Lisa Ohlin's chronicles Swedish anti-Semitism in 'Simon and the Oaks'

Bill Skarsgård and Karl Linnertorp in 'Simon and the Oaks'

By Moira Sullivan
Children in Swedish films are known for being teachers to their parents. These films are not made for the youth market but for all ages. Simon and the Oaks is such a film, based on a novel by the Swedish writer Marianne Fredriksson and filmed by the Swedish director Lisa Ohlin. As in other novels by Frederiksson, the film is about friendship and religious ties.  The film follows two young boys and their families during the outbreak of WW2 and the rise of anti-Semitism in Sweden. Although the Germans didn’t occupy Sweden during the war, there was an arrangement made in which German soldiers were allowed to travel in trains through Sweden to occupied Norway. Jews in Norway were deported to Germany and many Swedes gave safe harbor to some of them. But Sweden thought Germany was going to win the war and their position wasn’t totally neutral including supplying Germany with iron ore for weapons.

Simon meets Isak at a private school in Göteborg, the son of a successful Swedish bookshop owner and a German woman who spends her time indoors in fear of the Nazis. Simon comes from a working class family with foster parents;  his mother abandons him after his Jewish father has deserted them. His foster mother is the kind and nurturing Karin (Helen Sjöholm) and stepfather Erik (Stefan Gödicke) tries to get his son to stop talking to an oak tree and teaches him how to fight and learn woodwork. But Simon is not interested in this, and soon makes friends with Isak at a private school. When Isak’s mother sets her room on fire and is taken to hospital, Isak comes to live with Simon.  Isak's father Ruben (Jan Josef Liebers) also becomes a part of the family, with dreams of establishing a ship building firm with Simon’s father.

Isak's father exposes Simon to the world of art and music, which he is drawn to as a way of expressing his emotions and inner world, in the same way he finds comfort in the giant oak that was a solid point in his upbringing.  This meeting of families from different classes and religions is not without complications as Simon’s father is proud and unable to accept at first the generosity of Ruben who brings gifts of coffee, perfume, books and sugar to the family of modest means. 

Simon and Isak grow up and become teenagers when the war ends. The atrocities of the concentration camps are reported over the radio, including eye witness reports by a Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte who was sent to Siberia where he died. Swedish Prime minister Per Albin Hansson soon after created the Swedish Folkhem, an extensive social welfare program.

The older Simon played by Bill Skarsgård falls for Iza (Katarina Schuettler) , a young woman that spent time in a concentration camp but eventually chooses another girl. Isak (Karl Linnertorp) marries and has a daughter. There isn’t strong dramatic dialogue to tie the film together as much as images of the passage of time, the beauty of nature, the frailty of humans, and the growth of young boys into men surrounded by loving family. In between dramatic scenes, these images are set to music, above all the sound of the violin played by Isak and Simon.

'Simon and the Oaks' is beautifully crafted with shots of Swedish nature, the seasons, and animals. Ample nature scenes without dialogue is also characteristic of Swedish film. The production team spared no expense in recreating the time period from the 30s to 40s in Sweden and fulfills its ambition  to put Marianne Fredriksson’s most beloved novel to film.

© 2012 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 10/17/12
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