Norwegians – what are they good for? Dirk Ohm at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Karlovy Vary 2015: Norwegians – what are they good for? At the international premiere of  Bobbie Peers’s debut feature The Disappearing Illusionist I found the answer and – trust me – it’s not what you think!

The Disappearing Illusionist («Dirk Ohm: Illusjonisten som forsvant») got a warm reception at its international premiere in Karlovy Vary – and deservedly so, for this is an impressive piece of work. Such a reception, not unheard of for Norwegian films here, may also reflect a strange affinity between two rather distant European locales. However exotic they may appear to one another, on a more profound level they have much in common, and this has long shaped the way Northern and Central European artists have thought – and written – about no less pithy a topic than what it means to be human.

The premiere was last Sunday at the Czech Republic’s A-listed film festival, in Karlovy Vary. The audience really seemed to warm to this strange mystery, more chilled than chilling, but playing out against the frozen backdrop of Europe’s northern limits. Indeed the film probably got a better reception here than it did upon its recent general release in Norway.

A melancholy German magician metaphorically and literally loses himself in the bleak, wintry landscape somewhere far in the north. Somehow the story seems to appeal here in the hot and humid mountains of Western Bohemia. Is it the film’s sheer exoticism or is there something deeper and, dare I say it, more magical at work?

Certainly The Disappearing Illusionist is visually powerful. Through some judicious cinematography it provides an evocative glimpse of what, for most Europeans, must seem like a terribly strange and distant land. This is only a small part of the film’s appeal, however. Upon closer examination its international premiere illuminates something much more interesting about Norway and its relations with the outside world – and about human relations in general for that matter.

It does so on two levels: that of the film itself and the event around it. Here revealed is the gulf that insolubly separates every single one of us from our fellows, and the tenuous and yet vital ways that gulf may be ameliorated and even appear to be bridged. For the film and premiere alike provide us with a meditation on illusion in perhaps its quintessential form.

Never mind the conjuring tricks, and we observe a few in Bobbie Peers’s film. The greatest illusion of them all is the impression that others readily see us as we see ourselves, that they can really know us in a kind of everyday metaphysical miracle. Take Norwegians. They apparently see themselves as modest, simple (or at any rate uncomplicated) yet wise, and fundamentally decent. I believe this is a reasonable representation of the prevailing Norwegian self-image and that, as self-images go, it is not without foundation. You will see the self-image most conspicuously in the many efforts to build an international reputation as a peace-loving and peace-building country. Viewed from the outside, on the other hand, Norway’s most distinguishing characteristic is probably its virtual invisibility.

And yet the life-world continually generates human encounters to belie the general indifference, and a chance meeting in the fog may still provide a murky glimpse of something or someone, a sighting of that unknown quantity otherwise known by little more than its name. Norwegians sent their film to this strange corner of Europe, once at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. They reached out and apparently managed to touch someone – indeed many – here in old Bohemia. How is this possible? I believe the answer lies in that popular theme of contemporary Western culture: the outsider.

This is what resonates and creates a connection with Central Europeans, reflecting the ready affinity between such modernist literary greats as Kafka, Hesse and, of course, Norway’s own Hamsun. We might note that the outsider figure in modern literature is something of a paradox. The non-conformist, the maverick, so preoccupied with his sense of being different, nevertheless provides an allegory of a more general human isolation and alienation.

Bobbie Peers at the international premiere in Karlovy Vary.
Bobbie Peers at the international premiere in Karlovy Vary.

This leads us to another paradox. Norwegians reach out and touch the Czechs with stories of the very impossibility of genuinely touching another human being – beyond the level of illusion. Karlovy Vary audiences are responding to something more than the simple exoticism of Europe’s northern margin. The film’s writer and director have understood that the bleak hinterland is more importantly a powerful metaphor for loneliness. Hence Europeans of all sorts can feel togetherness in facing up to being so utterly alone.

A film about illusion is bound to operate on two levels, since the medium itself provides a constant illustration of the theme. On both levels we encounter the problem of how we are to appear to one another and make sense of such appearances. Perhaps the greatest paradox of life is that the connections we have with others are a kind of illusion, the consequence of our inevitably projecting ourselves onto others. Who or what we imagine them to be is inextricably rooted in ourselves and our own experiences. There is nothing more evocative of loneliness then than the ‘love’ between Dirk Ohm and the missing woman, Maria. In the end the magic is unmasked as being no more than a trompe l’oeil, a reflexive testimony to his abject alienation.

We are reminded of the protagonist of Herman Hesse’s «Steppenwolf», who meets a fascinating female counterpart in the mysterious magic theatre. For all his enchantment he soon comes to realise she is only a reflection of himself, or rather one of his many selves. As Maria – or rather Dirk – puts it so succinctly: «Love is the greatest illusion of all.»

The Disappearing Illusionist engages its theme with some masterful cinematography and rhythmic pacing. By resisting contemporary editing conventions, those mores of a restless culture, the filmmaker has allowed the film to breathe, like a human being, alone, silent and conscious of her own physicality. This well-crafted work may nevertheless leave audiences with an unfulfilled longing that is just a little too much like Dirk’s own.

It’s a thin line between the achievement of subtle understatement and pulling one’s punches in a way that saps the narrative drive of dialogue and plot. Director Bobbie Peers has made a very promising debut, but one suspects there is much more to come, as though the film is a kind of introduction to the real story, the magnum opus still waiting to be filmed.

In the meantime an unlikely bridge has been built between Norway and Bohemia. I’m sure Peers’s next work will be still more impressive, and that the good people of Karlovy Vary will welcome it with open arms.

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