February 02, 2012

De dødes tjern (1958)

To global audiences the name of Norwegian writer André Bjerke may not be entirely familiar, but in his native country, Bjerke was one of the best known artists and intellectuals of the twentieth century. A prolific writer and translator, Bjerke was a man of many talents, including being a renown chess master and a TV personality; however, his best work was when writing crime fiction. His mystery novels (written under the pseudonym of Bernhard Borge), particularly those starring psychoanalyst Kai Bugge are ranked amongst the best in Norway, and are based on the concept of using psychology to solve crimes. The second of these novels, "De dødes tjern" is the one considered as his masterpiece, and since its publishing in 1942 has enjoyed of great popularity in Norway. "De dødes tjern" also became the very first of Bjerke's novels to be adapted to cinema, though this would only happen until 1958, with director Kåre Bergstrøm at the helm. The resulting film was Norway's first full-fledged entry into the horror genre, and still is considered a masterpiece. And not without a reason.

"De dødes tjern", known in English as "Lake of the Dead", is the story of 6 friends and their trip to a cabin located deep in the Norwegian forest. The group includes crime writer Bernhard Borge (Henki Kolstad) and his wife Sonja (Bjørg Engh), lawyer Harald Gran (Georg Richter) and his fianceé Liljan Werner (Henny Moan), literary critic Gabriel Mørk (André Bjerke) and psychologist Kai Bugge (Erling Lindahl). The group expects to find Lilja's twin brother Bjørn at the cabin, but when they arrive, they find no sign of him and the cabin apparently abandoned. Lilja gets the feeling that something is seriously wrong, and when they find Bjørn's dog dead and some of his clothes near the lake, everything points out to a suicide, which becomes specially creepy when officer Bråten (Øyvind Øyen) recalls the story of the house: years ago a man named Tore Gråvik killed his sister and her lover before drowning himself in the lake. It is said that his ghost still haunts the cabin, and the anniversary of the murders is just three days away.

Adapted by director Kåre Bergstrøm himself, "De dødes tjern" is essentially a tale of horror and mystery in which the characters try to figure out what really happened to Liljan's brother. Officer Bråten thinks it was a suicide, while Harald Gran is convinced it was a murder. Bugge and Mørk agree with the suicide theory, though both come from very different ideas: the psychoanalyst attempts to discover what took Bjørn to kill himself while Mørk begins to consider the possibility that it was actually the spirit of Tore Gråvik what possessed Bjørn to fulfill his curse. Since his wife is more concerned about caring for Lilja's mental breakdown, the cowardly though good natured Bernhard ends up in the middle of everything, no longer sure if he should trust his friends or not. And the joy of the story is precisely that through Bernhard, each theory begins to be dissected, and what Bjerke and Bergstrøm ultimately achieve in "De dødes tjern" is to explore a clash between both science and magic.

Nevertheless, while the story is certainly a captivating piece, the real highlight of the film is how director Kåre Bergstrøm manages to make it both hauntingly beautiful and increasingly terrifying at the same time. With a brilliant work of cinematography by Ragnar Sørensen, Bergstrøm transforms the Østerdal forests into a nightmarish world in which the characters, isolated in the cabin, enter to the dark side of the human soul as they begin to unveil what exactly happened there. Mystery is a key element of "De dødes tjern", and director Bergstrøm keeps a quite appropriate ambiguity through the film, borrowing elements from film noir and supernatural horror to create a haunting atmosphere of uncertainty, where every answer brings another question to the mystery. As in french director Jacques Tourneur's 1957 masterpiece, "Night of the Demon" (of which this movie bears more than a passing resemblance in tone), the horror of the uncertainty is exploited to the max, in a subtle and classy way in which atmosphere is everything.

Another highlight of "De dødes tjern" is the great work of acting done by a that makes the most of such a great screenplay. Leading the cast is Henki Kolstad, playing Bernhard Borge, who's basically the audience's eyes as the mystery develops. While certainly a relatively simpler man than his intellectual friends (to whom he is a foil), Kolstad keeps his performance restrained and natural, never overacting, not even when his character demands him to be a bumbling fool. Bjerke's perennial detective, Kai Bugge, is played with great conviction and dignity by Erling Lindahl, who adds a certain degree of malice to his Bugge, in tone with the film's ambiguity. Writer André Bjerke himself plays the cynic Mørke, and while he is certainly one of the weakest links, his work is not really bad, if only, a bit overacted. Henny Moan delivers a remarkable performance as Liljan, in a challenging role due to her character's emotional breakdown. The beautiful Bjørg Engh plays Bernhard's wife Sonja, and actually makes of her character a strong woman thanks to her screen presence.

Visually breathtaking, "De dødes tjern" is a brilliant exercise in how the correct use of atmosphere can truly enhance a horror film, as while there is nothing particularly graphic, the movie never fails to be an unsettling work of art; and its use of light and shadows, sounds and silences truly show the talent of director Kåre Bergstrøm. Of great interest is the natural and believable way the characters behave, as they always remain true to their beliefs. And what they believe becomes the central point of the movie, as each one of them has a conception of the truth, and solving the mystery also becomes a way to find out who was right. Certainly, there's a lot of things to praise in Kåre Bergstrøm's horror film, but sadly not everything is perfect. The film hasn't aged that good, and this is obvious not in its outdated special effects (which are overshadowed by the film's greatness), but in its talky conclusion in which everything is explained in a long monologue (akin to "Psycho"). It's certainly a product of its time.

Haunting, eerie, and yet so beautifully poetic, "De dødes tjern" is an unfairly forgotten gem that truly deserves to be better known outside its native Norway (where as written above, it's considered amongst the best Norwegian films ever made). After all, it's really interesting to watch the recurrent concept of a group of people in a secluded cabin to receive a Gothic treatment, particularly when its done with such care as this one. With its haunting Gothic atmosphere, brilliant cinematography and its cleverly written screenplay, Norway's first foray into the horror genre ends up being a true masterpiece of filmmaking. In Tourneur's "Night of the Demons" it's said that evil "it's in the woods", this Norwegian classic takes that statement literally.



The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

I enjoyed this one a lot, too. Shame not many have watched it. Have you seen The White Reindeer? I've been looking for that one but haven't been able to find it with English subs yet.

J Luis Rivera said...

Yeah, it's like a forgotten gem. "The White Reindeer"? Nope, but now I have a new film to find :)