Open and secret Jewish identities propel Swedish Simon

The most surprising and refreshing aspect of “Simon and the Oaks,” a terrific-looking Swedish saga of a cultured Jewish family and a rural non-Jewish family before and after World War II, is what’s left out: the war years.

The recent wave of Scandinavian directors examining the moral and immoral actions of their countrymen during the Nazi occupation in films such as “Black Book,” “Flame and Citron” and “Max Manus” is long overdue. Nonetheless, one wearies of the sight of Nazi uniforms, and longs for fresh angles on that fraught period.

That’s exactly what we get in Lisa Ohlin’s adaptation of Marianne Fredriksson’s 1985 bestseller about two boys who are endless disappointments to their fathers.

“Simon and the Oaks” opens Friday, Oct. 19 in San Francisco and Berkeley.

Jonatan S. Wächter (left) and Stefan Gödicke in “Simon and the Oaks” photo/the film arcade

The frustrated lads at the film’s heart ponder how to escape families they feel they don’t belong to. Their travails and journeys to adulthood are made even more complicated by Jewish lineage in a climate of anti-Semitism.

Simon and Isak meet in 1939 and bond instantly. Simon is the rare working-class kid in an upscale grammar school, while Isak is a German Jew who’s bullied daily by anti-Semitic classmates. When Simon sees Isak’s home, a sprawling art- and book-filled apartment, he sees a world he aspires to belong to.

The Nazi invasion of Poland precipitates Isak’s mother’s nervous breakdown, and the traumatized boy — with the consent of his father, an affluent, self-confident bookseller — goes to live with Simon’s family.

Isak discovers an aptitude for working with tools, which endears him to Simon’s father. Meanwhile, Isak’s dad takes Simon to a concert, introducing him to classical music.

But it’s not precisely an introduction, for there’s a secret in Simon’s past: He was not born to the parents who’ve raised him since he was an infant. His father was a music professor as well as — well, you can probably guess.

Both families weather the war seemingly without further incident, and the film picks up their stories in the spring of 1945. At this point, Isak all but disappears from the story as the film’s emphasis becomes the revelation of Simon’s identity and the rippling aftershocks.

On one level, “Simon and the Oaks” is not a Jewish parable so much as a story of discovering and accepting one’s identity, roots, legacy and place in the world. But the shock of discovering that Simon is part of a group designated and denigrated as “the other” since he was a child raises the stakes even higher.

Neither he nor we know how to respond to the female cousin of Isak’s who surfaces after the war as a psychologically scarred survivor of Auschwitz. Her scenes are the rawest and most shocking in the film.

The film nicely balances period realism with poetic metaphors, but is less adept at resisting melodramatic impulses in the last few reels.

The director, Lisa Ohlin, was born in New York in 1960; her parents separated shortly thereafter and her father returned to Sweden. Her mother died when she was 5, so Ohlin moved to Sweden to live with her father. It wasn’t until she was a teenager that she learned that her mother was Jewish, and had fled Germany in 1939.

“I know how it is when you feel like you don’t belong somewhere, very much like how Simon feels in the film,” Ohlin told the New York-based, Swedish-American newspaper Nordstjernan. “I was different; I didn’t look like a Swede, nor did I feel like one.”

One of the most expensive productions in the history of Swedish cinema, “Simon and the Oaks” earned a slew of Guldbagge Award nominations from the Swedish Film Institute and wins for supporting actress and supporting actor. However, Ohlin was disappointed with one aspect of her film’s domestic release.

“We still have a lot of anti-Semitism in Sweden, and so little has changed,” she told Nordstjernan (See story, 22). “It is still an untouchable subject and we don’t talk about it in the fear of triggering it. I thought the film would create a debate, but not much has happened.”

“Simon and the Oaks” opens Friday, Oct. 19 at the Clay Theater in San Francisco, the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. In Swedish with English subtitles. (No rating, 122 minutes)