WWII, Sweden gave neutrality a bad name.
For two sets of parents, this will be a considerable cause for concern. Isak Lentov is Jewish. His schoolmate’s heritage is rather more
complicated. Nonetheless, the young boy
will struggle to find his place in the world during a difficult period of
history in Lisa Ohlin’s Simon and the
opens this Friday in New York.
a way, Oaks is a twist on the Prince and the Pauper, but set against a
more tragic backdrop. Simon Larsson hardly
seems to be his father Erik’s son. He refuses
to show a healthy interest in fighting or manly trades, preferring the company
of books and the oak tree he invests with mystical significance. While his socialist father has no use for
schooling, he eventually relents, allowing his son to enroll. There he makes fast friends with Lentov and
through him meets his father, Ruben, a rare book dealer, who immigrated from Germany
while they could still take considerable property with them.
Lentovs are still rich, but decidedly nervous.
Technically, Sweden is still neutral, but pro-Germany sentiment runs
high. After Isak is brutalized by a
National Socialist street game, his father sends him to live with the Larssons
in their coastal cottage. During his weekend
visits, he develops a deep friendship with Simon, encouraging his interest in
music and culture. Conversely, Erik
Larsson is able to bring Isak out of his shell through all the rugged
activities Simon always shunned.
Meanwhile, the Larssons are a bit uneasy about Simon’s crazy aunt and
the mysterious letter she was supposed to destroy but naturally never did.
Larsson’s maturation into manhood, Oak addresses
plenty of familiar themes, but never hits any excessively hard. It also offers a slightly different take on
WWII and the Holocaust, from the perspective of the neutral but “Finlandized”
Sweden. Ohlin’s use of music, mostly
classical but with a spot of jazz to boot, is also quite distinctive. Indeed, it is quite a handsome period
production, sensitively lensed by Dan Laustsen, Ole Bornedal’s regular
cinematographer on films like Just Another Love Story, as well as his freshly minted hit, Possession.
Oak won a raft of
awards in Sweden, but the real standout performance is that of Jan Josef
Liefers as flawed but profoundly decent Ruben Lentov. His scenes with young Larsson really tap into
something deeply humane. However, Bill
Skarsgård (son of actor Stellan) is a bit stiff as the grown Simon, even by the
standards of Scandinavian reserve. There
will be none of that though from Katharina Schüttler, who impacts the film like
a bombshell in her brief but pivotal appearances as Iza, a surviving Lentov
cousin who captivates and repulses the titular Larsson.
is relatively conventional in its approach to the era, Ohlin takes a few
chances were her material. The scenes
with Iza are provocative, but work in context.
Old Erik Larrson even takes some pointed criticism for being a
hypocritical socialist, always looking to capitalize on a perceived
advantage. While never terribly
surprising, it always looks and sounds quite stylish and consistently avoids
cheap sentiment like the plague. Recommended
on balance (but not essential), Simon and
the Oaks opens this Friday (10/12) in New York at the Paris Theatre.
Labels: Coming of age films, Scandinavian Cinema, WWII Cinema