San Sebastian 2022 review: A Human Position (Anders Emblem)

“Invigorating and thought-provoking, Emblem made a film that is impenetrable by design, but worth spending the time decoding.”

Every town has its secrets, even those that seem to be nothing short of perfect. There is history ingrained in every corner of the world, and it is up to us to explore these places and find the answers to questions that have been asked by generations. This is the foundation that Anders Emblem establishes in A Human Position, his fascinating account of a small Norwegian town and the events that occurred there in the recent past. Told through the eyes of a young journalist who works as a temporary summer writer for a local newspaper, the film explores themes surrounding nationalism and identity, assimilating conversations around the present refugee crisis and other contemporary issues into its otherwise very simple premise. Composed of a series of intricate moments which come together to form a vibrant mosaic of this small town, the film offers silent reflections on life and existence, all told through a singular perspective that seeks to uncover a more earnest kind of reality. This arid but captivating existential drama finds ways to provoke as many questions as it does answers, representing a new movement towards a stoic form of realism which is beautifully encapsulated in every frame of this poignant and thought-provoking drama.

While the film is told through the perspective of a journalist named Asta (played beautifully by the brilliant Amalie Ibsen Jensen, who acts as the audience surrogate, guiding us through the world in which this film takes place), A Human Position is less about her journey and more focused on the town in which these events transpire. We have often seen films that are structured around showcasing a particular location, developing it in such a way that it becomes a character of its own. The port town of Ålesund in Western Norway serves as our setting for the duration of the film, and the working-class surroundings are captured in vivid detail by the director’s camera. As viewers, we are presented with fragments from which we have to piece together the story of this town with only a few pieces of information. We meet very few of its inhabitants (the protagonist only interacts with one person at a time, despite Ålesund being quite a bustling metropole), and a lot of the discussion surrounds the recent past as the journalist investigates the sudden deportation of an immigrant whose story she only comes across by chance. It transforms into a meditative study of a place and its inhabitants, executed with the same precision as a highly detailed character study combined with elements of the mystery genre, as we watch Asta go in search of answers that have eluded the few characters with whom she interacts for a while.

Stylistically, A Human Position is a stunningly beautiful work. The coastal Scandinavian scenery is already gorgeous on its own, but when filtered through Emblem’s perspective it becomes even more impressive, since he captures both the traditional beauty of such locations and also the hidden details that are mainly obscured from view. The camera is used to compose many incredibly beautiful images – each frame lingers slightly longer than it should, capturing every detail without feeling mundane, which is not an easy task when working with something that depends on our ability to surrender to the very internal, quiet nature of the film. The dialogue is sparse and is only used when it is absolutely necessary (namely in instances where the character is trying to find information on the past), with the images telling a broader story than anything that can come through the verbal channel. Emblem is a truly exciting young filmmaker, and his sophomore directorial effort proves that he has a precise and compelling vision that works on both a conceptual and visual level. It isn’t often that we find films that are so simple, yet seem to be provoking us to dig deeper into the heart of the story in the hopes of uncovering further details that define this peculiar but fascinating world the film is so insistent on exploring.

Throughout A Human Position Emblem is asking many questions, each one revolving around the mysterious origins of a recently deported immigrant, as well as his total disappearance from the lives of the people who knew him well. Some of these questions are more logical and relate to trying to learn about the eventual fate that befell this young man. Others are far more complex and focus on unearthing the secrets that underpin a seemingly idyllic society. Even the most perfect parts of the world tend to have enigmatic origins, some of them more sinister than others. However, this is not a film that is focused on providing the grand revelations that leave the viewer in a state of shock and awe – it is in fact quite the opposite: the refusal to provide answers to the questions being asked is part of what makes the film so compelling. By the time A Human Position reaches its conclusion we haven’t reached a clear resolution, but like the main character we’ve undergone a complex journey that explores the architecture of the human mind and our natural instinct towards curiosity, which is contrasted with this stoic exploration of a beautiful town and its past, drawing on elements that are both psychologically profound and philosophically complex. Invigorating and thought-provoking, Emblem made a film that is impenetrable by design, but worth spending the time decoding.