A brief history of Norwegian film

Norwegian film history is the record of generations of filmmakers, actors and behind-the-scenes workers cultivating their art through a succession of distinct cultural eras. Conditions have varied greatly, as suggested by the long list of directors known for only a single film. Financial support has been unpredictable, yet there have been periods of artistic brilliance and strong personal leadership. Norway is proud of its national film heritage, which in many ways reflects the development of Norwegian society.

Compared with Sweden and Denmark, which had early success producing large-scale feature films for international audiences, Norway came late to the movie business. Little is known about the very first feature film produced in Norway. The film itself has been lost and the remaining source material is ambiguous. Produced by Hugo Hermansen in 1906 or 1908, it was titled Fiskerlivets farer (“Dangers of a Fisherman’s Life”) or Et drama paa havet (“A Drama at Sea”). The next effort did not appear until 1911, when Halfdan Nobel Roede produced Fattigdommens forbandelse (“The Curse of Poverty”), considered by many experts to be Norway’s first feature film. Roede’s works were inspired by the current Danish erotic melodramas, and had no basis in Norwegian society. Not until 1920 did Norwegians begin to enjoy a sustained output of professionally produced films. The character of Norwegian filmmaking changed that year, too, and Rasmus Breistein’s Fante-Anne (Gypsy Anne) sparked what is now known as the national breakthrough. While most earlier works had been set in the anonymity of the big city, directors began to focus on Norwegian nature and the joys of the rustic outdoors. The 1930s can be aptly termed the Golden Age of Norwegian film. The first “talkie” was Den store barnedåpen (“The Great Christening”, 1931) by Tancred Ibsen, grandson of Norwegian literary giants Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. The pre-war years were a time of growth and heightened popularity for the film industry, as filmmakers adapted well-known literary works to the screen and brought them to life using professional theatre actors.

During the Nazi occupation of Norway in WWII, film production as well as cinema programming were subject to German censorship. Nonetheless, audiences rushed to the cinema to enjoy any Nordic entertainment that passed the censor. Paradoxically, it was during this period that a national film directorate was established, giving Norway its first nationwide policies on film. Veteran director Leif Sinding was the chief administrator of the directorate. At the war’s end the directorate had amassed a fund of more than NOK 10 million (approx. EUR 1.28 million).

The post-war period was a natural turning point for Norwegian film, and a new generation of filmmakers emerged. Edith Carlmar, Norway’s first female director, made 10 feature films between 1949 and 1959. Her critically acclaimed works often sparked public debate, and had unusual drawing power at the box office. Today they are considered classics. In Carlmar’s final film – Ung flukt (The Wayward Girl, 1959) – she cast Liv Ullmann in her first starring role. Ullmann is Norway’s most well-known actress and director. Troløs (Faithless), which Ullmann made in 2000, was nominated to the Cannes Film Festival that year. Arne Skouen, who made his directorial debut the same year that Carlmar did, has 17 feature films to his credit. Some of Norway’s greatest film triumphs were his doing, such as the Oscar-nominated Ni liv (Nine Lives) in 1957. Many critics consider it the best Norwegian production of all time. Skouen’s films remain in demand at film festivals and other film events around the world.

At least two other names from the post-war period stand out. In 1948, furniture maker Ivo Caprino began experimenting with film and puppets in his living room. He quickly became Norway’s king of animation. Caprino’s unique system for producing films using puppets brought him international renown, and the box office success of his Flåklypa Grand Prix (Pinchcliffe Grand Prix 1975) has yet to be surpassed. Representing quite a different genre is Thor Heyerdahl. Kon Tiki, which he filmed during his 1947 raft expedition in the Pacific, was awarded the Oscar for best documentary in 1952 and remains Norway’s only Oscar-winning film. Documentaries held great popular appeal in the years just after the close of the war, particularly if the subject involved war-related material or exploration expeditions. The 1950s represented the heyday of Norwegian documentary filmmaking and viewing. By the 1960s, however, television had replaced the documentary and become the primary broadcaster of current events and nature shows. More recently, Norwegian documentary films have made a popular comeback. Knut Erik Jensen’s Heftig og begeistret (Cool & Crazy) in 2001 and Even Benestad’s Alt om min far (All About My Father) in 2002 have each received a number of international awards.

Another new breed of young filmmakers appeared in the 1960s, influenced by modernistic currents in continental Europe. Norway’s version of the French New Wave included Erik Løchen’s Jakten (The Chasers 1959) and Pål Løkkeberg’s Liv (“Life” 1967) and Exit (1970). But Norwegian cinemas were dependent on Norwegian comedies and international blockbusters to fill seats. Overall, families tended to prefer television. Then came the activist youth boom of the 1970s that fuelled Norwegian film’s most rebellious, social realist period. Film was intended to be political not artistic, as evidenced by titles such as Streik! (“Strike!”, 1974) from Oddvar Bull Tuhus and Det tause flertall (“The Silent Majority”, 1977) from Wam and Vennerød, as well as several progressive documentaries. Female filmmakers stepped out of the kitchen to dramatize feminist themes. They also produced hard-hitting accounts of childhood and adolescence that drew adult audiences (see “Children and film”). An unforgettable female director is Anja Breien. Her Hustru III (Wives III) trilogy of 1975, 1985 and 1996 was a major success, chronicling the lives of three women over three decades.

By the early 1980s Norwegian film went into a decline, and audiences, tired of grey social realism, wondered who was to blame. Then, with some success, filmmakers looked to the United States for inspiration in telling more exciting stories. Orions belte (Orion’s Belt, 1985) by Ola Solum and Veiviseren (The Pathfinder, 1987) by Nils Gaup found large audiences and made their mark internationally. In 1988 Veiviseren received an Oscar nomination in the best-foreign-film category. The rest of the 1980s and the early 1990s represent a high point for Norwegian moviegoers with movies such as En håndfull tid (A Handful of Time 1989) by Martin Asphaug, Landstrykere (Vagabonds, 1989) by Ola Solum, Høyere enn himmelen (Beyond the Sky 1993) by Berit Nesheim, Stella Polaris (1993) by Knut Erik Jensen, Telegrafisten (The Telegraphist 1993) by Erik Gustavson, Drømspel (Dreamplay 1994) by Unni Straume, Over stork og stein (Stork Staring Mad 1994) by Eva Isaksen, Ti kniver i hjertet (Cross My Heart and Hope to Die 1994) by Marius Holst and Eggs (1995) by Bent Hamer. A new generational shift was under way.

Director Hans Petter Moland wrote a new chapter in Norwegian film history with his 1996 release of Kjærlighetens kjøtere (Zero Kelvin) in New York. In February 1997 Berit Nesheim’s Søndagsengler (The Other Side of Sunday, 1996) was nominated for the best-foreign-film Oscar. Budbringeren (Junk Mail, 1997), directed by Pål Sletaune, premiered during Critic’s Week at the Cannes Film Festival and came away with the main prize in that section. The film has been shown worldwide and won several other awards. Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia took part in the same section in Cannes and gained international attention that same year. In 2001 Elling, by Peter Næss, was Oscar-nominated in the familiar category of best foreign film. And Harald Zwart (One Night at McCool’s, 2001; Agent Cody Banks, 2003) proved that being Norwegian is no barrier to Hollywood success. More recently, Skjoldbjærg, Moland, Næss and Hamer have all made films in the US, placing Norway firmly on the international film map with films such as Prozac Nation (2001), Beautiful Country (2004), Mozart and the Whale (2004) and Factotum (2005).

Norwegian short films compete successfully at festivals the world over. During Critic’s Week at Cannes in 2003, the winning short was Eivind Tolås’s Love is the Law. At the same festival, in the Quinzaine des Réalisateurs section, Bent Hamer presented his full-length feature Salmer fra kjøkkenet (Kitchen Stories 2003) to wide acclaim, winning the prize for European distribution and initiating global sales interest.

A number of exciting Norwegian documentary films have been released in recent years, including the successful Heftig og begeistret (Cool & Crazy) in 2001, Alt om min far (All About My Father) in 2002, Ungdommens råskap (Norwegian High School Kids Low on Concentration) in 2004 and Alt for Norge (“A Guide Through 100 Years of Norwegian History”) in 2005.

2003 saw the launching of a greater number of Norwegian films than in any previous year, and the successful trend continues. National film attendance is high, and Norwegian films are receiving international acclaim. Much of this is due to the restructuring of the support schemes and the establishment of the Norwegian Film Fund in 2001. 2006 is also emerging as a promising year for the Norwegian film industry. Yet another new wave of filmmakers and acting talent is well on its way to making an impact.

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Nine lives (director: Arne Skouen, 1959)Photo courtesy of the Norwegian film institute

Liv Ullmann and Atle Merton in "The wayward girl" (director: Edith Carlmar, 1959)Photo courtesy of the Norwegian film institute

Cool and Crazy (director: Knut Erik Jensen, 2001)Photo courtesy of the Norwegian film institute