Back in the dismal seventies the swamp rocker Tony Joe White recorded a song called Even Trolls Love Rock And Roll. He had the belief that rock and roll had the power to heal the rift between humans and trolls. In the song the troll shared guitar riffs rather than rifts.
Like Tony Joe White, the filmmakers who produced Trolljegeren had their tongues in their cheeks. The final credit in Trolljegeren informs the audience that no trolls were harmed in the making of the film. The tongues of Norwegian filmmakers must rest on ice-cold dentures. There is a lot of snow in Trolljegeren, and some fabulous scenery. Most of the humour is deadpan, and will be missed by many not from Norway. Not all of it registered with me but I was able to enjoy watching actors not only explain how they maintain a natural habitat but also describe the behaviour of the trolls that exist in Norway. The country is blessed with performers who know how to underact and portray the dull and responsible. Polite self-effacement defines the Cohen movie Fargo, and Scandinavia is where it originated.
Despite the difference in cinematic style there are a few nods towards Hollywood Westerns. The action of the hunt, though, is not an end in itself as it is for Western heroes. Hans the troll hunter is not excited by action and discoveries. He is a Civil Servant who complains about the lack of paid overtime and inadequate pension provision. Hans is on the verge of resignation. When he is attacked by a troll, he blames the job rather than the troll. Part of the fun for the audience is watching the Scandinavian equivalent of John Wayne cope with the bureaucracy of a social democracy.
The trolls exist as a metaphor for the plight of indigenous natives. The comparison with Native Americans is not sidestepped. The troll hunter destroys those trolls who leave the reservation and inflict damage on people and property. Pylons are used to provide the borders of the troll reservation. The trolls are a threat to life, livelihood, social order and the tourist myth of the wilderness. Humanity has to defend itself but Hans is haunted by a massacre of trolls. He witnessed and remembers the murder of pregnant females and children.
The trolls are pagans and savages outside Western civilisation. They have a taste for Christian blood. Hans tempts the trolls to follow him by playing a version of What A Friend We Have In Jesus. If the record is a typical example of Norwegian religious music, American gospel has nothing to fear. The Christian cameraman in the film crew that follows Hans is replaced by a Muslim camerawoman. Apart from improving health and safety this permits a subtle effect. The original cameraman knows the rest of the crew, and his camera is steady and focussed. The camerawoman is curious, and her camera roams and discovers.
Trolljegeren follows the format of the Blair Witch Project, a group of adolescents making a film. Here, though, the adolescents are film students and have half-decent equipment. The eyes of the viewer are not obliged to suffer. The film mixes the chaos with the deliberate, not only fuzzy night scenes but stunning snow vistas that will encourage some viewers to book a holiday in Norway. When the hunted cameraman is obliged to fumble, there is a satisfaction in watching the skilled pretending to be amateurish. As a Jordanaire once said of the Elvis Presley recording of Love Me Tender, ‘the bad notes make it art.’
The film has plenty of style and humour but it is, like most horror movies, thematic. The trolls, troll hunter and film crew are all outsiders. The trolls like to drink Christian blood. For the troll hunter and film crew the Christian is a risk to their security. The troll hunter and film crew deny God and have contempt for Finn the bureaucrat who represents authority and whose objective is to conceal the existence of the trolls from the Norwegians.
‘His job is to manage people,’ says Hans.
Finn has a name that challenges Norwegian authenticity and he uses Polish immigrants to disguise the destruction caused by the trolls. They leave dead bears as fake suspects. These scenes are comic. The Polish workers are insensitive to the pretence of maintaining Scandinavian authenticity. The bear they bring after an incident has dubious antecedence, and the Poles use a van that advertises decorating services. These bureaucrats and hustlers are shabby and unprincipled. Finn is importing East European corruption, maligning the landscape and denying the heroic alternative of the troll hunter.
Hans cooperates with the film crew despite the warning from Finn that he will lose his job Hans is disillusioned with the conditions, operational obstacles and the inevitable lack of recognition for his efforts and expertise. In the case of Hans this is more serious than normal because he is not supposed to exist.
The relationship of the hunter to the hunted defines the film. Hans hunts trolls but is hunted by the film crew. Without the hunted the hunter is unable to use his skills and strength, to be a hunter. In the same way the film crew needs Hans to be filmmakers. They do not acquire the skills of Hans but they do become intrepid like him. There is a hint at the end of the film that the members of the crew have lost their adolescence. The final scene has a surprise ending that indicates events that will not be recorded by the film crew. We do, though, observe the film students walking in a troll inhabited wilderness and being relaxed. They have learnt how to operate their equipment and manage their curiosity in difficult situations.
The film contains four impressive set pieces. All these encounters with the trolls contain surprises. Each confrontation requires bravery and defiance from Hans but also method and experience. At the beginning the leader of the film crew is delighted by the discoveries and he sneers at what he sees, the giant syringe and protective uniform used by the troll hunter. In the final confrontation the fairy tale escapism of the troll that nourished the people in the film crew as children has no relevance. The fairy tale exists to give us faith in ourselves. Living without this naive faith requires the crew to exist as modern adults. Taking the director to a hospital away from the wilderness, and surviving a life, is all that is important to them. At the end of the film both the film crew and the troll hunter lose their naivety. There is a price to be paid for realistic understanding.
The beginning of Trolljegeren is dominated by film of the crew hunting Hans. The director talks about Hans as if he is a unique specimen. The crew follow him on to a ferry, and Hans behaves like typical prey, suspicious, withdrawn and then aggressive. The similarities between the troll hunter and the film crew are not just inevitable but stressed. Both Hans and the crew hunt and are hunted, both are outsiders, both are confused by the reality they see, both have jobs that make them nervous and stealthy, both enjoy being at the centre of the drama and both will only survive the trolls if they become intrepid and know how to use their ‘shooting’ equipment. How they will cope with bureaucrats and tourists who want a pristine wilderness that excludes trolls, monsters and hunters is the final challenge. When the film ends, the audience is not hopeful.
The Norwegian landscape dominates the film and is similar to the Highlands of Scotland, mountainous and wet. The requirement for the troll hunter and the film crew to meet the mark, to face a wilderness that is dangerous, is rooted in the values of mountaineers. Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard is also haunted by the same obligation. Knausgaard writes about whether he is a satisfactory husband, father, son, friend, male and lover. And if that is not enough to worry him, he explores his fears in half a dozen novels that in length equal the output of Proust. The task of writing epic prose is another way for Knausgaard to reach the required mark.
A hostile landscape allows the writers and filmmakers of Norway to insist that the physical environment is important in understanding the scale and scope of humans. This is where we succeed or fail to leave our mark. The landscape, though, also needs to be understood. The film makes fun not only of the bureaucrats who want to remake the wilderness as an acceptable environment but the tourists who forfeit their authenticity through outdoor consumerism and sightseeing. The troll does not exist, of course, but Trolljegeren should convince the viewer that if the wilderness has a landowner, it would be a monster beyond human comprehension. And if belief in monsters is beyond our imagination then Trolljegeren is a reminder that the landscape will never be tamed. We experience its delights and are sometimes surprised by its dangers but there is a lot of wilderness, and our footsteps are more scarce than we realise. Most of it remains secret.
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.
If you want to read more about his travels click here.