Niels Arden Oplev had a hit on his hands with the first adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Now, he is safely away in Hollywood, with a Colin Farrell thriller (Dead Man Down) that seems to have disappeared without much attention. Was he an interesting voice in Danish, or Swedish, cinema who has now taken the path of blockbuster anonymity or was he always destined to go Hollywood? Drakes Avenue has chosen to unearth some of Oplev’s back catalogue so that we can see for ourselves.
We Shall Overcome follows the coming of age of the thirteen-year old Frits (Janus Dissing Rathke) during the summer of 1969. Deprived of a father (Jens Jørn Spottag) due to a sudden nervous breakdown, Frits finds a temporary but inspirational replacement in Martin Luther King, introduced to him through the family’s brand new television. At school, Frits becomes the victim of the increasingly tyrannical school principal Lindum-Svendsen (Bent Mejding) and falls under the wing of a hip new teacher Mr. Svale (Anders W Berthelsen). As life at school becomes more and more difficult, Frits begins to rebel…
Arial;">One can be forgiven for thinking that this is going to happen. The film frequently referencing real protests – from the African-American civil rights movement to Danish students opposing the Vietnam war, both shown to be violently suppressed by harsh authority figures. There are several references to slavery in Denmark with one class on Peter von Scholten’s emancipation of Denmark’s slaves in the West Indies providing the background for a telling close-up on Frits. This simplistic parallel is nicely subverted when Frits claims that the history teacher is wrong and that the slaves were freed for less compassionate reasons. Later, during a nationalistic display for their parents, the pupils will silently and rather ominously approach Lindum-Svendsen en masse only for nothing to happen. Instead, they recite the song “We Shall Overcome” as unexcitedly as they did the religious hymns previously. It is unclear whether Oplev intends to suggest that their newfound rebellious spirit is the result of just another indoctrination, but it is a strange moment. It has a parallel too, in a sequence in which Frits, finding out that they have been successful in launching an inquiry into Lindum-Svendsen’s behaviour, runs across the fields jumping and dancing in celebration.
Janus Dissing Rathke throws himself around gamely, but it is a deflated moment, far from the obvious Billy Elliot antecedent (compare the DVD covers). One gets the impression that Frits is playing at being an adult and that he does not fully understand what is going on around him. His celebration is totally exaggerated, considering how little has really been achieved, and seems to be an act, like a child celebrating more to mimic their parents’ jubilation than because of any genuine sense of personal achievement.
As befits a coming of age story, Frits will lose his role models – Mr Svale loses his halo in a surprising but totally inconsistent plot mechanism – and has to succeed thanks to his own strength. However, the film finishes on a strange note of non-victory, far from the rebellion that most of the audience would surely have been waiting for. Though this is a much more realistic and sober conclusion, it nonetheless feels like a cop-out, as if the film wasn’t brave enough to stray too far from what was safe, conservative and family-friendly. This is less a surprise than a disappointment since the film that precedes this ending was almost resolutely conventional and by the numbers.
We Shall Overcome feels like an assignment, a coming-of-age film made by people who don’t have any particular affection for their own schooling or youthful dabbling in outsider politics or lifestyles but, instead, an interest in a packaged, marketable film with a happy ending and a Billy Elliot poster. Niels Arden Oplev has now safely absconded to Hollywood where, it seems, he was destined to go. Danish cinema, which, under Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, has often been fearlessly confrontational and experimental, hasn’t lost a major voice.