Pelle the Conqueror

Pelle the Conqueror (Danish: Pelle Erobreren, Swedish: Pelle erövraren) is a 1987 epic film co-written and directed by Bille August, based upon the famous 1910 novel of the same name by Danish writer Martin Andersen Nexø. The film tells the story of two Swedish immigrants to Denmark, a father and son, who try to build a new life for themselves. It stars Pelle Hvenegaard as the young Pelle, with Max von Sydow as his father, and also features Axel Strøbye and Astrid Villaume.

Pelle the Conqueror
Original Swedish poster
Directed byBille August
Produced byPer Holst
Screenplay byBille August
Per Olov Enquist
Bjarne Reuter
Max Lundgren
Based onPelle Erobreren
by Martin Andersen Nexø
StarringMax von Sydow
Pelle Hvenegaard
Erik Paaske
Bjørn Granath
Music byStefan Nilsson
CinematographyJörgen Persson
Edited byJanus Billeskov Jansen
Distributed bySvensk Filmindustri (Sweden)
Kærne Film (Denmark)
Release date
  • 25 December 1987 (1987-12-25)
Running time
150 minutes[1]
Budget$4.5 million[3]
Box office$2,053,931[4]

A co-production of Denmark and Sweden, August chose to adapt Boyhood, the first part of Nexø's novel, seeking to make an epic and citing the novel's status as essential reading in Denmark. At 11, Hvenegaard was cast after an audition of 3,000 children; Hvenegaard was named for the novel's eponymous character.

The film screened at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and New York Film Festival. It was critically acclaimed, winning the Palme d'Or and the 1988 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and numerous other honours.


In the late 1850s, the elderly emigrant Lasse Karlsson and his son Pelle arrive to the Danish island of Bornholm from Skåne County, in southern Sweden. Lasse tells Pelle a better life awaits them in Denmark after the death of Pelle's mother, and seeks work. He immediately finds it difficult to find employment, given his advanced age and Pelle's youth. The most they can find is work at a large farm, where they are generally mistreated by the managers.

The managers work under the tyrannical Kongstrup, who has a history of affairs leading to illegitimate children. One of them is Rud, who befriends Pelle and helps him learn Danish. Eventually, Pelle becomes more confident in his work at the farm, and begins going to school, though he is still discriminated against as a foreigner. Pelle also befriends the Swedish worker Erik, constantly harassed for alleged sloth. Erik shares his dream of visiting America, China and "Negroland" with Pelle, to "conquer" the world. Rud runs away due to his poor performance at school, where Pelle begins to do well.

After Kongstrup impregnates a visiting young woman, Mrs. Kongstrup castrates him for his abuses. Lasse begins an affair with Mrs. Olsen, who is believed to be a widow since her husband has not returned from a long sea voyage. Pelle consequently faces ridicule at school for being the son of a lecher. Erik is also injured and rendered disabled after attempting to lead a mutiny against management. Mrs. Olsen's husband returns from his voyage, and Lasse is overcome with depression and alcoholism. The two appeal to the Kongstrups for aid against their harassment, with the benign Mrs. Kongstrup offering support, while her husband is largely silent. Pelle is initially given a promotion, but upon seeing Erik removed from the farm, vows to leave. Lasse at first resolves to go with him, before deciding he is too old to travel, and sends Pelle alone into the world.




The film, based on the 1910 novel of the same name by Martin Andersen Nexø, was co-production by Danish and Swedish companies. With the story involving Danish and Swedish elements, cooperation between producers in both countries had practical benefit.[5]

The screenplay, by director Bille August, Per Olov Enquist, Max Lundgren, and Bjarne Reuter, adapted only the Boyhood part of Nexø's four-volume work.[6] August decided to film the novel because it is considered essential reading in Denmark, and out of desire to make an epic film.[3]

For the title role, Pelle Hvenegaard, who was 11, was cast after August and the crew auditioned 3,000 children. August ruled out hundreds of the children for having ambitious mothers, and decided on Hvenegaard, who he said demonstrated concentration, patience and self-control.[3] He was coincidentally named after the character in Nexø's book.[7]


The film marked the first collaboration between production designer Anna Asp, who had previously worked on Offret (1986), and August, who had attended a Stockholm school of photography with her.[8] Asp said that in designing the house seen in Pelle the Conqueror, she wanted to evoke a prison, and thus built the walls and painted them black and white.[9]

Filming took place for nearly six months. Its budget of $4.5 million, secured from the Danish and Swedish film institutes, made it one of the most costly films made in the Scandinavian countries.[3]


The film was screened in the Cannes Film Festival in May 1988, and subsequently at the New York Film Festival in September 1988.[10] The film's awards attracted the attention of foreign distributors, with Miramax releasing it in the United States.[11]

Buoyed by the Academy Award recognition,[11] Pelle the Conqueror grossed $2,053,931 in North America,[4] a "respectable" figure for a foreign film.[11] The film had a re-release at Golden West College in Los Angeles in March 1993.[12]


Critical reception

Pelle the Conqueror was released to critical acclaim in the U.S.[11] Roger Ebert gave it three and a half stars, comparing it to Jan Troell's The Emigrants (1971), saying Max von Sydow's Oscar nomination was "well deserved" and the novice Pelle Hvenegaard "never steps wrong."[7] Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times, called it "a vividly re-created, minutely detailed panorama of a particular time," and said it was a "scandal" that Von Sydow did not win Best Actor at Cannes.[10] Peter Travers, writing for People, said that Von Sydow exhibited "wrenching simplicity and power," but the film "is maddeningly mediocre."[13] Swedish director Ingmar Bergman told August he saw the film seven times, choosing August to direct the film The Best Intentions.[14]

Mark Chalon Smith, writing in The Los Angeles Times in 1993, praised the film as faithful to the novel and said "Cinematographer Jorgen Persson ... captures several memorable images of the starkly beautiful Danish terrain."[12] Time Out wrote "Despite occasional lapses into sentimentality, the film is saved by its performances and its uncluttered depiction of harsh impoverished lives," particularly praising von Sydow.[15] In 2004, The New York Times placed the film on its list of "the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made."[16] Sarah Lutton, writing for the British Film Institute, named Pelle the Conqueror one of "10 great Danish films" and called Von Sydow "extraordinary."[17] Von Sydow later also called it "a very beautiful film."[18] The film holds an 86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 22 reviews.[19]


Pelle the Conqueror won the Palme d'Or at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival[20] The film also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, 1988;[21] it was submitted to the Academy by the Danish government, giving Denmark its second consecutive win after Babette's Feast.[22] The Oscars ceremony also marked Max von Sydow's first nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor.[23]

Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
Academy Awards 29 March 1989 Best Foreign Language Film Bille August Won [21]
Best Actor Max von Sydow Nominated
BAFTA Awards 11 March 1990 Film Not in the English Language Per Holst and Bille August Nominated [24]
Bodil Awards 1988 Best Danish Film Bille August Won [25]
Best Actor Max von Sydow Won
Best Supporting Actor Björn Granath Won
Best Supporting Actress Karen Wegener Won
Cannes Film Festival 11 – 23 May 1988 Palme d'Or Bille August Won [20]
César Awards 4 March 1989 Best Film of the European Community Nominated [26]
European Film Awards 1988 Best Film Per Holst Nominated [27]
Best Actor Max von Sydow Won
Best Supporting Actor Björn Granath Nominated
Best Young Actor/Actress Pelle Hvenegaard Won
Golden Globes 28 January 1989 Best Foreign Language Film Pelle the Conqueror Won [28]
Guldbagge Awards 1 February 1988 Best Film Per Holst Won [29]
Best Actor Max von Sydow Won
National Board of Review 27 February 1989 Top Foreign Films Pelle the Conqueror Won [30]
Young Artist Awards 6 May 1989 Best Foreign Film Won [31]
Best Young Actor in a Foreign Film Pelle Hvenegaard Won

See also


  1. "Pelle the Conqueror (12)". British Board of Film Classification. 7 December 1988. Retrieved 6 March 2013.
  2. "Pelle Erobreren (1987)". British Film Institute. 5 September 2016. Retrieved 10 March 2017.
  3. Russell, Candice (19 March 1989). "Great Expectations At Heart Of Oscar-nominated Film". Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  4. "Pelle the Conqueror". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  5. Hjort 2010, p. 16.
  6. Dowd, A.A. (15 August 2013). "Pelle The Conqueror conquered at Cannes—and at the Oscars and Golden Globes". The A.V. Club. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  7. Ebert, Roger (3 March 1989). "Pelle the Conqueror". Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  8. Ettedgui 1999, p. 109.
  9. Ettedgui 1999, p. 114.
  10. Canby, Vincent (30 September 1988). "Film Festival; Von Sydow as a Father In 'Pelle the Conqueror'". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  11. Elkington 2005, p. 36.
  12. Smith, Mark Chalon (11 March 1993). "Humor and Dignity Ease Pain of 'Pelle'". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  13. Travers, Peter (16 January 1989). "Picks and Pans Review: Pelle the Conqueror". People, Vol. 31 No. 2. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  14. Blair, Iain (9 August 1992). "With 'Best Intentions'". The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 20 September 2016.
  15. CM. "Pelle the Conqueror". Time Out. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  16. "The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made". The New York Times. 2004. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  17. Lutton, Sarah (14 July 2016). "10 great Danish films". British Film Institute. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  18. Smith, Krista (February 2012). "Max von Sydow on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and His Secret Dream Project". Vanity Fair. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  19. Pelle the Conqueror at Rotten Tomatoes
  20. "Festival de Cannes: Pelle the Conqueror". Archived from the original on 10 September 2011. Retrieved 27 July 2009.
  21. "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 20 August 2015.
  22. Hjort 2007, p. 23.
  23. Hammond, Pete (8 December 2011). "Oscars: Stellar Work By Veterans May Keep Upstarts Out Of Supporting Actor Race". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  24. "Film Not in the English Language in 1990". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  25. "1988 Årets vindere". Bodil Prisen. Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  26. "Pelle Le Conquérant". AlloCiné. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  27. "European Film Awards 1988". European Film Academy. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  28. "Pelle The Conqueror". Golden Globe Awards. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  29. "Pelle Erobreren (1987)". Swedish Film Institute. 15 March 2014.
  30. "1988 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved 5 September 2016.
  31. "Tenth Annual Youth in Film Awards 1987-1988". Young Artist Awards. Archived from the original on 12 August 2016. Retrieved 5 September 2016.


  • Elkington, Trevor Glen (2005). "Costumes, Adolescence, and Dogma". In Nestingen, Andrew K.; Elkington, Trevor Glen (eds.). Transnational Cinema in a Global North: Nordic Cinema in Transition. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0814332439.
  • Ettedgui, Peter (1999). Production Design & Art Direction. Focal Press. ISBN 0240804007.
  • Hjort, Mette (21 November 2007). "I. Denmark". In Hjort, Mette; Petrie, Duncan J. (eds.). The Cinema of Small Nations. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0748630929.
  • Hjort, Mette (2010). "On the Plurality of Cinematic Transnationalism". In Durovicová, Nataša; Newman, Kathleen E. (eds.). World Cinemas, Transnational Perspectives. New York and London: Routledge. ISBN 1135869987.
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