Most movies involving European Jews in the middle of the last century focus on the Holocaust. The terrible event remains inexplicable, decades later, so it's no wonder filmmakers still find much to explore in it.
The Swedish hit "Simon and the Oaks" is different: The Second World War ends around the middle of the film. In the first half, we feel the terror in the air, as two friends, Simon (Jonatan S. Wachter) and Isak (Karl Martin Eriksson), meet at school and become fast friends. In the second half, these boys have become men (Bill Skarsgard and Karl Linnertorp) whose lives will always be shaped by the trauma they mostly managed to avoid.
It almost seems as if Simon and Isak were switched at birth. Simon spends his free moments hidden within an oak tree, buried in a book -- much to the consternation of his boat-building father. Isak is the son of a wealthy bookseller, whose Jewish family has escaped Nazi Germany, but he's less interested in the life of the mind than in creating tangible things with his own two hands.
|'Simon and the Oaks'|
|2.5 out of 4 stars|
|Stars: Bill Skarsgard, Karl Linnertorp, Jonatan S. Wachter, Karl Martin Eriksson|
|Director: Lisa Ohlin|
|Rated: Not rated|
|Running time: 122 minutes|
As the war looms closer, these families will, in fact, eventually merge, in surprising ways, both comfortable and conflicted. And we'll discover one reason why Simon, who befriends Isak after he sticks up to anti-Semitic kids bullying him at school, feels so lonely and disconnected before meeting Isak.
"Simon and the Oaks" was a critical and commercial success in Sweden. It earned a record 13 nominations in that country's version of the Oscars, winning two in acting categories. It certainly is the actors here, young and old, who make viewers care so much about these confused but caring people. "Simon" is based on a bestselling novel by Marianne Fredriksson, though, and the film evinces the sort of sentimentality that fact might lead us to expect. One might even use the word "saccharine" at times.
Yet "Simon and the Oaks" is otherwise a film out of the ordinary. It deserves credit for exploring a familiar tragedy in a new way, giving Swedes and non-Swedes alike much to think about as we consider our culpability in the many crimes, small and large, humanity is sadly still capable of committing.