Welcome to Norway!
By Andy Meyer
The Norwegian American
In many ways, we live in a complicated moment in the history of global migration. People can—and do—move more quickly, more distantly, and arguably more abruptly than they did in past eras. In many other ways, however, migration has always been this way. From the 1820s to the 1920s, an entire third of Norway’s population, over 800,000 people, left their home under hardship and resettled in North America, most of them between the 1860s to the 1910s. In the 1880s alone, over 180,000 Norwegians became residents of the United States—an average of 18,000 a year from one tiny country—at a time when the U.S. population was between 50 and 60 million (for comparison, in in the 2010s, the United States admitted an average of about 67,000 refugees a year altogether, while the population was over 320 million).
It is in the midst of this latter era that Norwegian director Rune Denstad Langlo tries to take on the apparently disorienting reality of contemporary refugee resettlement in Norway with his 2016 film, Welcome to Norway! The plot follows (too closely) a Norwegian fellow named Primus, played by Anders Baasmo Christiansen, who oddly believes he can actually make a profit off the state’s refugee resettlement program by converting his failed ski resort near the Swedish border into an asylum reception center.
Primus—prejudiced, naïve, culturally insulated, and reckless—is clearly meant to stand for the stereotypical “ethnically Norwegian” white male, unaccustomed to cultural difference and certain that everything will turn out OK for him, because everything more or less always has—except, of course, his ski resort, but he’s about to fix that, isn’t he?
Within the film’s first two minutes, Primus has referred, quite uncomfortably, to the soon-to-arrive refugees as “svartinger”—“darkies.” His teenage daughter reacts with predictable disgust, insisting that he can’t call “them” that. Her mother agrees, but he carries on anyway, and, as if to ice the cake, reveals his distaste for Samí people as well. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s not. It’s clearly meant to signal the film’s self-consciousness as a no-holds-barred, boldly un-PC send-up of some of the more careless Norwegian attitudes towards refugees and cultural difference. It ends up, for this reviewer, as a bad taste in the mouth.
As the film progresses through the sequence of Primus’ failures, both social and economic, the recipe for a classic change of heart seems to emerge. One refugee, a multilingual Congolese man named Abedi, played by Olivier Mukuta, quickly emerges as the foil to Primus’ distaste for cultural understanding. Well-versed in the cultural and religious diversity of the refugee population, Mukuta is himself actually a refugee, who was resettled to Norway at age 18, lending some grace to an otherwise graceless film.
Abedi tolerates Primus’ barrage of follies and insensitivities and soon becomes his de facto sidekick with a heart. While Mukuta’s is the stand-out performance of the film, I expected the relationship to engender a deeper interrogation of the sources of Primus’ stubborn prejudices, to effect some kind of shift in the way he perceives social and cultural difference. The result, however, is merely individual: Abedi’s character makes Primus appear as the fool he is, and Primus, in turn, learns to appreciate Abedi. The two characters arguably carve a genuine friendship out of the mess Primus has put them in, but I wasn’t convinced of a sea change by the end. Rather, the film seemed to assume that the warmth of the friendship will melt away viewers’ memory of Primus’ persistent prejudices, much less his reckless disregard for the cares and concerns of his own family.
Ultimately, what is frustrating about the film is that it is clearly trying to make as much fun of Primus’ particular brand of dunderheaded perspectives as it does of the refugees who aren’t especially keen on living in grossly inadequate housing in eastern Norway’s bitter cold—and in close quarters with national and religious rivals—but it doesn’t feel like the refugees are in on the joke.
Moreover, the film’s attention is so focused on Primus’ travails, that most of the refugees become little more than props in his story. It’s not really about them, and apart from Abedi, who does sprinkle some hard truths into his overly generous tolerance of Primus, there is no one to seriously challenge his underdeveloped sense of human dignity.
It could’ve been Line the librarian, played by Renate Reinsve, who is sent from the municipality to supply the center with cultural materials and resources, but her character is, sadly, nothing more than another flat stereotype: the lusty librarian with an unconvincingly high degree of emotional neediness and, despite her presumed literary training, little knowledge of the wider world.
In perhaps the film’s most distasteful scene, Line is teaching Norwegian to a small group of refugees, and in trying to get them to talk about themselves and their background, one woman’s experience as a victim of profound sexual violence is passed off as a distraction from the lesson and the librarian reacts with little more than a facial expression that says, “Whoops, I shouldn’t have asked.”
I can appreciate a well-made and well-timed joke that takes on taboo topics and thoughtfully busts the limits of political correctness, but in the case of Welcome to Norway!, there are enough misses that the jokes become bitter, and the worthwhile critique they’re meant to deliver is dead on arrival.
In the end, you may want to skip this severely flawed and less-than-funny comedy, but for the curious, it is available (with subtitles) to American audiences on Amazon Prime at www.amazon.com/Welcome-Norway-Anders-Baasmo-Christiansen/dp/B07GVSW1N3.
This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.