LOS ANGELES (Feb. 13)
In 1896, some 40 men, women and children from a small village in northern Sweden sold their farms and worldly belongings to live in the holy city of Jerusalem and serve God.
What possessed these people to pull up centuries-old roots and venture to an unknown and barren land?
That question fascinated Swedish writer and Nobel Laureate Selma Lagerlof. At the turn of the century, she retraced the Swedes’ arduous journey to Palestine, visited their colony in the Old City and then probed their motivations and experiences in her sweeping novel “Jerusalem.”
Film director Bille August rediscovered Lagerlof’s book a decade ago, while working on his Oscar-winning “Pelle, the Conqueror.” He became equally captivated by the psychological and religious undertones of the strange exodus.
The result of August’s fascination is the intricately woven movie “Jerusalem,” which was Sweden’s official bid for Academy Award honors this year in the best foreign-language film category.
“I really wanted to film in Jerusalem and went there two years ago,” August said in an interview, clad in T-shirt and jeans on the sunny patio of his West Hollywood hotel.
“I was fascinated by the city and I was so sad that I couldn’t shoot there,” he said.
The problem was that Jerusalem and the emigres’ entry port of Jaffa had modernized too radically over the past century to serve as the backdrop for an 1896 story.
August finally settled on Morocco, a country sufficiently unchanged to stand in for 19th-century Palestine.
In the film, as in the actual occurrence, a charismatic, itinerant preacher was the catalyst for the migration to the Holy Land. He first segregated his true believers on a kibbutzlike communal farm, to prevent their contamination by skeptics, and then organized his flock’s departure for Palestine.
The underlying causes of the puzzling migration derived from conditions in Sweden at the end of the 19th century, said August, who also is the film’s screenwriter. In contrast to the stereotype of the stolid Swedish farmer, the villagers of 1896 were poor, insecure and ready to be manipulated.
“Small independent churches and missions were springing up in isolated villages, whose followers revolted against the establishment Lutheran Church,” said August. “These groups, which still exist today, were fanatical, fundamentalist and intolerant. They saw life in terms of absolute good and evil.”
Once in Palestine, the 40 emigrants joined an American group living in a monastery in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Americans were from Chicago and had seen in the great fire of 1871 a sure sign that the Final Judgment was near.
The combined American-Swedish colony was ruled by an imperious “mother,” portrayed in the film by Olympia Dukakis. She decreed separate communal sleeping quarters for men and women (including married couples), and ordered the Swedish newcomers to speak in English instead of their native tongue.
In researching life in Jerusalem 100 years ago, August was struck by the harmonious relationship between Arabs and Jews. In contrast, the various Christian denominations were constantly at each other’s throats.
Author Lagerlof observed the same strife and wrote to a friend: “The air is so hot with religion, the calmest people become fanatical, out of their minds in the conflict among the various [Christian] sects. It is no pleasant city, yet it is remarkable to come upon an entire society of fanatics.”
The first two-thirds of “Jerusalem” is set in the Swedish village and marked by stunning photography of the countryside.
Chief protagonists are two young lovers, Ingmar (Ulf Friberg) and Gertrud (Maria Bonnevie), who play out the central conflict. He stays home, while she goes to Jerusalem.
Some of Sweden’s finest actors are in the cast, including veteran Max von Sydow, who plays the resident Lutheran vicar.
“Jerusalem” is due to open March 7 in New York and Los Angeles.