The Nordic Sense of Snow and Ice By Henrik Uth Jensen

in 31st Goteborg International Film Festival

by Henrik Uth Jensen

The sky over Goteborg is grey. The festival concerned with Nordic cinema has a typical Scandinavian weather. This January is cold, but not cold enough to turn the daily rainfall into snow. The same goes for my hometown — Copenhagen — where we haven’t had decent snow for a while. It falls and disappears in a few days, but nothing spectacular white and nothing to make lakes “skatable”. It is good to hide in the cinema — and finally meet chilling frost and solid ice.

Of course we haven’t seen much snow in Danish cinema since Miss Smilla haunted the screens. Heavy rain falls on Anders W. Berthelsen in Ole Bornedal’s Just Another Love Story (Kærlighed på film), but apart from that the weather is fine in Natasha Arthy’s Fighter, and the soft ice even melts in an over-heated Copenhagen in Omar Shargawi’s FIPRESCI prize-winning Go in Peace Jamil (Ma salama Jamil). If you look for snow, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

But in the three of the five other films for the jury’s attention there is snow and ice. In all three a hole in the ice is vital to the story, so let’s focus on Gu?ny Halldórsdóttir’s The Quiet Storm (Ve?ramót) from Iceland and the two Swedish films Jens Jonsson’s debut King of Ping Pong (Ping-pongkingen) and Tomas Alfredson’s adolescent vampire love story Let Me In (Låt den rätte komma).

What Falls In Must Come Up

In the Icelandic story — about hippies in charge of a group on youngsters deported to a remote farm for their behavior or their troubled family relations — most of the film takes place during summer, but the climax leads four of the kids to steal the farm’s Range Rover and drive to the frozen lake nearby. We know from the first episode of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989) that you have to be careful with near, or on ice. One of the girls skates near the brink of the lake, the others go for a joyride on the icy lake. The timing is perfect. The ice groans, the girl responds to the sound with a “Watch out”, but the motor engine drowns out any warning. The ice breaks and the car disappears leaving a big dark hole in the ice — and a shocked skater.

There are better ways to create holes in the ice. In King of Ping Pong’s the focus is on awkward 16-year-old Rille, a bullied, sensitive soul who finds solace in table-tennis. Rille lives with his mother and brother., and their apartment — a zone of blue pastels — clearly matches the frozen world outside. Early in the film, Rille’s father takes him fishing on the lake, using a motor saw to cut a big hole in the ice. The father and son relate to each other in fishing — and in driving. Afterwards, the boy wonders if they should just leave the hole open as it is. Later in the story, when everything becomes too much for Rille, he goes out on the ice contemplating suicide. His father — who drowns his woes in alcohol — finds him there, standing frozen at the hole. The father must convince Rille that his problems are minor compared to suffering experienced by adults. And what better way to demonstrate this than jumping in. Rille looks stunned as the water covers his father. This is what it’s like drowning. To stop wanting to live. This is what it’s like Drowning: to stop wanting to live: everything is black. Then his father surfaces and crawls back onto the ice. This is what it’s like to be loved by someone. To share pain.

The sentiment is similar to the one in the adolescent drama in Let Me In. Just like Rille the young Oscar is bullied by a gang from his school and he is unable to confront them and fight back. We know he has issues with the real world and difficulty discerning fact from fiction — when his first soliloquies in the film includes lines auch as “Squeal like a pig” and “Are you talking to me?”. He is overheard by a strange girl who soon after declares they can’t be friends. But they’ll become much than that. So far we are comfortable with the situation — but she is a vampire and lives with and older man who goes out of his way to bring her blood. That means disposing of bodies — and what better hiding place than, you guessed it, a hole in the ice.

This hole is different from the other two, as in this case the hole is not created. We are reminded that what is created first, is the ice. Ice is just water transformed by frost, and hot water from a nearby power plant keeps a corner of the lake free from ice, suggesting to us, that the ice will melt and the old man’s actions will only be a short term solution.

What gets in, must get out — is the lesson of all three films. In The Quiet Storm the Rover — plus skeletons — is lifted out of the water many years after the tragic accident. In King of Ping Pong the father immediately gets up from the hole. In Let Me In a group of school children and their teachers. Later the same winter, discover the body which must be cut from the ice. In all three films we have a body in the hole in the ice. Accident, suicide, murder: the classic three possibilities confronted with death on film. This is the range of storytelling. But it should not be the range of cinema. In all three instances the ice as a location has been overturned by ice as a plot device. There is nothing wrong with using natural scenery and the surroundings in the narration. There would be no narration otherwise, but this coincidence must be seen as a symptom of a kind of cinema afraid of turning its eyes on the world itself, to show reality freed of the demands of narrative. And confronted with bodies falling, jumping or being put in the holes, one longs for a different kind of cinema. I mean, in Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), the Inuit use the hole to catch a seal. We spend good amount of screen time following the efforts of the Inuit waiting for and struggling with the animal. But we don’t have to resort to documentary or strict realism to see pure cinema. Though ice is such a potent image for the border between life and death, it is possible to strip it from meaning and story demands. If we don’t have to constantly fear the ice breaking, the experience of the white surface as pure visual sensation can be essential to a film. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) by Michel Gondry springs to mind.

The Quiet Storm, King of Ping Pong and Let Me In all have qualities unmentioned here, but what they have in common is snow and ice as fore grounded elements in the story. Here the holes in the ice point to the fragility of a cinema that has become obsessed with narrative and has difficulty representing a world or an image apart from action of any kind. What we need to counteract that, is a cinema that sets image over story. In other words, we need a cinema with sense of snow and eyes for ice.