Film Review - We Shall Overcome

Niels Arden Oplev’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) partly autobiographical film We Shall Overcome (2006) is a tender portrait of a young boy growing up in 1960s Denmark who, inspired by the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. takes a stand against tyranny. Thirteen-year-old Frits (Janus Dissing Rathke) is the victim of bullying at school but it is his headmaster, rather than his fellow pupils, who is his main tormenter. Lindum-Svendsen (Bent Mejding) rules the school with a rod of iron and strikes terror into the children’s hearts.

Frits’ farmer father (Jens Jørn Spottag) has suffered a nervous breakdown and is in hospital so Frits finds solace in the company of the school’s newest recruit Freddie (Anders W. Berthelsen) a hippy, trainee teacher who introduces his pupils to blues music and, more importantly, encourages Fritz in his love of King and the civil rights movement. On the day his father returns home, Frits is punished so savagely by the headmaster that his earlobe is half ripped off.

The family decide to lodge a formal complaint against Lindum-Svendsen with the governing board. Soon after, Frits’ mother (Anne-Grethe Bjarup Riis) loses her job as the school nurse. Meanwhile, Frits has decided to change his name to Martin and starts to raise questions in class about Denmark’s involvement in the slave-trade.

As a boy on the verge of adolescence everything is magnified in Frits’ life. Beauty and cruelty loom large and are conveyed through Lars Vestergaard’s long shots of the lush landscape surrounding the family’s farm, contrasted with his close-ups of Frits’ despair and his battered face. Similarly, Frits’ joy as he works the land with his father is at odds with his hatred of the pigs’ squealing as they are sent to slaughter. Dissing Rathke brilliantly suggests the accumulative loneliness of a boy taunted by his peers and ruthlessly bullied by an authoritarian figure over which he, and his family, have no control.

Steen Bille and Arden Oplev’s script is a subtle call to rebellion. Frits’ stand against injustice affects the whole school and eventually draws his family closer. Frits’ love for King’s principles is hugely endearing and we share his joy and his sorrow as he negotiates his way through the various hierarchies of secondary school. We Shall Overcome is quietly compelling; a poignant coming of age tale, beautifully shot and acted. Dissing Rathke is an exciting new talent to watch. Warmly recommended.

DVD release 22 July 

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