October 2015, arsenal cinema

Nils Malmros Retrospective


Making films to understand life better: that's the approach taken by Danish filmmaker Nils Malmros, born in 1994, who has over the last four decades created a highly personal, autobiographically informed oeuvre. Seeing Truffaut's "Jules et Jim" was a key experience in his life and brought the self-taught director (who is actually a trained doctor) to filmmaking. Since his first self-financed, no longer publicly screened debut in 1968, Malmros has shot ten feature-length films, which despite numerous international festival premieres have never become well known outside his home country. Taking his own experiences and those of the people close to him as a starting point, Malmros returns to the same themes again and again. Childhood and youth, discovering love, usually unrequited, for the first time, unsatisfied yearnings, jealously, the worries and hardships of growing up: a whole palette of emotions and behavioral modes are described by Malmros with unobtrusive sympathy. He repeatedly returns to motifs, actors, and people, with filmmaking also becoming an elemental part of life in his later works. Most of his films are set in his hometown of Århus, where he still lives to this day. His protagonists usually come from ordered, bourgeois-liberal backgrounds, the stories he tells are of the everyday and the unspectacular. His is a quiet, unflustered cinema, whose greatness and beauty unfolds with all the more force as a result, a feeling most tangible when all his films are seen as a whole. Malmos has never become part of any movement, with his individuality seeming like something fallen out of time, even as his work remains truly timeless. The lack of any degree of sensationalism is also in evidence in his most recent film SORROW AND JOY (2013), in which he deals with his life tragedy – the killing of his young daughter by his mentally ill wife – and, like in all his films, tells tenderly and quietly of the essence of love. We are showing all ten feature-length films by Nils Malmros and are very happy to welcome him to Arsenal in person across four evenings.

LARS OLE, 5C (Denmark 1973, 13. & 25.10.) Scenes from the cosmos of school: first dance lessons, secret whisperings and dirty jokes in the classroom, playing catch in the playground. In the midst of all this is Lars Ole, who Hanne is interested in, despite the fact that he must "share" her with another boy all the time whilst being secretly in love with the idolized Inger. Malmros’s free observations get right to the heart of these children's world, exploring the spaces they shape according to their own rules and showing the complicated structures according to which they lay claim to their place in the group. LARS OLE, 5C was Malmros's breakthrough as a filmmaker and forms a trilogy about growing up in the 50s together with BOYS and TREE OF KNOWLEDGE.

DRENGE(Boys, Denmark 1977, 13. & 22.10.) Three episodes from the life of Ole and how he discovers his body, sexuality, and love, first as a primary school child, then as a teenager and finally as young adult – a developmental trajectory that boils down to the question of how a boy becomes a man. While his childhood is characterized by secret games with his slightly older cousin and a fascination for the forbidden and the mysterious, he experiences a first love full of difficulties and insecurities as a teenager, before the fleeting adventure he has as a young adult, a sexuality lived out in playful fashion that unexpectedly confirms his childhood experiences.

KUNDSKABENS TRÆ (Tree of Knowledge, Denmark 1981, 9.10., with guest Nils Malmros & 20.10.) Vignettes from the life of a handful of school children on the threshold between childhood and teenagerdom shot over two years "which gradually fan out into an entire social cosmos of longing and rejection, power and isolation" (Florian Keller). Elin, the most popular girl in her class, is being slowly excluded from the group for reasons she can’t entirely understand. Malmros sounds out the hardships of these adolescents with sensitivity, tracking how their realm of experience shifts between jealousy and heartache and how their group dynamic changes from day to day. The fact that something substantial has taken place amongst the everyday is indicated by the title of the film and with it the notion of lost innocence.    

SKØHEDEN OG UDYRET (Beauty and the Beast, Denmark 1983, 18. & 30.10.) Mette is 16 and is spending the Christmas holidays alone with her father, with whom she shares an intimate openness. When she breaks up with her boyfriend Lars and turns up with cheeky, radiant golden boy Jønne, who dares to take naked photos of her, her father gradually loses his cool in a mixture of jealousy and a fear of losing her. Once again, a story of confused feelings, of growing closer and growing apart, but this time not depicted from the point of view of an adolescent but rather from that of a father. Nils Malmros wrote the role of Mette for Line Arlien-Søborg, who he discovered in TREE OF KNOWLEDGE. The fascination she exudes for him can only really be understood after seeing SORROW AND JOY.

ÅRHUS BY NIGHT (Denmark 1989, 10.10., with guest Nils Malmros & 22.10.) is Malmros's first film in which filmmaking itself plays a role, with he himself reflected in the character of a director. In 1970s Århus, the young Frederik is shooting a film about his childhood. He has little authority over his crew, who have their hands full with partying and relationship problems alongside their work on the film. Although ÅRHUS BY NIGHT keeps to a lighter, more comedic tone, it's once again a film about unrequited love, about childhood memories, and their echoes in adult life. The model for the film within a film is without doubt BOYS, although several scenes (such as a chase sequence with naked nurses) come across as far more daring and free.

KÆRLIGHEDENS SMERTE (Pain of Love, Denmark 1992, 19. & 26.10.) is Malmros's first attempt to understand his life’s tragedy in cinematic terms. He tells a story from the life of Kirsten (a character inspired by Malmros's wife, even if she can't be equated with her), a young sheltered woman who veers between naive levity and the feeling she will never be able to fulfill the demands of men and society. While SORROW AND JOY (which is on some level a continuation of PAIN OF LOVE) leads to a new start in life despite all the darkness, here love offers no rescue, with the vortex of loneliness and despair leading Kirsten to the point of no return.

BARBARA (DK 1997, 12.10., with guest Nils Malmros & 24.10.) is the only film by Malmros not based on his own life. This visually sumptuous adaptation of the novel of the same name by Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen, a classic of Faroese literature, is set on the Faroe Islands in the 18th century. Barbara is the woman the new priest of the small parish of Varga is warned about after his arrival. She was married to two of his predecessors, both of whom died. The fun-loving Barbara takes freedoms for granted that women are not actually accorded and sees no reason to feel guilty about her sexual needs. While BARBARA may at first glance seem like a foreign body in Malmros's oeuvre, his life-long theme of love does then makes its presence felt, making it more than worth comparing Barbara and her longings with Malmros's other female characters. 

KÆRESTESORGER (Aching Hearts, Denmark 2009, 21. & 28.10.) can be seen as a loose sequel to TREE OF KNOWLEDGE and was also shot over many years. Agnete and Jonas become a couple, but their first attempts at getting close physically at a party are soon interrupted. This can be seen as an omen for their difficult relationship, which is constantly put in question by jealously and differing interests. The film is equally about a good middle class family interested in literature and philosophical discussions, with the cracks in the facade initially only discovered by the clairvoyant Agnete before they can finally be hidden no more. 

AT KENDE SANDHEDEN (Facing the Truth, Denmark 2002, 10.10., with guest Nils Malmros & 27.10.) Nils Malmros's father, a famous doctor, headed a neurosurgical department in Aarhus during the German occupation of Denmark and used Thorotrast as a radio contrast agent for lack of any alternative. Decades later, several of his former patients have died from lung cancer as a late consequence of its use. FACING THE TRUTH is primarily about questions of guilt and responsibility. The film weaves together scenes from the father’s youth and professional life, showing a boy growing up in poverty and an adult who still bears the wounds and humiliations of his childhood, but also a father-son-relationship that only becomes a truly equal encounter between two adults much later on.

SORG OG GLÆDE (Sorrow and Joy, Denmark 2013, 11.10., with guest Nils Malmros & 30.10.) When director Johannes returns home from a lecture tour, the house is silent and empty. All that he finds there is his parents-in-law, who inform him that his wife Signe has killed their nine-month-old daughter during a mental breakdown. What follows is an attempt to understand Signe and bring her back into life. At the centre of the film is a long conversation between Johannes and Signe's psychiatrist, in which recalls the wounds he inflicted on her and the signs he should have read differently. SORROW AND JOY is a hugely comforting film about the possibility of solidarity and about how love is not destroyed in the face of catastrophe, but rather grows stronger. Signe says the most beautiful line towards the end of the film, when the couple look back on things decades later – up until now he's made films about being unhappy in love, now it’s about time for him to direct a film about love succeeding.  (al)