The North Star

I hesitate to recommend a film to such an instructed readership as this, but (after a good deal of politeness, a cultural attaché, and two unbelievably helpful and together individuals at the Norwegian Film Institute) Dr Biswell and I found ourselves last night watching a borrowed video of Knut Erik Jensen’s Stella Polaris, and we thought it was a stunner.
The whole film (almost no dialogue, scraps in German, Russian, English and the odd command or warning in Norwegian) focuses on moments when people don’t speak. It is a history of Finnmark, nothernmost Norway, since the late 1930s told as a series of flashbacks to childhood and early maturity of a woman now in hospital, drugged, and hallucinating scenes from her past life. Apart from the opening sequence, a dream-walk through a once-grand street of neo-classical stone apartment-blocks — all windowless, gutted, falling to ruin — almost all the action of the film takes place in a remote fishing village in Finnmark. The protagonist and her childhood friend, later husband, run in and out of the village of wooden houses, fish-processing sheds, playing among kingcups and lush grass in summer, in snow-mist on the shore in winter. Simultaneously their adult selves are present, sometimes apparently shadowing the children, but shown as adults from the late 1940s into the 1960s or 1970s without apparently ageing, or changing the simple work-clothes which cunningly fail to give any clue as to the date.
The film is full of repetitions — dancing couples seen through a window or in the middle distance, boats arriving and departing, anchors rattling down into the water. The middle section of the film begins with the arrival of a gunboat of German soldiers, their occupation of the village and their final herding of the villagers onto another boat (whose name seems to be ‘Norway’) as they destroy livestock and buildings on their scorched earth retreat. There is a nasty scene where they hack up a sheep to ensure that its meat is wasted. (I had to reassure Dr Biswell that the sheep was quite patently dead before the scene began.) The protagonists are adults in the late forties when the village is rebuilt (their marriage is hinted only by a wedding procession passing in the distance on the other side of the bay) and they have not aged twenty years later, although the fish-sheds are mechanised, and the wooden fishing-boats have been replaced by factory trawlers.
The details, observed slowly and usually in silence, are wonderfully done: clear water dividing at the prow of a small boat as it pushes off from shore; the thick summer grass sometimes with the children playing, sometimes with the adults lying together naked; the village seen from the shore in different seasons; the trim interior of the wooden house, sometimes working and inhabited, sometimes wrecked by the retreating Germans, sometimes in its post-war rebuilding. The protagonist in her white dress wanders through the outskirts of a village, sometimes in ruins, sometimes inhabited. There are points where what she sees looking into the fish-sheds or through the windows of a village hall is of a different era from the time outside. The aurora borealis plays above the ship which takes the people home to rebuild their village.
Towards the end, the atmosphere of dream seems to grow darker: the husband is unfaithful, then he seems to be lost overboard at night in mid sea. But in the last few moments of the film everything resolves. The protagonist is not ill but in a maternity ward. The film ends with the image of the newborn baby being held up to a window beyond which, brilliant as a diamond in the cobalt-blue night, is the north star.
A stunner, worth the writing to any number of cultural attachés, indeed worth going to Oslo to see.

2 Responses to “The North Star”

  1. Jon Says:

    Sounds fabulous. I saw Jensen’s recent documentary, Cool and Crazy last year. Much less challenging to the viewer, I think, but intensely moving.

    This may have been a result of it featuring a male voice choir; I’m not entirely sure why they are so emotionally wringing, but they are.

  2. Peter Says:

    Yes, it’s marvellous and you can see certain tropes or visual moments — mostly of sea-spray or blown snow — repeating themselves from film to film. There is,I suppose inevitably, a bit about *Cool and Crazy* in the North Book. I still have *Burnt by Frost* to go, sent also by the unbelievably pleasant and together Norwegian Film Institute. Expect a report next week.

Leave a Reply