Lust in Lappland: Laila


Laila, Mona Mårtenson, with Mellet, her foster brother, Henry Gleditsch.

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.


Mona Mårtenson, left, and Greta Garbo, appeared together in The Saga of Gosta Berling (1924)

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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  1. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Thanks so much for dropping in and articulating some of the cultural issues. The film I review later this week, Pathfinder, is actually the first film ever made in the Sami language.
    Do stay in touch.

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  2. Posted April 11, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Nice to hear about this film, as I have reason to believe I’m partly descended from “Lapplanders.” (They much prefer to be called “Sami” nowadays. It’s a political correctness thing; but they do get upset about it.) It ought to be noted that the Finns and the Lapplanders (Sami) are not exactly the same people. The Sami are a nomadic group who live in the northern parts of all the Scandinavian countries. They now have an independent Parliament of their own, at least in Norway. The whole thing is further complicated by the fact that “Finn” was an old Scandinavian name for the Sami, who tended to lump the two groups together.

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  3. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Prophet Joe:
    I knew a sniper in the IDF who had a photo of Simo Häyhä taped inside his very full “Confirmed Kill Book.”
    The IDF does not publish their sniper’s confirmed kills, preferring a near invisible profile, but I know of some shots that are just mind-boggling.

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  4. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    An obscure, but very fine Finnish film about the 100 Day’s War fought by the Finns against the Russians is The Winter War, 1989.
    I write about it here:
    Highly recommended.

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  5. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted April 8, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    “Night Sky” sounds like another book that would appeal to me. Thanks so much.

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  6. Posted April 8, 2011 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    “BTW, the greatest sniper in the history of the universe was a little Finnish guy: Simo Häyhä
    He spoke in, er, lead.
    Given that his lower jaw was virtually shot off by the Soviets, he probably couldn’t speak very well!
    With an estimated 800 kills in approx. 100 days of combat, in sub-zero temperatures, in limited sunlight, in blinding white snowy conditions, and without a scope… yeah, he was that good!

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  7. Bill Brandt
    Posted April 7, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Robert – according to my ex-partner, the Finns were fleeing Ghengis Khan and finally got so far north that they ran into the Baltic.
    They have a special term for courage – Sisu – “See-Soo”.
    Simo certainly had Sisu!
    You have to admire the Finns – how many would have had the courage to fight the Russians – and Stalin – to a standstill?
    My partner’s father was one of those ski troopers who fought the Russians.
    I am looking for the DvD that isn’t in PAL now.
    Another recent (and interesting) Finnish movie was from 2005 – Mother of Mine. During that war, 70,000 Finnish children were evacuated to Sweden, much as the English children sent to Canada.
    The movie dealt with the huge cultural shock (unlike the rest of Scandinavia where Danes, Norwegians and Swedes all have a bit of commonality to their languages, this young boy was completely isolated both culturally and socially.
    On snipers, like Carlos Hathcock of Vietnam fame, some of the best snipers have had relatively simple rifles – nothing custom – just off-the-rack .30 caliber or 7mm hunting rifles.

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  8. Posted April 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Robert…way off-topic, but another excellent book by Clare Francis is “Night Sky,” set during WWII with characters including a German Jewish radar scientist, an English girl who had to flee to France because of her unmarried pregnancy, and a French gangster..and with events including a desperate sailboat voyage across the English Channel with U-boats in pursuit. Very, very well done.

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  9. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted April 7, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Permalink

    You missed a great film, but do order the DVD. Laila is a beauty.
    Ah, the classic Andorran cinema. The Cahier Du Cinema gang are all abuzz about the latest discoveries of genius from this sadly neglected center of film culture.
    Thanks so much for the kind words.

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  10. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted April 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the tip. I’ll order the book

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  11. Johnny
    Posted April 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I was wondering when you were going to do a post on silent movies set in Lappland. I started to watch this when it was on TCM Silent Sundays and forgot to hit the record button when I fell asleep. I’m kicking myself now.
    So now that Lappland is covered where is the post on the silent movies set in Andorra? After reading your blog for a few years I have no doubt if there is a great Andorran movie out there you have not only seen it but have lots of details about the principals that made it. Some of the most interesting things one learns are those that one would never consider in the first place. For that I give my thanks for your insights.

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  12. Posted April 7, 2011 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    There is also a good book that takes place in Lappland, “Wolf Winter” by Clare Francis. The cold-war plot is a little dated, but a very well-told story.

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  13. Robert J. Avrech
    Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    It’s a great sequence and the chase that follows has me biting my lip bloody.
    I have a feeling you would love this film.
    Heard the same thing about the Finnish language, but honestly it’s just another incomprehensible mash to me.
    BTW, the greatest sniper in the history of the universe was a little Finnish guy: Simo Häyhä
    His spoke in, er, lead.

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  14. Bill Brandt
    Posted April 7, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Man, I just knew that ski was going to get loose! The Finns are an interesting people; not really Scandinavian but their language is related to Hungarian; so my ex-Finnish business partner told me.

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