Norwegian safety-first filmmaking is a recipe for mediocrity

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.


Karlovy Vary 2019: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) may be A-list but it’s just not Cannes – or Berlin. This must be why only one Norwegian film, and a short at that, made it to the festival last month: Kerren Lumer-Klabbers’s A Stone Slowly Falls.

I suspect Norway’s not so benign neglect of Vary reflects a deeper problem with the industry. My suspicions were only confirmed by an interview with the young director of Norway’s sole contribution. The Norwegian industry is firmly in the chokehold of rationalism, the guiding ethos of unbridled capitalism. This is hardly a recipe for making great films and, paradoxically, not even for achieving its own narrowly conceived objective of commercial success.

The team behind A Stone Slowly Falls (En sten faller langsomt ned), director Kerren Lumer-Klabbers – who happens to be Danish and Dutch – and her producer, Oda Kruse, were our only national representatives at the festival this summer. Unlikely but actually brilliant ambassadors.

They are both students at the Norwegian Film School, due to graduate next summer. The day after the festival, Lumer-Klabbers told me about their desire to shake up the Norwegian film establishment a little. She is full of praise for Norwegian filmmaking “craft” but worried about its lack of “nerve…. It’s a problem if the filmmaking is focused on getting a broad audience, if that’s your first priority. If it’s about the money more than the content, then it’s difficult to make a movie that really gets you anywhere, that makes you feel or think.”

Kerren Lumer-Klabbers and Oda Kruse.

The problem, in short, is playing it safe. Lumer-Klabbers advocates an approach more rooted in the nature of film itself as a vehicle of connection and mutual growth for filmmaker and spectator alike. The approach and its virtues are apparent in the film she brought to Vary – and to the short-film festivals of such notable venues as Prague and Grimstad. Lumer-Klabbers takes on that notoriously difficult task of making a coherent cinematic statement within the confines of the short format. She does so, it turns out, with no little craft and plenty of nerve.

She tells the story of Tor, a young man who, in a pleasing nod to symbolism, is troubled by the unexpected no-show of an annual meteor shower. Here is a suitably cinematic, literally cosmic trigger for the collapse of all meaning. It might sound a little pretentious and it would be if the film were playing the theme for high drama, rather than just playing. What makes the work interesting, and so watchable, is the way it approaches that old staple of the festival circuit, sadness and depression, in a playful way. Its wry humour draws on the paradoxical self-absorption at the heart of despair. Tor’s mate, for example, reacts with mock chagrin upon reaching the obvious conclusion that his own life or death is a matter of complete indifference to Tor.

A Stone Slowly Falls is a pleasing, self-contained episode, visually arresting, narratively simple but complete. Indeed, it fills the few minutes at its disposal with considerable nuance and irony. I believe the film is true to Lumer-Klabbers’s philosophy, as she describes it, to let film be the human journey, of value in itself, not as a path deliberately designed to lead to glory – or riches. She took a chance, to see where the process took her, and, in a way, she got lucky. She made something appealing enough to win attention and plaudits. Indeed, the film received special mentions in Prague for director and lead actor. Sure, Lumer-Klabbers got lucky, but in cinema, as elsewhere, you make your own luck.

Is the Norwegian film establishment playing it too safe? This might explain why the roads less travelled, like KVIFF, a little less commercial but full of great films, are strangely neglected. My chat with Lumer-Klabbers, in that most deconstructive of settings, the festival aftermath, would seem to support such a proposition. What she describes is an apprenticeship model of filmmaking, where younger talents work their way up slowly through on-set grunt-work, to learn their craft and eventually reach the point – maybe – of making their own features. Then, and only then, might the machinery, and funding, fall in behind them, and allow them to make a film in the manner in which they have already become so very accustomed.

There is nothing wrong with a little mentoring, which is clearly a great way to learn, but has the Norwegian model gone too far? Has it stifled the propensity to think outside the box, to experiment with less tried and tested ideas? The cinematic eggs would at any rate appear to be pretty much in one basket: that well-crafted and financed movie, assembled according to plan by well-trained professionals, and pitched to Cannes – or Berlin, or Venice, or Toronto. End of.

The heart of the problem, then, lies in an all-or-nothing approach to funding. Some of the greatest films, artistically speaking, have been “low budget, high concept” endeavours, the expression Lumer-Klabbers herself uses to describe A Stone Slowly Falls. What is needed to support such works is as modest as it is important, a little funding only, to cover basic costs so that younger, less established filmmakers can try out their ideas. Otherwise, we can be sure that class will rear its ugly head. Fresh talents may well break onto the scene, just so long as they are independently wealthy!

Social democratic Norway can do better than that. It needn’t squander its human resources. It needn’t restrict its cinematic perspective to the old, established and privileged among its ranks. Moreover, such an elitist blinkering tends to channel its protegés through one route only: the industrial assembly line, with its mechanical decomposition of the filmmaking process, reducing everything to a rationalised craft or technique. This is anathema to creativity; it leaves so little space in which filmmaking as a kind of art might thrive and blossom.

Lumer-Klabbers, for one, sees filmmaking as the search for something real, for a genuinely penetrating gaze into lives as they are actually lived, into what it means to be human. People are at any rate so much more than cogs in a Hollywood fantasy machine. To work with film should be to work with people, organically, to search together for truths we can share. This is the genius of a work like Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) or Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008), for example. Here lies the path of integrity and artistry. It might well be the road less travelled and one not easily navigated either. It remains, for all that, the only road that leads to greatness.

These days, Kerren and her colleagues are working on a new project, called Smøla, named after the small island where the filming – pragmatically – will take place. They plan to explore human dynamics with the loosest of scripts and a spirit of curiosity and experimentation. What are the ingredients of this project? Talent, enthusiasm and, last but not least, the willingness and ability to work for nothing! It illustrates that not everything is rotten in the state of Denmark – or Norway for that matter – but there is certainly room for improvement!

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