Director: Magnus von Horn
Writer: Magnus von Horn
Stars: Sven Ahlström, Mats Blomgren, Stefan Cronwall
Film Review by Andrew Moore
Magnus von Horn’s impressive Swedish/Polish debut The Here After (a Golden Camera nominee at the Cannes Film Festival) is a film about how an act of violence in the past can dictate the present. The film’s central teenage character John (played by Swedish pop star Ulrik Munther) has committed the ultimate act of transgression in his local community, the murder of a girl he was in a relationship with. The film is thus about John’s struggle to return after two years in a youth detention centre and assimilate back into the very community (and family) this act of violence removed him from. Unlike for instance Michael Haneke’s 1992 film Benny’s Video (also about a teenage murder) here John’s victim exists in the film only as a presence two years after the crime that permeates everything.
Initial hints of a natural, warm welcome back from his father (Mats Blomgren) after picking him up (there is no mother) slowly dissipate. Other than this general sense of awkwardness and simmering unease he is assimilated back into the familiarity and routines of the farm he lives on with his father and little brother Filip (Alexander Nordgren) who accepts him very much like a little brother would. The family dog still remembers him when he arrives (he’s not been gone long), but the trouble of course isn’t just this bucolic snow globe they inhabit but the wider community and this equilibrium is shattered on their first trip to the local supermarket. What seems like a normal scene of a family doing their weekly shop isn’t, this is hinted on by a variety of distanced shots of the family (and others) and the unease is violently confirmed when John bumps into Bea (Ellen Mattsson), a relative of his victim, in one of the aisles and she compulsively attacks him (eventually being pulled off by John’s father). A murderer back in the community, in the shrine of urban consumerism, a supermarket (the most normal of places), isn’t this wrong?
As the film progresses we are left with further questions. Other than the wider community does his family really want him back? We are constantly shown lingering shots of the father, hypnotically staring out of windows, only jolting himself out of this trance-like state upon the arrival of John or Filip. How sure is he of the role he’s supposed to take in this situation? The only other addition to the family is a somnambulant grandfather (Wieslaw Komasa) who almost appears as an external representation of the family’s repressed, shocked inner-state. Cinematographer Lukasz Zal often films the family from distance or behind glass heightening this sense of separation or alienation. John’s return to his old school is painful to watch. Some students passionately express not wanting him there (he killed their friend) while others are just incredibly uncomfortable around him (as are many of the staff). How could they let him come back here? Of course John has been released, in institutional eyes he can return, but in actuality he never can, this is a teenage pupil who carries the mark of Cain. John’s either shunned or bullied (often with brother Filip looking on). The film asks the question of us, is this type of bullying ok? It’s not for the sake of cruelty but is it still cruel? Is its reason just? Should John simply not be there? But of course, for John this is the familiar, it’s where he wants to be, His family, His house, and His school.
The only school pupil who eventually accepts him is Malin (Loa Ek) who has arrived in the community after the murder. Through perspective shots she thus witnesses the distain towards John from the view of the observer (she’s not involved). After suggesting he defend himself and later helping him fix his motorbike, they become close and then boyfriend/girlfriend, to his father’s (and maybe the viewer’s) unease. In his defence John is of course a teenager (with teenage genes) but also one who has killed. He will always be analysed from an additional perspective. How believable this sudden emerging relationship is within the narrative and its events is debatable of course. It seems almost perverse but then isn’t that the point of much of Magnus von Horn’s film as the attempts at fitting John back into societal equilibrium prove incendiary. How does society feel in saying he doesn’t have a right?
What Malin does allow (from not living there when the crime took place) is primarily the ability to ask him the questions we want to ask, and through her we get to find out more about events of two years ago. Of course John’s return to school and his new relationship are doomed to eventually capitulate. Cue the granddad to come out of his trance to kill the ailing family dog, Filip sees this, won’t accept it, and argues with John too. At one point Filip asks John if he’ll “kill her too” whilst looking at Malin. A tense argument ensues and John aggressively shouts at Malin. From herein Filip rejects his own family in favour of his brother’s bullying tormentors, John gets into a violent fight with one of them (after they attack his family home) and is severely beaten. Back at school his shocking visual appearance furthers the feeling of there is something unnatural, a bad seed amongst them. Things quickly deteriorate, Malin has also rejected him and it’s revealed that in a petition 270 out of the 330 students don’t want him there (noting the signatures were countersigned by parents) – and thus the wider community.
The Here After is an intimately observed film shot against a stark, wintry agricultural environment by Polish cinematographer Lukasz Zal, well known for his work on award winning film Ida (2013), with plenty of lingering point of view shots of key characters augmented by distanced observational shots that assimilate the viewpoint of the wider community. The performance of Ulrik Munther is subtle, nuanced yet compelling when needed against the structured and understated performances of his family and supporting cast as the film slowly ticks towards its ending of irresolution (as resolution) but without absolution. As John rides towards his ex girlfriends house with a shotgun in a bag several scenarios could play themselves out (I’ll not say which one). The film ends with John riding his motorbike towards a retreating camera (and what hasn’t backed away from him) in the knowledge that he can never be accepted back here anymore, it’s too painful.