Thursday, April 8, 2021

Ernst Johansen and Lasse Nielsen | La’ os være (Leave Us Alone) / 1975

childhood games of murder

by Douglas Messerli

Carsten Nielsen and Lasse Nielsen (screenplay), Ernst Johansen and Lasse Nielsen (directors) La’ os være (Leave Us Alone) / 1975

For those who have seen Lasse Nielsen’s and Ernst Johansen’s groundbreaking gay youth film Du er ikke alene (You Are Not Alone) (1978) and Nielsen’s several subsequent works on boy love such as Lek and the Waterboy (2010), Happy Birthday (2013), The Kite (2016), The Game (2017), and Tim and the Fluteboy (2018)—all works which represent the underage gay sex desire from an idealized perspective in which boy-on-boy sex is represented (although notably not portrayed in the films) as absolutely normal and a beautiful thing to witness—might be surprised if they were able to track down a rare copy of Nielsen’s and Johansen’s first feature film La’ os være (Leave Us Alone) of 1975, where the androgynous, long-haired innocents featured throughout Nielsen’s oeuvre are revealed to be potentially as culturally stratified, normatively dominated, and violent as the world of adults. If in almost all of Nielsen’s latter films the young correct for their elder’s blind selfishness and hatred of difference, in this film the young have already been infected by their parents and teachers.

      Leave Us Alone begins with a fairly positive message. Left alone during a teacher’s strike for higher wages, the students, male and female, of an urban “Children’s School”—obviously a governmentally run institution for children whose parents have died or are temporarily unable to care for them—meet to discuss what they are going to do, having been denied their annual summer trip to a student camp. Their decision and plans seem, at first, to be almost a model of what a group of those clearly abandoned by society, left to their own ingenuity are able to accomplish. They organize and execute their plans fairly capably. Determining to escape to an uninhabited island not far from the Danish coast the children borrow tents from a local public organization, they steal money from a local shop and carefully buy provisions for stay of a week or more, and they carefully gather small amounts of blankets and clothing from those who still live at home without drawing attention to their actions. They take a train to a small beachside embarkment, rent a boat, and arrive in their new paradise where the previously black-and-white film turns, almost as in The Wizard of Oz into somewhat muted color (the 70s faded-out browns, greens, and blues seem to deter any independent LGBTQ film of that decade from blooming into wondrous technicolor).

      Pilgrims to a new world, the band of mostly teenage males with two older females and a few young boys and girls—14 children named Martin, Meyer, Jens, Sven, Kenneth, Søren, Tine, Anja, Henrik, Svend, Bo, Helle, Hanne, and Bjørn (the given first names of all the actors)—set out on a pilgrimage to discover and establish their new tent kingdom. Some gather firewood, setting out plates and pots, while others erect the tents. One young man, obviously quoting an old wive’s tale he has heard from an adult, declares that it is always important to dig a large hole on any such outing, and taking up a spade begins to dig for the next several days. Another boy has brought along a radio, hearing the news that authorities believe the missing children have traveled to Sweden, when, in fact, they have traveled, so they believe, in the other direction.

      While there are some signs of the difficulties ahead—one young man declares they are missing a sack of bread, butter, and cheese—they seem to have done remarkably well on their own in setting up a camp similar to the ones they’ve been trained erect in their previous outings.

      One has brought a guitar which he begins to play, while another boy insists on tickling him with a long weed which ends, as in many a Nielsen film (see, for example, my review of The Kite) with them wrestling in what one recognizes is really an attempt to bring their bodies into touch with one another. Two of girls take off their blouses to sunbathe half-nakedly as they gigglingly read aloud a romance novel they’ve obviously purloined from one of their mothers. The girls cook up a stew which one young boy spoons out, unfortunately, in unequal portions. When night falls, the boys tell horror stories to each other, laughing at the macabre events; two boys crawl under the same blanket and strip off their underwear, obviously to cuddle up and masturbate together. A young boy cries out, frightened by the darkness, to be stilled by the gentle comforting of an older girl. This brave new world might almost be said to represent the domestic activities of a Danish version of Our Town

      The very next morning, however, they discover that their boat has drifted off. They blame Henrik—as they had for the missing grocery sack—for having forgotten to properly tie it down. Although Henrik tries to swim out a ways to bring it back, the others recognize the dangers of trying to do so and pull him back, also perceiving the utter seriousness of the event. Several youths  hit and mock Henrik for his failure and one, forebodingly, hurls a small rock at him. He has suddenly become a kind of scapegoat for their growing problems.

      Yet soon after we see the young boys throwing small branches at one another, two in particular bonding as they leap about on a rope they have strung from a tree. The entire settlement joyfully waddles out to go bathing in the ocean waters. Several of the boys attempt, unsuccessfully, to fish; the girls boil up a nettle soup so that the young kids can add some nutrients to their diet. Later, the boys find eels and a fish in their nets, cutting off their heads, before they bring them back to the group.

      Clearly, however, the directors are setting up a situation that is moving into the territory of Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies (1963). For, soon after Svend goes missing, his best friend asking the group if they’ve seen him, to which they nonchalantly respond with jokes that reveal their own feelings of entrapment such as “Maybe he caught the train out.”

      The evening meal is almost inedible, so some complain. Plates are broken, others impossible to clean. Their fecal matter is beginning to make their camp smell. A fight breaks out between one of the boys and Henrik, the two wrestling but this time, we recognize, not in a symbolic sexual joust, particularly when the other boy draws out a knife holding it over the conquered Henrik before he hurls, point down, in the ground nearby.

      Between one boy and girl a heterosexual relationship begins as the two kiss alone in a cover, only to be doused by another boy with water. When soon after the two wander together along the beach they suddenly encounter the drowned body of Svend. Together they try to revive him, without success, the two reporting back to the others what they’ve found. 

     Various of their members discuss death, attempting to explain to a younger child who cannot understand how God can find a body when it’s buried underground, what happens in death. Some consider the differences between burial and cremation. But the next day they place Svend’s body into the deep whole dug by one of their members. They follow the rituals of the society in which they were raised, tossing shovels full of soil over the dead boy, planting a handmade cross on the covered grave, and, in tears, tossing freshly picked wildflowers over the plot. One boy, obviously in love with Svend, runs off from the others to tear down the branch and leaf covered hut they had built together, collapsing into tears of grief. At another point he stands as a lone mourner at the grave, others trying to encourage to join them, but he demanding for time alone with his loved one.

       The next morning the four boys in one tent begin by throwing everything inside out, and carefully dismantling their tent as they move away from the others. The might see like outsiders unhappy with the normative society of the others, but in fact, we soon discover, these are the Alpha Males moving away from the females, children, and those boys they consider weak or who are developing heterosexual and homosexual relationships

       While the maturing girls and boys of the original settlement discuss the possibilities of a communal society, a truly “communist” culture in which all are seen of equal stature and expected to help in the decision-making and governance—ideas which one of the girls had heard expressed in a lecture she once attended—the males of the new tribe create working bows and arrows, hunting down and shooting a pheasant. Identifying themselves with the Indians and white convert to the Dakota tribe in A Man Called Horse (1970), they ritualistically exchange blood, and commit to warrior behavior. In large sense, these are still teenage boys who, having not yet completely grown out of childhood, are merely still playing “cowboys and indians,” one of the enculturating tools used by the dominate culture of the day to define normative male behavior. While those of the original group appear to be shifting from childhood to boy-and-girlhood in the case of the very young, and from prepubescence to young adulthood—the boys of the tribe, like Peter Pan, refuse to grow up and, accordingly, have no ability to separate their fantasy world from the real world in which they unknowingly have been trapped on the island where it appears no one might every come to their rescue. The title, I would argue, reflects their sentiments. They no longer want anything to do with either their former world at the school or the newly developing society the others are working toward—if only they can survive. Despite their failure to create, upon their first attempt, a raft capable of transporting them back to the mainland, we believe, as one of them argues, that eventually the original group might be able to create a vessel seaworthy enough to transport them back to the “real” world with which they might share the questions and answers they have explored.

       Those of the tribe, however, know only how to play out their childhood war games, precisely how one of their members, Jens, previously reacted when one of the females had intentionally flirted with him by rubbing his thigh. His reaction was to tackle her, and tear open her blouse as if he were about to rape her, a response the very opposite of her signal for him to show her some attention and love. His was a reaction of a fear of sexuality the way he might later react homophobically if approached by a male. Rape, by definition, is a plundering, violating, or carrying away of someone as a warrior—precisely as these boys have come now to define themselves. Accordingly, when the innocent Henrik wanders into their now declared “territory,” they chase him down and capture him much like the boys run down Simon in Lord of the Flies. But here the boys are simply playing a game with no intention of killing their prey, despite the fact that they tie him up to a three and put a noose around his head. It is a symbol of their power which they have not yet intended to be actualized as a real sacrifice and death.

 

       Yet, as we recall, this boy has stood all along for the true fool and outsider among them, and their behavior, even if symbolic, apes their inner hatred for him. If there is any true “weakling” of this tale it is the almost totally isolated and guilty-feeling Henrik, who has seemingly caused the severance from their pasts.

       As they sit crunching on their barbecued pheasant, one of them points out that if Henrik were to fall to sleep he might accidently strangle himself, the leader, chewing away on the sweet meat of the bird, suggesting that if anyone wants to go check on him he’s not stopping them. The boy goes back into the woods to see how their captive is only to find out Henrik is indeed dead.

       The others, similarly, have finally begin to check out what might have happened to their Henrik, calling out his name and finally discovering him tied to the tree, strangled by the noose. Moments later they stand on the hill overlook the outlaw tribe with the intentions clearly to call out their horrible deeds. The “Indians” quickly scatter, but Martin chases after Jens, running him down and challenging him to a fight, no wrestling match this time but a real fight to determine who might actually be the superior. Martin has the cause of right on his side, but he is not as strong as the young warrior, and is soon struggling to catch his breath and wrestle down his foe. In the very last frame of this now terrifying movie, we see Martin pick up a large rock about to smash it against Jens’ head as we hear the boy who was Svend’s lover call out in horror “Martin!”

       Violence apparently has won, like a virus taken over these innocents destroying them all in its wake. Any possible rescue from what has now become a hell of bigotry and hate, with two boys dead and possibly a third about to be, no longer has any meaning. Their worlds have already crumbled. There is no longer any young girl or boy on this island. And each being is suddenly more alone than he or she could ever have imagined. 

      One of the brief commentaries on this film—I’ve been unable to uncover any full reviews in English—describes these “unformed young people” being stranded on an island “no civilizing adult presence to restrain them.” I’d argue, the problem is that these developing young folks did alas precisely bring their missing parents’ and teachers’ ideas with them, which is what ultimately destroyed them. It’s little wonder that in Neilsen’s future films the children find a way around all the received ideas with which their parents and institutions attempt to civilize them.

Los Angeles, April 8, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog World Cinema Review (April 2021).

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