My Life as a Dog [Mitt liv som hund]

Hallstrom, LasseGlanzelius, AntonKinnaman, Melinda

Primary Category: Performing Arts / Film, TV, Video

Genre: Film

Annotated by:
Henderson, Schuyler
  • Date of entry: Mar-30-2005
  • Last revised: Nov-07-2007


Set in Sweden in the late 1950’s, around the time of Ingemar Johansson’s world heavyweight boxing championship, "My Life as a Dog" tells the involving story of a precocious boy, Ingemar (Anton Glanzelius), who gets into trouble, entertains his mother (Anki Lidén) with his antics and plays with his dog, Sickan. As his mother becomes increasingly sick with a terminal illness (almost certainly tuberculosis), he is sent to live with relations for the summer in a small rural community. After an eventful vacation, he returns to his mother but she soon dies. He stays with family friends who, unable to cope with him or his behavior, send him back to his relations, where he is again welcomed, but somewhat less enthusiastically.

Throughout this, Ingemar maintains his sense of perspective by comparing his own situation to the tragedies he reads in the newspaper. In particular, he returns to the story of Laika, the Russian dog launched into space. Laika was sent into orbit in a capsule with no expectation that she would return, and it was believed that she eventually starved to death or ran out of oxygen (although recent reports, decades after Laika’s death and several years after the film was made, have acknowledged that she probably died within a few hours of launching from overheating and stress).


Based on the novel by Reidar Jonsson (who also had a hand in the screenplay), this film’s charm and good-natured comedy provide a veneer of sweetness to what would otherwise be a bleak story about a boy whose mother dies, whose dog is taken away from him and euthanized, and who is shunted from place to place.

What children know and understand about death, particularly the death of a parent, is a complicated and painful question, which this film bravely resists trying to answer definitively. As such, it becomes a remarkable film about a child’s perceptions of death and loss. Ingemar expresses his intense isolation through the stories he narrates when he is by himself, which, he says, give him "perspective."

These stories become a metaphor for his own loss and, especially with the story of Laika, his own sense of being sent out into orbit, no longer grounded in his mother’s love, sacrificed and left to die alone, for a reason he cannot understand. It is a credit to Anton Glanzelius’s acting that he retains an aloofness and ambiguity throughout the film so that Ingemar’s loss remains a private one. The film offers up his stories and the amusing escapades with his boxing friends, where he seems like any other child, but does not try to explain away or neatly package his bereavement.

The film’s warmth comes in part from the risks director Hallström took: however close he veers to sentimentality, he manages to resist the maudlin; the richness of the characterization only barely avoids becoming cartoonish; and his willingness not to force the pace of this film can come close to plodding. This warmth makes Ingemar’s loss all the more poignant, as if even the film itself wanted to reassure the boy that everything would be alright: how Anton Glanzelius resists this warmth is an extraordinary study in suffering. This ambiguity is captured at the end when the boy’s namesake, Ingemar Johansson, wins the world heavyweight boxing title, sending the town (and its boxing-fanatic children) into a frenzy of patriotic joy: Ingemar is sound asleep with his girlfriend and sparring partner, a comfort that is at once dissociated from the world around him but undeniably loving.


In Swedish with English subtitles. Recipient of numerous awards, including Best Film at the International Seattle Film Festival (1988), Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film (1988), and Best Foreign Film from the New York Film Critics Circle Award (1987). It was nominated in 1988 for two academy awards: Best Director and Best Writing, Screenplay adapted from another medium.

Primary Source

Criterion Collection DVD (March, 2003)