a man and woman hold their faces close together, gazing into each other's eyes
Per (left) and Jakobe fall hard for each other in “A Fortunate Man.”

Personal reinvention goes tragically awry in ‘A Fortunate Man’

You never hear the expression “self-hating Christian.” But it fits Peter like his favorite three-piece Italian suit.

The stifled son of an inflexible rural vicar in the early 20th century, Peter disavows his family and his faith before fleeing to Copenhagen to study engineering.

He adopts a new name (the less formal Per) and soon thereafter is dubbed “a fortunate man” by the scion of an influential Danish Jewish family, the Salomons, whom he impresses with his intellect and his visionary plans for utilizing wind and water to generate electricity.

The determined protagonist of Danish director Bille August’s too-smoothly polished and paced “A Fortunate Man” knows precisely what he wants from the Salomons. His tragedy is that he doesn’t recognize what he needs from the warm, welcoming family until it’s too late.

Adapted from Nobel Prize­-winning author Henrik Pontoppidan’s influential, semiautobiographical 1904 novel of the same name, “A Fortunate Man” screens at 2:15 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 16 in the Jewish Film Institute’s WinterFest and at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday, March 5 in the East Bay International Jewish Film Festival.

We are introduced to the Salomon family in shul, a scene meant to convey not so much their religiosity as their respect for tradition, their adherence to propriety and their confidence in the security of their position.

Unlike Per’s father, patriarch Philip Salomon is receptive to new ideas — which translate into opportunities for capital investment. He sees the potential in Per’s blueprints and supports him with a generous monthly stipend and inclusion in the family’s social circle.

But we’ve already been shown the cold cruelty and amoral bluster of Per’s single-minded ambition. So when he sets his eye first on Philip’s daughter Nanny, then on her regal older sister Jakobe (the smoldering Katrine Greis-Rosenthal, looking like a portrait by Klimt), who is engaged to another man, we hope against hope that Per will lose the chip on his shoulder before he brings hurt and harm to the cultivated Salomon clan. Alas, it is not to be.

“I believe that a self-respecting man will accomplish what he sets out to do,” Per proclaims to Jakobe and Philip. “Whatever the cost.”

Typically for Per, this assertion of independence contains more stubbornness and bitterness than integrity, rooted as it is in the hellfires of his repressive childhood.

“A Fortunate Man” invokes a fascinating array of forces in potential or actual conflict: Jews and (lapsed) Christians, selfishness and social responsibility, modernism and conservatism, faith and secularism, family ties and personal reinvention, established power/money and entrepreneurial spirit.

Unfortunately, August, who directed the timeless films “The Best Intentions” (1992) and “Pelle the Conqueror” (1987), flattens Pontoppidan’s themes into an attractive and inoffensive saga that causes little viewer distress, given the depths of the tragic story it tells. This film is a version of a four-episode TV adaptation previously released in Europe and re-edited for theaters, which might explain a certain absence of complexity and necessary details in some scenes.

The Salomons supply the film with its warmth, light and humanity. We get the sense that Jews — especially wealthy, powerful Jews — were seamlessly integrated into the urbane world of Copenhagen in the early days of the industrial age. Yet minor scenes suggest the existence of a pervasive low-level anti-Semitism, as, for example, when some Danish guards call the faultlessly elegant Jakobe “a Jewish tart,” and when she later tries to volunteer at a soup kitchen for poor children but is rebuffed because it is a Christian charity.

Philip is formal and mannered, but essentially kind. Ivan, the 30-something son who initially befriends Per, has the confidence of a man born into new wealth and power, but he is anything but a decadent aristocrat: Humanistic and intelligent, he sees Per’s potential and extends a hand. His sister Jakobe is a highly educated woman of letters who resists the shackles of marriage — until she falls hard for Per. As the consequences of this unconventional choice play out, she becomes an even more interesting character, ultimately asserting her destiny.

As for Per, we don’t see much of his miserable childhood, but the psychological scars from it emerge in his self-destructive intransigence and ruthlessness in pursuit of an ever-elusive self-esteem. He’s more tormented than morally conflicted (like, for example, the protagonist of Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed”), and his intractable isolation stands in stark contrast to the mutually supportive network of the Salomon family, much as they try to include him. This “fortunate man” is so in thrall to his resentment and anger that he can’t feel empathy, let alone assimilate into a community. That’s where the guidance of the Salomons could be invaluable, but there is no escaping personal history, for better and for worse.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.