The opening scenes of this heart-breaking—and ultimately heart-warming—1987 film tell us a great deal about Lasse (Max von Sydow), the father of the title character and about the circumstances under which they are making the sea journey to Denmark from their native Sweden. These scenes also hint at the brilliantly atmospheric cinematography that characterizes the movie.
Young Pelle and his widowed father, already a broken old man, have traveled to Denmark to find work. On the journey, Lasse has been encouraging his son with wildly false tales of what life in Denmark will be like: the pork roasts covered with raisins, the bread lathered with butter a half-inch thick; the freedom from work enjoyed by all children. Pelle’s demands to hear these stories again and again and the tattered clothing he wears make quite apparent the life they came from. The fact that Lasse’s stories include Denmark’s cheap and copious brandy, along with the obvious flush of his cheeks, are a further sign that Denmark will not be the paradise he has promised his son.
Too old and lacking any marketable skill and with a son too young for useful labour, Lasse is left on the dock holding Pelle in his arms while their younger and stronger shipmates move on to good jobs. Meanwhile, he keeps assuring his son, “I’m not going to take the first offer.” What he gets is in fact the last offer, clearly at the poorest wage, from a farmer’s foreman who has come to the dock too late to hire anyone else.
Pelle and Lasse are taken to a bleak farm where they are assigned quarters in a stable. The boy is put to work herding cows. The conditions under which they live and work and the humiliation and cruelty that they are forced to endure on the farm set in motion the process of Pelle’s ultimate liberation from what is clearly a cycle of poverty and failure. He is painfully awakened to his father’s weakness of character when Lasse’s promise of vengeance for a terrible act of humiliation committed against his son melts into mumbling obsequiousness in front of the boy’s eyes. One suspects that Lasse’s shortcomings as a man had hitherto been hidden from Pelle by a very strong and protective mother.
Pelle’s imagination is set alight when Erik, the lead hand, a man with the courage that Lasse lacks, tells him of his plan to sail for America and beyond in two years. He even shows the boy a picture of the ship he plans to take. Erik and his dream remain a kind of beacon of hope for Pelle until, in a revolt against the mean-spirited and ruthless foreman, Erik is severely injured in a freak accident.
The harshness of his environment and the indignities of his life as a despised immigrant worker, along with the weakness of his father, both toughen and harden the boy. Wittingly or unwittingly, he sets his father up with the wife of a sailor missing at sea, and the old man is happy with the thought of being served coffee in bed on Sunday morning even if his consorting with a married woman brings scorn and torment down on his son. But the death knoll for Lasse’s hope of a comfortable old age sounds when the woman’s husband returns.
When Erik is taken away, clearly for good, Pelle knows he has to make his move to freedom; at the last moment Lasse, broken and tired, refuses to join him, so Pelle strikes out on his own, determined to fulfill the promise his father could not keep: to conquer the world. His father lets him go and Pelle leaves him not with a tearful hug but with a manly handshake.
In an interesting and somewhat parallel subplot, the farmer’s wife, who has for years endured her husband’s philandering, a preoccupation which culminates in his deflowering of her niece, rediscovers her own strength and exacts a terrible revenge.
What makes this story compelling, apart from the bleak and beautiful land in which it unfolds—the hopeful sea set against the despairing landscape of the farm and its surroundings—is the love between Pelle and his father. In all his weakness and blustering self-delusion, Lasse truly cares for and tries his best to protect his son. And Pelle adores his father in spite of the old Swede’s inadequacies as man and parent. This love makes the hardships and disappointments all the more keen and the final parting all the more poignant.
Von Sydow is magnificent in the role of Lasse, masterfully keeping us suspended between pity and disgust, subtly gifting us the many facets of the old man’s character: pride, tenderness, humour, fear, loneliness and longing.
A remarkable film.
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