The Bridal Party at Hardanger (dir. Rasmus Breistein, 1926)

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Above: Brudeferd i Hardanger (The Bridal Party at Hardanger), painted in 1848 by Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude.

THERE quivers a glittering summer air
Warm o’er Hardanger Fjord’s fountains,
Where high ’gainst the heavens, so blue and bare,
Are towering the mighty mountains;
The glacier shines bright,
The hillside is green,
The people are clad in their Sunday clothes clean;
For look! o’er the blue billows rowing,
The wedding-folks home are going.

So begins the poem ‘The Bridal Party at Hardanger’ by Andreas Munch, translated here by Rasmus B. Anderson. If you can stomach any more of it, you can read the full text here. The poem was written to accompany the unveiling of a painting of the same title by Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude (see above). To my eyes, it seems a pretty dreadful picture, but it has historical importance as key work of 19th century Norwegian nationalist sentiment, painted at a time when Norway was under the rule of Sweden. Later, the title was the inspiration for a ballet, and then a novel. The film under review here was based on a novel, but that novel was not The Bridal Party at Hardanger by Jon Flatabø, but rather Marit Skjølte by Kristofer Janson, the change of title an apparent move to establish an association with the famous painting. It was released after the country had gained its independence, but there is good reason to suspect a nationalist, or at least patriotic, motivation behind the choice of title, besides the commercial one. Norway never had a silent film industry to compare with those of Sweden and Denmark, two kingdoms of which it had, at different times, been a part, and although Swedish and Danish cinema were by 1926 past their glory years, they both remained far more productive than Norway had ever been. Significant films had been made there, but several of them had been directed by Swedes or Danes; in the same year that Breistein’s film was released, the great Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer made The Bride of Glomdal in Norway. The Bridal Party at Hardanger was the highest-profile film to be made in Norway by a Norwegian director, and enjoyed considerable success at the box-office.

Fortunately, it’s much better than the painting and the poem from which it draws its title. It benefits from its setting, the fjord at Hardanger being of stunning beauty, here captured in lovely cinematography that doesn’t make the mistake of over-egging the pudding. Landscape isn’t shown off for its own sake – it’s almost taken for granted as simply an element of the day-to-day life of the community; there’s hardly a shot in which it doesn’t appear without people. The film opens with a scene of departure (to be echoed at the conclusion) as we see families boarding a boat bound for the U.S.A. This places the first part of the story at a time of great for Scandinavian farmers, many of whom made the passage to America when they found themselves unable to cope with the pressures of a rising population and repeated poor harvests. Marit, the central character, is in despair; she is supposed to board with her parents, but decides at the last moment to stay so that she can be with Anders, the man she loves. Thus begins a story of betrayal and bitterness that follows the two of them into old age. It has the ingredients for a tempestuous melodrama – broken pledges, forbidden love, even hints of incestuous feelings – but the treatment is restrained, which makes the ending all the more affecting (the final scene with Marit and Anders is very fine).

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Above: Emigrants on their way to the U.S.A.; Marit against the mountains.

One of the film’s most interesting sequences, and one that takes its cue from Tidemand and Gude, shows a big wedding attended by just about everyone in the area. The boats rowing from one side of the fjord to the other (Anders and Marit live on opposite sides, a separation by water lesser than familial separation by the Atlantic, but in its own way, as acute) refer directly to the picture, although they are being rowed to the wedding, rather than away from it, as the poem suggests. The groom wears modern dress, while the bride has a traditional costume with a curious and elaborate crown (see above). One gets the sense that folk customs are being consciously recorded and celebrated here in a mixture of ethnography and national pride. The sequence also justifies the title, of course, but there are also two further weddings shown. One is a beautiful flashback to Marit’s and Anders’s childhood, in which they perform a charmingly solemn mock ceremony with their friends. The other wedding, which unites two characters from the generation to succeed Marit and Anders, is even less lavish; only three people are in attendance here; there isn’t even a priest. This is an amusing scene, for we cut back and forth between the wedding and the progress of a furious brother, riding to prevent the union, or at least to make known his disapproval. He bursts into the house without even dismounting and proceeds to whip the groom from his horse. Great stuff.

This is not a long film; indeed it is perhaps, in its narrative, economical to a fault, for there are couple of points that seem to indicate chunks of the novel’s plot having been left out. One might also complain that the actors who play the aged Marit and Anders, while excellent (the acting is uniformly so), appear somewhat too old to be the parents of their children. But these are minor flaws. The Bridal Party at Hardanger is today widely considered the high point of Norwegian silent cinema (among those who consider Norwegian silent cinema), and no wonder; it’s a graceful, sober and moving work, refreshing for its casting in the romantic roles of actors who are not conventionally attractive.

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Above: The wonderful face of Aase Bye as Marit.

I don’t know what kind of musical accompaniment would have been played on its release, but the modern soundtrack I heard makes fine use of the Hardanger fiddle, a strange and wonderful instrument resembling a violin, but with four or five extra strings that are not played, but rather left to resonate while the main strings are played. The sound this produces is marvellous.

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