Pelle the Conqueror starts out with a father and son on a boat full of immigrants, huddled together as the sea crashes around them. The father, Lasse Karlsson (Max von Sidow), tells his son Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) of the wonders of the new land ahead of them: jobs aplenty, enough to eat, and (best of all) wages that are so high that kids can play all day instead of laboring alongside their parents. But while an audience in the United States might assume that these immigrants are headed toward Ellis Island, that's not the case: this boat is full of impoverished Swedish immigrants heading for the dream of a better life in Denmark. Pelle the Conqueror continues to fit the bill as a refreshingly different movie, offering a different perspective than the Hollywood formula.
When Lasse and Pelle reach Denmark, life is far from the idyll they'd hoped for. The two end up as laborers on the aptly-named Stone Farm, where life is hard for all the workers, man, woman, and child alike. Here, the struggle for security and happiness takes place on all levels, from the oppressed suffering under the cruelties of the manager and his trainee, to the prosperous owners of the farm, who may have enough to eat, but don't fare much better in finding happiness. The film's story is made up of many small threads touching on the lives of the people around Pelle, from his father to the mistress of the farm to a free-spirited fellow laborer. The boy Pelle is always the center of the film; each thread shows how he relates to the people around him, how he feels about them, and how these events shape his view of the world. The film focuses on Pelle's undaunted spirit; he refuses to be crushed by his environment, and though he experiences setbacks, disappointments, and tragedies, he remains capable of friendship, love, and a dream of a better life.
The acting is excellent all around, and especially in the two main characters. Von Sidow gives a touching and convincing portrayal of the man who struggles to be a good father, showing the different stages of hope, disappointment, and anger. Hvenegaard seems completely natural in the role of Pelle, showing a great deal of expression and always seeming fully in character. The Danish language track with English subtitles is a great choice for this film, to get the full range of acting talent displayed by von Sidow and the rest of the cast, which comes through even if you're reading the subtitles.
The cinematography is excellent, and truly captures the bleak environment at this remote farm in Denmark. The frequent images of the sea are particularly impressive: the sea is a choppy, threatening gray even at its best, and actually freezes into bobbing ice-floes at the edge of the beach in the coldest part of winter.
The image quality of this anamorphic 1.66:1 transfer is quite good. There's a moderate amount of noise throughout the film, and the images overall aren't as sharp as they could be. The contrast is good, providing detail where needed even in challenging scenes where Pelle's face is half-hidden by shadow, for instance. There's not a whole lot of color in the movie, with the dominant color scheme being brown, gray, and white, but this is evidently an artistic choice to evoke a certain mood in the viewer; when other colors do appear, such as when the laborers dress up for a festival, the colors are bright and seem accurate.
The DVD offers a choice of Dolby 2.0 surround in either the Danish or the English-dubbed tracks. The sound is clear, allowing the dialogue to come through distinctly. The use of surround is actually very impressive for being only 2.0; I've heard 5.1 soundtracks that didn't make as good use of surround as this DVD does. For instance, when there's a party, voices and music can be heard all around, and when the winter winds swirl through the scene, it feels like you're there in the middle of the storm.
The only extra offered is a trailer for the film. The other "special feature" of note is that the English subtitles are optional. The menus are straightforward and easy to use.
Pelle the Conqueror shows the harsh life and senseless tragedies of their lives, but ultimately it's not a depressing movie at all. It's not surprising that the film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film as well as Best Film at the Cannes Film Festival. While the disc is almost bare-bones, it gets high marks in the key areas of picture and sound quality, making the DVD a worthwhile presentation for an engrossing and dramatic film. This is one that shouldn't be missed.