Home Video Hovel: Here Is Your Life, by David Bax
There are films, like Zhang Yimou’s To Live, that use personal human narratives over a long stretch of time to tell the stories of the nation those characters inhabit. Jan Troell’s Here Is Your Life doesn’t take place over quite so long but it follows the same recipe, in this case grafting the industrialization of Sweden in the years leading up to the First World War onto a coming of age tale (in that way, perhaps it’s like a less perverse The Tin Drum). This new Blu-ray restores the film to its original runtime of almost three hours but its lilting beauty and idiosyncratic comedy make it feel like half that.
Here Is Your Life follows Swedish country boy Olof (Eddie Axberg) from adolescence to adulthood. The film is loosely divided into segments based on Olof’s different jobs. He’s a logger, a projectionist (these scenes make for a less cloying corrective to Cinema Paradiso), a factory worker and a few more things over the course of the film. Olof’s father is not a presence in his life and so the early segments are marked by a series of older men pontificating to him about life and the occupations that he is just passing through but have come to define each of the elders. Eventually, after developing a passion for reading, he begins to do as much talking as listening (we the viewers might even be a little proud of this former wallflower becoming a pretentious snob) and then even becomes something of a leader.
Troell’s style is conventional but confident and assured most of the time, with the editing establishing a fluid but not rushed pace. On occasion, he seasons the pot with impressionistic touches like freeze frames and double exposure. He even adds occasional color to the black and white film, in the form of a recurring shot of a green bird flying against an orange sky, and also in a nearly silent flashback. The result is a compelling and straightforward narrative film with more than enough personality and artfulness to lift it above similar works.
It doesn’t hurt that the movie is sometimes surprisingly funny. Axberg deserves a lot of the credit for his easygoing and professional performance, an unexpected treat from so young an actor. Still, Troell has his own sense of humor as well. When Olof and the other loggers get into a drunken brawl, it’s presented almost as slapstick. And a scene in which a bunch of yelping, whimpering and howling dogs provide in a theater provide a comical soundtrack to a silent film is delightful.
All that said, though, Here Is Your Life is not chiefly an impressionistic comedy. It’s the story of the rise of industry in Sweden and the rise of socialism among the proletariat that accompanied it. An early boss of Olof’s tells him that “the business of this country is business.” He clearly doesn’t see it that way. In fact, when he marvels that motion pictures are “a combination of art and industry,” it’s almost jarring not to hear him repeat the “art and commerce” coupling to which we’ve all become accustomed. You don’t have to be a socialist yourself to enjoy Olof’s journey and Troell’s account of how major changes in society are simultaneously a backdrop and a guiding force in individual lives.
Special features include an introduction by Mike Leigh, a conversation between Troell and film historian Peter Cowie, interviews with Axberg and co-screenwriter Bengt Forslund, a short film by Troell and an essay by Mark Le Fanu.