Before Danish director Niels Arden Oplev focused his camera on a culture of woman hating, in Swedish film The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, he directed the child-eyed 60’s family drama We Shall Overcome. The film, which is visually lighter than Dragon Tattoo, tells the true story of a boy who fought his school after being physically assaulted by the headmaster. In spite of its bright colours and rolling hills, We Shall Overcome also hints visually at fascism, and contrasts it sharply with images from America’s Civil Rights Movement. At times the film is dramatically uneven, but Oplev’s strong visual ideas make for interesting viewing.
The film stars Janus Dissing Rathke as Frits, the child at the centre of the story. Frits is something of an outsider, but he still finds the attention of popular schoolgirl Iben (Sarah Juel Werner.) Frits’ mother and father run a farm, but as the film opens we discover that Frits’ father is descending into a bleak bout of depression. When Frits is physically assaulted by his headmaster Lindum-Svendsen (Bent Mejding,) for sneaking into the girls’ changing rooms, he begins a subversive campaign against his institutional oppressor. Supporting him is the liberal temporary teacher, Freddie Svale (Anders W. Berthelsen), who schools him in rock & roll and Martin Luther King.
Although the comparison between the African-American Civil Rights Movement and a group of Danish school children may seem something of a stretch, it makes sense from the film’s childlike point of view. For Frits the words of Martin Luther King serve as a key motivating factor in his protest against the old-school methods of discipline, reliant on a culture of threat to breed conformity, rather than independence, individuality and critical thinking. Oplev works well with his cast, particularly the young Rathke, to evoke the spirit of revolution.
The film’s overtly Scandinavian style, with bright colours and rural locations loudly declares an atmosphere of tradition and conformity. It presents a society in which everything is thought to be perfect and yet within this kind of society unspoken tyrannies can easily exist; the tyranny of accepted norms. This is the conflict which the young Frits attempts to grapple with, as he has not yet learned to accept it unlike the adults around him. Oplev contrasts the visuals with American songs like House of the Rising Sun and the protest song We Shall Overcome, which has a curious resonance when sung by Swedish children.
However, moments in the film, presumably those based faithfully on the facts of the story, actually seems dramatically misplaced. At significant moments characters make out-of-character decisions and an oddly vengeful deus-ex-machina arrives, which contradicts the humanist theme that drives much of the film. These moments give the film a much more by-the-numbers feel than it should possess, as it also exhibits moments of truth and directorial flare. For those expecting a film similar to Oplev’s excellent The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo instalment, We Shall Overcome will not fulfil many expectations, but it shares a contempt for oppression and moments of real emotion.