Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Lake of the Dead (Norway, 1958)

Norway has recently made itself a flashing beacon on the cult cinema map with films like Troll Hunter and Norwegian Ninja, which have both been very favorably reviewed by, among others, my colleague Keith over at Teleport City. Never one to be above bandwagon jumping, I thought I’d pipe in with a review of an example of Norwegian genre cinema from the past, undeterred by the fact that I know little about the country beyond that it is where some of Aqua are from. Fear not, however, that I will be padding out this review with Aqua-related trivia –- though I will say that Lene’s solo album was criminally underappreciated, especially that song about how it’s your duty to shake that booty, be it small, fat, or round and juicy.

Lake of the Dead, aka De Dødes Tjern, is actually a quite well known and highly regarded film -- in Norway, that is, where, in 2001, it was judged to be one of the five best Norwegian films of all time by a panel of 101 critics. This puts Norway well ahead of its neighbor Denmark, where a panel twice as large judged the film Reptilicus to be that country’s greatest cultural export. (Note: totally not true.) The film is based on a popular book by poet and novelist André Bjerke. Bjerke, in fact, appears in the film. But, in a very forward looking bit of serpentine meta-ness, he portrays the character of Mørk, a literary critic, while another actor, Henki Kolstad, portrays a novelist by the name of Bernhard Borge, a pseudonym used by Bjerke to write his mystery novels, who, in the film, writes a book based on the film’s events. (Wes Craven, eat your heart out.)

This aside, the character who is truly central to Lake of the Dead, as played by the actor Erling Lindahl, is Kai Bugge, the sleuthing psychologist whom Bjerke made a recurring protagonist in his stories. Bugge is basically the personification of Bjerke’s abiding interest and faith in the power of Freudian psychoanalysis, which, in 1942, when the novel was conceived, would have been a lot more radical a stance than it would be today, when it would likely come off as somewhat reactionary. Being the voice of rational science, Bugge sits back and observes while the other characters jump to rash conclusions about the events happening around them, though he is always happy to step forward and patiently cast doubt upon their less enlightened opinions.

Happily, Lake of the Dead is much more of a real mystery than a whodunit, and while Bugge does eventually -- through using tools of his trade like dream analysis, hypnosis, and seeing everything as being vaguely dirty -- put forward a prosaic solution to the central puzzle, other, more unsettling questions are left tantalizingly unresolved.

The film starts, like so many scary tales both good and bad, with a group of friends heading off to a remote cabin in the woods for some much needed R&R. These friends, however, might be a little more long in the tooth than what you’re accustomed to, consisting of the middle-aged Bugge, the author Borge and his wife Sonja (Bjørg Engh), the critic Mørk, and the lawyer Gran (Georg Richter) and his wife Liljan (played by André Bjerke’s real life wife, the actress Henny Moan). It is Liljan whose brother, Bjørn, owns the cabin, and, as the group makes their way by train to the location, she frets over the fact that she has been unable to reach him.

Sure enough, upon arriving at the cabin, the group finds that Bjørn is nowhere to be seen, and soon discover evidence pointing to the likelihood that he walked into the nearby lake and drowned himself. This conclusion is bolstered by some eerie folklore surrounding the place, involving a murder and subsequent haunting at the cabin, and a mysterious undertow that has caused a number of people to be presumably drawn to their deaths beneath the lake’s surface. All of the guests divide up into separate camps of opinion on the matter, with Liljan accepting the verdict of suicide, Mørk leaning toward a supernatural explanation, and Gran suspecting foul play. Bugge, of course, sagely withholds judgment, but is not above making cryptic statements that shift the mystery from what happened to Bjørn to whatever it is Bugge thinks happened to Bjorn. Meanwhile, the troubled Liljan begins to show signs of herself being irresistibly drawn toward the lake.

While Lake of the Dead has all of the traditional means of creating spooky atmosphere at it’s disposal -- Gunnar Sønstevold’s ominous orchestral score, Ragnar Sørensen’s moody, black & white cinematography -- cinematographer turned director Kåre Bergstrøm achieves the most through his use of stillness and silence, emphasizing the otherworldly calm and isolation of his characters’ surroundings. In fact, as the movie progresses, and we become more and more convinced of the lake’s malevolent pull, nothing unnerves quite so much as the frequent, twilit shots of it’s unmoving, leaf strewn surface. At the same time, the director is deft at conjuring up images of creeping, insidious power, like that of Henny Moan, in her flowing white nightgown, mutely sleepwalking her way through the brush as she makes her way toward the beckoning lake -- or, for that matter, the stop motion animated crow that, at one point, taunts the cast from its perch atop the cabin’s chimney.

All in all, Lake of the Dead is a hugely enjoyable film. It combines all the fun of a well constructed potboiler with a haunting lyricism that points toward far more murky depths beneath its polished surface. Viewed in the wee hours, and in an appropriately receptive state, it could definitely give you a deliciously good scare. As such, it’s easy to see why it holds such a hallowed place in the cinematic history of its country of origin. All the more impressive is how, in a manner sadly atypical of its genre, it manages to accomplish its humble aims with such subtlety and nuance.

Very much unlike this:


houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

It's interesting to note that the video is region-blocked for us poor Germans; booty-shaking is not everyone's duty, it seems.

Todd said...

Really? You'd think you Germans could at least pitch in with some of the booty shaking. The rest of us are getting tired.

Jack J said...

Poor Germans can probably watch the video by using (it's free).

Great review! Until recently it was actually difficult to get to watch DE DØDES TJERN as it had only had a limited vhs release years ago. My initial copy was a recording off Norwegian TV. Fortunately there's a cool (English friendly) DVD now.

NB: I believe our biggest (Danish) export is Danish bacon, haha.

Todd said...

But the bacon is made from Reptilicus, right? (Sorry, I just really like to type "Reptilicus".)

dfordoom said...

I'm not sure I've ever seen a Norwegian movie but this one sounds like it's definitely worth tracking down.

Michael Barnum said...

Ok, I am going to buy this flick! I have never seen a Norwegian film, to my recollection.

Jack J said...

Europeans who'd like the original DVD can order it from and the rest of the world can get it from Filmhuset in Norway. The DVD has English subs. You'll need Google translate for the latter page (well, unless you understand Scandinavian, obviously, lol).

Unknown said...

Thanks, Jack!