Pelle the Conqueror is a feature film of epic proportions and a relentlessly unsentimental look at life among the haves and, primarily, the have-nots on a big turn-of-the-century farm. Writer-helmer Bille August avoids larger social issues and stays firmly down on the farm with the story culled from episodes in the first, and best, volume of Danish Nobel Prize winner Martin Andersen Nexo’s trilogy, an early classic in world socialist literature.
Film is a record of what happened when Lasse, an elderly and widowed farmer (Max von Sydow), and his young son Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) join a boatload of immigrants to escape from impoverished rural Sweden to the Land Of Plenty of their dreams, Denmark’s Baltic island of Bornholm.
On Bornholm, Lasse, possessor of visions and dreams but essentially broken of spirit, comes to terms with a life of near-slavery as the lowliest tender of the farm’s cows, while Pelle, during two years of misery and abuse, learns to trust mainly himself. He comes of age in more ways than one, casts off his chains and sets out, in time-honored style (a lone figure crossing the snowy fields), to conquer the world.
The Danish-Swedish cast has Von Sydow offering his career’s apex as Lasse, with his long horse’s face lit by the minutest registrations of hope and despair. Younger Hvenegaard plays Pelle with never a hint of being coached beyond what comes naturally and true. The other characters who populate August’s large canvas have stock characteristics enough to float a TV soap.
1988: Best Foreign Language Film