vt Lake of the Dead; vt The Lake of the Damned
Norway / 74 minutes / bw / Norsk Dir: Kåre Bergstrøm Scr: Kåre Bergstrøm, André Bjerke, Henki Kolstad Story: De Dødes Tjern (1942) by Bernhard Borge (i.e., André Bjerke) Cine: Ragnar Sorensen Cast: Erling Lindahl, Bjørg Engh, Henny Moan, André Bjerke, Per Lillo Stenberg, Øyvind Øyen, Georg Richter, Leif Sommerstad, Inger Teien, Henki Kolstad.
Mystery writer Bernhard Borge (Kolstad) has just finished his latest novel, and starts reading it to his wife Sonja (Engh). The rest of the movie is the story of that novel . . . or is it a recollection of an experience they shared?
Bernhard and Sonja go on a train with a party of friends to visit the cabin where Bjørn Werner (Stenberg), twin brother of one of the party, artist Liljan Werner (Moan), is staying. Liljan is worried for her brother, because he’s been incommunicado for a week or two; besides, the pair are so close they can each sense whenever the other’s in danger, and that’s what she’s sensing now. Also among the party are Sonja’s psychoanalyst, Kai Bugge (Lindahl), her fiancé, Harald Gran (Richter), and the sardonic literary critic Gabriel Mørk (Bjerke).
Liljan (Henny Moan) in her studio.
On arrival, they’re met at the station by local cop Bråten (Øyen), who guides them to the cabin. They find it deserted, but assume Bjørn must be out shooting. As they wait, Bråten recounts to them the local legend concerning a ghost who haunts these parts. Many years ago a man called Tore Gråvik (Sommerstad) sustained an unhealthy passion for his own sister. When she eloped with a lover, the enraged Gråvik pursued them here and slaughtered them with an ax. Further maddened by grief, a few days later he threw himself into the nearby lake and drowned. His maniacal screams can still be heard each year on the night before August 23.
Bernhard (Henki Kolstad) and Sonja (Bjørg Engh) find the cabin deserted.
Soon the understandably nervous visitors discover Bjørn’s hat and the corpse of his dog, killed by a bullet through its head, down by the lakeside; footprints in the mud suggest Bjørn drowned himself. An even more illuminative discovery, perhaps, is Bjørn’s diary, which tells of an encounter with Gråvik’s ghost. But, still, it all seems to be possibly a matter of delusion, the visitors merely being creeped out by the spooky surroundings and by Bjørn’s continued absence. But then Liljan’s fiancé Harald Gran is murdered, and suddenly the stakes are far higher . . .
Bjørn (Per Lillo Stenberg) is dismayed to see the ghost of Tare.
Although the visitors are ostensibly all friends, there’s an interesting pattern of tensions between them. In part this is because of their different attitudes toward the ongoing events. Harald—until his demise—is convinced Bjørn has been murdered, and by a strictly mortal agency, and that all the indications of supernatural activity are just a smokescreen. At the opposite extreme, the critic Mørk is only too eager to swallow whatever occultistic hypothesis might catch his fancy. Between them is the somewhat austere psychoanalyst Bugge, who knows rather more than for a long time he reveals about Liljan and the missing Bjørn: he happily includes telepathy as part of his supposedly rationalist explanation of events. Liljan, the focus of everything, is so flighty she seems forever to be in a daze, while Sonja is more commonsensical, pragmatic and down-to-earth in her approach than perhaps anyone else in the group. For his part, Bernhard is a sort of bumbling everyman figure, never quite sure what the others are thinking or planning but doing his best to muddle through.
Sonja (Bjørg Engh) has played her part in the clever charade to snare a killer.
If you picked through the movie credits above you’ll have discovered that Bernhard Borge is the nom de plume under which the celebrated Norwegian writer André Bjerke published the novel upon which this movie is based; thus one of the movie’s central characters is the author’s pseudonym while another is played (more than competently) by the author himself. If that weren’t enough, Bjerke was married to Henny Moan, who plays Liljan. This sort of thing can make your head spin. The novel concerned is generally regarded as Bjerke/Borge’s masterpiece; in 2004 it was voted by the radio show Nitimen to be Norway’s second-best crime novel of all time, behind only Jo Nesbø’s 2000 offering Rødstrupe (vt The Redbreast).
What was that noise? Kai Bugge (Erling Lindahl), Harald Gran (Georg Richter), Liljan Werner (Henny Moan) and Bernhard Borge (Henki Kolstad).
In a poll of cinema critics carried out by the newspaper Dagbladet in 1998, De Dødes Tjern was ranked as Norway’s all-time fourth-best movie. It’s certainly a remarkably effective piece even today, beautifully shot in widescreen black-and-white and moving with a good pace as it builds up a sense of deep, uneasy foreboding that lies somewhere in the borderland between horror and noir, although the movie doesn’t really declare allegiance to either of those genres. Despite some lighter moments, its subtext—of sisters trying to escape the incestuous demands of their brothers—is surprisingly mature and grim, and certainly wouldn’t have got by Hollywood’s Production Code at the time.
This post is a contribution to the 1958 Challenge mounted by Rich Westwood at his Past Offences blog.