Bergman did it almost all the time. Lars von Trier, Susanne Bier and other Dogma filmmakers do it. Even Aki Kaurismaki does it, although he goes to comic extremes.
“I don’t think there are a lot of people in film in Scandinavia today who are aware that they are using archetypes. But they are, and it becomes apparent especially when the story is working,” says Torun Lian, a commissioning editor at the Norwegian Film Institute and the director of such award-winning pics as “The Color of Milk” and “Only Clouds Move the Stars.”
Lian freely admits being among those people who do. “I begin writing and the same old stories, myths and archetypes come through,” she says. “In ‘Color of Milk,’ for example, the main character is being torn between two lovers, the generous and giving lover and the mysterious lover who represents the erotic power of love, the love that puts a spell on you.”
Lian believes that archetype and mythology work their way into film “whether we like it or not. It is in fact quite natural, something imprinted at a primordial level.”
Lian takes that belief to heart in her job as commissioning editor. “When you see a character and a story really working, it is often because the main character or storyline is tied to archetype,” she says.
For example, in Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” the strict father, the priest, even the children, who represent innocence, are classic archetypes.
The strong, silent type or the closed person, and the finding of a hidden treasure when that person opens up are two archetypes that appear regularly in Nordic culture. They are present in films such as Bent Hamer’s “Kitchen Stories” and Per Fly’s award-winning drama “The Inheritance.”
Von Trier, says Lian, is a director who is “very much into archetype. He can’t do anything without it. ‘Dancer in the Dark,’ ‘Breaking the Waves,’ ‘The Idiot,’ all represent innocents who are telling the truth and living their lives but to the point where their innocence possibly makes them foolish and actually endangers them.
“People like von Trier who have the greatest stories to tell, have a free ride on archetypes,” she continues. “They know intuitively how to use them. It’s like the instrument with which they play, the brush with which they paint.”
There are healthy doses in Nordic culture of certain motifs that run so strongly that they risk becoming seen as cliches.
Hans-Jorgen Riis-Jensen, who is the head of development at Svensk Filmindustri and sits on the board of SF’s newest Danish production offshoot, Tju-Bang, says, “Light and darkness are constant motifs that run through our culture, and the great Nordic filmmakers, including cinematographer Sven Nyqvist, have always tapped that.
“Nature in the Nordic territories has forced us inside, and forced us to talk to each other, often quite calmly and in depth,” notes Riis-Jensen, who is also a lecturer in film and drama at Sweden’s U. of Lulea. He points to Lukas Moodysson’s “Show Me Love,” which for the most part takes place inside — inside a house, inside the confines of a small village.
The calmness with which Scandinavians approach such emotional subjects as infidelity might seem peculiar outside of the Nordic territories, he adds.
Also, Scandinavia’s historical dearth of wars and violence means that there are few big epics and “again, we have to go inside of ourselves for material.”
Riis-Jensen cites Susanne Bier’s film “Brothers,” in which a sibling has gone to Afghanistan where he is thought to have died. When he returns, he finds his brother is with his wife.
The story does not center on the Afghan angle, but focuses on family and friends, and what has become an awkward love triangle.
Jarkko Hentula (“Pearls and Pigs”), a producer with Juonifilmi in Finland, says the mythology of the Finn as slightly alcoholic, taciturn and gloomy has been raised to the level of archetype by filmmakers like Aki Kaurismaki.
But Hentula considers it “a false archetype and one to which we have become hostage. In fact, it has nothing to do with the real Finn. We don’t live on the edge of society, we may drink, but we are neither drunk nor gloomy all the time.”
And if there is such a thing as a pan-Nordic archetype in film it is a return to nature as a way of curing ills, of cleansing the soul. “It is a need to rely on nature as a way of sorting out the world,” says Hentula.