Manon Girault on Hans Petter Moland’s ‘Out Stealing Horses’ (2019)
Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland transposes the human senses to the big screen in his latest feature Out Stealing Horses / Ut og stjæle hester, evincing the immortal nature of the memories that we may prefer to remain elusive.
The film is based on Per Petterson’s acclaimed novel of the same name, to which Morland confidently adds more emotive substance and visual splendour. The title refers back to a piece of code used by resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of Norway but also cunningly meets Moland’s own needs for his filmic adaptation. In his version, Nature is used as a tool for viewers to ponder their ability to navigate emotions and their resulting concern towards others.
Scandinavian screen veteran Stellan Skarsgård plays Trond, a grieving widower who, after having lived in Sweden for over forty years, retires to a solitary life in the Norwegian woods on the far east of the country. However, his moving forward and his sought-after isolation is soon interrupted after a chance encounter with his neighbour, Lars (a taciturn Bjørn Floberg), who triggers a reminiscence of the summer of 1948, when a 15-year-old Trond (Jon Ranes) sojourned with his stoic lumberjack father (Tobias Santelmann) in their humble summer Hutte. Trond’s holiday certainly starts out joyous as he connects with nature and his father in naked rain showers, but the more his older self reflects on the past, the more we discover that it wasn’t quite as peaceful as he remembered it to be.
Trond acquaints Jon, his neighbour of the same age, whom we later discover to be found ‘guilty’ for the accidental death of his younger brother. At the funeral, Trond meets and instantly falls for Jon’s mother (Danica Curcic). Yet soon the adolescent finds out about his father’s amorous relationship with his crush and has to put up with their rekindling. To the child eyes, Trond feels offended by his father’s faint-hearted nature.
Trond’s ability to quell uncomfortable memories comes from his father who had advised him, following the Freudian love triangle incident (jealous impulses to patricide are insinuated in the young Trond), that terrible things are not worth holding onto and must be forcibly repressed. The film’s very last sequence tackles the binary between being psychologically hurt, hiding the pain, and being physically hurt, revealing the pain as Trond looks down on his hands and concludes “We decide for ourselves what will hurt.”
Moland’s haptic style, the film’s strongest element and reminiscent of Malick, is what allows the director to elucidate the moral of his story. Out Stealing Horses succeeds in transporting viewers into a highly sensorial, amorous, and meditative world by expressive close-ups of tree bark being stripped and the sound effects of chirping birds that make up an arresting vision of natural Scandinavian life.
Out Stealing Horses explores the dualism between affect and agency by drawing upon Nordic Noir’s defining characteristics. The quasi-criminal setting of the film and the persistency of ‘white’ as the colour of death within it (i.e. old age, isolation and the cruel winter as alternative forms of death) is what allows us to consider the film a treatment of our own emotions and thus, of our memories, encouraging us to confront those that we have repressed to protect us from our own vulnerability and potential cause of conflict.
However, the jumping back and forth between three temporal frames — Norway during World War II, the nostalgic pastoral of 1948 as well as the present winter of 1999 (as well as some border crossing) – and its handful of characters ends up interrupting the developing of the father and son relationship and thus our complete empathy towards Trond, which his character unknowingly seems to be longing for. Still, Out Stealing Horses deserves credit as an ambitious film, an elegiac poem to father-son relationships and the tumultuous landscape that mediates it.
Screened as part of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival
Manon Girault is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London and Ethnographic & Documentary Film (MA) from University College London.