Johanne Helgeland • Director of The Crossing
"Talking to children about important subjects and difficult issues is helpful"
- Cineuropa met with Norwegian director Johanne Langeland whose first feature film The Crossing is full of action, courage and friendship, unfolding during the German occupation of Norway in 1942
For the very first time, in Norway, a war film aimed at youngsters and whose protagonists are children is being released in these early months of 2020. The Crossing [+see also:
interview: Johanne Helgeland
film profile], produced by Cornelia Boysen on behalf of Maipo Film and distributed by Nordisk Film Distribusjon, is authored by the Norwegian director Johanne Helgeland. The story is set in 1942 during Germany’s occupation of Norway.
Cineuropa: You’re a qualified teacher, but you’ve also received a solid education in film.
Johanne Helgeland: Yes. I then directed short films, music videos, advertising films… Working on shorter length projects energises me.
And now, there’s your first feature film, The Crossing...
We based it on the initial screenplay written by Maja Lunde rather than the novel she drew from it in 2012... a screenplay which was then developed by Espen Torkildsen. I wanted to make a classic film with a serious tone exploring courage and friendship. It’s a thriller which takes children seriously and which can be watched as a family. The Crossing takes on the air of an adventurous journey with fairy tale accents, narrated by ten-year-old Gerda (Anna Sofie Skarholt). She’s impulsive and sees herself as an intrepid musketeer. Her brother Otto (Bo Lindquist-Eriksen), a worrier by nature, understands the gravity of the situation. But he finds himself racked by doubt, not helped by the attraction he feels towards the world in which his friend is moving, a friend whose father is cooperating with the occupying forces. Where is the line between good and evil? One day, down in their cellar, after their parents have been arrested, they discover Daniel (Samson Steine) and his sister Sarah (Bianca Ghilardi-Hellsten), two Jewish children whom they help to escape. Their destination: Sweden.
Good and evil...
We had to be precise and clear about it, but we tried to add a degree of nuance, to show different sides of the characters, different aspects of reality. The young German soldier played by Luke Neite, for example, is hesitant to obey orders. I also wanted to create, to suggest a sense of family around these children; a soft and golden atmosphere at the beginning, and then the colour palette changes, insecurity and doubt set in, and the world becomes hard and cold. But light retains its rightful place, and this light is represented by the children themselves.
Did you want to protect the audience in any way?
A film with a harsher, rawer form of realism would have been too much. But I didn’t want to water the subject down either. We had to find a balance.
Was it difficult finding young actors?
We needed children who were natural, believable, capable of taking on some pretty heavy-duty roles. But it was actually quite an easy choice, which we made after just a handful of auditions. None of the children had any experience in theatre or film, so we spent lots of time rehearsing to make sure they felt confident. We gave them copies of the script very early on so that they could better understand the story and fully immerse themselves in their characters.
What form did the filming process take?
We didn’t film in any studios, nor were there any purpose-built sets, but it was a historical film with certain constraints, and set designer Åsa Nilsson and costume designer Anne Isene took care of these requirements. Having a reduced budget stimulates creativity; it encourages the best possible use of available resources. We shot close to Oslo towards the end of 2018, over a thirty-day period, give or take. Night falls quickly here in the wintertime, but I didn’t want to use any artificial lighting; I seem to remember working very intensely towards the end of each day so as to squeeze the most out of the final minutes of daylight.
Your young actors do a lot of running over the course of the story...
Often in the depths of the forest and on slippery ground... I was impressed by their courage, their determination. They’re the ones who carry the film. In order to better track them in action, our director of photography John-Erling Holmenes Fredriksen chose to use a gimbal, a camera mounted on a pivoted support, rather than a dolly on tracks. It’s a suppler method, which allows you to stay as close as possible to the actors. During the editing process, we had an issue with connectivity, continuity, as a result of the weather, the troublesome snow. Luckily, we were able to secure a few additional days of filming and rework the script a little: certain scenes are perhaps less spectacular than others, but in my opinion, this adds to the truth of the story, it makes it more authentic. And, through his music, composer Stein Berge Svendsen was able to reconcile the epic dimension of the story with the characters’ sensitivities.
Which films have left their mark on you?
I saw Little Ida (1981) by Laila Mikkelsen at a very young age; a dramatic film, aimed more at adults, which explores war and prejudices. Like many children, I was already a fan of serious films which place focus on big emotions, such as E.T. or Empire of the Sun by Steven Spielberg. Talking to children about important subjects and difficult issues is helpful. It shouldn’t be underestimated.
(Translated from French)
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