Included below are the screening notes I drew up for the benefit of the wonderful Bristol Silents, for a club screening of theirs earlier this year. Introducing the film I also went into a bit more detail about the Hardanger fiddle, which is interwoven into both the film and Norwegian folk culture more generally, and in my humble opinion is quite a spectacular instrument to hear. I love it. If you want a sample then check out a 15 minute BBC radio documentary in the Musical Migrants series on it. Or just go crazy on Youtube, as there’s plenty to be found!
A true classic of Norwegian cinema, Rasmus Breistein’s Bridal Procession in Hardanger (1926) is not only a high point of the nation’s body of silent film, but also stands as a vital piece in their visual and cultural history. Stunningly shot on location on the fjords of western Norway, the film recreates a rural idyll of 19th century Scandinavian life to tell a compelling melodrama of young love, marriage, class division, and the lure of emigration to brighter lands of new promise.
In many ways the film stands as the culmination of Norway’s artistic movement of National Romanticism, which sought to encapsulate a true reflection of the nation’s emergent identity. The original Bridal Procession in Hardanger is in fact a landscape painting by Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude, dating from 1848. A sharp and vivid panorama of a traditional bridal party crossing the Hardangerfjord, the oil painting is now widely regarded as one of Norwegian art history’s most important pictures. At the time of its creation Norway remained sub-ceded by its union to Sweden, and the art establishment in the country sought to galvanise what it meant to be Norwegian in all areas of culture. This perspective combined an over-arching reverence for Norwegian nature with a nostalgia for the country’s traditional dress, music and craft; qualities we can all see brought together in the original Bridal Procession of 1848.
The novella Marit Skjølte was also born out of this movement of romantic nationalism, and it stands as inspiration for the film we are to see tonight. Written by the priest Kristofer Janson in 1868, the story took inspiration from the painting of Bridal Procession, while also building on contemporary tensions around the draw to emigrate, which was pulling on many Norwegians at the time. The tale of a young generation tempted to leave poverty and social division for the opportunities of the New World is one that has been told many times, yet in Janson’s telling the issue is brought in sharp contrast against the art movement which sought to celebrate Norway culture. How could the case for Norway’s independent future be made if its young wanted nothing more than to escape on the first boat they could take to America?
In the drawing together of this novella, the visual look of Norway’s national romanticism, and the celebrated craft of its rediscovered folk-culture and music, we now find the film Bridal Procession in Hardanger. While Norway had found true independence from Sweden in 1905, the question of national identity still remained important, and a new generation of artists sought to re-engage with it. Tired with the continued success foreign filmmakers found in adapting Norwegian literature for the silver screen, established stage actor, and accomplished fiddle-player, Rasmus Breistein brought together Norway’s theatrical talent to stake their own claim in cinema. Up until this point filmmakers had failed to find much traction for a professional and independent film production in the still young nation, yet Breistein broke through with Fante-Anne (aka Gypsy Anna) in 1920. An adaptation of a rural melodrama, the film won high praise from the Norwegian press, with one critic heralding it as proof of film’s new status as an art-form in its own right.
Bridal Procession is Breistein’s fourth film, and by some reckoning his most accomplished. Having already found an audience for rural dramas, Breistein took to making Bridal Procession with a new found dedication to showing a very personal Norway, set as it is in region where he was born. Breistein saw the film as the perfect medium to portray his own Western Norwegian perspective on rural life, and the film is almost documentary in its observation of the Hardanger people and their customs. While the film stars a young Aase Bye, the rising diva of Norwegian stage and screen, the vista of the Hardangerfjord is practically a star in its own right, and Breistein readily acknowledged the towering beauty of “those wonderful Norwegian landscapes which nowadays people from all parts of the world flock here to see.”
The film was a tremendous hit on its premiere on Boxing Day 1926, and the success continued as the film went on a year-long tour of Norway. Breistein himself was also canny to the film’s international value, and since crowds of tourists now flocked to the fjords, why not take the fjords to the world? Much like the emigrants of the film, Breistein went to America despite not knowing a word of English, and the Bridal Procession and Fante-Anne went on a 200 show tour of the United States, where every screening was introduced with a lecture on Norway, and every performance accompanied by Breistein himself on traditional Hardanger fiddle. The tour was a hit, and while box-office takings were set aside for Breistein’s next production, the director also spent time in Hollywood studying new techniques and approaches to filmmaking. In this sense Breistein stands out from many other European filmmakers of the time: he went to Hollywood, not to join the dream factories of California, but rather to source the skills and the funds to start new film productions back in Norway. His career continued with uneven success into the early sound period, but through a series of popular and critically lauded documentaries in the forties and fifties, Breistein established him as one of the most important filmmakers of Norwegian cinema.
Finally a note on the version and the music which accompanies it: with only six copies printed on the film’s first release, the popularity of Bridal Procession saw the original copies worn ragged. The Norwegian Film Institute discovered an unedited copy of the film, lacking intertitles, in their collections in 1997. A copy of the intertitles were then traced to the Swedish Film Censors, and a reconstructed version was put together for the Pordenone silent film festival in 1999. This is the version we are seeing tonight, and it is accompanied by a superb orchestral soundtrack scored by Haldor Krogh, and performed by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Ole Kristian Ruud. Of particular note in this score are the segments which feature the beautiful Hardanger fiddle, a six-stringed violin-type instrument indigenous to the region. Easy to spot being played at various points in the story, the lilting and haunting tones of the fiddle rise out of the soundtrack and bring the film to life in a stirring and unique way.