And then there was Laila

Hot on the heels of the exciting news of Kino’s Gaumont Treasures vol. 2 release comes what should be one of the silent feature film DVD releases of the year. Regulars will know that the Bioscope was mightily impressed by the Norwegian film Laila (1929) when it was shown at Pordenone in 2008. Now it is to be released by Flicker Alley on 11 April, and I can only say that every good silent home should have one. It’s a bold move by the American label to release a silent that isn’t a part of the canon and isn’t covered in any film history outside of Scandanavia. But I think word of mouth is going to do the trick and justify their faith in the film.

Directed by the Danish-German George Schnéevoigt (best known as a cinematographer), the film was digitally restored by the Norwegian Film Institute in 2006. If you will forgive me, I can do no better (and it’s a lot quicker) if I repeat the words that I wrote on seeing the film two and a half years ago:

The rediscovery that sent us out into the streets, if not with the intention of dragging in passers-by then certainly floating on air, was unexpected. Laila (1929) is a late Norwegian silent, a daunting 165 minutes long. Expectations were not high from those like me who knew little of this period of Norwegian cinema, though the presence of George Schnéevoigt, cinematographer on a number of Carl Th. Dreyer film, as director, had aroused curiosity.

So, we’re amid the snowy wastes of Norway, at some time in the past. It’s nighttime. Merchant Lind and his wife are being drawn by dog sleigh through the snow, taking their baby daughter Laila to her christening. A pack of wolves attackes them. In the frantic chase, the baby falls out of her sleigh. With the dawn, they seek desperately for the child, only to find an empty papoose. The child must have been devoured by the wolves. But the baby had been found by Jåmpa, the wild-looking servant of the wealthy Lapp Aslag Laagje, whose wife is childless. They decide to adopt the child, but then learn of her true identity. Sorrowfully, they return Laila to her true parents. But then her parents die of the plague …

We were gripped, and we stayed gripped throughout, as this immaculately-paced drama in the remotest of landscapes held you like only the best of silent films can. Exoticism was certainly part of the appeal – age-old, etched faces, rampaging wolves (running over the camera at one point), clashes between Lapps and Norwegians (disparagingly referred to by the former as ‘daros’), some fine ski-ing, and an awful lot of reindeer. Lying just underneath the narrative was a miscenegation theme, as the grown-up Laila (brightly played by Mona Mårtenson), kept in ignorance of her Norwegian parentage, is brought up to expect marriage to Laagje’s foster son Mellet. The film seeks to rescue her from this fate, preferring that she marry instead her first cousin, Anders Lind (Harald Schwenzen), who ends up rescuing her at the altar in a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion, thanks to an intervention from Jåmpa (Trygve Larssen), who puts Laila’s happiness above loyalty to his master (and gets savaged by a pack of wolves for his pains).

This was a work on both an intimate and an epic scale (it is based on a novel by J.A. Friis), excellently played in a fine naturalistic style by all concerned. It was good human drama. It’s hard to make a dull-looking film when you have so much snow to work with, and Schnéevoigt did not fluff a single scene … Fresh, unusual and soundly executed throughout, Laila was the outstanding feature film of the Giornate.

I hope that’s whetted your appetite. You won’t be disappointed.