Here Is Your Life (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the 1966 feature debut of Swedish director Jan Troell, is ambitious by any measure: an epic (over two-and-a-half hours long) coming of age drama based on the semi-autobiographical novels by Nobel Prize-winning author Eyvind Johnson set in rural Sweden during the years of World War I.
It was also a response to the symbol-laden, psychologically heavy cinema of Ingmar Bergman, which was pretty much all the rest of the world knew about Swedish cinema in the early sixties. Here is Your Life, the feature debut of Jan Troell, was part of a new wave of Swedish cinema. Not quite Sweden’s answer to the nouvelle vague, it nonetheless ushered in young (or at least younger) filmmakers and different approaches, from the passionate romanticism of Bo Widerberg’s Elvira Madigan to the freewheeling intimacy of Vilgot Sjöman’s I Am Curious – Yellow, both 1967.
Framed in those terms, Here is Your Life is a fresh take on the classic historical drama. Olaf (Johnson’s stand-in, played by Eddie Axberg) is a mere 13 years old when he leaves the farm of his foster parents (sent there because his real parents are too poor to feed him) and sets out to make his own way in the world. The film follows him through his teenage years as he moves from job to job—he works at a lumber camp, a brick furnace, a sawmill, a movie theater, a travelling tent cinema, a carnival shooting booth, and maintaining the engines at a railroad yard—and schools himself by reading philosophy and attending socialist meetings.
In the tradition of the great filmmakers of Sweden’s silent era, the film is shot on location and Troell, who shoots the film himself, captures the grandeur of the landscape and the character of each location beautifully. Where Ingmar Bergman’s sixties films are introspective, psychologically dense, and heavy with symbolism, Troell’s direction is observational and poetic as well as socially and politically aware. In one scene, as a veteran logger remembers a better time, before the death of his wife and children, the black and white suddenly shifts into warm, subdued color, like memories that have aged like old photographs.
This is the education of a curious and passionate lad who will become one of Sweden’s greatest writers and every experience, from the hard labor and physical demands and dangers of his various jobs to the lessons learned from the people he meets along the way to his sexual and romantic adventures, contributes to his growing confidence and sense of morality. Troell sets it all to a rhythm that captures the slow pace of life and lets every episode establish its own character before jumping to the next chapter of his life. It’s a lovely, loving portrait of a past era that captures one man’s experience without slipping into either sentimentality or social commentary, and a sensitive portrait of one person’s journey from boy to man. Bergman regular Max Von Sydow and Gunnar Bjornstrand co-star.
It makes its American home video debut in an edition mastered from a restoration by Svensk Filmindusti in 2009 and the original camera negative. There is one scene that is partially out of focus, which may have been a production mistake, and a few seconds of damaged footage, with vertical lines that suggest scratches on the negative. The rest is pristine and beautiful.
Swedish with English subtitles, with new interviews with director Jan Troell, actor Eddie Axberg, and producer Bengt Forslund and Troell’s 1965 short film Interlude in the Marshland among the supplements.
Mike Leigh on Here Is Your Life for Criterion