Sonja: The White Swan
A new look at the woman behind the myth
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
When Sonja: The White Swan opened in Norwegian cinemas on Christmas Day 2018, it was one of the most anticipated films in recent years. It would tell the story of Sonja Henie (1912-1969) Norway’s most famous figure skater, Olympic champion, and Hollywood star. Years of research, planning, and investment had gone into making the new biopic, filmed in Spain, Romania, and, of course, Norway. But in the end, box office projections were not met, and the film received mixed reviews. The scope of the production was recognized, but overall, the film was deemed to be “difficult.” One critic even said that “getting through it was just as painful as making it.” Another said the film was “just as hard to love as Henie herself.”
Born and raised in Oslo, Sonja Henie rose to fame as a three-time Olympic Champion (1928 at age 15, 1932, 1936) in Ladies’ Singles, a 10-time World Champion (1927–1936) and a six-time European Champion (1931–1936). In her day, Henie won more Olympic and World titles than any other female figure skater. Moreover, at the height of her acting career, she was one of the highest-paid stars in Hollywood. But who was Sonja Henie, the woman?
In Sonja:The White Swan, Henie is portrayed as a strong and powerful personality, which may account for the reason that award-wining director Anne Sewitsky chose to tell her story. As a young girl growing up in the Norway of her day, Henie would not have many opportunities open to her beyond traditional female professions, marriage, and motherhood. It was her talent as a skater that allowed her to rise above these constraints. But, as we learn in Sewitsky’s portrayal of her, Henie’s path to victory and stardom did not come without a high price: she emerges as a creature who is utterly selfish—even soulless—a tragic character.
The title of the film, Sonja: The White Swan, is loaded with meaning. The symbol of the white swan, deeply rooted in Western culture and mythology, functions on multiple levels. According to lore, the swan represents beauty, purity, loyalty, prestige, and wealth. With its long elegant neck, the swan effortlessly glides across the water, with perfect balance and grace. But the white swan is mute—without a voice—much as the women of Henie’s time. Furthermore, if approached or violated, the swan can be viciously aggressive and dangerous. Beneath its silent beauty, lies a sinister force—and such is the destructive nature of the protagonist that unfolds in the film.
Today, few beyond her own generation remember Henie, which perhaps accounts for a certain disconnect we feel when we watch the movie. With the constraints of a 113-minute film, Sewitsky and team could only provide a limited depiction of the skater’s formative years and rise to stardom in Europe. Flashbacks depict the rigorous training she underwent as a child, as her competitive nature is hinted at—as well as her need to win her father’s love and approval. We also see that the seeds for her brother’s resentment are sown early on, as Sonja emerges as the dominant sibling in the family.
Henie’s need for approval and acknowledgment are implied in the famous Hitler scene at the 1936 Olympics—film footage for which she would later pay dearly. Norwegians have condemned the skater for giving the dictator a Nazi salute—perhaps all too easy to do in retrospect. Yet, later in Hollywood, she is not willing to step up to the plate to support Norway’s resistance efforts until the United States enters the war, either because of indifference or ignorance of the world around her. Henie does not really seem to have ever had any real political interest or much interest beyond herself, as she evolves into a hideous monster in the film.
The film’s poster depicts the movie star in a glamorous white fur, adorned with expensive jewels. This is appropriate, as most of the movie takes place in Hollywood and is mostly the story of her life there. Henie landed there with her entire family in 1936, with the ambition to make a career on the silver screen there. We witness her first encounter with MGM producer Daryl Zanuck, who first wants to put her in a token scene in one of his pictures.
But young Henie proves to be a shrewd bargainer. She negotiates her way into a four-picture deal featuring her in the leading role. We will never know if there was anything more to this bargain, but later on when Zanuck calls her a “man-eating nymphomaniac,” we can wonder. Her voracious sexual appetite and promiscuity figure heavily in the film, in stark contrast to the wholesome-looking girl from Norway on the silver screen.
Henie went on to make 12 films, most of them forgotten today. Sun Valley Serenade (1941) is probably the best known, not only for her portrayal of a naïve immigrant girl from the old country, but for its scenes of the famous ski resort, with music by the beloved Glenn Miller Orchestra. It is available on Amazon Prime and is still worth looking at to gain an understanding of Henie’s appeal as an actress. For me, it also led to problems in my consumption of Sewitsky’s biopic.
When watching Henie’s real-life films, what strikes me is the freshness of her appearance, with her round eyes and cheeks, a fresh, cherub-like appearance that feels nearly irresistible. Such iconic looks are difficult to replicate, and for me, the casting of Ine Marie Wilmann, with her sharp, chiseled features, somehow misses the mark. Wilmann appears much harsher than the real-life Henie, and the dichotomy of persona and person is less distinct: we see the siren, not the girl next door.
Nonetheless, Wilmann’s performance is powerful. She trained vigorously for months to carry off the scenes on the ice, even sustaining an injury along the way. She possesses the energy needed to portray the forceful Henie. And as the skater is portrayed in the film, it is not difficult to understand why audiences of the day were swept away by the glamour and spectacle. Nonetheless, with Sonja: The White Swan, Sewitsky did not try to create a period piece. The aesthetic is much more modern, amplified by the film’s score, a mixture of ’80s rock and synthesized music.
As the plot unfolds, we gradually witness how the Hollywood experience sends Henie into demise, with the corrupting influence of enormous amounts of money, excessive partying, and alcoholism, to the eventual waning of her star. As her career begins to decline, Sonja, the once beautiful white swan, grasps for even more power and control. We are almost able to sympathize with her, although she is so overwhelmingly unsympathetic. Others have used her—Hollywood executives and agents, money-grubbing suitors—even her own brother. Like the aging actress in the classic film Sunset Boulevard (1950), she cannot accept that she is getting older and that others are beginning to throw her away, culminating in the tragic moment when she falls on the ice.
Other characters in the film serve as a counterbalance to Henie’s character, offering insight into her psyche. Her devoted but mousy assistant, played by Northern Irish actor Valene Kane, serves as a voice of reality and reason: a voice that is never heeded. Her brother Leif, less talented and less ambitious, portrays the drabness of the world that Sonja rejects. Yet, she stays loyal to him and his family until she understands that she has been betrayed. Her mother, who in real life was both conventional and controlling of her daughter’s life, suffers rejection and humiliation. In a cruel and calculating moment, only a few moments after her mother’s death, the ice queen has the jewelry removed from her mother’s body because, in her words, “It’s mine.”
When Sonja seems to have lost her soul, the character of Niels Onstad, played by celebrated Norwegian actor Pål Sverre Hagen, is there to pick her up again, and there is even some hope of redemption. The shipping magnate, who had been her childhood friend in Oslo, is someone who can still see the Sonja who was once there and the person she might have become. The couple marries and spends the rest of their life collecting modern art, which eventually would result in the opening of the Henie Onstad Art Center in Bærum, outside of Oslo. A gift to the Norwegian people, the museum to some extent represented the couple’s effort to rehabilitate themselves and gain status in the eyes of their compatriots.
As Sonja Henie once said, “The world never puts a price on you higher than the one you put on yourself,” and in a sense was ahead of her own time with a self-confidence that was rare for a woman of her day. As Sewitsky portrays her, she had the courage to take control; Henie never conformed to expected norms. The young Norwegian director puts a modern lens on her story, and even for viewers today, it can be uncomfortable.
Henie also said, “All my life I have wanted to skate, and all my life I have skated,” and in the film, we see how she did this until her illness zapped her of the vitality in the final years before her death. She had lived life on her own terms at a dizzying frenzy, but in the end, she became caught up in her own hubris in her whirlwind life, devoid of the grace and balance that she had shown on the ice. Sonja: The White Swan, for its flaws, succeeds in telling her tragic story, offering a new perspective on the woman behind the myth.
Sonja: The White Swan, released by MAIPO Film, is available for viewing in North America on Amazon Prime.
This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.