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  • Hilde Huus

Tancred Ibsen and the Scandinavia Cinema

(Photo from website

Carleton University is lucky to have on loan an expert on Norwegian cinema, Professor Gunnar Iversen from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. His extensive knowledge and enthusiasm for Scandinavian cinema was obvious when he gave a detailed and fascinating talk to the CNS on April 19, 2017. He spoke for 45 minutes without notes and gave us an overview not only of the life of “the Ibsen of the movies” but also of Norwegian cinema, with quite a bit of information about cinema in the other Scandinavian countries thrown in for good measure. What an interesting and educational experience!

Here is just some of what we learned… Great things were expected of Tancred Ibsen from the moment he was born, a heavy burden to bear for anyone and a particular disadvantage in Norwegian culture. (Traditionally, the iconic hero of Norwegian culture starts his life practically unnoticed and with very little expected of him. It is only later in life that he surprises everyone by using his wits to achieve great things in the world. Such is the story of “askeladden”, the unpromising youngest son in traditional Norwegian folklore who sits daydreaming by the fireplace while his older brothers set out into the world achieve great things. “Askeladden” is said to symbolize Norway’s historical place in Scandinavia in comparison to Sweden and Denmark.)

Tancred Ibsen was the grandson of those two great icons of Norwegian culture, Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. His father was Sigurd Ibsen, the Prime Minister of Norway in Stockholm from 1903 to 1905, and his mother was the famous mezzo-soprano Bergliot Ibsen. Tancred practically had royalty status when he was born in 1893 and so was doomed from the start to fail to live up to the Norwegian ideal.

It must often have seemed to him that everything went downhill from the moment he was born. When he started school, it became clear that he was not a scholar like his grandfathers and his father. His talents seemed to lie more in athletics and when he joined the Norwegian Air Force as a young man, he showed himself to be quite a daredevil. But without any higher level education, he had no opportunity for advancement so he started his own airline, which went bankrupt. He married the Norwegian dancer and actress Lillebil, living in the shadow of her talent and fame and following her around as she acted in major films in Europe, danced on the stage in Berlin, and played the role of Anitra in a performance of “Peer Gynt” in New York. When Lillebil became a famous star on Broadway, Tancred tagged along, getting to know some very prominent American actors of that era.

While his wife pursued her successful career, Tancred started going to the movies just to pass the time. He was not impressed with what he saw and decided he wanted to put his own mark on the cinema - to “Ibsenize” film. His connections in the major movie-making circles helped him to get a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Hollywood, but six months later he left them without having accomplished much. In 1926 he headed back to Norway where the films that were being made were mostly rural romantic dramas, not the type of film that Tancred was interested in making. But a play set in Oslo’s factory district in the 1920’s caught his attention and inspired him to make his first film, “Den Store Barnedåpen” (my translation - “The Big Baptism”). It depicted working class people in their daily lives and struggles. Tancred strove for an authentic depiction of such people, including making sure that the actors spoke the way they actually spoke in real life. The first full-length feature film made in Norway that featured sound, it was a big and immediate success. It would revolutionize Norwegian cinema and have a major impact onScandinavian cinema as a whole. If you understand Norwegian, it is still very watchable and worth viewing on YouTube.

In the following years, Tancred Ibsen directed a number of Swedish light comedies as well as a few more Norwegian films. Then in 1937 he directed the Norwegian film “Fant”, (“The Tramp”) which was destined to become a Norwegian classic. Definitive proof that Norway was capable of making popular films that met international standards, it signalled the start of the golden age of Norwegian cinema.

His next big success was a film called “Gjest Baardsen.” Based on the true story of a Norwegian outlaw in the 1800’s, it would become another perennial favourite on Norwegian television. You can view it in Norwegian on Youtube at

During World War II, Ibsen assisted the Norwegian Armed Forces. As a result he was arrested in 1943 by the German occupiers of Norway and imprisoned until the end of the War. On his release, he got back into film-making, but his moment had passed. He misjudged the appetite of his audience, who were hungry for dramas about the occupation. The comedies and experimental films he directed were complete flops.

In 1950, Tancred Ibsen made the film that Professor Iversen considers to have been his masterpiece. It is called “To Mistenkelige Personer” (Two Suspicious Persons), and is based on an actual Norwegian murder case from 1926. But the Norwegian High Court banned the release of the film to protect the privacy of one of the men imprisoned for the murder. Although made in 1950, the film was finally shown for the first time in 2007, 29 years after Ibsen’s death, and then only in a few select venues. The film was posted to Youtube on March 22, 2017 and is a truly remarkable one according to Professor Iversen.

Ibsen made fewer and fewer films after that - his big successes had been in the 1930’s. But those films remain Norwegian classics and in the end Tancred Ibsen did leave his own mark on Scandinavian cinema.

These days around 30 films are made every year in Norway, financed at least in part by the state. “Trolljegern” (The Trollhunter) a 2010 “mockumentary,” is a recent one that has been distributed internationally to positive reviews. (I have seen it and recommend it.) Its producers are now working on a new film to be called “Askeladden”.

Professor Iversen’s talk was a real eye-opener for many of us and we were very pleased to hear that he has accepted a permanent appointment at Carleton University. Perhaps he will consider joining the Canadian Nordic Society, or at least returning in the future to share some more of his deep knowledge and appreciation for Scandinavian cinema.

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