Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition. Here Is Your Life d. Jan Troell (1966) Spine: #766 Blu-ray Release Date: July 14, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
To get a bit personal for a moment, a few years ago my mom started a blog that focused on family history. I particularly loved the stories from my ancestors who had moved west in the late 1800s and who dwelt in abject poverty, moving from job to job, working sometimes in timber, sometimes on the railroad, and often losing friends and family members along the way, but all the while working, working, working with their hands. I was thrilled, then, to see that world and that lifestyle lovingly portrayed, albeit in Sweden, in Jan Troell’s debut feature, Here Is Your Life, an adaptation of Nobel Prize winner Eyvind Johnson’s semi-autobiographical book of the same title. This week, The Criterion Collection released the film on Blu-ray and DVD.
Here Is Your Life takes us to Sweden in the 1910s. There we follow the young Olof Persson (played by Eddie Axberg) through his adolescent years, from the moment he leaves the home of his foster parents, who say they can continue to care for him though they simply cannot, through a variety of jobs, to the moment he sojourns on to the next leg of life a few years later.
The film is essentially a series of episodes in the life of a growing boy, mostly centered around whatever job he has at the time, and punctuated by moments of sorrow, anger, lust, pride, humiliation, and minor triumphs of the will. One must be prepared to enjoy the journey, for this film has no conventional narrative arc. It doesn’t build up to a particular climax at all, instead preferring to let the life take us where it will.
Though I’ve mentioned it a few times now, I think it is hard to over-emphasize work in this film. That is the only thing that keeps Olof moving. Other aspects of life — the relationships, the minor joys, the aspirations — must all fall to the side so that this young man can support himself, usually with jobs that require a lot of manual labor and, to stay alive, luck. His first jobs center on the timber industry (something my ancestors did quite a bit of, which is a reason I also loved and connected with Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams), running logs down the river, clearing log jams, rolling the timber to the saw. Eventually, because he was sensitive to exploitation and determined to remain his own person, he moves on from this job to many others, but a large portion of the film is spent watching Olof and his co-workers work.
Yet for me it wasn’t boring. Besides showing work, Troell suggests the inner life of Olof and a few other characters. They may be out on the river or working in the snow, but a part of them is not tied down as such. This is often signified by a bird, sometimes shown in abstract color:
The unmoored (and potentially battered) spirit is also shown, in my favorite passage of the film, in another color portion a kind older man (played by the wonderful Allan Edwall), who has spent many years in the timber industry, tells a story about his family. It’s a haunting passage in color, shot on 16mm film, which also lends it an other-wordly quality when compared to the crisp black and white images we get through the rest of the film. In this passage, we watch a woman struggle with the death of a child, until she finally can’t take it any more. For me, it’s the strongest passage in the film, strengthened a great deal by the unconventional use of color to show the traumatic memories of a good worker. Without this particularly passage, underscoring and lending depth to the character’s daily lives, I don’t think I would have responded to the film as positively as I did.
Even if we do not get the passages elaborating on the other characters’ inner lives, we sense them all the more. And there are many character, often played by some of my favorite actors. Beyond Allan Edwall, we also get a few other strong actors who are familiar from from their glorious work with Ingmar Bergman, in particular Max von Sydow and Gunnar Björnstrand.
These characters come and go frequently as Olof moves around, yet they have an impact on the young man’s life: he sees in them the man he may become, thus giving the title a double meaning: one reflecting the passage of life we are witnessing on the screen, the other presaging the potential life that is coming down the tracks. Olof tries to fight against those potential selves throughout the film, refusing to take undue belittling from his employers and joining in the cause to get workers more rights. I’ve refrained from using the word until now, but it’s a quintessential bildungsroman, satisfied entirely by showing growth and movement rather than focus on any particular event.
Criterion, in fact, calls it an “epic” bildungsroman, which is fitting due to the length of the film. Coming in at just under three hours, it does sometimes test patience (as well as tolerance for the jaunty score), but, as I mentioned, I was drawn in by the artistic portrayal of this period and this life. The film is beautifully shot and served very well on this Blu-ray release.
- The disc begins with a new introduction to the film by filmmaker Mike Leigh. It’s short, at just under five minutes, but Leigh talks about his admiration for the film, which he considers to be one of the best coming of age films out there due to the real-life textures Troell includes.
- Next is a nearly 34-minute conversation between Jan Troell and film historian Peter Cowie. They talk a great deal about the Swedish film industry, which I found fascinating, as well as the two films found on this disc (see Troell’s short film is a supplemental feature discussed below).
- We also get new interviews with Eddie Axberg, coming in at just under 16 minutes, and with producer and screenwriter Bengt Forslund, coming in at just under 15 minutes. These are nice interviews that round out aspects of the production process not discussed in the Troell/Cowie conversation.
- While the above supplements are valuable, my favorite supplements are other films. On this disc, Criterion includes Troell’s 1965 30-minute short film Interlude in the Marshland, starring Max von Sydow. This is also based on a story by Eyvind Johnson and features a man who one day decides to get off the train he’s working on. He looks invigorated, ready to accept his fate, because it’s a beautiful day — someone should enjoy it.
- The disc comes with a fold-out insert featuring an essay by film scholar Mike Le Fanu. Le Fanu goes a bit more into Eyvind Johnson, which is nice since we don’t get much of that in the rest of the features. He also goes into greater detail about the film’s color sequences, which was welcome, and several other aspects of the film. It’s a strong, insightful piece.