Bille August – Pelle erobreren AKA Pelle the Conqueror (1987)


REVIEW by metalluk (from

Plot Details: Pelle The Conqueror (1987) ranks among the most critically acclaimed non-English language films of the past twenty-five years. It won the prestigious Grand Prix at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival as well as the 1988 Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category. It is also the most commercially successful Danish film ever made. Small wonder! It is an intelligently made art work featuring magnificent photography and quietly restrained storytelling.

There is also a wonderful bit of irony in the casting of this film. The title character, Pelle, is played by Pelle Hvenegaard. While this is certainly not the first time that an actor or actress has had the same given name as the character they play, what’s special in this instance is that Pelle Hvenegaard was named after the character Pelle in the novel on which this film was later based. Thus, Pelle Hvenegaard plays his namesake in this movie.

Pelle The Conqueror was adapted from the first volume of a four part novel by Martin Andersen Nexo set between 1906 and 1910. Volume one was entitled, simply, “Childhood.” Later volumes get into social and political issues, but volume one is a basic coming-of-age story, though the maturation occurs in distinctly harsh conditions.

The director, Billie August has produced a sprawling epic. Known more as a craftsman than an “auteur”, August takes few chances but delivers a well-structured and visually sumptuous film. August’s best known previous work was Twist and Shout (1984), a more traditional coming-of-age story, and his best known subsequent work was, perhaps, Les Miserables (1998).

The Story: The story is set in the early years of the 20th century. The film opens with a magnificent shot of the fog-laden sea. Soon the outline of a schooner silently emerges from a low dense cloud of vapor. It is packed with impoverished Swedish laborers who are looking for work and a better life in Denmark. One of these is Lasse Karlsson (Max von Sydow), a sixty-ish farmhand from Sweden. His wife has recently passed away and he hopes to find a place where he can spend his old age in relative comfort. At this stage of his life, his dreams have been reduced to a desire to be able to drink his coffee in bed on Sunday mornings and to eat roast pork with raisins for dinner on Sunday evening. Lasse cradles in his broad arms his 10 year-old son, Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard). Lasse optimistically assures Pelle that jobs are plentiful where they are headed. Everyone has enough to eat and children can play all day rather than work beside their parents in the fields.

When the boat docks, Danish farmers examine the workers like so many cattle, picking the healthiest and heartiest. Lasse and Pelle are last to be chosen because, as they are told, Lasse “is too old and the boy’s too young.” They climb aboard a cart belonging to Mr. Kongstrup (Axel Strobye) for the trip to Stone Farm, to assume a life of indentured servitude. In exchange for food and lodging, they must work from dawn to dust. After some unspecified number of years, Lasse will be entitled to a payment and status as a “free man.” On Stone Farm, Lasse and Pelle are treated only a bit worse than the farm animals, with which they also share living quarters. They live in a partitioned-off section of the barn next to the chickens and cattle.

The harsh existence on the farm is driven by the flow of the seasons. The work is hard and the farm hands are oppressed and cruelly treated by the manager (Erik Paaske) and his trainee. Through the seasons of several years, Pelle slowly matures and observes the lives of the folk in this remote countryside. Their stories become the various threads in the fabric of Pelle’s maturing perspective. The colorful cast of subsidiary characters are introduced and interwoven smoothly and it is never difficult to keep track of who is who. Pelle remains the center of the story throughout and all of the subplots are seen from his vantage point and related to his coming-of-age.

Mr. Kongstrup, the owner of the farm, is a blatant philanderer, not even taking the trouble to disguise his activities from his wife. He regularly takes up with young wenches but takes no interest when one bears his child, despite the woman periodically visiting the farm to hurl invectives at Kongstrup from the farmyard or the gate, however far she gets before being intercepted. Mrs. Kongstrup (Astrid Villaume) mostly drinks brandy all day long but howls her pain relating to her husband’s infidelities into the wind at night. These property owners may be more prosperous than their workers but appear no more happy.

Another subplot concerns a somewhat proud and rebellious worker named Erik (Bjorn Granath). From time to time, he challenges the authority of the manager. His independent streak serves as a source of inspiration for Pelle. Another subplot relates to a beautiful young local girl involved in a doomed romance with a merchant’s son who is above her station in life. Another touching thread is Lasse’s winter of romance with the wife of a long-missing sailor. Pelle is the first to meet her. She lives in a rustic cabin near the sea. Pelle plays matchmaker and introduces his father to the woman. There is a delicately balanced development of this relationship that nicely illustrates how practicality is as important to the elderly as romance. They decide that it would be “sensible” to live together.

Language(s):Scanian / Danish / Swedish
Subtitles:English (.SUB)