by Matt Levine
Northern Lights might sound like a textbook history lesson, but what it tells us about human progress and power attests to art’s ability to transform our past into a compelling present. Winner of the Caméra d’Or at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival, Rob Nilsson and John Hanson’s spare yet stirring debut achieves the tricky cinematic feat of immersing us in an alien time and place—in this instance, a frigid North Dakotan plain close to the Canadian border in the winter of 1915-6. It was here that an obscure yet significant facet of American history took place: the founding of the Nonpartisan League, a Socialist offshoot that tried to wrest control of state mills, grain elevators, and banks away from big-city businessmen and into the arms of the farmers themselves. Northern Lights recognizes the magnitude of the party’s short-lived success, yet it approaches the legacy of progressivism through human lives rather than through political dogmatism.
Trylon Microcinema – January 17-19
Directors: John Hanson, Rob Nilsson
Producers: John Hanson, Rob Nilsson
Writers: John Hanson, Rob Nilsson
Cinematographer: Judy Irola
Editors: John Hanson, Rob Nilsson
Music: David Ozzie Ahlers
Cast: Robert Behling, Susan Lynch, Joe Spano, Ray Ness, Marianna Åström-De Fina, Helen Ness, Thorbjörn Rue, Nick Eldredge, Jon Ness, Gary Hanisch, Melvin Rodvold, Adelaide Thorntveidt, Mabel Rue
Premiere: July 12, 1978 – Crosby, North Dakota
US Theatrical Premiere: March 30, 1982
US Distributor: An Artists Public Domain/Cinema Conservancy (Restoration)
The period of the late 19th and early 20th centuries has always struck me as one of the most momentous in American history: this was a time in which the seemingly immovable capitalists who oversaw the country’s economic centers encountered resistance from socialist and anarchist movements that sought to weaken the economic infrastructure. Riots like those in Haymarket Square, Chicago in 1886 and in Cleveland in 1919 exposed the underlying antagonism between industrialists and laborers that provides the backbone for any capitalist economy. Clearly, the forces of capitalism generally won that battle, yet it’s exciting and somewhat mystifying to look back upon a time when the words “socialist” or “communist” didn’t denote automatic castigation.
The Nonpartisan League grew out of this tense atmosphere: it was the brainchild of a failed flax farmer turned Socialist-party organizer named A.C. Townley, who traveled North Dakota in a Model T throughout the winter of 1915. Farmers had been frustrated by the escalating prices and minuscule earnings yielded by the wheat millers and salesmen in Minneapolis-St. Paul; yet here, in the shape of Townley and the Nonpartisan League, was a political party that claimed to share the farmers’ interests. Support for the party spread quickly throughout North Dakota and the Nonpartisan League won control of state legislature in 1916, electing a former farmer, Lynn Frazier, for governor. Their political contributions were substantial, as the state took control of certain agricultural functions and workers’ compensation funds were established, achieving at least a few of the farmers’ most urgent demands. Yet the party’s success was short-lived, as the post-World War I period saw a relative prosperity among farmers (and a resentment from banks who would no longer supply them with loans) that led to the party’s diminished support.
Rather than leaping directly into this complex history, Northern Lights begins with a peculiar frame story: we are introduced, circa 1978, to 94-year-old Henry Martinson, a former homesteader who provides firsthand perspective on the period so evocatively conveyed by the film. As of 1978, Martinson had also been the labor commissioner of North Dakota for three decades and was a former secretary for the Socialist Party—a fact that becomes somewhat overshadowed in the Northern Lights’ disorienting opening moments, and which optimistically suggests that the spirit of progressivism and unionization might not be as deflated in the American Midwest as we might assume (given the relative obscurity of dissolved socialist parties such as the Nonpartisan League).
Martinson stumbles upon the diary of another former North Dakotan farmer, Ray Sorenson, whose reticent introduction to the politics of the Nonpartisan League provide the film with its dramatic structure. Initially, Ray (Robert Behling) is a hardworking, mostly carefree farmer who cares primarily about playing cards and preparing for his upcoming marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Inga (Susan Lynch). Yet the death of his father, the foreclosure of his father-in-law’s farm, and the callous exploitation by the middlemen who transport their grain to the Twin Cities cumulatively compel Ray to join the Nonpartisan League, traveling North Dakota as an educator/proselytizer. Some of the movie’s most fascinating scenes are extended dialogues between Ray and the dubious farmers who have been exploited by politicians far too many times; as Sorenson uses the example of fluctuating coffee prices as an analogy for the moneymen who control the grain industry, we get a sense of the minute, necessary struggles that propel a grassroots political party into motion—and the enormous human costs that go into such an outsized ambition.
At heart, though, Northern Lights is more a human story with a political backdrop than a political story played out arbitrarily by humans. With its haunting black-and-white cinematography and vast, magisterial landscapes, this is really a paean to the immigrants who decided (imprudently, maybe) to settle in the brittle American Midwest, to try to tame its weather and soil into submission. The film takes its time conveying the brutal cold and vicious winds that accompany a desperate winter wheat-thrashing; when the men finally retreat indoors, with their hair matted to their scalp with sweat and snow, we can almost feel their exhaustion. There is also a nicely subdued relationship between Ray and Inga, who truly seem to love each other though they doubt from the beginning that their conflicting personalities will be able to mesh; a scene in which they chase each other flirtatiously through leafless, skeletal trees at the dawn of winter recurs with surprising poignancy later in the film. The movie’s sympathy with passionate individuals who conquer the harsh terrain that surrounds them most resembles Willa Cather’s O, Pioneers!—only with the added indignation that a half-century of political hindsight can offer.
Northern Lights truly was made on the fringes. Independently financed and shot in Minnesota and North Dakota (where subzero temperatures persistently endangered cameras and other equipment), the black-and-white celluloid transforms the landscape into a high-contrast, seemingly endless expanse of soil and sky; the directors, John Hanson and Rob Nilsson, are unafraid to strand their human characters within enormous, almost empty frames, dominated by an unconquerable natural world. The stark artistry achieved by Hanson, Nilsson and their crew on a limited budget is undeniably impressive; one close-up of an aged man shortly before his death—his face half in shadow, his eyes clouded by disorientation—echoes a famous scene in Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), and carries with it a similar haunting morbidity. The keyboard-heavy score, meanwhile—though sometimes a bit jarringly anachronistic—provides an odd (though welcome) stylistic embellishment. Put more simply, Northern Lights is a decisive example of how to use the spare aesthetic necessitated by limited production funds as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
Only at the very end does Northern Lights make an outright political indulgence, as the narrator intones: “Who can say what will happen next? But win or lose, I know I’m a part of it. I have a place.” Moments later, a closing-title crawl proclaims that we have not yet lost our “rebel roots,” and that the achievements of parties like the Nonpartisan League will not be forgotten. It’s a direct, didactic moment—the kind of political sloganeering that may have been employed in educational shorts to recruit workers in the 1910s and onwards. Employed in a historical docudrama in 1978, the irony becomes even deeper: with the country sandwiched between late-‘60s protests and impending Reaganomics, Northern Lights reminded American audiences (the few who had a chance to see it, anyway) of their rebel roots, and of the ability for individuals to change their own political environment. In the end, it doesn’t really matter if Northern Lights is more character-driven or politically-oriented; one of its most remarkable achievements is to convey how inseparable our personal lives are from the sociopolitical variables that inescapably affect them.