Films about World War II have become a distinct form of ‘blockbuster’ within Norwegian cinema: lavish productions depicting dramatic events from the war days, told primarily through a ‘Hollywood-esque’ narrative model to reach a broad audience. A Norwegian filmmaker who does not conform to this tradition but has nonetheless engaged with the same war in a significant portion of his filmography is Knut Erik Jensen. At the age of 83, he can be considered one of Norway’s true – and highly distinctive – veterans in the field of cinema. He has now returned to Norwegian theatres with the feature film Longing for Today (Lengsel etter nåtid).
Among his fiction features, Jensen is most known for his trilogy Stella Polaris (1993), Burnt by Frost (1997), and Passing Darkness (2000), with the dialogue-less debut feature Stella Polaris standing out in particular. With these films, the director established his experimental and distinctive film style, which can be described as a form of poetic and impressionistic modernism. Longing for Today is Jensen’s first feature film since Ice Kiss (2008), a fictionalised story based on the life of Norwegian KGB spy Gunvor Galtung Haavik. However, since then, he has directed the portrait documentary The Acute Human (2011) about medical doctor and activist Mads Gilbert, as well as several shorter films.
Throughout his extensive career, Jensen has created numerous short films, documentaries, and series. He was associated with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK for a long time, where he produced the Amanda Award-winning documentary series Finnmark between East and West in the mid eighties. In 2001, he had great success with the feature documentary Cool & Crazy, followed by Cool & Crazy On the Road the following year and the related Arctic Cabaret in 2004.
Jensen was born in Honningsvåg in 1940, and many of his films depict events from Finnmark during and after World War II. Longing for Today is no exception. In a brief video introduction shown before screenings, the director talks about his personal starting point for the film, which is a representation of his own memories and experiences from the war years and the subsequent period in the region. It’s worth noting, however, that Jensen believes the film unfolds in the present. Whether this should be interpreted entirely literally is open to debate, as the scenes in the film undeniably depict events from many years ago, albeit in a subjectively anchored flow of memories, associations, and dreams. Jensen’s point, however, is more that war is a state that continues to live on in those who have experienced it and that the relevance of this theme has persisted throughout the years since that specific war.
war is a state that continues to live on in those who have experienced it
Dreamlike narrative flow
Longing for Today follows a young woman, portrayed by the filmmaker’s daughter Ellinor Lilja Haug Jensen, who is evacuated from Honningsvåg when the northern areas are subjected to the occupying forces’ ‘scorched earth tactics’, leaving only the church standing in her hometown. Among the other actors are Ellen Dorrit Petersen, Per Kjerstad, Stig Henrik Hoff, Hege Aga Edelsteen, and the artist Morten Traavik. In line with Jensen’s unconventional form and narrative style, which leans more toward Eastern European than American film tradition, the film does not necessarily convey a clear plot suitable for summarising here. Instead, it moves through a dreamlike stream of scenes, impressions, and moods, detached from classical chronology and dramaturgy.
Nevertheless, Longing for Today portrays forced evacuation, living as refugees, and subsequent liberation, as well as Norwegian involvement in the Winter War and recruitment to the side of the Germans – all of which become part of the subsequent traumas among the population. The story uses various symbols, with a piano being the most prominent. There is generally minimal dialogue in the film, and when the characters speak to each other, their lines often take the form of Voice Over narration rather than being delivered directly. This technique, found in several of Jensen’s films, can also be seen metaphorically. In addition, the film contains archival material, including frequent excerpts from Filmavisen newsreels, which provide relevant context.
The Russian paradox
Within this context is the role of the Red Army in the liberation of Finnmark during World War II. Many of Jensen’s films have also highlighted the Northern regions of Norway’s relationship with Russia, and perhaps it is timely to remind ourselves of the crucial contribution made by Russian (as well as other Soviet) soldiers in regard to this. At the same time, the film unavoidably sheds light on the historical paradox of Russia’s position today as an aggressor in an ongoing invasion of, and war with, a neighbouring country.
Jensen has reportedly worked on realising Longing for Today since his previous feature film from 2008. The film was produced without production support from the Norwegian Film Institute’s feature film schemes but through crowdfunding and various other sources, such as regional film funding. Parts of the film initially emerged as standalone short films – a testament to an unconventional and evidently not straightforward financing model.
Audiences watching Longing for Today should certainly not expect a typical Norwegian World War II movie. For the same reasons, we should be grateful that Jensen is still going strong as a filmmaker. In the ongoing writing of history in Norwegian cinema, he is an important, distinctive, and uncompromising voice, one that we might long for more of in our present day.