The New Man
Julia Högberg, Lo Kauppi, Ellen Mattsson, Nadja Mirmiran, Ann-Sofie Nurmi, Maria Lundqvist, Anna Littorin, Christoffer Svensson, Tobias Aspelin
What would you give up for your country?
Though the selective breeding of humans has gained the approval of certain intellectuals since Plato’s time, eugenics finally shed its respectability as a social philosophy through its association with the horrors of Nazi Germany. Yet, as has only lately been revealed, the practice of sterilisation in the name of social improvement quietly continued in many countries throughout the larger part of the twentieth century.
In Sweden – where screenwriter Kjell Sunstedt focuses this story – enforced sterilisation took place for more than forty years, only coming to an end in 1976. Although not generally supported by the population, it was hailed by some politicians as a means to promote social health, the aim being to create a country where each citizen was strong and healthy: the New Man of the title. State officers singled out likely subjects – some weak-minded or physically ill, some simply desperately poor – and condemned them to a life of state rehabilitation, which often culminated in sterilisation.
Set in 1951, The New Man takes as its focus young teenager Gertrud (Julia Högberg), the eldest child of a large and very poor household. Forced to leave her home and family, Gertrud is locked up in a state institution, where she initially awaits her fate with resigned aloofness. Gertrud regards the coming operation as a harsh yet necessary condition of her freedom – but she soon learns that she might have another choice. Her subsequent decision to question authority and stand up against her captors changes the lives of everyone around her. Klaus Härö’s film is sombre of tone, and the subject continues to shock deeply. Yet Härö instils a sense of composure, a genuine empathy for his characters, and a steady approach to the narrative. The largely unknown cast excel throughout, with Högberg bringing striking intelligence and fortitude to the role of Gertrud.
Maria Lundqvist (who previously worked with Härö on 2005’s Mother of Mine) is also notable in the role of Nurse Solbritt, a woman torn between her affection for her charges and her duty to the state. With his third full-length feature, multiple award-winning Finnish director Härö further establishes himself as a fine handler of actors, and a talent to watch.
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