A Film a Week - The Mountains / Bjergene

 previously published on Cineuropa

The Mountains is the feature-length directorial debut by Christian Einshøj, the Danish filmmaker behind several shorts and the editor of numerous features. Described by the auteur as a “family self-portrait” on an introductory title card, which is reinforced by a dedication to his parents and brothers on another title card just before the end credits, the film is also a mystery of sorts and a hero’s quest for reconciliation and dealing with loss from the past.

It premiered at CPH:DOX in March, where it got an Honourable Mention for the POLITIKEN:DOX Award, while its international premiere took place in parallel at Visions du Réel and Hot Docs. At the latter festival, it scooped two prizes in the international competition: the main Award for Best International Feature Documentary and the Emerging International Filmmaker Award.

The filmmaker’s family, led by his businessman father Søren, moved from their native country of Denmark to Norway for the father’s work, and was then struck by a tragedy in the new nation. The third son, Kristoffer, was born with a severe illness, and his condition, medical treatment and eventual death prevented the family from moving back to their homeland. The shadow of the tragedy affected the parents, Christian, his brother Frederik and also the youngest brother, Alex, who was born after Kristoffer’s death, in different manners, and this rarely spoken-of family crisis morphed into a marital and identity-related one when the father lost his job and the brothers moved away from home.

This is the starting point for Christian’s documentary, made up of his own voice-over narration, photo and video material from his home archive, as well as newly filmed material recorded on his own quest. He opens the documentary with a shot of himself and his brothers in superhero outfits against a backdrop of breathtakingly beautiful mountains in the Norwegian polar area, describing himself as Batman on a desperate mission to salvage something long lost. The thing that was lost was the closeness and even the communication between the family members, who dealt with Kristoffer’s death in different ways, as mentioned above. Over the course of four chapters, we learn that the father’s way was keeping busy with work on regular days and staying in constant motion on holidays; that Frederik, after his failed marriage in the USA, engrossed himself in work; and that Alex never considered himself to be fully part of the family, even refusing to speak the language that was used at home.

Early on, Einshøj establishes a tone of contrasts between the seemingly idyllic surroundings of nature and a fulfilled family life, and the inner turmoil taking over the family members separately, and maintains it until the final chapter of the film. The blend between the home material shot on unprofessional equipment and in a narrow 4:3 format, and newly filmed, digitally crisp and widescreen footage, is smooth thanks to the filmmaker’s own editing and almost constant voice-over narration that serves as the connecting tissue and the principal film text. The mood is also set by Toke Brorson Odin’s downtempo electronic music score that sometimes toys with 8-bit and 16-bit influences. In the end, The Mountains is a sincere piece of family history, an exceptionally made documentary and a potent reminder that communication is key in order for a family to stay together while it deals with a tragedy.

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