Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Mysterious Apartment (1948)

Director: Tancred Ibsen                                  Writer: Tancred Ibsen
Film Score: Gunnar Sønstevold                       Cinematography: Kåre Bergstrøm
Starring: Ola Isene, Sonja Wigert, Egil Hjorth-Jenssen and Liv Uchermann Selmer

Though Norway’s film output has always been miniscule compared to the United States, they nevertheless have produced a number of quality films every year. Fortunately, like much of Europe, they feel no need to compete with the U.S. and instead make films that are very personal and meaningful for their people. As such, those films have been very popular down through the years. The Mysterious Apartment (Den hemmelighetsfulle leiligheten) is a post-war film dealing with a sexually repressed man’s obsessive morality and the woman who shakes his foundation to show him what life is really all about. Director Tancred Ibsen, grandson of the famous playwright Henrik Ibsen, does a tremendous job translating a classic Norwegian short story to the screen. He also commands a first-rate cast who assist him in making a powerful film of transformation.

The story begins with a single, middle-aged department manager, Ola Isene, on the train to work. Two women who work with him talk about how frightened he is of women, but it’s more than that. In a flashback he recalls a card came with his friends in his rented room. The neighbors are irritated by the noise and his lawyer, Egil Hjorth-Jenssen, wants him to move to his own apartment. But he’s frightened of doing that too. Reluctantly, he goes to look at the place and ultimately decides to buy it. He has a bad feeling about it, though. It was once owned by an artist who died suddenly, and the hedonistic lifestyle he’s sure the man lived reminds him of his own horror at reading his father’s secret diaries as a boy. Compelled, however, he moves in anyway. The housekeeper, Liv Uchermann Selmer, walks about silently with a perpetual frown, adding to Isene’s anxiety and his certainty that something bad is going to happen to him as a result of buying the place.

When he finds letters from a woman confirming the artist’s sexual exploits he becomes obsessed with the idea of her. Then one day Sonja Wigert shows up and wants the letters back. Only he can’t do that because then she’ll disappear from his life forever. But what actually disappears is his old way of thinking, his fear and his loneliness, and the person he used to be. The film is based on the short story by Norwegian author Kristian Elster d.y. and, while it is very different, the idea of the apartment with a life of its own is reminiscent of a ghost story by Oliver Onions called “The Beckoning Fair One.” This story, however, is almost the opposite. In the Onions story a writer moves in and has his life sucked out of him by a ghost, here we have Isene being transformed into a man he never was. And while Wigert’s motivations are far different than his, they achieve the same effect and make this a thrilling story of possibilities.

In terms of the final product, it may not be as highly polished as Hollywood films from the major studios, but it does have a lot of artistic merit. The cinematography by Kåre Bergstrøm and Ragnar Sørensen is quite good, especially in the overly-furnished apartment where the moving camera gives it the kind of three-dimensional effect that Karl Freund was fond of. The music is also very good. Composer Gunnar Sønstevold’s score is centered around the piano rather than strings and supports well the action on the screen. Ola Isene is terrific as the inhibited and frightened single man, and the internal dialogue that inhabits nearly half of the story is a terrific literary touch that was rarely used in Hollywood. Sonja Wigert is beautiful and her role borders of femme fatale territory, which adds some nice suspense. Ultimately The Mysterious Apartment is a fantastic Norwegian film that comes highly recommended.

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