Northern Lights 1978

Northern Lights opens, vérité-style, on Henry Martinson, a real-life 94-year-old former homesteader and union man from Sacred Heart, Minnesota. Rummaging around at home, he comes across a diary belonging to an old friend. He decides to type it up, eager to recount a period “almost forgotten by most folks,” as his voiceover puts it. 

From this documentary-like portrait of Henry, the film moves on to a fictionalized embedded narrative about Ray Sorenson (Robert Behling), a soft-spoken young farmer in early-20th-century North Dakota (and the man who left behind the journal). Frustrated by the meddling of bankers and faced with a rough winter, Sorenson hits the road to lobby other landowners to join the socialist Nonpartisan League. Even with his family’s livelihood at stake, Ray maintains an air of astonishing levity. He’ll smirk and play-fight in the midst of a heated argument over the price of wheat with his brother Joe (Joe Spano, a few years before Hill Street Blues). When another farmer says he’ll join up if Ray pins him in a wrestling match, Sorenson accepts the challenge without hesitation.

It would be easy to accuse directors Rob Nilsson and John Hanson of romanticizing this agrarian age in Northern Lights. The filmmakers never disguise their leftist, pro-worker sympathies or their personal connection to this subject matter. Northern Lights closes by acknowledging “the continuing struggle of North Dakota farmers,” with a dedication to Ray Halsne, Hanson’s grandfather. Still, Northern Lights is a humble, visually arresting work, duly rewarded with the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 1980. Nilsson, meanwhile, became a pioneer of independent filmmaking, lauded for his ability to tell politically and socially charged stories with realist urgency. His film Heat and Sunlight was given the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 1988, making him the first American filmmaker to win these two awards.

Northern Lights John Hanson Rob Nilsson

Nilsson and Hanson met in the mid-Seventies, when they helped found San Francisco’s grassroots Cine Manifest collective. Before the end of the decade, they had completed three shorts involving Martinson: Prairie Fire, Rebel Earth, and Survivor. Northern Lights, originally envisioned as a half-hour nonfiction piece, evolved into what Nilsson called a “docu-drama combining documentary and fiction.” Three decades after its original release, the film has been given a new 35mm release courtesy of Artists Public Domain and its Cinema Conservancy program.

Ray is engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Inga, and their relationship is both defined and challenged by their shared Norwegian ancestry and rural prairie roots. As Ray, Behling demonstrates a remarkable physical range, at once playful and world-weary, while Susan Lynch’s brave and eloquent performance as Inga shows a woman poignantly aware of the repercussions of her fiancée’s sudden ambition. She knows that his struggle for equality is a challenge without an end. The couple’s exchanges are grounded in little moments of intimacy that feel authentic, in-jokes and funny voices serving as tender remnants of childhood. 

This is a film where we purposely don’t hear or see everything of import. Characters whisper or mutter to themselves. Key events—including much of the political and social tumult at the heart of the drama—occur between scenes. Hanson and Nilsson never show too much: in one effective sequence showing Ray in a series of meetings with dispirited farmers, their encounters are boiled down to a series of freeze frame images rhythmically punctuated by David Ozzie Ahlers’ homespun music. The standout in the film’s soundtrack, rather than any one line of dialogue, is the omnipresent whistle of gusting wind.

Northern Lights 1978

Northern Lights evokes a tremendous sense of the town’s tight-knit community and their land’s sprawling, open vistas. Ray and Inga’s engagement dinner is one of those big family affairs where everyone talks over each other, with plenty of good-natured ribbing between courses. Speeches and conversations drift back and forth between English and the mother tongue. The union is seen by relatives as perpetuating their ethnic identity on the American frontier: Ray is instructed, in front of family and his future wife, “to make love like a Viking marauder.”

At one point Ray’s old Uncle Thor (Thoriborn Rue) tells a story where he swears he heard the sound of fresh grass growing. Behling’s narration tells us he’s heard this tale a hundred times, and many of his relatives seem to share his skepticism. But we also see eager young faces at the table, captivated by their elder’s words and gestures. The same is true with Northern Lights—there’s a thrill to being a spectator, basking in its pastoral lyricism. We see stunning images of gust-swept farmlands, where the sound of a voice echoes briefly before being lost in fields of grass and grain. Hanson and Nilsson realize that we can’t occupy this era—we can only learn about it through stories.

The film concludes by returning to Martinson, whose voice ends Northern Lights on a hopeful note. He expresses a strong faith in humanity, and he’s eager to wait to see a better world. “I’ve got time,” he says, wiggling his arms around as he exercises in his bedroom. “I can wait.”

Northern Lights screens September 20 to 24 at Film Forum.