There is something attractive about survival stories, about men and women finding themselves struggling to survive against whatever man and nature throws at them. Nature more often than man, because nature can be an even more merciless enemy—and yet can contain within it the means to overcome its ruthlessness. Scorching heat and bone-dry deserts; cold so severe it freezes flesh; wind and driving rain and wild animals… no wonder films like The Revenant, Sanctum, Grey, Ice Cold in Alex, and even Gravity and The Martian end up being popular. Perhaps a lot of us like the vicarious pleasure of seeing someone else battle overwhelming odds—and come out on top.
Outside of Hollywood, too, there have been survival adventure films, and one of my favourites is this, a Norwegian film, the name of which translates as Nine Lives. The story of a Norwegian Resistance fighter during World War II, the only survivor of a group of men on a mission that ends disastrously. Directed by Arne Skouen, Ni Liv got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, and in 1991, was voted (by Norwegian TV audiences) the best Norwegian film ever made.
Ni Liv begins in a quiet, neat hospital where a man, Jan Baalsrud (Jack Feldstadt)—limping, his feet badly swollen—is helped into a room by a couple of nurses. A woman, obviously expected by Baalsrud but just as obviously unknown to him by face, is waiting for him. Baalsrud commends her diligence in coming all the way up here, to Lapland, and she explains that she needs a complete report from him. That’s what she’s here for.
She remarks that Baalsrud’s feet are very swollen, and he replies, in a matter-of-fact way, that they’d been much larger. Which, of course, gives us a clue to what this man has been through. But the real story, as it unfolds, is a mind-boggling tale of a man’s tenacity and will to hold on.
The scene shifts to 1943, when Baalsrud and a group of other men, all of them Norwegian Resistance fighters, left the Shetlands on a boat bound for Northern Norway. Their cargo consisted of weapons and explosives.
The group arrives at their destination, and two of the men—Baalsrud and another—go to meet the local contact, a shoemaker named Hansen. Hansen is a jumpy, shifty-eyed sort, and is very wary of these two. Almost as if he had not been expecting them.
Baalsrud, glancing down, sees a printed notice, in German, lying on the floor. He is immediately suspicious, and confronts Hansen: Who is he? What is going on?
The truth emerges swiftly. All shoemakers in this area are called Hansen, the man babbles in his nervousness. He’s a Hansen, true, but he’s only been in this house a short while. The previous owner, also a shoemaker named Hansen, was arrested by the Germans and taken away.
He assures Baalsrud and the other man: they are safe with him. They can go their way, and he won’t utter a word to anyone. Their mission will not be compromised.
… but it is. Because as the two Resistance fighters head back to their boat, Hansen is preparing to alert the Nazis. The boat, loaded with explosives, is soon overtaken by a German vessel. All the Norwegians can do is explode their cargo and try to make their escape. Not an easy task, rowing through icy waters with German guns booming all about; and one by one, all but two are killed.
This pair (one of whom is Baalsrud) somehow makes it to shore, but with the Germans in hot pursuit.
Within minutes, Baalsrud’s comrade has been shot dead, and Baalsrud, trying to run through deep snow, loses a boot. Stopping to retrieve it is impossible, so he goes on, running along with one foot bare. Since he dare not stop here—the Germans are too close for comfort—Baalsrud opts to swim across a narrow stretch of water (a fjord?) and get to what he hopes will be safer terrain.
Once across, we find him in a cozy little room where a middle-aged woman is attending to him. She’s amputated his big toe and bandaged it, and now, as she moves off, Baalsrud hears a woman scream in pain from the next room. He’s taken aback, and is told, by way of explanation, that the old lady who’s attended to him is the local midwife. She’s here to help in a birthing.
Baalsrud immediately gets up and starts putting on his outer clothes, even though they’re still wet. When the midwife tries to stop him, he tells her he’s a dangerous man to have around; he’ll leave before he attracts the attention of the Germans and brings trouble down on the midwife and her patients. The woman is touched. As he’s leaving, she gives him a name: a fisherman named Henrik. ‘Give him my name,’ she says, and Baalsrud replies, ‘I never give any names.’
Somehow, wet and shivering and in extreme pain, Baalsrud makes it to Henrik’s. Henrik’s first impulse is to suspect this man of being a German informant. Despite that, when a Nazi soldier comes by looking for the fugitive, Henrik hides the now-unconscious Baalsrud under a heap of straw in the barn and drapes himself artistically (empty liquor bottle in hand) on top. The soldier laughs and goes away, convinced Henrik is dead drunk.
Henrik is soon sure Baalsrud is above suspicion (he gets his confirmation of Baalsrud’s innocence in an interesting way: by getting his [Henrik’s] teenaged son to enter the barn and yell ‘Aufstehen!’ [‘Get up!’]: Baalsrud jumps up, hand automatically pulling out his pistol). Later, while Baalsrud is eating and getting warm, Henrik says he knows Baalsrud has been to the midwife’s; the stump of his big toe has been bandaged with a diaper.
Once Baalsrud has gathered his strength somewhat, Henrik takes him in the boat further along. By now, Baalsrud realizes there’s only one way he can be safe: if he gets across the mountains and into neutral Sweden. In a Norway overrun by German soldiers (and with its fair share of quislings, too), he cannot hope to survive for long.
The stretch where Henrik drops Baalsrud off is mostly gentle slopes, and Henrik has brought along a pair of skis: they’ll help Baalsrud make swift progress.
And he does. He encounters enemy soldiers now and then, but mostly manages to escape either unnoticed or at least unhurt.
At one point, when the wind starts blowing and whips up a blizzard, Baalsrud finds shelter under a narrow ledge of rock and burrows into it. He falls asleep, and when he wakes up, finds that his eyes are playing tricks on him. In a matter of moments, everything around him suddenly starts to look much darker, and then, as he stumbles out of his shelter and sets off, he begins to see things…
It’s not long before Baalsrud cannot see at all. It’s snow blindness, and in an attempt to shield his eyes from further damage, Baalsrud is forced to take the bandage (the diaper) from off his foot and bind it around his eyes. Progress, too, has become excruciatingly slow. Now Baalsrud has to bend, gather up some snow into a snowball, pitch it—not too far—and listen patiently to hear the soft crunch of the snowball falling into soft snow, to indicate that it’s safe to move forward and that there isn’t the edge of a precipice beyond.
Finally, Baalsrud stumbles headlong into a small cabin built into the side of a mountain. This is the home of Martin (Alf Malland) and Agnes (Henny Moan) and their plump little baby, with an extremely canny Grandpa constantly wandering in and out of the place. Although Agnes is alone nursing her baby when Baalsrud arrives, Martin arrives soon after. He guesses who Baalsrud is; news has spread quickly.
In the meantime, the Germans come around, checking from house to house, and Martin has a tough job hauling the unconscious Baalsrud off to the barn to hide him. It is in the barn that Baalsrud regains consciousness, and finds Martin and Agnes kneeling over him, Agnes trying to feed him something while Martin attends to his wounds. Frozen flesh won’t bleed, but there is the horrible fear of gangrene. And now, with Baalsrud blind, things are even more difficult.
They dare not take Baalsrud into the cabin—who knows when the Germans will come bursting in again?—so they shift him, by boat, to a safer place. Here, in a secluded and quiet cabin, they leave Baalsrud, with plenty of food and drink within easy reach of the bed where he’s put down. Also, at Baalsrud’s request, a knife. He has to be able to defend himself if it comes to that.
Since Baalsrud is blind and has no way of marking the passage of time, they also leave a mound of snow beside him: every day, he gathers up a bit and places the resultant snowball on the shelf beside him.
Martin, while leaving, has told Baalsrud he’ll get a doctor. But the days are going by (Baalsrud’s snowballs on the shelf are piling up), and the local doctor has gone up into the mountains. Who knows when he’ll be back? Martin has taken a few others, whom he can trust, into his confidence. They confer, and realize there’s only thing to be done: Baalsrud’s toe, which is swiftly becoming gangrenous, will have to be cut off. The man elected to do the job is nerving himself up even as they go back to the cabin—but when they get there, they find Baalsrud has done the gory and painful task himself.
Even so, the ordeal is far from over. Baalsrud, blind and with several toes missing, is in no condition to go over the mountains and into Sweden. If that has to happen, it’ll have to be a group effort. Martin and his comrades will have to somehow get Baalsrud up the mountains, and they’ll have to send word to the Lapps on the other side to come and fetch Baalsrud from where they leave him.
Not an easy task. The communication isn’t difficult, but the actual work, while fighting blizzards, the Germans, and daunting mountains, is well-nigh impossible…
Ni Liv is an inspiring film about going on and never giving up. It’s about staying true to the cause, of course, but there’s more, too. For instance, the realization that one’s cause should not deliberately put other people in danger; if you are willing to die for your cause, don’t expect other people to do so, as well. Or that no matter what, if you can live on, you can fight another day. And you can fight anything, the elements and your demons included, if you have the will to do so.
The most inspiring thing about it, though, is the fact that this was a true story. Jan Baalsrud was a real man, a Norwegian commando during World War II. He did go through this hair-raising adventure, and came out of it alive, even if missing a few toes.
What I liked about this film:
Just about everything. It’s well-scripted, well-acted, and beautifully shot. In particular, though, there are some aspects of it which stood out for me.
Firstly, the dialogue, which is uncluttered, sparse and very precise, yet so well done that it provides an excellent insight into the character of the person saying it. (Baalsrud, for example, telling the midwife that he ‘never gives any names’—an indication of how this man, even at risk to himself, will not put someone else, and that too someone so unconnected to his mission, in danger).
Secondly, the fine balance struck between the parallel stories of Baalsrud and those who’ve taken it upon themselves to help him out. While Baalsrud is the focus of the film, the story gives plenty of space too to the others, especially Martin and Agnes: their worry for Baalsrud, even if he was, till a few days ago, a complete stranger to them. Their efforts to get him through to Sweden, even if it could mean losing their own lives in the process. The balance between their adventures and the calm domesticity of their cabin, with the baby cooing in the crib and Grandpa sitting by.
And, lastly: the climax. Von Ryan’s Express, with its cliff-hanger of a train ride through the mountains, with German bullets flying, or Stagecoach, with the Apaches whooping and firing all about as the stagecoach raced on, pale into insignificance compared to this. How many times have you seen, even on cinema, a hundred head of reindeer in full flight?
Watch. This is a remarkable film.