are the Tjuder bent on annihilating the Sami?
Answers the wise Shaman, “Such is our fate.”
What a lovely piece of dialogue. No grand speeches, no philosophical reflections on the nature of good and evil.
The Shaman is telling Aigin that evil is incomprehensible. Thus, all that’s left for good men is to stand and fight—to the death if necessary.
As I said, last week, in my review of the silent masterpiece Laila (1929) an epic set in the frozen tundra of Lappland, I’m a sucker for such imagery: barren and frozen landscapes, characters wrapped in layers of thick and luxurious furs, amazing headwear that is, I kid you not, Vogue-worthy, a sturdy people at one with their environment but acutely aware of the mortal danger that threatens every movement.
Seraphic Secret has, over the years, repeatedly emphasized that every great movie is, essentially a love story. Central to the The Pathfinder, is Aigin’s romance with Sahve, Sara Marit Gaup, a lovely village girl with a serene disposition that masks an iron faith in Aigin’s heroic mission.
The Pathfinder feels like an American movie, a Budd Boetticher Western, lean and hard-bitten, but focused on protecting and preserving family and community.
But first and foremost, the emphasis is on one moral man refusing to surrender to the forces of evil, a lesson that is, too often, forgotten by modern man.
A truly wonderful film, highly recommended.
The Pathfinder on DVD is only available on the non-USA format. But hey, watch it on your computer, it’s that good.
Seraphic Secret has a weakness for films that take place in Lappland.
The frozen tundra, the layers of thick fur—torture for a PETA fanatic—the ultra-cool head gear, and let’s not forget the herds of thundering reindeer; these images speak to me on a deeply personal level, for they are part and parcel of classic narratives that explore timeless themes: coming of age, divided loyalties, personal and moral courage, and passionate but forbidden romance.
If a film takes place in Lappland, my eyeballs are there.
Granted, I’ve only seen two such films, but they are both memorable, one a silent classic, the other a 1987 action-romance that is, basically, an American Western in -47 degrees.
Laila (1929) is a Norwegian film set in 1920’s Finnmark, the traditional name for Lappland.
Laila, played by the lovely and lively Swedish actress Mona Mårtenson—she reminds me of Clara Bow, a spontaneous performer who reveals her innermost feelings with flashing eyes and the simplest of gestures—is separated from her Norwegian parents as a child and raised by Lapplanders who herd reindeer.
Mårtenson is a radiant actress with a universe of expressions that display her joy in life, and then gradually, she deftly reveals dawning confusion as her existence is shattered by irreconcilable cultural conflicts and, of course, forbidden romance.
Unlike Greta Garbo, her classmate and friend in the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theater, Mårtenson is a natural, unmannered performer. Mårtenson moves like quicksilver whereas Garbo languidly poses. Mona Mårtenson should have been a huge international star, but she remained in Scandinavia, never making the leap to Hollywood, and tragically passed away in 1956, at the young age of 54.
Caught between two cultures in the early 1920’s, Laila, a Scandinavian Pocahontas, is a young woman of two worlds, the nomadic Lapplanders, a tribal culture, and the village dwelling Norwegians who trade and sell goods.
Directed by Danish-German director and noted cinematographer George Schnéevoigt, Carl Dreyer’s cinematographer, Laila is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. The vast landscapes are dazzling and barren, yet we understand that this harsh land is beloved home to the closely-knit nomadic Lapplanders. Schnéevoigt wisely focuses on the little details of life: the rough but aerodynamic wooden sleds, the leather bindings that tether reindeer, the constant tending to fires, the fierce loyalties and codes of honor that animate the characters.
When, for the very first time, Laila sits down for a meal at a table, the winsome young woman gazes in wonder at the heaps of food, she’s puzzled by the forks and knives. Laila is confused, curious, and tantalized by this alien way of life. It’s a lovely moment that perfectly illustrates the clash of cultures that is the spine of this film.
Laila has just about everything that makes for a compelling yarn: caught in rapids, Laila heads for a massive waterfall, Laila’s girlish affection for her champion racing reindeer, lovers missing a midnight—well, what passes for midnight in Lappland—assignation, hounds nipping at heels, and believe it or not the Bubonic Plague makes a timely appearence in order to wipe out a family and advance the plot.
Honestly, this movie—an old fashioned epic—never stops moving, and the resolution is lovely and satisfying.
Restored by the Norwegian Film Institute, TCM recently premiered this magnificent movie and even at 161 minutes, I was riveted by every frame.
Newly scored by the great composer Robert Israel, Laila is available on DVD. This is a film that I’d show to anyone who resists silent films and rest assured that the glories of the silent era—never really silent—will be comprehended.
Next week, the second great film set in Lappland, Pathfinder. Here, the protagonist Aigin, Mikkel Gaup, comes home from a hunting trip to discover his family massacred by the Chudes, medieval Scandinavian terrorists.
Here’s a clip to whet your appetite.
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