Pelle the Conqueror (1987) Blu-ray Review: Coming to Denmark

You hear stories about people wanting to migrate from their home country to a new area all the time. All of them want to start a new life in a new location because their current residence is no longer fitting for them for a multitude of reasons. Many have dreams of how their new life will be once they move, and they are mostly positive. But, upon their arrival, the harsh reality sets in, and the dreams and goals they had are pushed to the wayside as they embrace their new life.

That’s the basis for many films about immigration, including Bille August’s Pelle the Conqueror, which was the winner for Best Foreign Language Film at the 61st Annual Academy Awards. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Film Movement Classics recently released the film to Blu-ray for the first time with a brand new 2K transfer that is, at times, wonderful to admire, but also somewhat frustrating as random scenes have a grainy look to them. Most of them are noticeable during interior shots, especially when it’s dark. The sound quality is quite sharp, though, as the dialogue comes in clearly and without any issues in the update.

Pelle the Conqueror tells the story of Lasse (Max von Sydow) and his son, Pelle (Pelle Hvengaard). Recently widowed, Lasse decides to take his son and move from Sweden to the island of Bornholm in Denmark. Before their big move, Lasse tells Pelle that Denmark will be a much better experience for them. From what he’s heard, a lot of the things that it supposedly has will be beneficial for them. One of them being that only the adults have to work, and the children can run around and play, since the pay rate is so much better. But when they arrive, many of the townspeople looking for workers pass on Lasse due to his age, and the fact that he has a child they deem too young to work. After numerous declines, one person finally takes Lasse and Pelle in for work. But it turns out that the work isn’t the most desirable, and both Lasse and Pelle are treated like they are unwelcome to this new area.

Pelle the Conqueror is not just a story about immigration, but also one that is a coming-of-age for its titular character, Pelle. He has to face a number of fears, such as being the new kid at school and adjusting to where he now lives and works. Told over the course of the year, the relationship between Pelle and his father grows stronger with every new experience they face.

August’s film is richly shot, capturing the ugliness of a foggy sea in Sweden and the great beauty of the open skies of Denmark so wonderfully that it’s difficult to look away, even when the film becomes harder to watch. Pelle the Conqueror isn’t exactly an uplifting experience, but it’s one that is heartbreaking and beautifully told. The performances by von Sydow and Hvengaard are wonderful, and the final moment between them hits the viewer like a freight train. While there are some moments in the story that come across as formulaic, it’s August’s direction, the imagery, and the performances by all involved that make it a riveting experience.

The bonus features are disappointingly sparse in the 30th anniversary edition of Pelle the Conqueror. On the inside is a booklet that contains images from the movie and an essay by Terrence Rafferty, in which he examines the movie and discusses how it boosted August’s career. The only other feature is an audio commentary by Peter Cowie, who analyzes each scene of the movie and narrates like it’s a lecture of the movie. Cowie’s analysis of the movie, and his connection to the historical elements of its setting, is pretty fascinating.

Pelle the Conqueror is a tough watch, but one worth checking out. Although the image quality has issues, the restoration does look wonderful for a majority of the film. And, when you see the film, you’ll understand why von Sydow received an Oscar nomination for his performance.

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David Wangberg

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