Songs of Earth
(Norway, 90 min.)
Dir. Margreth Olin
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American premiere)
“They haven’t stopped walking since,” says Jørgen Mykløen in Songs of Earth. The father of director Margreth Olin describes in voiceover the corrective surgery he had on his feet as a child. It turns out that Jørgen, a prolific nomad, was born with his feet backwards. His heels pointed forward and his toes rearward. However, the 84-year-old wanderer invigoratingly tells of the joy he felt after putting one foot forward after the next, defying the gods, nature, and fate with the life-changing cadence of heel-toe-heel-toe. Jørgen has many loves as his daughter shows in this sumptuous portrait, but his greatest affection might be for the simple action that too many of us take for granted.
Olin invites audiences to figuratively walk in her father’s shoes in this visually awesome doc that shares his love for nature hikes. Songs of Earth deftly considers the preciousness of seemingly inconsequential elements that form the rhythms of daily life. Olin crafts a richly cinematic study of the power of nature, its awe-inspiring magnitude, and its merciless power.
Songs of Earth, executive produced by Liv Ullmann and Wim Wenders, is a unique tapestry of sound and image as Olin traverses the Norwegian landscape with her father. Nature is equally beautiful and threatening in the picturesque views and the stories that Jørgen shares along the way. For example, the tale of his feet fuel the story as the camera accompanies him along rockier terrain. As the film sees Jørgen navigate the incline, bracing himself with ski-poles against the slope, he imparts how his life’s story has gone in tandem with a journey conquering the elements. Despite his age and increasingly rockier terrain, he marches onward.
The Chills and the Thaw
This story echoes in another tale as the drone cameras exquisitely capture the serpentine roads that roll through the hills. Jørgen tells how he had appendicitis as a child and his father carried him through snowdrifts to the hospital. Olin’s father remarks that he was fine, but that his dad wasn’t so lucky. Soaked to the bone after trudging through deep wet snow to save his son, Olin’s grandfather developed recurring pneumonia. The elements, while serenely beautiful, can be cruelly unforgiving.
But as Olin takes her story through the changing seasons, love radiates the warm sun of a spring thaw. She affectionately observes her parents’ relationship as Jørgen and her mother Magnhild share a love that’s only deepened with each turn around the sun. Magnhild confesses that she can’t imagine life without her husband and that she hope fate takes her first. With the admission, she cracks ever so delicately before her daughter, recognizing that such a future alone soon approaches for one of them.
At the same time, Songs of Earth summons nature’s call as a love story. The film tells how Jørgen and Magnhild married at the foot of a glacier. The mountainous feat of ice becomes an image embedded within the film’s theme about the beauty and cruelty of nature.
The Tafjord Disaster
The glacier serves the opposite of Jørgen’s feet. While his reversed feet were twisted and straightened to move forward, the glacier inches backwards. This unnatural retreat becomes a violent force as Olin’s camera observes glaciers cracking and crumbling furiously.
Similarly, while Songs of Earth offer picturesque views of Norwegian fjords, stunningly captured in aerial drone shots by Herman Lersveen and Dag Asle Mykløen, the film underscores nature’s might. The film tells of the Tafjord landslide of 1934 that devastated villages. Archival images show the destruction that occurred when the cliffs of Langhammaren Mountain collapsed and caused a tidal wave that razed homes and buried villagers. 40 people died, the film tells, and underwater shots observe an eerie graveyard—a literal ghost town—that endures beneath the water’s surface.
As Jørgen treks through the countryside, Olin tells how her father offered walks instead of fairytales. The moral here is that Jørgen taught his daughter to learn from her surroundings, rather than through fantastical fables. It’s through this keen relationship with the natural elements that Olin constructs an awesomely cinematic environmental fable: the glaciers are in retreat and nature is becoming more volatile. These disasters, nature advises, will happen again. But this time, they’ll be tragedies of our own making.
The Mighty Spruce
However, Olin also harnesses her father’s indefatigable optimism while creating a cautionary tale. The film observes a magnificent spruce tree that stands tall—stories high—and symbolizes nature’s resilience. She observes Jørgen planting a sapling that he hopes will similarly endure and preserve his love for the woods long after he’s done walking the Earth.
A sumptuous score by Rebekka Karijord and the London Symphony Orchestra envelops the film with the awe-inspiring power of nature. The cinematography by Lars Erlend Tubaas Øymo offers a grand sense of scale, too, that beautifully captures the call of the wild that draws Jørgen back to the woods. Songs of Earth is a grand essay film: a beautiful work of art that evocatively reminds audiences of the natural wonders to preserve for generations to come.
Songs of Earth premieres at TIFF 2023.
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