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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