Form expresses content.
In 1902, following the deaths of their parents, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund and his brother, Paul, left Sweden and entered the United States. For this “new life,” Joel became Joseph Hillström—and, eventually, Joe Hill. A union organizer, principally, as songwriter for the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.—the “Wobblies”), Joe Hill thus found fraternal compensation for having lost contact with Paul: “America is a big country. America is so big you can lose a brother in it.”
In a sense, Joe is a broken man. His unionism is an attempt to restore his integrity by enjoining his destiny to the destinies of other broken souls: unfairly treated American laborers. Spinning off the shattered window pane of Joe’s New York ghetto flat, Bo Widerberg’s wonderful Joe Hill, which took the Jury prize at Cannes, proceeds with short, claustrophobic, often dark scenes that convey the broken nature of the saga’s titular hero—until the theme of the film, suited to a different form, shifts. Longer scenes—director Widerberg also edited—convey two things: Widerberg’s poignant desire to hold onto his protagonist for as long as possible; the weight of Joe Hill’s inspiration. Early in the film, someone casually notes to a servant that the death of some men boosts their influence. Later, after Joe is arrested and tried in Salt Lake City, Utah, for the murder of a butcher and his son, a trio of his I.W.W. comrades wonder whether Joe is “worth more” to them alive or dead.
Widerberg sensitively handles the fact that Joe might have committed the homicides but did not do so, and in any case is having evidence, including changing eyewitness testimony, manipulated against him, by conjuring the ambiguity and then decisively clearing it away by Joe’s own sharp, mocking refutation at trial of the prosecution’s evidence. But, above all, he can read the handwriting on the walls of his prison-cell. “Don’t mourn me—organize!” he writes as he embraces his imminent martyrdom by state firing squad. (The 1915 execution itself, perhaps the most gripping scene of its kind in cinema, seems to last a lifetime—until, perhaps coincidentally, Joe himself cries out, “Fire!”) Joe takes charge, instructing in his “will” that he be cremated and that a portion of his ashes be sent to every state’s (except Utah’s) I.W.W. headquarters for symbolical scattering. This leads to what may be the finest shot in Widerberg’s œuvre. Three men who have been divvying up the presumed mound of Joe’s ashes, and addressing and sealing the envelopes, take a break, with what they are certain is Joe’s own blessing, to participate in the working-class dance whose seductive sound emanates from the floor right above the basement where they have been seated. We glimpse the dance ourselves—part of the “roses too” that I.W.W. activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn found as important as bread; part of Joe’s own legacy. The camera hits upon the critical Fordian shot—Widerberg’s artistic glory: the camera’s return to the now unattended mound of ashes below. With a cut, Widerberg weighs the question one last time: Just where is Joe Hill “alive as you and me,” as the famous Alfred Hayes ballad, which opens the film, beautifully sung by Joan Baez, puts it. In the mound—a static visual gesture? Or in the continuous sound we distantly hear, as much a part of the future as part of the present—and in the lives of people whose hearts are set to Joe Hill’s heart even if they no longer remember or know him? To ask the question is to answer it.
Knowing he has the role of a lifetime, Thommy Berggren gives the performance of a lifetime as Joe Hill. Widerberg, Steve Hopkins and Richard Weber wrote the fine script, perhaps at different stages. Jörgen Persson and Petter Davidsson contributed awesome color cinematography.
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