Berlinale first look: Out Stealing Horses recounts a golden summer touched with tragedy

Hans Petter Moland merges Buddhist philosophy with postwar nostalgia in this evocative tale of a childhood remembered in old age by a lonely Stellan Skarsgård.

Caitlin Quinlan

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Out Stealing Horses

Out Stealing Horses

The art of Mandalas – the painstaking, intricate creations of Buddhist monks using coloured sands, and the subsequent destruction of their beauty – is a necessarily harsh process intended to be a reminder of the futility of all things. Its teaching is simple: that we do not need to hold onto everything in life, regardless of how beautiful something is or how painful it would be to let it go.

This concept lies at the heart of director Hans Petter Moland’s beautifully evocative adaptation of the 2003 novel by Per Petterson, Out Stealing Horses. Captured from the perspective of Trond Sander, both as a young boy during a golden summer in 1948 and later as a widower settling into a lonely life in a snow-entrenched Norwegian village, the film delivers a poetic thesis on a coming-of-age entwined with tragedy.

The young Trond (Jon Ranes) and his father (Tobias Santelmann) escape Oslo for the summer, arriving at a lodge in the idyllic forests of rural Norway. They wander through the dry fields of tall grass, shower in the blistering rain that follows each hot weather spell, and spend their days felling the trees that surround them for their necessary timber.

Jon Ranes as 15-year-old Trond

Jon Ranes as 15-year-old Trond

The film’s title will come to have a poignant dual meaning, but Trond and another young boy Jon enact its most literal, stealing rides on the neighbouring farmers’ horses. This first theft scene is stunningly visceral, horses hooves crashing down with the same thunder of fallen trees. An incredibly haptic film, Out Stealing Horses prioritises sense and foregrounds the beauty of nature and landscape, pulling us close to every blade of grass, enveloping us in every breath of warm breeze.

There are many lessons to be learnt from his father, but Trond’s most valuable realisations come from understanding the man’s fallibility, his selfishness, and his life before Trond’s existence. While the young man hopes to build his own history, he is caught in the tangles of his father’s and the remnants of the war not long since over. Tensions rise, relationships fray, and the truths of adulthood become harder for Trond to escape. The summer air, shimmering with dust and light, glosses over much of what will torment him for years to come.

Stellan Skarsgård as the older Trond

Stellan Skarsgård as the older Trond

Stellan Skarsgård brings gravity and warmth to his depiction of the older Trond, inflicting an isolation upon himself that only an interrogation of his past could explain and help put to an end. A chance encounter with someone he once knew propels such an interrogation and thus his timelines become woven together, the narrative delving into the memories and history of his father and his adolescence with a delicate and often moving touch.

“You get to decide when it hurts,” Trond’s father tells him early in the film, as he pulls away at bushes of nettles with his bare hands. At 15, the boy is perhaps unable to do so just yet, but with experience comes his maturity. Trond’s final lesson is as simple as the Buddhist teaching, to let the heaviest things go just as timber floats so easily downstream.


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