• Through the Trees

Interview: Koko-di Koko-da

Director Johannes Nyholm talks us through the meaning behind his potent psychological horror

Written by Katherine McLaughlin

The title of Johannes Nyholm’s nightmarish psychological horror is taken from a Swedish lullaby that is traditionally sung in a round. In the film, the song plays out over and over again as three wicked characters infiltrate a couple’s camping holiday in the woods. Its inescapable melody perfectly reflects the dream like structure of the film as it resets and repeats time and time again to bear witness to the couple’s attempts to alter a terrifying and tragic outcome.

“I sung that lullaby a lot as a kid”, explains Nyholm. “It’s a childish song but it also has these morbid undertones. It’s sung with a repeated structure, with lots of layers and different people singing. It goes on forever in a way. It reflects the film; you get a new layer and it repeats itself and you don’t get anywhere.”

The song is designed to stick in your head, and in turn the film’s themes of loss, grief and guilt are so powerfully depicted that they linger long after the credits roll. At the start of the film, we meet the couple with their young daughter on holiday having a whale of a time. All of a sudden, tragedy strikes after an allergic reaction to a meal. Just as in reality, death can be unpredictable and hit you unexpectedly. Nyholm captures not only the senselessness of it all, but the aftermath of grief and loss through exquisitely crafted imagery.

“If you’ve experienced extreme loss of some kind, you get a physical sensation or a physical trauma – you can feel the pain physically. That was something that was really important to me, that you can feel it physically just as much as psychologically. You can really feel that loss in the pit of your stomach. It feels like a real hole inside you, like something in your body is actually missing. That aspect of the film, I feel a lot of people can relate to.”

A few years later we meet the couple again on their camping holiday. This time there’s something dreadful threatening their survival. Every morning they awake on the same day in their tent, the woman desperate for a wee, and the man sitting helplessly as she is taken away from him. Nyholm uses the magical twilight hour, just as you wake, before reality has dawned, to compound the significance of this couple’s situation, imbuing it with potent meaning. The actors communicate their characters’ suffering with precision while Nyholm summons a suffocating ambience suffused with dread.

“I wanted the acting to be very realistic. However strange things become I wanted them to act like this is actually happening to them. They should try to confront it all in a serious manner. A lot of it is surreal but they should treat it as something very real.”

Nyholm uses a combination of dream logic and animation to set the surreal tone. Menacing fairy-tale like characters appear to torment the couple but there is also a striking white cat who appears as something of a spirit guide.

“Most of the film I experienced one way or another through my dreams. The film is a dream structure so different people can have different interpretations of what’s going on. I have mine and that’s no more valuable than anyone else’s. To me, I wanted this cat guide to be powerful…It’s just fate and a strong force that makes things happen.

“In my films I want to entertain for sure. I also want to give people a nice and meaningful story that maybe can help them in some aspect or make them feel like they can appreciate life better.”

Released exclusively to BFI player, Blu-ray and digital on 7 September 2020 by Picturehouse Entertainment.

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