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Film / Pelle the Conqueror

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It's as depressing as it looks.
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Pelle the Conqueror is a 1987 film, made as a co-production between Denmark and Sweden. It was directed by Bille August and stars Max von Sydow. Based on the 1910 novel of the same name by Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexø, the film covers the first part of the novel which describes the titular character's childhood.

The film is set sometime around the middle of the 19th century. Lasse Karlsson (von Sydow) is a widower, a man of around 60 years old with a young son, Pelle. The story opens with Lasse and Pelle emigrating to Denmark from Sweden in search of work. Lasse struggles to find work, being a man of advanced age with a small son in tow, but manages to get hired as a farm laborer on the Kongstrup farm. The farm proves to be a brutal, unpleasant place, with both Lasse and Pelle receiving harassment because they are foreigners. The father and son struggle to survive in a harsh and unwelcoming land.

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  • Book-Ends: Begins with Lasse and Pelle arriving in Denmark. Ends with Pelle leaving his father and going off to America.
  • Crapsack World: Jesus. Miserable farm workers living in quasi-slavery, persecuted by vicious overseers. Illiteracy, poverty, babies being drowned, men being left shuffling wrecks after their skulls are smashed, men getting their nuts sliced off, peasants freezing to death in boats... And remember, Nexø, the writer of the novel, stated that the story was partly autobiographical.
  • December–December Romance: Between Lasse and Mrs. Olsen, a neighbor lady whose husband is lost at sea. Or rather, she thinks he was lost at sea.
  • Dies Wide Open: The teacher croaks during school. The kids don't figure it out until 2 pm and the end of the day roll around and he doesn't dismiss them.
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  • Down on the Farm: A bad place to be, where all the laborers are treated badly, but the foreigners Lasse and Pelle worst of all.
  • Establishing Character Moment: When everyone else is either laughing at Pelle or standing by dully as the farm trainer whips and humiliates him, Erik comes charging over and attacks the trainer. Erik is established as a good and decent person.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: Pelle in the barn, after he's been lured there and left alone, but before his tormentors spring out to whip him and humiliate him.
  • Groin Attack: Mrs. Kongstrup slices off her husband's testicles as revenge for humiliating her by having an affair with her niece.
  • An Immigrant's Tale: A disheartening one of of poverty, oppression, and hard labor. The novel is an even more archetypical example, as it eventually sees Pelle getting married, becoming a father, and even finding success in his adult years, ending up as both a respected business owner and a leading member of the Danish labor movement.
  • Infant Immortality: After Kongstrup won't let his son date a local girl, and his son impregnates the local girl anyway, they drown the baby in the river.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Nothing ever happens to the monstrous sadistic foreman, or his little asshole sidekick, the Trainee.
    • Mrs.Kongstrup is not punished for castrating her husband.
  • Lady Drunk: Lonely, unhappy Mrs. Kongstrup weeps when her husband pours out her bottle.
  • Match Cut: From Lasse and Pelle carefully planting some strawberry plants that Lasse managed to take all the way from Sweden, to Lasse and Pelle shoveling through a gross-looking cart load of fish.
  • Never Learned to Read: Just one of Lasse and Pelle's problems. Lasse puts the cows in the wrong stalls because he can't read the signs. Pelle eventually goes to school and learns, but it's too late for Lasse.
  • No Name Given: The evil, sadistic foreman and his just as evil, just as sadistic, but much more cowardly teenaged trainee are never named.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Pelle walking away down the beach, presumably off to a dock that will get him on a ship to America.
  • Ominous Fog: The fog-bound shores of Denmark that open the film certainly hint that the Karlssons will not have a fun time in Denmark.
  • Rage Breaking Point: Mrs. Kongstrup has known for years that her husband cheats on her constantly and has fathered illegitimate children. But finding out that he had sex with her niece causes her to snap, and slice off his testicles.
  • Stock Lateral Thinking Puzzle: Pelle irritates his teacher with the old "which weighs more, a pound of feathers or a pound of lead" chestnut.
  • Title Drop: Sort of. Lasse says to his son "you're young, you can conquer the world."
  • Your Cheating Heart: Mr. Longstrup has illegitimate children with women all over the area.

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