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by Jay Seaver

"You never did see movies like this."
5 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL: I wonder, half in jest, if today's independent and foreign film fans had great-grandparents who hoped for movies like "Norrtullsligan" to play their city, grumbling that every terrible Poverty Row slapstick one-reeler showed up at their neighborhood theater but not an intelligent, true-to-life drama about working women from Sweden. If it did - without being cut to pieces with new intertitles that changed the whole story - those early cineastes were lucky; there is a lot going on in this feature that one doesn't see that often in the best-remembered American films from the silent era.

The title refers to a group of four secretaries living in an apartment, mostly working for the same large company, although Eva (Renée Björling) works for an undertaker, figuring she'll be dealing with a better class of people than, say, Pegg (Tora Teje), whose boss (Egil Eide) is described as understanding but shown as touchy. The other two flatmates are Emmy (Linnéa Hillberg), who has been at it the longest and has an aching back to show for it, and Baby (Inga Tidblad), young and optimistic to be an easy target for both men and union organizers.

Pegg is not just the film's protagonist - the other girls are her friends and we also meet the boy she's working to put through school (Lauritz Falk) but her cousin and rich aunt (Stina Berg) - but also its narrator. That may seem like an odd thing for a silent movie to have (and I wonder if it's a Scandinavian thing; Norway's Pan was also told though not shot first-person), but it's not, really. Many silent films will often precede a scene with an ironic title card; having it clearly come from Pegg rather than some arch omniscient writer gives these words a bit of teeth. Pegg confronts bitter ironies rather than winnking ones, and when she notes a social ill, it's a source of genuine frustration rather than something to be shrugged off as just the way it is. It also gives director Per Lindberg and star Tora Teje the chance to play her character as keeping her head down and trying to get by without feeling like she's passive or unengaged compared to the rest of the cast.

That's great to see, because while Norrtullsligan appears to serve as a fine time capsule of the early Twentieth Century for modern viewers, it was just showing things as they were at the time, and too much exaggeration would have undercut that. Screenwriter Hjalmar Bergman, working from the novel by Elin Wägner, gives the women a story with a fair amount of drama to get through, but even the more dire situations never seem outof the ordinary; more often than not, they tend to be struggles that the more comfortable members of society simply overlook. The actions taken in response are at a similar scale, and hint at a certain level of optimism to go along with its ability to catalog shortcomings.

Director Per Lindberg doesn't use that as a rationale for a dull movie, though, and he catches striking images, including a shot of office work being done on an industrial scale that drives home how large corporations are becoming even then, making it feel like unionization might not just be something for obviously dangerous jobs. It emphasizes two of his main strengths here: He and the other filmmakers don't back down from pointed commentary, and will often use the setting to make it. After the rows of tightly-spaced desks, Pegg's boss's office can seem wall-less in its vastness, and while the apartment may often be crowded, it's usually a pleasant and energetic sort of density. Lindberg and cinematographer Ragnar West felt don't get on location that much, but there's a fine sense of atmosphere to every scene.

The silent narration thing can make one second-guess how much the impression Pegg gives is Tora Teje's performance and how much is the intertitles being written, placed, and translated well, but she does present a serious, pragmatic attitude that is nevertheless kindhearted, especially when moments of satisfaction arrive. Inga Tidblad's Baby doesn't have nearly as much keeping a sunny attitude in check much of the time, making for an enjoyable contrast even when she frets. Egil Eide adds enough humanity to Pegg's boss that a character who looks much more like a creep than was intended ninety years later is maybe not able to be seen as intended, but at least has something to him.

That ninety-year distance is important to remember, because this film is unmistakably a product of the 1920s, and while there are other things that kind of hit with a thud at the end, even a fairly progressive film like this isn't likely to show women promoted out of this sort of job. Still, looking at such a situation with these filmmakers' steady eye seems a relative rarity, making "Norrtullsligan" worth looking for in both 1923 and 2015.

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originally posted: 06/11/15 09:59:22
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Directed by
  Per Lindberg

Written by
  Hjalmar Bergman

  Tora Teje
  Inga Tidblad
  Renée Björling
  Linnéa Hillberg
  Egil Eide

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