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Documenting the past

First-time filmmaker Lars Midthun ’16 accepting an award in Helsinki, Finland.

Lars Midthun ’16 always knew his grandfather had served as a pilot during World War II. But the details were fuzzy. His father’s father, like many members of the so-called Greatest Generation, didn’t talk much about the past. So Lars, an aspiring videographer, was surprised when his grandfather agreed to recount his life story on film — and even more astounded when the elder Midthun unearthed a 1940s scrapbook filled with yellowing photographs and typed captions detailing the months he spent in 1945 as a pilot serving the Crown Prince of Norway.

    “Not even my grandma had ever seen the scrapbook. Clearly, this was going to be a bigger story than I first thought it would be.” — Lars Midthun ’16

Lars’s grandfather, Norman Midthun, ultimately returned home to Minnesota and attended St. Olaf College, graduating in 1952. But he never bragged about his personal ties to the man who became King Olav V, and not even his family knew the full story of his role in the Crown Prince’s victory tour across Norway after the country’s liberation from Nazi occupation. That tale, however, became the center of a documentary film project that Lars, an economics major, embarked on shortly after graduating from St. Olaf. Completed in 2017, the film has earned acclaim and awards at film festivals in Los Angeles, Helsinki, and Oslo.

Making something special

Filmmaking wasn’t really on Lars’s radar when he landed on the Hill. An avid skier, the Twin Cities native was mostly attracted to the college’s downhill team. He decided to focus on economics (“I was basically a B- student”), but he also felt drawn to do something creative. His participation in St. Olaf’s sketch-comedy group and a concentration in film studies helped scratch that itch, but it was a January Interim in documentary filmmaking that opened his eyes to the power of visual storytelling. He contemplated capturing his grandfather’s story on film: “If nothing else, I figured the story would be special to my family,” Lars says. “But I also thought that if I could make something that was special for them, it might be special for a wider group of people.”

Norman Midthun, a native of Minneapolis, was eager to join the war effort after graduating high school in 1942. But at 17, he was too young to enlist in the U.S. Armed Services. So when he learned that the Royal Norwegian Air Force was willing to accept foreign recruits, Norman sent off an application — despite the fact that he spoke no Norwegian — and lied about his age. Soon he was on his way to Toronto, where a base known as “Little Norway” was training pilots. He spent much of his ground school training learning not only basic flight skills but also Norwegian grammar and vocabulary. In 1942, he left for Europe, where he flew a Consolidated PBY Catalina float plane in missions serving the Norwegian underground.

As the war wrapped up in Europe in May 1945, Norway’s Crown Prince was preparing to return home from exile. Searching for a qualified pilot who could shuttle the future king from fjord to fjord in his efforts to reunite and reenergize the country, military leaders settled on the American pilot who had joined their air force. Norman spent several weeks with the Crown Prince as his entourage moved down the Norwegian coast, starting at Kirkenes and ending in Oslo. At each stop, Norman was stunned by the throngs that greeted the prince and his seaplane as it landed in the city harbor. Smiling crowds lobbed bouquets as the royal motorcade passed through the streets, and citizens stood outside Olav’s hotel for hours waiting to see the prince emerge. National pride was evident everywhere.

A not-so-distant past

As Lars paged through the scrapbook documenting this tour, he had an idea: What if the Midthun family retraced the elder Midthun’s footsteps? Now in his 90s, Norman was too old to make the trip. But Lars convinced his parents and three siblings to accompany him, ultimately traversing the route in reverse — from south to north — by car and boat.

Norman Midthun ’52 spent several months in 1945 as a pilot serving the Crown Prince of Norway, who went on to become King Olav V.

The 80-minute film that resulted from the tour blends Norman’s reminiscences with historical photographs and footage from the Midthuns’ travels. The Way North is Lars’s first attempt at filmmaking (“It was basically a crash course in editing,” he says of the year he spent after graduation converting hours of footage into the final product), but the result is a charming mix of history and travelogue. As they make their way through Norway, the Midthuns discover the country’s beauty, connect with historians and government officials who recount the nation’s war history, and even come across the family’s ancestral home. But it’s two interviews with young Norwegians that give the film a poignant and modern message: Asking about Norwegian pride in today’s culture, Lars uncovers an ambivalence about nationalism. A pair of terror attacks by a lone wolf nationalist in 2011 have made many citizens aware of how nationalistic pride — if taken too far, well beyond the lines of what his grandfather witnessed — can be perverted.

Since finishing the film, Lars has submitted The Way North to several film festivals, earning a handful of awards, including the Hollywood International Independent Documentary Award and the Scandinavian International Film Festival Award. Ultimately, he says, the film will probably be released online. Meanwhile, he’s busy working at a Twin Cities comedy club and collaborating with a friend on several sketch-comedy projects (for a look at his non-documentary work, check out Something Picnic on Youtube). “Everything I want to do, I’m doing right now,” he says.