A young Norwegian couple’s baby daughter is lost in the snow and raised to womanhood by Sami reindeer herders. When it comes time to marry, will she wed her foster father’s son or that handsome Norwegian fellow who just moved into town? Also, wolves.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD by Flicker Alley.
Norway or the Highway
Sweden and Denmark are the two-ton gorillas of silent era Nordic filmmaking but Finland and Norway made their own mark with their much-smaller industries. I’ve grown quite fond of Finnish silent films, especially when they verge into gothic or horror territory. I am always eager to expand my viewing horizons and so I was very excited to watch this restoration of the late silent era Norwegian hit, Laila.
Laila is a romance set in the northmost part of Norway, among the Sami people, gorgeous scenery, wolves and, of course, reindeer.
(The Sami are referred to as “Lapps” in the title cards but since that term is offensive to them, I will be using their preferred demonym of Sami throughout this review.)
The story opens with a Norwegian couple preparing for a journey. They are prosperous traders in the Finnmark region but the isolated area receives few visits from a priest, so they must travel in order to baptize their baby daughter. Alas, they are attacked by wolves during their journey and the baby is lost in the snow.
The baby is recovered by Jåmpa (Tryggve Larssen), a Sami herdsman and hunter in the household of Aslag Laagje (Peter Malberg), the richest man in the region. They have no idea who the baby belongs to but immediately decide to raise her and name her Laila. Laagje later discovers Laila’s parents and tries to return her but Jåmpa takes her back when a plague hits the region, killing almost everyone in the town.
(The scene in which a ship full of dying plague victims floats into town is eerie and effective… though it certainly hits differently in times of COVID. “Don’t touch the boat and then not wash you hands, you fool! Social distancing! Social distancing!”)
Laila (Mona Mårtenson) grows to young womanhood in Laagje’s household and, despite being a rough and ready reindeer wrangler, manages to sport perfect curls and plucked eyebrows. It’s a gift. Laagje wants her to marry his nephew, Mellet (Henry Gleditsch), but Laila isn’t so eager.
Meanwhile, Anders Lind (Harald Schwenzen), Laila’s real cousin, has taken up residence in his uncle’s old store and home. He meets Laila when Laagje comes to town to trade and falls head over heels for her. However, Laagje is becoming more insistent than ever that the marriage between Laila and Mellet must take place. To make matters worse, intermarriage between the Sami and Norwegians is simply not done. The romance is impossible!
Yeah, well, this is a movie. We’ll just see about that.
First thing’s first: Laila is absolutely stunning to look at. The on-location scenery gives it a big boost, of course, but the film’s director, George Schnéevoigt, started in cinematography and his mother was a professional photographer. He clearly knew what he was doing. There are, of course, the usual figure-silhouetted-against-the-lakes-and-mountains shots but the picture really shines with action.
The wolf scenes (and, warning to animal lovers, they are graphic) are particularly well-done with dozens of the animals streaming down from the mountains and pursuing the characters as the camera cuts back and forth. There is also an excellent river/waterfall rescue with a character grabbing a beech branch for self-preservation. These rescues were a staple of Hollywood and, while the stunts were pristine, the studio background was often obvious. Laila has both the realism and the stuntwork down pat.
The standout performers in the film are Tryggve Larssen and Peter Malberg as Laila’s Sami foster fathers. As Casper Tybjerg brings out in his essay on the film, both men are treated as wild characters with disheveled hair, earrings and stabby ways but they are also basically good and heroic figures who sacrifice to make Laila happy. The scene in which Laagje decides to return Laila to her family is beautifully understated and Malberg conveys it all with glowers and abrupt movement. Similarly, Jåmpa’s internal turmoil as he decides to eliminate the obstacles to Laila’s happiness is expressed powerfully by Larssen.
But this brings in the question of the Sami and how they are portrayed in general in Laila. Laila was intended for an audience of Nordic viewers who would already understand much of the context but any viewer from outside the region might not find them as obvious.
The Sami are the indigenous people of Northern Europe and the majority of the population is found in Norway and Sweden with smaller numbers in Finland and Russia. Conflicts between Sami populations and the modern governments under whose jurisdiction they live continue to this day with the Sami attempting to preserve their resources, culture, heritage and language from encroachment, exploitation and erasure. (There were also some instances as violence, such as the Kautokeino rebellion of 1852.)
With this context in mind, Laila can be viewed as being in the same basic genre as “lost baby raised by Native Americans” stories. It also has much in common with the desert romance genre that was so popular in Hollywood during the silent era: the desert chieftain or mysterious dancing girl turns out to have been a white person in disguise all along. The thrill of an interracial romance without any actual interracial romance.
I should point out that, despite the reliance on stereotypes, both the film and the original novel seemed to have been motivated by good intentions and a desire to paint the Sami in a positive light. “These savages are all right!” in other words. Again, this has much in common with American films like Braveheart, which sympathized with the Yakama people being cheated out of their treaty-granted fishing rights, and Redskin, which loudly condemned the cruel Indian schools and their damage to the Navajo people in particular. However, both films still relied on stereotypes while telling their stories. Complicated legacies, indeed.
In general, the story is not as good as the acting, the direction or the scenery. Too many plot points basically rely on everyone giving up and deciding to take care of the matter later. In fact, half the troubles could have been avoided if the characters had simply employed the services of a courier.
Laila’s main claims to fame are its scenery and its action scenes and it delivers on both with great panache. It’s an absolutely gorgeous film and George Schnéevoigt’s past work as a cinematographer surely helped make it so. Come for the spectacle.
Where can I see it?
The restoration has been released on DVD by Flicker Alley with a score by Robert Israel.
If you’re interested in more historical portrayals of Sami people onscreen, do check out the 1952 Finnish horror film Valkoinen peura, which you can watch free here.
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