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Jan Troell's Persistence of Vision 

Swedish director adds a new page to his celluloid scrapbook

Wednesday, Mar 4 2009
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There isn’t a filmmaker in the world who wouldn’t envy the compliment once paid to director Jan Troell by a fellow Swede named Ingmar Bergman. Although the two filmmakers first met in 1966 when Troell was 35 and releasing his debut feature, Here Is Your Life, it was some years later that Bergman told Troell he owned a 35mm print of the film, which he screened in his home once a year. High praise indeed. Five years after Here Is Your Life, Troell would earn international acclaim — and four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director — for his defining masterpieces, The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972). Yet, when he returned to Sweden after a brief stint in Hollywood, he couldn’t find financing for his next film. Luckily, Bergman was still keeping an eye out.

“It was called Bang! and it was a strange script,” Troell, now 77, recalls during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “No one wanted to put money into it. I sent the script to Bergman to read. I didn’t hear back from him, but a few days later, the manager of [Swedish film studio] Svensk Filmindustri, which had turned the script down, called to say that they’d been ‘giving it some thought’ and that ‘we think you should make this film.’” Troell flashes a conspiratorial smile. Bergman, it would seem, had made a call.

If he were still alive, Bergman would surely stockpile a print of Troell’s exquisite new film, Everlasting Moments. Set in Sweden in the early years of the 20th century, the film tells the true story of Maria Larsson (played by Maria Heiskanen), mother of seven and beleaguered wife to a womanizing, drunken dockworker. For Maria, liberation comes in the form of a Contessa camera that she wins in a lottery, and with which she begins taking photographs, first of her children and later of her neighbors and her city.

click to enlarge KEVIN SCANLON - Director of photography

As a boy, Troell took photographs with a glass plate camera very similar to Maria’s. “I was 14,” he says, “developing film in the closet of my parents’ home. I did that for, well, I guess I haven’t stopped yet. Like Maria, I never got over that mystery and miracle — an image growing in front of you, in a darkened room, under the red light.”

Although he kept taking photographs, out of necessity the adult Troell became a schoolteacher. “But I was still taking pictures and using my 16mm [movie] camera,” he says. “During France’s war with Algeria, I went there to film the refugees for Save the Children. This was the beginning. I took a year’s leave from teaching and was eventually asked to direct a feature, which became Here Is Your Life.” Troell gives another smile, then adds, “I never went back to teaching.”

In postwar Sweden, there were few novels more beloved than Vilhelm Moberg’s Emigrants quartet, which tells of a Swedish farm family that immigrates to America in the mid-19th century. A movie version had proven elusive, until the project was presented to Troell. “I loved the books, as everyone did,” he says, “but I couldn’t find a reason to make the film, even though to adapt these books was the dream of every Swedish director. I was almost ready to say no, but then I found a special passage in the third novel ...”

Troell runs his right index finger down the open palm of his left hand, as if scrolling through an open book. “It was on the left-hand side of the page. I still remember. It was just a few lines, describing how Kristina (played in the films by Liv Ullmann) often thought of a beloved blue china doll that she’d accidentally dropped down a well. For me, that image reflected her relationship with her home country, which was always there, but impossible to retrieve. The doll in the water affected me so strongly that I wrote a scene based on it. We never shot the scene, but that doll was the catalyst for everything that followed.”

Similarly, in Everlasting Moments, Troell makes a motif out of a faded photograph of Maria’s husband swinging her in the air in an exuberant embrace. The filmmaker points to the shot in a book about Maria Larsson compiled by his wife, Agneta, whose interviews with Larsson’s oldest daughter formed the foundation of the film. “There is so much life there,” Troell says, gazing at the photo with fascination, as if he’s just come upon it for the first time, and been stopped in his tracks.

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