Around 13,000 avid skiers were crossing the mountains of eastern Norway over the weekend in the annual Birkebeiner ski race, inspired by the original fast-skiing “Birkebeiner” insurgents of the 12th and 13th centuries. Now the latter are about to be immortalized in a new film based on their legendary rescue of an infant destined to become King Håkon IV.
Many of the weekend’s racers were as determined as the two skiers said to have saved the son of King Sverre as he lay dying in 1206. It was critical to get the two-year-old boy safely to Nidaros (Trondheim), and the two brave Birkebeinerne literally carried the job out, despite being part of a group so poor that they had to use birch bark to protect their feet from the cold, hence their group’s name.
Norwegian film director Nils Gaup has been re-enacting their dramatic story this winter for his new film entitled Birkebeinerne, due for release next winter. He’s been filming both in Sogndal and in the mountains above Lillehammer, where the two legendary Birkebeiner members Torstein Skevla and Skjervald Skrukka fled with the infant Håkon to Østerdalen and on to Trondheim. The drama took place during a civil war when half the kingdom wanted to kill the child. Skevla and Skrukka succeeded in their mission, though, and Håkon IV, born in 1204, was king from 1217 to 1263.
This weekend’s modern Birkebeiner racers also re-enact the famous ski tour, albeit going in the opposite direction, from Østerdalen to Lillehammer. They are all required, however, to bear a backpack weighing at least 3.5 kilos, meant to signify the pack containing the royal infant as Skevla and Skrukka raced him to safety.
Gaup’s team has also been filming at the Maihaugen outdoor museum in Lillehammer, known for its historic timber buildings that can resemble those used at the time of the original Birkebeiners. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that Gaup left the filming of the most difficult ski scenes, though, to ski film specialists Field Productions and top skiing professionals. Some of the action shot on the steep mountainsides of Sogndal are, according to the producers, among the toughest ski scenes ever filmed.
Gaup’s cast of actors reunites Pål Sverre Hagen and Jakob Oftebro, who starred together in the Oscar-nominated Kon-Tiki film. Also included in the cast is Kristofer Hivju, known internationally from Game of Thrones.
Gaup, meanwhile, is no stranger to difficult outdoor filming in winter, as in his classic Veiviseren film from 1987. His Birkebeinerne film is scheduled to premiere on February 12, 2016, just as another pack of Birkebeiner skiers train for next year’s race.
Saturday’s event has attracted fewer racers than in recent years but several skiing stars are taking part on Saturday including Therese Johaug and Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway, Johan Olsson of Sweden and Alexander Legkov of Russia. Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, who won the women’s Vasalöppet in Sweden this year, was expected to take part but said on Wednesday that she won’t. Among other celebrities racing: Crown Prince Haakon, Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre and violinist Arve Tellefsen.
The race was controversially cancelled at the last minute last year because of strong winds over the mountain, but organizers promise that won’t happen this year. It will be the 77th Birkebeiner race, covering 54 kilometers from Rena to Lillehammer. Top skiers finish the course in less than three hours.