Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Lake of the Dead (1958)

Original title: De dødes tjern

A group of friends – critic Gabriel Mørk (André Bjerke, the actual writer of the novel this is based on), crime writer Bernhard Borge (Henki Kolstad, playing a character named like the pseudonym Bjerke used for the novel), Borge’s wife Sonja (Bjørg Engh), psychologist Kai Bugge (Erling Lindahl), Liljan Werner (Henny Moan), and her fiancée Harald Gran (Georg Richter) – are making their way out into the boons of Norway to visit Liljan’s brother Bjørn (Per Lillo-Stenberg) in a forest cabin for a couple of weeks of rest and relaxation.

When they arrive, they can’t find Bjørn anywhere in or around the cabin. Some exploration suggests he has jumped into a nearby lake and died. A diary found by Bugge suggests the young man became fixated on a legend surrounding the lake. Apparently, one Tore Gråvik (Leif Sommerstad) first drowned his sister - with whom he was obsessed - and her lover and then himself in it, his ghost supposedly haunting the area ever since, occasionally luring people to a drowning death. The diary purports Bjørn has indeed seen the ghost – or dreamed of it, the borders between sleep and wakefulness having become rather blurry to the young man – and felt compelled to jump into the lake to confront the void; or drown in it.

So, this may be a relatively clear cut case of a mentally fragile man killing himself, as the local police think, but there are things that just don’t quite seem to fit this theory. And is grief the only reason why Liljan now feels the call of the lake too once night falls?

In its native Norway, Kåre Bergstrøm’s Lake of the Dead isn’t just one of the most well-loved horror movies of the country but tends to land very high on critics’ lists of the best Norwegian movie regardless of genre. Outside of the country, film is unfortunately barely known, even though it should at least make any lover of mysteries with fantastical elements, or fantastic cinema as a whole rather happy.

The film’s structure is very much that of a classic mystery, psychologist Bugge – the lead character of several crime novels by Bjerke – taking on the role of the main detective as seen through the eyes of the slightly bumbling Borge, suggesting the human mind is more important for the solving of crimes than physical evidence. Yet instead of using Bugge to expose the supernatural elements of the mystery as pure bogus, the film chooses ambivalence, having a (sort of) rational explanation but also suggesting it might not be the completely right one. One should also keep in mind that the “rational” explanation for some of the film’s occurrences is based on telepathic mind control, not exactly a thing which seems opposed to the sort of thinking that finds explanation in ghosts. This idea does of course also make Bugge something of an occult detective, perhaps not one using an electric pentacle fighting the Abnatural, but certainly not a debunker.

Interestingly enough, Bergstrøm contrasts Bugge’s at least sort of scientific and rational method with the ideas of Mørk, who is convinced of a more supernatural explanation (with a particular tension caused by him being played by the writer of the whole thing), but also with the purely worldly and criminalistic interpretation of the situation by Gran (as well as to a degree the worldly but simply wrong one of the police). The film never quite agrees with anyone completely, leaving the audience in a delicious state of ambivalence even after the narrative has run its course and never falling into the trap of making any of the characters apart from Borge an idiot.

So an entertaining and interesting supernatural (or not) mystery whose style reminds me of the kind of story you might have found in a US pulp like “Unknown” is guaranteed, but Bergstrøm also manages to create more than just a few delightful moments of strangeness and the weird. The scene in which Liljan is nearly sleepwalking into the lake is apparently particularly iconic in Norway – not surprising giving its uncanny mood created by shadows and lights – but my personal favourite is the dream (or is it?) about Bjørn’s encounter with Gråvik’s ghost that creates something very special out of noirish lighting, the claustrophobia of the woods (nature often feeling rather unnatural to us humans), a folkloric undertone, an eye for the telling detail that increases a situation’s creepiness (Gråvik’s wooden leg and the way he moves thanks to it are just brilliant), and a delicate feel of nightmare logic. This scene is exemplary for the film’s greatest strength, the intertwining of the rational and the irrational until it becomes to difficult to discern which is which.

That scenes like it are embedded in an intelligently constructed and well-paced mystery just makes Lake of the Dead all the more stunning. 

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