KVIFF 2023: Norwegian actor Herbert Nordrum hypnotises Czech Republic

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».


KVIFF 2023: Ernst De Geer’s Hypnosen (The Hypnosis) put a spell on audiences at Karlovy Vary last week, the modern, quasi-psychoanalytical kind, that is. This was proper movie magic by any name, certainly, and no little magic dust has now been sprinkled on its duly celebrated star, Herbert Nordrum, who delivers an accomplished, masterful performance. The jury at Karlovy Vary International Festival gave him their top prize for best actor, the coveted Crystal Globe.

Nordrums performance is reminiscent of Ricky Gervais at his best, continually catching us deliciously, almost painfully, on the cusp of a cringe or a laugh. Nordrum, as wannabe mogul André, persistently ingratiates himself with the leader of the workshop for IT-startups until, finally, he stumbles on a clandestine dinner for everyone except him and his partner – mercifully enough, one can only imagine.

He crashes it anyway, bumbling as ever, transparently parroting what he hopes everyone wants to hear: ‘Oh, you have health concerns! Well, I, myself, get these headaches!’ You mean common-or-garden headaches, the kind of everyone gets? No, no! I am special! I do have something to contribute – something of value! Nordrum as André highlights that it’s attention-seeking all the way down, just by doing it extraordinarily badly. Soon, however, his partner – in life as well as business – will put a real spanner in the works by ripping up the playbook altogether.

If you watch the film and wonder, as you may, how Nordrum pulled off such a masterly performance, it’s at any rate crystal clear (pardon the expression!) that it helps to front a very good film. Tellingly, this was judged best in competition by the FIPRESCI jury. So, the critics, the proper cineastes, loved it too. Hence the comic acting that raised smiles and won friends in old Carlsbad in no way veiled the quality – and seriousness – of the work as a whole. It is a rare feat to create both a serious comedy, that is, with laughs – not only smiles – and a comedy that is serious. It’s a win-win. You not only get a good chuckle but also a chance to reflect on the contradictions of modern existence! Yes, you do need to do that; I’m not joking. Hats off to De Geer then, to pull off this near impossible cinematic conjuring trick with his debut feature! Talk about magic!

«The Hypnosis» (photo: Jonathan Bjerstedt).

Hypnosen creates its movie magic in a movie about magic. Magic is required to pull the veil on business as usual, on the banal wretchedness of everyday life. That’s how unbelievable non-conformity has become! The introduction of hypnosis is a clever narrative ploy in this respect, lodging the ‘magic’ in the frame of modern, rational, psychoanalytical believability. It amounts to self-help vs. self-help, a contest perhaps bound to have hilarious results. The hypnosis unluckily coincides with the big day. The romantic and business partnership of André and Vera, played by Asta Kamma August, will make a major pitch for the app they have devised to support women’s health. The venue for this, naturally, is a sort of confidence-boosting workshop in the art of self-promotion.

Meanwhile, the solution to Vera’s own most pressing health issue, her smoking habit, is a hypnotherapy session. This throws an unexpected curveball into the mix when the therapist ill-advisedly broadens the mandate to address problems she has expressing and asserting herself. A beautiful and dangerous cocktail is thus concocted where typical commercial phoniness gets an unwanted dose of reality.

Much of the humour that follows is the stuff of classic situation comedy: The antics of Vera-gone-wild and ‘sensible André’s’ comic-heroic efforts at damage control. At the same time, the posturing hypocrisy of the group leader and his proteges are exquisitely satirised, especially their lip-service to creativity until it ‘goes too far.’ They will humour Vera’s imaginary dog, for example, until it becomes a little too real. Human individuality is marvellous providing it’s good for business. Otherwise, forget it!

The contribution of August’s inspired performance should be underscored in this regard. It would have been no surprise if she had been the one feted as best actor. Nordrum graciously acknowledged as much in his acceptance speech, accurately pinpointing the root of his own performance in the delightful chemistry between the leading pair. It’s not exactly Laurel and Hardy or Abbot and Costello, more ‘The Yes Men,’ those culture-jamming pranksters who gate-crash meetings of the ‘high and mighty’ and expose their hypocrisies.

«The Hypnosis» (photo: Jonathan Bjerstedt).

It should neither be overlooked that there is more to this film than a nice comic routine. For all the laughs, a razor-sharp cutting edge is never far beneath the surface. The unpleasantness of disapproval has a darker side, and it is testimony to Nordrum’s performance that, at the critical moment, he makes the goof-turning-knave entirely believable. This intrinsically dramatic moment delivers the cutting edge of the film as satire, and doubtless caught the attention of the critics as they compared their assortment of apples and oranges for the fipresci prize.

Capitalist society is unwaveringly ‘normalising,’ to the point of absurdity but also all points beyond. The industrial way of life brooks no limits to its narcissistic materialism, no limits, among other things, to the human and planetary costs, even, paradoxically to the individual’s very sense of self-worth. Thus, the drama of oppression is played out in the moral hazard soon threatening the future of this couple, having been swept up like lambs to the slaughter on the road to success. Regrettably, the moral hazard of spreading needless plot-spoilers precludes further elaboration…

I’ve said it before in the ‘pages’ of this magazine. Czechs have a soft spot for Scandinavians in general, and Norwegians in particular. Perhaps most remarkably, the humour travels here effortlessly. They really seem to get our jokes, not only laughing out of politeness. I also said success awaited the film daring to take the road less travelled, to this old bastion of Central Europe. I hate to say ‘I told you so,’ and it shouldn’t be overstated anyway. Hypnosen did hit a nerve here in the almost Nordic-style hills of Karlovy Vary, but it was so much more than that.

«The Hypnosis» (photo: Jonathan Bjerstedt).

Hypnosen happens to be a very good film. It’s hard to think of a more telling and darkly ironical critique of the seldom-questioned, self-satisfied direction of modern society. This could even be the best such satire since Richard E. Grant arguably gave the performance of his life as the adman gone wrong in Bruce Robinson’s offbeat classic, How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989), way back in the heyday of neoliberalism’s shameless scourge of all things kind and gentle. With hindsight, that film looks like a swansong for the golden age of the welfare state. Three decades or so later, the modest post-war comforts and consolations, so hard won by unions and pre-sell-out socialists, are all but gone.

Today, the contradictions of a teetering civilisation seem both harder to take and harder to solve. Blinded by a multitude of red herrings generated by a global cottage-industry of conspiracy theories, we seem hardly to notice the real oppressions any longer, except – maybe – such conspicuous manifestations as the outbreak of war or planetary collapse. Art, not least the cinematic variety, has never had a more important role to play in working to change the conversation. Compared to How to Get Ahead in Advertising, Hypnosen is a more subtle form of critique, but no less effective for all that. It may be of its time, but it still sees no cause to surrender.

Contemporary right-wingers like to talk about a culture war. There is a sort of culture war, the one capitalism wages to divide and neutralise opposition, and disenfranchised right-wingers are blundering through its fog and shooting themselves in the foot. It may require a little humour to forge a break in that fog, bring some clarity in the face of confusion and despair. So, laugh, my friend, and rejoice! Humankind may be losing quite badly just now, even more badly that in the bad old 80s, but it ain’t over till the fat lady sings. In the meantime, a little hypnosis, a little modern movie magic, might just help.

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