Let’s play a quick game of association. I’ll start: Sweden. Film. Now your turn: Greta Garbo. Ingrid Bergman (“Here’s looking at you kid”). The Swedish chef (“Vergoofin der flicke stoobin mit der børk-børk yubetcha!”). Abba: The Movie (“See that girl. Watch that scene…”).
OK. That’s good. Valuable contributions to world cinema, all. But the history of Swedish cinema is much richer than Hollywood’s appropriations. Home to the most theater screens per capita in all of Europe (many historic and/or artistically distinguished), Sweden makes the strongest case for the very concept of a national cinema. Throughout their history, Swedish films have displayed a remarkable affinity for combining the visual power of Swedish landscapes, biting social commentary and metaphysical pondering to examine the human condition. The caricature that has emerged is one of Nordic gloom—austere visuals and characters filled with angst and behaving badly.
Bearing the standard for this vision of Swedish film, Ingmar Bergman crafted what is arguably the most singular, sustained body of work in film—one that casts a shadow over Swedish filmmakers today, some 50 years after he rose to prominence and 22 years after his retirement from feature filmmaking. Moreover, in the words of film historian Philip Kemp, the trilogy of films that began with The Seventh Seal “came to epitomize not just the Scandinavian cinema but the European art movie in general.”
Bergman (profiled in the essay that follows) built on the tradition established by Swedish directors such as Victor Sjöström, Mauritz Stiller, Georg af Klercker and Carl Theodor Dreyer. These skilled directors benefited from Sweden’s neutrality in World War I. Unburdened by embargoes and related financial difficulties, Swedish film entered its Golden Age, lasting well into the ’20s. Sweden challenged American commercial supremacy, and its leading production company, Svenska Filmindustri, became a world power with subsidiaries across globe.
Sjöström and Stiller, along with Garbo, emigrated to Hollywood, and with the advent of the talkies, Swedish films veered toward provincial and less artistic content. They ceased being a factor in international film until World War II, when directors such as Alf Sjöberg and Hasse Ekman chose weightier and more artistic pursuits over folksy escapism. This new wave of Swedish cinema became evident in the early ’50s with a series of awards in the emerging film festival circuit. Sjöberg’s Miss Julie took home the top prize at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. In 1952, Arne Mattsson won top honors at the Berlin Festival for One Summer of Happiness. Documentarian Arne Sucksdorff won multiple prizes at Berlin and Cannes in 1954 for The Great Adventure. And Bergman won his first award in 1956, the one-time “Best Poetic Humor” prize at Cannes.
In the '60s, the Swedish government instituted a new program to support its film industry, helping establish creative directors such as Jan Troell, Bo Widerberg, Vilgot Sjöman and Kjell Grede. During the decade, the films became increasingly influenced by leftist politics, and audiences dwindled (as they did worldwide) as television ingrained itself in public viewing patterns. With its explicit but de-eroticized and self-consciously artsy sexuality, Sjöman’s I Am Curious (Yellow) became the center of global controversy and a legal battle culminating at the U.S. Supreme Court. At the same time, lesser directors took advantage of Sweden’s “sexually liberated” reputation and created a new export market: soft-core sexploitation films, the kind that would fill seedy theaters on 42nd Street in New York.
During the ’70s and ’80s, an emergence of female directors such as Gunnel Lindblom, Marianne Ahrne and Astrid Lindgren helped keep Swedish cinema vital. The end of the century also witnessed a feel-good trend and an increase in film production aided by digital technology. Film production moved out of Stockholm, increasingly undertook co-production with other nations and partnered with television (“made for TV” does not have the stigma it does in the States). Most notably, a wave of immigrant filmmakers such as Reza Parsa, Josef Fares and Geir Hansteen Jörgensen brought a fresh voice to Swedish cinema. Native Lukas Moodysson also emerged as one of its leading voices. Most recently, Björn Runge’s Daybreak continued Sweden’s award-winning tradition with this year’s Blue Angel (“Best European Film”) at the Berlin festival.
Modern Swedish cinema is vital as ever and is slowly broadening the Bergman-stamped stereotype.
In addition to Moodysson's Together and the Bergman pieces highlighted, these notable films are available on DVD or VHS in the U.S.
• Jan Troell: The Emigrants (1971) 5 Oscar nominations
• Lasse Holström: My Life As a Dog (1985) Oscar nominee
• Bille August: Pelle The Conqueror (1987) Oscar & Cannes winner, The Best Intentions (1992) Bergman Screenplay & Cannes winner
• Sven Nykvist: The Ox (1991) Oscar nominee
• Roy Andersson: Songs From The Second Floor (2000) Cannes winner
• Mikael Håfström: Evil (2003) Oscar nominee