Dreaming of the Medieval in Kristin Lavransdatter and Trollsyn

Article excerpt

DURING THE MID-1990S, Norway experienced a rebirth of interest in medieval culture fueled by, among many other things, church-sponsored national celebrations of one thousand years of Christianity, growing self-awareness in the face of potential membership in the European Union, and nationalistic pride in hosting the Olympic winter games. The pilgrimage route to Nidaros was reestablished, (1) re-enactments of medieval battles and life gained in popularity, and celebration of the feast of Saint Olav increased dramatically. (2) Meanwhile, Norway experienced growing cultural pressure as a result of globalization and the perceived threat of immigration. This increasing preoccupation with the medieval illustrates Umberto Eco's observation that "the Middle Ages are the root of all our contemporary 'hot' problems, and it is not surprising that we go back to that period every time we ask ourselves about our origin" (65). Two films gave cultural expression of this trend in Norway: Anja Breien and Ola Solum's Trollsyn [Second Sight] from 1994 and Liv Ullmann's Kristin Lavransdatter from 1995. This article will examine how the films recreate the Middle Ages, how constructs of the medieval were used in Norwegian identity formation in the mid-1990s, and how they raise broader questions about film adaptation and the notion of historicity.

Having been viewed by as much as two-thirds of the population, Kristin Lavransdatter is one of Norway's most domestically successful films ever, while Trollsyn faded from public consciousness within a few months of its release. Trollsyn and Kristin Lavransdatter are on the surface equally nationalistic in their use of culturally loaded hypotexts, but Trollsyn's stylistic and narrative connections to European art cinema and foregrounding of medieval oral culture was apparently rejected by viewers and critics alike, whereas Kristin Lavransdatter's reliance on the codes and conventions of dominant cinema romance and the nineteenth-century novel assured its popularity. Kristin Lavransdatrer actually received less than glowing critical responses throughout Norway upon its release. Anne Gjelsvik writes, "Faktumet er at kritikken av Kristin Lavransdatter var mye mer variert enn hovedinntrykket var. Dette skyldes selvsagt at VG, Dagbladet, og Aftenposten var blant de mest positive" (123) [The fact is that criticism of Kristin Lavransdatter was much more varied than the primary impression was. This is of course due to the fact that VG, Dagbladet, and Aftenposten were among the most positive]. In spite of the generally negative criticism, many Norwegians saw the film, probably because of the intense media attention it received and because of the celebrity status of Ullmann and Sigrid Undset. Trollsyn also received mixed criticism. Kjetil Korslund, a film critic for the weekly newspaper Morgenbladet called the film "Middelalder light" [Middle Ages light] and wrote: "Trollsyn er et eksempel pa norsk 'historisk' film hvor alt gar galt pa ganske trolsk maner. Deter for det forste vanskelig a forsta hvorfor det er interessant a filmatisere sagnet om Jostedalsrypa" (5) [Trollsyn is an example of Norwegian "historical" film where everything goes wrong in a rather troll-like manner. In the first place, it is difficult to understand why it is interesting to film the legend of Jostedalsrypa]. The reviews in Aftenposten, Dagbladet, and VG are slightly more positive but clearly not enough to attract a large audience.

In the concluding remarks to his groundbreaking discussion of the two films, the Norwegian film scholar, Gunnar Iversen, suggests that they "may, despite their lack of historicity, be used as serious vehicles for thinking about our relationship to the past" (21). The purpose of this paper is to take up that challenge and explore how medieval constructs can be used in contemporary film to reconstruct historical consciousness and memory as well as to explore what these constructs tell us about Norwegian identity construction in the mid-1990s. …