Movie Review: Ni Liv / Nine Lives (1957)

[Note: Spoiler Alert, obviously.]

When I read the book We Die Alone [1] that this movie is based on, I thought it would make a good movie, and was not surprised that Norwegians consider it among the greatest films of their cinema. So, being the sort of person that I am, I was curious to watch this movie. Now, I happen to live near a Scandinavian Heritage Center, which I have yet to visit because I’m rather shy about it and usually work until after the places closes in the evening, but this is the sort of movie that they would show [2] in one of their film shows, if they had a copy of it. I was chatting with someone about this movie and they could not find it on either Amazon or Netflix, but I managed to find a full copy of it on Youtube thanks to a Norwegian person posting it. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957, the year my mother was born, and it is in black and white, as one would expect from that time.

That said, this is a pleasing film on many levels, and it is easy to see why it is considered to be among Norway’s best films ever. For one, it was written and directed by one of Norway’s most notable directors of all time, Arne Skouen. Additionally, not only is the film faithful to its excellent text, conveying tastefully details including hallucinations, despair, a man at the end of survival wondering whether he should kill himself but being physically too weak to do it after he had earlier cut his own toes off to stop the spread of gangrene, and who is rescued from pursuing German soldiers, who loom like a frequent threat in this film, by a Lapp reindeer herder driving his animals across a frozen lake into Sweden, but the director made sure to have the person this film is actually about, one Jan Ballsrud, oversee the filming of it to make sure he captured all that Jan could remember correctly, including his disorientation, snow-blindness, and struggle against despair and the harsh elements of northern Norway. Additionally, the film makes sure to show the patriotic efforts of Norwegians to protect one of their own as a lone survivor of a bungled operation that ran into a quisling who called the Nazis and was later imprisoned for it, as was the official he called. This film, therefore, appears cathartic, as a way that Norwegians could celebrate the ability to outsmart the Nazis and show toughness and survival despite the brutality of the elements. It may be the perfect historical film for Norwegians.

As I was watching this film, though, it struck me that this is now the second World War II chase film I have ever seen. About a decade ago, when I lived and worked in the Tampa area, I happened to win from a local radio station a free ticket to watch a movie where a Jewish couple managed to escape by train and plane, I think, into Switzerland after a tense escape from the Nazis. This film is similar in its general effort to show the neutrals as a safe place to escape for those whose cover was blown in Nazi-controlled Europe [3]. The film does compress some of the story, not talking about Jan’s family, including his concern for his sister and her growing up, nor does it show Jan happily married after the war. But from the beginning the film clues its audience in that the ending is a happy one, showing Jan struggling to learn how to walk in the Swedish hospital where a young lady has arrived to interview him and ask him about his story. The film is therefore set up with a frame device that, from the beginning, lets the audience know that no matter how grim the story is that it ends happily. One may not know how, until one sees the film, but by knowing that everything ends up alright for Jan, the audience begins the film with enthusiasm and encouragement. An observer who is even somewhat aware of the grim nature of Nazi-controlled Europe wonders if this particular device was used as a way of reminding Norwegians that even though they had all been through a lot, that things had worked out pretty well for them too, all things considered. From the vantage point of time, this appears likely, especially since the film makes at least a few efforts to show Norway’s sense of community and patriotism, with everything from the evocative landscapes and the emotional score contributing to a tense but ultimately triumphant tale of endurance and escape. It is noteworthy, although the matter is not discussed in the film, that immediately upon reaching safety in Great Britain that Jan Ballsrud immediately returned to occupied Norway, and this time his mission was more successful. He was clearly a patriot of the highest order, and this film an unabashed celebration of Norwegian patriotism in the worst of circumstances.

So, what does this film have to offer nearly sixty years after it was made. For one, this film has a pacing that may be tough to American audiences, given that most of the dramatic incidents take place either at the beginning or at the end, with the middle contained of a lot of Jan waiting in the snow or in someone’s barn or in an abandoned cottage or something of that sort, and a lot of very laconic scenes with sparse dialogue in Norwegian with English subtitles. This is a film that requires, and rewards, a great deal of patience in watching it, as it shows the passage of time in the grim slog made by Jan and his helpers in bringing him to safety, despite the difficulties that were frequently caused by bad weather. What this film has to offer in particular, besides an appreciation of the stark beauty of northern Norway and the patriotism of its people, is the fact that Jan’s survival against the elements depended on the support and encouragement of a lot of people. We die alone, and in order to live, we need to be part of a community. In this film there are many subtle elements that show how people in an atmosphere of mistrust and suspicion were able to have faith that Jan was not some German agent sent to expose them and destroy their patriotic organization, and in subtle details, like people being willing to protect a helpless stranger at the risk of their own freedom and even their lives, people looking around for details that would draw attention and acting to cover up the tracks, so to speak, to avoid giving the Germans any clues about what they were up to, demonstrate the quiet sort of loyalty that the Norwegians possessed in the darkest hour of their national history. It is therefore little wonder that this film is so celebrated, as it shows a resourceful people who are hard to kill, who are skilled at surviving despite the elements and despite their military weakness due to their small numbers, and who have a sense of community that allows them to endure and to maintain their trust and keep their courage up and even have a grim sense of humor about their experiences. This is a film that gives Norwegians something to feel proud about concerning their ability to preserve their culture and their spirit under German occupation, and as long as it is necessary for Norwegians to remember the horrors of Nazi oppression, this is likely a film that will stir their feelings of nationhood and resilience, true to history and encouraging to its viewers.




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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