. . . not a dragon tattoo but a . . .
Simon and the Oaks is about two families with characters so vivid, attractive and complex that one becomes totally absorbed in them, worries for the obstacles they face and cares to the very end about how things work out for them.
Two families, very much opposite, are drawn tightly together on the eve of World War II: the rural, home-grown Swedish Larssons and the urban, well-to-do, Jewish Lentovs who are in Sweden as fugitives from Nazi Germany. Each family has one son, who feels alienated from the expectations of his own family and, friends in school, the boys Simon Larsson and Isak Lentov are each powerfully drawn to something in the other’s family.
We meet Simon as a dreamy boy reading in an oak tree that has become so magical it speaks to him. Finding a real friend in Isak is a step in his maturity, and in the Lentov’s home he glimpses a world of art, culture, wealth and glistening chandeliers that he feels is somehow his own. But Isak, who’d been brutally savaged by Nazis in Germany when he was four years old, now experiences intense anti-semitism in school, and, as the Nazi presence extends in Sweden, witnesses his terrified mother’s murderous/suicidal breakdown that sends her to a mental hospital.
For these reasons, by the time his father, Ruben Lentov, arranges for Isak to live with the warm, welcoming Larssons, Isak has become withdrawn, unresponsive, near to catatonic. It’s not the tenderness of the loving Larsson mother, Karin, nor the friendly loyalty of Simon, but the understanding of the demanding, down-to-earth work-oriented father, Erik Larsson, who engages Isak in his carpentry, that pulls the boy out of his shell, and ultimately saves him.
So, as they grow to maturity, Isak loves building with wood; Simon loves music. Each boy disappoints his own father and finds a spiritual kinship with the father of his friend.
It’s engrossing to watch this extended family whose members we have come to know and like so well, and that like most families includes a good admixture of conflict, jealousies, frightening illnesses, and lots of love — all, and especially the love, beautifully conveyed in this movie. The family is far more complex than it at first seems: and the film tells us that just as a child can have more than one “father,” he or she can have more than “mother.” As the boys become men, the family grows to include romantic false starts, the women they love, and a first grandchild — a Lentov, but she belongs to all of them.
There’s a fascinating connection between this film and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo , millenium trilogy — I haven’t noticed the point made though I’d guess it’s very well known in Sweden where the novel Simon and the Oaks is, like Stieg Larsson’s books, a best seller. And so, it’s not for nothing that the Erik, Karin and Simon’s family name is Larsson.
Like Larsson’s stories, Simon and the Oaks pushes aside the idyllic view of Sweden as an enlightened nation to reveal its flaws, including class divisions, xenophobia and anti-semitism.
And Simon and the Oaks has its own girl with a tattoo — but the tattoo of numbers worn by Ruben Lentov’s niece, Iza, is chillingly different from Lisbeth Salander’s dragon. We first meet Iza at the end of World War II, when she has just been liberated from Buchenwald, and she’s a skinny, high cheek boned, suspicious, ironic, frenetic man-eater (Katharina Schuttler) who looks just like Noomi Rapace in the role of Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of the “Tattoo” film. But though her hair’s cut close to her head like Lisbeth Salander’s, for Iza it’s not about style or affect: her hair was shaved off by the Nazis in the Buchenwald and has only just begun to grow back, a gauge of how recently she was a prisoner. Lisbeth Salander’s world-famous tattoo expresses her rebelliousness, savage temperament, alienation: Iza’s tattoo is not a personal “statement”, but a row of numbers tattooed against her will into the young girl’s forearm in Buchenwald.
There are many Biblical allusions in Simon and the Oaks— so many, and I’ll only mention a few, that they weigh down the movie. But of particular interest for a film about a family of Christians and a family of Jews who become one family, many of the Biblical allusions involve reconciling the Old and New Testaments, Christians and Jews. Erik Larsson is a divine-like figure: he’s way bigger than everybody else, inspires absolute confidence and is projected as having a particular power: when Simon asks Ruben if he is having an affair with Karin, Ruben answers that no man can match Erik.
Erik is a stern father, like the God of the Old Testament, but — as if we’re watching the New Testament coming into being — he is persuaded, to let Simon go to his chosen school, for example, like the merciful God of the New Testament. Like the earthly father of Jesus, Erik is a carpenter and he and Isak focus in on building the best boat, symbol of salvation. Some of these Biblical allusions seem forced: for example, when Simon wants to go to the “fancy” school that Erik distrusts, Erik resists, than yields by saying Simon can go to school on one condition, if Isak wrestle with his father: watching this odd match, one thinks “Jacob Wrestling With The Angel.” The episode seems forced.
There’s a pure mother — virgin-like in that she’s never had a child — and a fallen woman, a Magdalene. Isak tells two jokes that underline the religious associations, though he doesn’t seem to be a boy to tell jokes.
Several writers have commented that Simon and the Oaks is weighed down with too many incidents and turns of plot — a common problem in movies made from big novels. I think it’s not the richness of events and characters that weigh the movie down, but the not fully integrated symbolism that doesn’t emerge naturally but seems impressed on the film. Ultimately Ruben, the Jewish father, does prove a match for Erik, the Christian father — besting him for once in what we take it to be an ongoing hand-wrestle challenge: happy families, but I didn’t believe it for a moment.
So Simon and the Oaks may try to do too much: tell an intensely human family saga with many family characters over time and against the historical background of World War II, and bringing out the horrors of Nazism, and probing into negative aspects of Swedish society, and carrying on a conversation with the Stieg Larsson books, and creating a metaphorical structure that reconciles the Old and the New Testaments. It’s a little heavy handed, that last point but in all those other ways Simon is fully successful. Quite an achievement! See Simon and the Oaks — it’s compelling, illuminating, and filled with a sense of human truths.