A narrow trail through a stunted, dank green woodland. A city street where two middle-aged men walk through pouring rain under a skeletal black umbrella that’s too decrepit to shelter one of them, much less both. An outdoor table on a starless night, where two old men sit speculating on what happens after you die. “Maybe you turn into an elephant,” says one. “Or maybe it’s pitch black.”
Welcome to the world of the 2015 Swedish film “Ghost Rockets.”
It’s the movie that puts the ghosts back into the rockets. A movie worth seeing (and paying to see) but I warn you: you’re probably not going to enjoy it. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself dozing off, checking your watch to see how many of its 72 minutes are up. If the Australian film “Westall ’66,” about which I blogged two weeks ago, might be subtitled, The UFO at life’s beginning, “Ghost Rockets” is The UFO at life’s end.
No wonder it’s a bit of a downer. The youthful energy, the thrill of mystery that kept “Westall ’66” crackling are missing from it almost entirely. On the other hand, it has an authenticity that you can’t help but respect. Watching “Westall ’66,” I felt drawn into the action but also manipulated by it. Not so with “Ghost Rockets.” What this film shows us about the “ghost rockets” that are its ostensible subject, about the aging Swedish UFOlogists that are its real subject, is what’s really there. Attention must be paid.
Say “ghost rockets” to a UFOlogist and you’ll get the response: Sweden 1946. From the spring to the autumn of that year, the skies over Sweden and other parts of Scandinavia seemed filled with rocket-like objects whose origin no one could identify and which had an odd tendency to crash, or to land or crash-land, into Swedish lakes. But “Ghost Rockets” isn’t about those 1946 incidents, though naturally it makes reference to them.
Rather, the camera follows Clas Svahn, Stockholm journalist and director of the organization “UFO-Sweden,” as he pursues the claim of a couple named Bo and Liz Berg to have seen a very similar rocket making a controlled landing into Lake Nammajaure in northern Sweden–just inside the Arctic Circle–on July 31, 1980. The film’s organizing thread is Svahn’s expedition to do what the Swedish military in 1946 was never able to accomplish: retrieve the remains of whatever it was that plunged into those waters.
A quixotic undertaking. But there’s something more than a little quixotic about Svahn himself.
He’s the central figure of “Ghost Rockets,” UFO sleuth investigating a cold case, corresponding more or less to Shane Ryan in “Westall ’66.” With an important difference, however. In “Westall ’66” we’re slipped into Ryan’s point of view, encouraged to see the events through his eyes. “Ghost Rockets” keeps us at a distance from Svahn, watching him as he goes to and fro; and although he’s a generally sympathetic character, what we see of him can sometimes be discomforting.
“That’s the one phenomenon I would like to solve the most, during the time I have left here on Earth,” Svahn says in a voice-over, referring to the ghost rockets of 1946. We learn that he’s not only a man with a mission, but one with a sense of his mortality; and the issue of mortality, entirely lost amid the exuberance of “Westall ’66,” comes up again and again in the Swedish film. “Is there life after death?” Svahn reflects almost exactly mid-way through. “Are there visitors from other planets? We really want to believe that these questions can be answered with a yes. It would make our world greater, and maybe a bit more fun. But if the answer is no, is the world a more boring place?”
And if the postwar ghost rockets were back in 1980, still with their old habit of plunging into lakes? It intrigues Svahn that the Bergs, who strike him as utterly sincere, have recapitulated so many details of the classic sightings without knowing anything about them. Allegedly. “They didn’t know about the ghost rockets,” he assures a friend who accompanies him on his investigations, and I find myself wondering just how he manages to be so certain of that. “They told their story without having any background information.” The object landed in Lake Nammajaure; it could still be there. It could be intact. This promises to be the “best case we have.”
Svahn and his UFO-Sweden colleagues are not stupid men, or uncritical. (Nearly all of them are men–female faces are rare in UFO-Sweden.) They know very well the things that can be mistaken for UFOs, and estimate that of the 18,000 to 19,000 cases in their files only 2-3% are unexplained. “It wasn’t anything mysterious,” their investigator says of one reported UFO. “Not this time either, unfortunately.”
(Unfortunately–and I’m led to reflect on the inherent sadness of an undertaking like UFOlogy, where success is failure and failure–the inability to explain something in the sky–is success. Because it means that there really is something mysterious, which is what they all yearn for just as I do: the allure of the unknown. That same allure that drew them into UFO research decades ago, when they knew as much or as little about what UFOs really are as they do today.)
It’s apparently 2012 when Svahn and his friend interview the Bergs. Nearly as distant from 1980 as 1980 was from 1946. Yet Svahn sets about buying a rubber boat to carry his expedition members out on Lake Nammajaure, hiring a helicopter (and its pilot?) to get them there, engaging divers to do what no one’s done before: go down into the lake and see for themselves. The party includes researchers from UFO-Sweden, plus the Bergs themselves, who come along to point out where they saw the UFO enter the water.
Quixotic. Not to say ridiculous. This is pointed out to Svahn, no words minced, by a depressed-looking teenage boy who I assume is his son. The chances of finding anything are miniscule. The cost is immense–3800 Euros for the helicopter alone–and must come out of the treasury of UFO-Sweden, which struggles with a stagnant membership list and financially is “balancing on a knife’s edge.” We have only the word of the two witnesses that anything happened at all. Svahn seems to acknowledge these points but is unmoved by them. “But this is the best chance we have,” he tells the boy.
At last the expedition sets forth. The Bergs seem happy and thrilled. Liz thinks it “very unlikely that we would find anything,” yet “there must be some hope.” Otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. The divers go down for “the moment of truth,” as Svahn calls it–and there follow the most vivid and memorable shots of the entire movie.
Murky water, its cloudiness almost impenetrable. Light filtered through the murk–green, yellow, brown. At the bottom loose mud, which flies up as if exploded when a hand pokes into it. An image for the depths of the unconscious? Intended as such by the filmmakers? Or perhaps unintended, but effective nevertheless?
Thirty seconds and it’s over. The divers explain to Svahn that the mud would have swallowed up anything metallic that landed on it. So maybe it was a spaceship that plunged into Lake Nammajaure. Even after the “moment of truth,” the truth remains as elusive as ever.
2012 becomes 2013. UFO-Sweden gathers in a medium-sized lecture hall, most of its seats vacant, for its annual meeting. Svahn announces a moment of silence for those members who’ve died in the past year; the attendees, mostly elderly, stand in respect. Here, as throughout the movie, there’s a nostalgia for the past: when people actually went out to meetings instead of staying home with Facebook, when UFO reports were so much better than they are today, when they themselves were “young and curious.” (“When I started UFO-Mariestad,” Svahn tells a group of would-be “field investigators” who’ve signed up for a training course, “we were 12 or 13 teenage boys.”)
The adventure of life, which for “Westall ’66” is part of the future–the Australian film begins with Shane Ryan’s infant son, ends with the same boy at the age of about six–here lies in the past. However much time Clas Svahn has left on earth, he’ll never solve the mystery of the ghost rockets. If he did solve it they’d cease to be a mystery, and thereby lose all their power. No wonder the film named for them is so melancholy.
Remarkably, Svahn goes back to Lake Nammajaure. (Summer of 2013?) This time he has with him “ground penetrating radar” and a magnetometer, plus an expert–by a nice ironic twist, a woman–in the use of these devices. “Being alone,” he reflects on the journey, “is the worst thing that can happen to a person. To stand alone. And for humanity to stand alone can be equally terrifying.”
The expedition turns up nothing, just like its predecessor. Yes, there are radar anomalies of some sort at the bottom of the lake, but no one has any idea what they are. The film ends with Svahn drifting in a rubber boat on the lake’s surface, under a brilliant, cloudless sky. (Practically the only one we’ve seen.) “It’s nice to drift around a bit,” he says. “It’s peaceful and calm.”
But is it the peace and calm of ghosts, albeit clothed in human skin and flesh? This is the question posed for me by “Ghost Rockets,” and it’s not an insignificant question. Nor is this an insignificant film.
by David Halperin
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