The Strongest Man in the World Is (Not) the Man Who Stands Alone By Jan Brodal

in 15th Tromso International Film Festival

by Jan Brodal

Hurt and dismayed by the hostile reception of “Ghosts” in 1881, Ibsen published, a year later, the uncompromising “An Enemy of the People” (“En folkefiende”). The action can be summed up as follows: The protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, is a doctor and the director of the public baths in a small town in southern Norway. This spa attracts many guests to the town, and is of vital importance to its economy. When he discovers that the baths are seriously polluted and a threat to public health, Dr. Stockmann wants to take precautions at once, regardless of how dearly this may cost the smalltown society in terms of money, reputation and pride. Not without a certain naivete he automatically assumes that the local pillars of society will support him in this, only to find himself up against an alliance of hypocrisy and vested interests. Dr. Stockmann does not give in, though, and his family, after some initial misgivings, supports him, and in the final scenes he emerges confident of victory, proudly championing his cause, and heading for the US.

“An Enemy of the people” is excellent theatre, with dialogue at least as elaborate than one might expect from a Hollywood movie from the golden years of the Dream Factory. It is a pointed expression of what may be called Ibsen’s aristocratic radicalism. The main part calls for an actor with bravura and authority, and several Norwegian actors has played it as the crowning experience of their theatrical career. Dr. Stockmann is also related to several other Ibsen characters, chiefly emperor Julian in “Emperor and Galilean”, with whom Dr. Stockmann shares a stubbornness bordering on madness – at least in the eyes of the conventional spectator.

In recent years “An Enemy of the People” has been the object of some discussion, mainly because its theme has become politically incorrect. Some maintains that the aristocratic Dr. Stockmann is not compatible with the lofty democratic ideals of our contemporary world, and the well-known Norwegian critic Erik Pierstorff asserted that a play like this was so out of place in our time that it did not deserve to be performed. Others contended that it could be performed, but only as a comedy, and so on and so forth. Its interesting to note that this negative assessment of the play is chiefly to be found in Norway; “The Enemy of the People” has retained much of its popularity abroad. Thus the well-known director Charles Marowitz chose it together with “Hedda Gabler” for one of his productions, which was staged in Norway as well.

The young Norwegian film director Erik Skjoldbjærg, together with his co-screenwriter Nikolai Frobenius, has transferred the action to our time. Their Dr. Stockmann is a young scientist with ambitions to become a TV expert on everything to do with water, and also a successful manufacturer of drinking water together with his brother Peter, who is the chairman of the local council. They have discovered a source with impeccably clean drinking water close to the farmstead where they grew up, and they now want to exploit this source to sell bottled water. Alas, it turns out that not only is the source heavily polluted by dioxins, but also that the poison originates from kegs hidden by Thomas Stockman’s father-in-law, nicknamed “The badger”.

The action is more or less based on Ibsen’s original plot, but whereas the action in Ibsen took place in a small town, Erik Skjoldbjærg transfers it to the countryside. If the director’s intention has been to make the plot more contemporary, it must be said that this is hardly a good choice, since the countryside in Norway – like practically everywhere – fights a lost case against the urban centres. Other discrepancies pop up as well: the action takes place in Lærdal in the region of Sogn og Fjordane, but the vernacular spoken in the film originates in Sandnes (which by the way is a town of some 50 000 inhabitants, and not in any way in the vicinity of the Lærdal valley). These facts do not need to disturb the foreign spectator, but to a Norwegian public they naturally serve to diminish the realism that the director and his team obviously intend.

Skjoldbjærg often sticks fairly close to the original’s text, a method that is sometimes rewarding, but on other occasions emphasises the weaknesses of the adaptation, because it may become clear that Ibsen’s characters are much more coherent and consistent than Skjoldbjærg’s. Ibsen’s lines are excellent, Skjoldbjærg seldom can cope with them. Ibsen’s Stockmann has got class, this Stockmann of the 21st Century has not. The “new” Stockmann completely loses his temper, and demolishes a parked car, a behaviour totally alien to the aristocratic Dr. Stockmann of the original.

This change may be intentional, though, as Skjoldbjærg’s Stockmann turns out to be the complete antithesis of Ibsen’s Stockmann. In Ibsen’s version, Stockmann concludes the action, uttering the following words: “The strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone”, whereas Skjoldbjærg’s conclusion implies the complete denigration of Ibsen’s thesis: “I am not able to stand alone”. This is all the more confusing, as the posters announcing the film carry Ibsen’s original dictum as a sort of catchword, thus undermining Skjoldbjærg’s new interpretation.

Skjoldbjærg’s Stockmann consequently turns out to be a true “anti-Stockmann”. The present writer has to confess that he by far prefers the original Stockmann.

But one must give Skjoldbjærg his dues. It is possible to infer that the director in this way wants to answer the question that after all is inherent in the last scene of Ibsen’s play, namely: Will Stockmann prevail in his campaign against Evil, in the service of Good? He has failed in Norway – will he succeed in The United States of America? Skjoldbjærg’s option seems to be that generally – and especially in Norway of 2005 – the thesis of Thomas Stockmann is untenable. (And, by the way, does not Dr. Stockmann’s Christian name, Thomas, point to a hidden, maybe repressed, doubt in his own mind?) And, furthermore, that our present form of society is not anymore able to produce such a lofty and idealistic character as Thomas Stockmann?

On the whole, Skjoldbjærg’s film is not devoid of satirical acumen directed against contemporary society, even if its direction now and then diverges somewhat from that of Ibsen. Some of the most successful sequences of the film are those devoted to the depiction of the talk shows of commercial television. Anybody who has witnessed the Norwegian counterparts of this species must admit that Skjoldbjærg’s satire regarding this is hilariously funny.

Skjoldbjærg has chosen competent and experienced actors, who are doing a good job, although it seems they are not always up to their best, perhaps because they have to cope with a dialect not their own, and which has not been standardised like a literary language is.

On the whole, Skjoldbjærg’s film contains many lesser imperfections that, taken together, weaken the film. The director’s way of describing the procedures of the Norwegian police seems to imply that he knows the behaviour of the Upholders of Law in Western movies better than Norwegian contemporary reality. Incidentally, this is typical of the Soap Operas of the commercial TV that Skjoldbjærg so successfully ridicules. Here as well, we meet US court proceedings in Norwegian courts – in spite of the fact that the latter differ fundamentally from its US counterparts.

The director’s excessive use of helicopter takes is irritating as well; they have no artistic motivation whatsoever, and seem to have only been included to attract sponsors from the Norwegian travel business.

Nevertheless, Erik Skjoldbjærg should be complimented for attempting to keep us up-to-date regarding our literary classics, and utilising the art of cinema to develop and enhance our relationship with the world’s literary heritage. Even if some may find his interpretation of the Ibsen theme not completely satisfying this time around, it still has to be admitted that the director has enriched our understanding of the theme with some interesting new possibilities.