Trees whisper a survival tale
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 26, 2012
The stirring, philosophically minded Swedish drama “Simon and the Oaks” covers 13 years, during which the title character grows from a boy, played by Jonatan S. Wachter, to a man, played by Bill Skarsgard. In the process, young Simon Larsson weathers some pretty profound storms, puberty not included. (The film jumps forward in time at one point, leaving out a substantial chunk of Simon’s adolescence.)
That World War II is one of those storms is mitigated by the fact that Simon is a Swede, living in a country that managed to maintain its neutrality, while neighboring Norway and Denmark were occupied by the Nazis. In 1939, when the story begins, and in the years following, Sweden became a haven for Jews fleeing persecution.
This is not to say there was no anti-Semitism. One of the earliest scenes shows Simon punching a bigoted schoolmate in the face, in defense of his new Jewish friend, Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson). That friendship -- between a boy from a working-class Christian family and the son of wealthy Jewish immigrants from Berlin (Jan Josef Liefers and Lena Nylen) -- forms the movie’s framework.
Based on the best-selling novel by Swedish author Marianne Fredriksson, “Simon and the Oaks” is not merely the story of two boys from opposite sides of the tracks. It’s also a larger meditation on life’s hardships and what endures: love, art and civilization. Beautifully shot on the west coast of Sweden, overlooking the North Sea, “Simon and the Oaks” is a taut, absorbing tale of destiny and survival. It’s also uniformly well-acted, with an assured and sensitive performance by Skarsgard, the son of actor Stellan Skarsgard.
When Simon and Isak meet, Simon is a bookish kid from the country, uninterested in sports or manual labor, to the chagrin of his blue-collar father (Stefan Godicke). To Simon, the city-bred Isak’s life -- filled with literature, science, history, art and music -- is a more natural fit. Isak, for his part, is oddly drawn to Simon’s simple, rustic world. The two boys, in essence, switch places, with Isak’s father taking Simon under his cultured wing and Simon’s father offering a calloused hand of support to Isak, whose strange fragility is the result of past trauma.
Soon, as Swedish anti-Semitism surges in the face of the rising Nazi threat, Isak moves in with the Larssons. Over time, the two families gradually merge, forming and breaking alliances in unexpected ways. After the war, Simon briefly, and disastrously, romances a cousin of Isak’s who is a concentration camp survivor. The way in which she is damaged -- and yet simultaneously so vital and alive -- is heartbreaking.
There’s also a secret to be discovered. Its revelation precipitates both families’ biggest fissures and their most healing reunions.
But what of the oaks? The trees referred to in the film’s title appear only peripherally, yet their presence is significant. Before Simon meets Isak, he is said to have no other friends besides trees, which he claims “whisper” to him.
What exactly they say is never revealed. Not in so many words, at least. Oaks, which can live for hundreds of years, are simply a metaphor. They don’t live so much as they last, through centuries of changing seasons.
In the same way, the film argues -- subtly and gracefully -- so do people. Humans persevere, even though our problems, big and small, persist, in a constant cycle of rupture and renewal.
If that is the trees’ message, it isn’t exactly whispered. “Simon and the Oaks” articulates it loudly and clearly, and with a haunting poetry.
Contains obscenity, nudity, sex, anti-Semitism and other disturbing thematic material. In Swedish and German with English subtitles.