Where Man Returns: Off the map it may be, but North Norwegian film is coming in from the cold!

P. Stuart Robinson (b. 1958) is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.


TIFF 2019: Freezing sunrise-sunset (which is it?) spreads like a slow-mo, fresh-air tsunami across our awakening screen. Ice snaps, snow crunches, as we inch towards the dubious haven of the frozen shore. Where Man Returns («Hvor man vender tilbake», 2019) really took us there: to the giddy heights of the High North, and even tempted us to stick around. Could this be a turning-point for North Norwegian film?

It’s not just that Egil Håskjold Larsen made a very good film but what it says about how far we’ve come – and I don’t mean the Russian border – I mean figuratively, cinematically. There’s a growing investment in filmmaking beyond the Arctic Circle, not just financially, but through the efforts and invention of young filmmakers who know this place but also know its place in the world. They pin it down, plug it in and let it fly. That doesn’t mean selling out but rather speaking the universal language of film – here in their own unfenced, unruly and freezing backyard. This delicate work of slow cinema is no blockbuster but it has something to say and will speak fluently, if we let it, to one and all.

With shades of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Steinar, the trusty old hand, does all but master his bleak, beloved landscape. Its relentless snow, bitter winds and fitful seas can never be underestimated, but that is the watchful Steinar’s secret: he really doesn’t – not for a moment. He respects the forces of nature but gives no quarter. Alert at the helm of his modest skiff, he cuts the motor, breaks up the gathering ice floes with his foot, and pushes on for the shore. The Santiago of the North, like his forebear, finds his trusty companion waiting onshore, but this one is wagging his tail and fussing like a puppy.

There is perhaps nothing more universal, more human, than our contradictions – that bottomless pool of ambivalence from which few of us will ever entirely emerge. We cannot mistake the affection of Steinar, for his dog especially, but also for the surprisingly rich pageant of creatures who survive with them out there in the unforgiving tundra.

rYet he will kill. Like a true predator, he will lay in wait until that moment of truth when he can despatch his prey. He will catch and fix his dinner. ‘I’ll get you in the end,’ he remarks ominously and inaudibly to one cautious bird who will, at any rate, live to fly another day.

The film has an epic power, which belies its modest budget and simple setup. The filmmaker followed his ‘prey’ alone with no crew or fancy equipment to add strings to his cinematic bow. But then film has always been less about money and more about inspiration, feeling and choice. Images of northern scenery regularly look featureless and drab, failing to do justice to the quiet power and majesty of the landscape as embodied experience. It is not as easy to make movies here as we might think. Larsen just made it look easy. So what is his secret?

There is no doubt he chose his own way. I would not advise anyone to film this place in black and white but that is exactly what he did, and he made it work. Others have felt the need to fill the deceptive ‘silence’ of the North with stirring music, but he wisely resisted that temptation. Instead, he listened to its rich, ambient soundscape and found a way to get us to listen with him. All in all, he brought out the dazzling contrasts and the almost dreamlike intensity of this implacable landscape. He brought it to life.

When Man Returns may not sweep you away like some movie-land fairground rollercoaster, but it will take you on the kind of slow, arduous journey that is the hallmark of the North. On this journey you will meet an extraordinary man and a loveable dog, and you will recognise the place for what it is, a deceptively tumultuous, heaving filament of life, in its chilly, monumental slow-mo, just as nature and one very clever filmmaker intended.

This is a place to which we will return – again and again – for the story of North Norwegian film is really just getting started…

Read next: