Removed, by Sarah Brinks
World War II has been depicted in cinema countless times from about every angle possible. One country’s story we haven’t really seen yet is Sweden’s. I’m sure there have been other films about Sweden during the war, but I have not seen them. Simon and the Oaks tells the story of two families in Sweden and their experiences before, during, and after World War II.
Simon and the Oaks focuses on a little boy named Simon who is happiest reading novels sitting in his tree house and letting the stories unfold in his imagination. This is very frustrating to his father, Eric, who has had to scrounge his life out of the earth with his bare hands. Eric wants Simon to learn to fight and use his hands to make things. Simon just wants to go to private school and do his homework. Simon’s mother Karin understands Simon and convinces Eric to let him attend school. At school Simon meets Isak, and becomes fast friends with him after Simon punches a boy in the face for making fun of Isak for being Jewish. Through Isak’s family, Simon gets to see art and culture for the first time. Isak’s family is a wealthy Jewish family and has everything Simon has never had. The boys and their families become close. The boys grow up and find their roles in the world and in their hybrid family. Isak gets over some emotional trauma by working with Eric and becoming useful in the workshop. Simon grows close to Ruben (Isak’s father) through their love of classical music and the arts. Karin is always somewhere in the middle, proud of the boys and trying to make their makeshift family work.
The child actors in the film are very good. It is always a little difficult to judge the acting in a foreign film because you can’t fully grasp the inflection but both of the boys seem very naturalistic. The other actors in the film are also quite good. The real standout of the film is Helen Sjöholm who plays Karin. She is one of those actors who is able to convey deep feeling with the slightest look. You cannot help but fall in love with her character from the first moment she is on screen. The scenes with her and young Simon are some of the sweetest moments in the film. Her character is caught in the middle of all the drama in the film. She is caught between her husband Eric and Ruben, she loves Eric but there is also a strong connection between her and Ruben. She is also a great mother to Simon and a stand in mother for Isak after his own mother tries to kill herself at the start of the war. Sjöholm deftly maneuvers between all these different roles within the film seamlessly; the way a woman in that position would in real life.
The film explores the different roles of men and women in rural Sweden in the 1940-50’s. As discussed, you see the lifelong juggling act the women in the film have to do between being a wife, mother, friend, lover, and emotional anchor. You also see two sides of masculinity where Eric and Isak work with their hands and provide in a physical way. Ruben provides in a monetary way as a successful businessman and Simon provides in an artistic and academic way. No one is any better then the other, but they’re all constantly measuring their own worth against each other.
Sweden maintained a policy of political neutrality during the war but the film shows how the war still impacted the people of Sweden. You never see any of the characters directly dealing with the Nazis in the film. Eric has to serve for a couple years in the military but was able to return uninjured after his time was up. Anti-Semitism does play a role in their lives. Ruben and Isak are Jewish and also quite wealthy. They are able to help provide for Simon’s family. You see how their home in the city gets covered in anti-Semitic graffiti and how Isak is bullied by other children for being Jewish. Later in the film you meet a character who had been sent to a concentration camp. You get a glimpse of how she has been scarred psychologically and emotionally as well as the physical evidence of her experience there.
Simon and the Oaks is a captivating and beautiful film that tells an interesting story. The film keeps its plot moving, so you stay engaged from start to finish. Swedish is a fascinating language to listen to and the subtitles are clear and easy to keep up with. For people who can see foreign films as work, Simon and the Oaks is a pretty easy watch and a captivating film.