Nationality: Swedish. Born: Limnhamm, Skane, 23 July 1931. Career: Teacher, Sorgenfri primary school, Malmo, for nine years; made short documentaries about life in Malmo, 1960–65; made epic-length chronicles of Swedish history and contemporary life, including Har har du ditt liv ( Here Is Your Life ), 1966, and the two-part saga Utvandrarna ( The Emigrants ) and Nybyggarna ( The New Land ), 1970; later films abroad include Zandy's Bride (1974), Hurricane (1979) in Bora Bora, and Ingenjor andrees luftfard ( The Flight of the Eagle ), 1982; returned to documentary filmmaking with his most ambitious project to date, Sagolandet ( The Fairytale Country ), an eighty-hour chronicle of Swedish contemporary life, 1988. Awards: State Prize, Swedish Film Institute, for Johan Ekberg ; Grand Prix, Oberhausen, for Stopover ; Golden Bear, Berlin Film Festival, for Who Saw Him Die? ; four Academy Award nominations for The Emigrants , and a Best Foreign-Language Film Academy Award nomination for The Flight of the Eagle.
Baten ( The Ship ); Sommartag ( Summer Train ); Nyar i Skane ( New Year's Eve in Skane )
Pojken och draken ( A Boy and His Kite ) (with Bo Widerberg); Var i Dalby hage ( Spring in the Pastures of Dalby )
De gamla kvarnen ( The Old Mill ); Trakom ( Trachoma ); Johan Ekberg
Portratt av Asa ( Portrait of Asa ); Uppehall i myrlandet ( Stopover in the Marshland ) (episode in Four by Four )
Har har du ditt liv ( Here Is Your Life )
Ole dole doff ( Who Saw Him Die? ; Eeny Meeny Miny Moe )
Utvandrarna ( The Emmigrants ); Nybyggarna ( The New Land ; Unto a Good Land )
Ingenjor andrees luftfard ( The Flight of the Eagle )
Sagolandet ( The Fairytale Country )
En Frusen dröm ( A Frozen Dream )
92,8Mhz-drömmar: söder ; Så vit som snö
Barnvagnen ( The Baby Carriage ) (Bo Widerberg) (lighting cameraman)
Jan Troell (portrait and interview), Swedish Film Institute (Stockholm), 1975.
"John Simon on Jan Troell," interview in Film Heritage (New York), Summer 1974.
"Filmmaking in Sweden," in Interview (New York), no. 1, n.d.
"Mordare med kaniner I bagaget," in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 33, no. 5, 1991.
"Att sätta en stenbumling I rörelse," in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 38, no. 3, 1996.
Cowie, Peter, editor, Sweden (Screen Series, Vols. 1 and 2), Stockholm, 1970.
Landau, Jon, " The New Land ," in Rolling Stone (New York), 6 December 1973.
Crist, Judith, "A Repast of Things Remembered," New York , 27 May 1974.
Steen, Brigitta, "An Interlude with Jan Troell," Thousand Eyes (New York), 4 March 1976.
Monaco, James, "Look Back: Zandy's Bride ," Millimeter (New York), 8 April 1976.
Gilliatt, Penelope, " Hurricane ," in New Yorker , 23 April 1979.
Chase, Chris, "At the Movies: Jan Troell Calm about Oscar Bid," New York Times , 8 April 1983.
Thomas, Kevin, " Here Is Your Life Launches UCLA Jan Troell Retrospective," Los Angeles Times , 8 January 1990.
Garrett, Robert, "The Journey Outward: The Films of Jan Troell," Boston Globe , 16 February 1990.
Hedling, O., "Carlsson mot May," in Filmhäftet (Stockholm), December 1993.
* * *
"We are the last dinosaurs of Swedish film," lamented Ingmar Bergman to Jan Troell in 1983. At the time neither could yet claim to be an elder statesman—Bergman was sixty-five at the time and Troell was only fifty-two—but both had lived and worked long enough to find themselves somewhat estranged from their own profession. Frequently cited as Sweden's two greatest filmmakers, they have much else in common. Both are fiercely independent artists, trained in film and television, who have made their slow and patient way as chroniclers and critics of the history, myths, and institutions of their native land.
As director, photographer, and editor of his films, Troell has retained an unusual degree of control for most of his career. His films are invariably pictorially beautiful, stylistically conservative, and moderately paced. Excepting an occasional foray into contemporary life, his subjects have been mostly historical in nature.
Troell's first projects drew upon his experiences as a boy and later as a teacher in his native town of Malmo, in the southernmost province of Skane. Baten ( The Ship , 1961) was a documentary about the last journey of the SS Malmo , which for many years had carried passengers to Copenhagen. Sommartag ( Summer Train , 1961) was a nostalgic tribute to an Osterlen locomotive. And Nyar i Skane ( New Year's Eve in Skane ) recalled the Scanian plains of his childhood.
After winning a state prize for Johan Ekberg , a sensitive documentary about a retired railroad worker's coming to terms with old age, and the Oberhausen Grand Prix for Uppehall i myrlandet ( Stopover in the Marshland , 1965), a short film with Max von Sydow as a railroad brakeman, Troell was ready for the most productive phase of his career. Between 1966 and 1979, under the aegis of the Svensk Filmindustry and producer Bengt Forslung, he made eight ambitious features. First came Har har du ditt liv ( Here Is Your Life , 1966), based on Eyvind Johnson's four-volume autobiographical novel. The 167-minute film, the longest Swedish feature made up to that time, was set in the decade after World War I. It is Troell's most picaresque work, a coming-of-age saga of young Olof (Eddie Axberg), who, on the way to becoming a writer, leaves school and survives colorful encounters on the railroad, at a timber camp, in a sawmill, and as a movie projectionist. The serio-comic tone, convoluted editing, and unusual color technique (interspersing black-and-white and color sequences) relates it to the French New Wave, while Troell's characteristic empathy for his characters links him with earlier masters like Sweden's Victor Sjostrom and France's Jean Renoir. Critic Vernon Young admired its sense of the passage of time—a trait to be found in most of Troell's later works. "You don't just watch the film, you live through it."
Ole dole doff ( Who Saw Him Die? 1968), by contrast a far more subdued and dark tale of a teacher (Per Oscarsson) alienated from his students, was shot at the Malmo school where Troell himself had taught. Particularly successful, in the opinion of Peter Cowie, was Troell's ability to convey "telling images" of loneliness and despair in the parks, docks, and streets of Malmo.
Troell's best films are concerned with people who measure their dreams and test their characters against the hostilities and vicissitudes of weather and landscape. Perhaps no other director in Swedish film history, save Victor Sjostrom, has as consistently explored this theme. The Emigrants and The New Land (made in 1970 and released in America three years later), his most famous and most popular films, were based on Vilhelm Moberg's quartet of novels about the immigration of the family of Karl and Kristina Nilsson (Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann) to America in the mid-nineteenth century. A slow-breathing, deliberately paced story of hardship and survival, it also tracks the changing textures and moods of land and water, from the stony monochrome of the bleak Swedish farmland, to the tossing grey-blue of the pitiless ocean, to the bursting colors of the verdant Minnesota river country. In Zandy's Bride (1974) the spectacular vistas of California's Big Sur form the backdrop for the developing relationship between a pioneer rancher, Zandy (Gene Hackman), and his mail-order bride, Hannah (Liv Ullmann). Hurricane (1979), shot in Bora Bora, relates the inner turmoil of star-crossed lovers (Mia Farrow and Dayton Ka'ne) to the spectacular elemental fury of a South Seas storm. The Flight of the Eagle pits the fool-hardy ambitions of three Swedish explorers, who were bent on reaching the North Pole by balloon, against the implacable hostilities of the frozen wastes.
At first glance, Troell's more recent films might seem to indicate new directions. The ironically titled Sagolandet ( The Fairytale Country , 1988), made for the Swedish Film Institute, is a rather dour, three-hour documentary about contemporary Swedish life. By means of location shooting and numerous interviews—with parliamentary and local politicians, a rural road planner, a plant exterminator, a woodsman, an artist-weaver, etc.—a portrait emerges of a tightly regulated nation where social and technical progress threaten free will and imagination. Il Capitano has a much narrower focus, an account of a real-life murder case that attempts to explain how two youths could murder three people in cold blood.
Yet both share Troell's concerns with the alienation of characters from the wellsprings of nature and tradition. There is no breathing room in a world cramped by partitions and conformity; there is no place for the independent and heroic gesture in a society where the machine and a welfare bureaucracy discourage initiative and achievement. Loneliness and isolation are the only rewards.
Troell has not been without his detractors. Many critics have justly
complained of the inordinate length and plodding pace of works like
The New Land
, of the unrelieved bleakness of
The Flight of the Eagle
, and of the long intervals of silence in
(indeed, Troell can be the
of filmmakers). His preoccupation with landscape photography in
aroused Penelope Gilliatt's scorn: "Never has there been so
much surf, so much lashing of waves, such a tempest
. . . and you have never seen so many sunsets or so many pensive wanderings along beaches." Jon Landau characterized too many of his characters as "rigidly humorless and largely unchanging." Other attacks single out Troell's conventional—even old-fashioned—modes of narrative. "He tells a coherent story," defends Peter Cowie, "when gritty realism is the cameraman's mode, he persists with poetic imagery. For all this, Jan Troell rides not behind but above his time, resorting to cinema as a means of expressing man's better gifts."
His flaws and obsessions notwithstanding, it seems that the persuasive integrity and earnestness that Troell invests in his subjects has been so consistently maintained that it must eventually earn our respect. "He has the sense of the justice owed to people and the homage owed to nature," writes Pauline Kael. Critic John Simon adds: "You feel you are in the hands of a human being who cares about other human beings, who renders the truths of their lives without rending the veils of their privacy, who has sympathy even for what he deplores."
—John C. Tibbetts