Back in January, Swedish directors Kristina Lindström and Kristian Petri wowed digital Sundance Film Festival viewers with their fascinating documentary, The Most Beautiful Boy in the World. The title is how Luchino Visconti described Björn Johan Andrésen, who the great director had cast in Death in Venice (1971) as 14-year-old Tadzio – a boy the much older protagonist Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde) becomes obsessed with.
The film delves into Andrésen’s life, focusing on the incredible press and public scrutiny he received as an adolescent and his subsequent struggle with fame. The pair spent five years working closely with Andrésen, giving the film a real sense of lived-in depth. It’s remarkably poignant, particularly the sensitive discussion of Andrésen’s tragic early life (his mother committed suicide when he was 10, and he never knew his father).
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Lindström and Petri were in buoyant form when they joined us for a Zoom from Koroni, a coastal town in Messenia, Greece, to discuss making their doc, the perils of fame and Andrésen’s Carrie Fisher connection.
What inspired you to make a film about Björn?
Kristina: In a strange way it was in front of our eyes, because our generation has always known about this. But then you, Kristian, worked with him as a director.
Kristian: It was 20 years ago, a children’s TV series. He was the bad guy, scaring all the kids, and he loved it. We had a great time, and I knew, of course, about his story, but I felt that he wasn’t too keen on talking about that. But he was great personally, with very much a sense of humour. Time passed by, and I had dinner with him, and Kristina was coming along and asked all these questions that I didn’t ask before.
Kristina: Many ‘whys’. Why did you live with your grandmother, what happened to your mother and father? That started the process.
Was he reluctant to start making the film?
Kristina: Yes, in a way. He had to think about it, and we had to talk about how we would like to do it, in which way. Also visually, and what kind of film. We had a lot of meetings talking about what we wanted to do and what he would like to participate with.
Kristian: So it was both ways. What could we expect from him and what could he expect from us? He was being very serious and professional in the way that he not only wanted to know what do you want to talk about, but how was the film going to look, what kind of movie do you want to make? That was very important for him as well. But it was very good for all of us, I think.
Kristina: And it was necessary too.
Kristian: We met just to talk. Until one day he said, “Yeah, sure, let’s do it.” From that day on, he’s always been very much involved in the film in many ways. It was very important for us, especially considering his past with Death in Venice, that very – well, how can you say it? – negative, dark experience for him. We didn’t want to repeat that, obviously.
Did he change in any way over the five years you spent making the film?
Kristian: Definitely. It’s not like we were super-close when we met, but from my point of view I think it has been hard for him confronting or talking about different things in this movie, but I think he’s been enjoying this journey.
Kristina: It has been a journey for him. We have made journeys as well, but it has been a journey back, and he has been visiting himself. He has been seeing new things and seeing himself.
Kristian: He talked about Japan, and we all said, “OK, let’s go to Japan.” Then we found everybody, 100% of the people that he met when he was 16 years old, and they wanted to talk with him again.
In the film, when we first see his kitchen, it’s squalid. What did you think when you first walked in and saw his home?
Kristina: It took nearly a year for him to let us in. He said, “We can do this in my living room.” And his living room was a bar in the area. We were filming in different places, but he said, “I never let anyone in.”
Kristian: It was not a shock. I know eccentric artists, and they have homes like this. Maybe it’s something you don’t want to show to everyone but then it happens. And he met this girl, Jessica, who is in the movie, and she started changing both the apartment and his life. That became part of the movie as well, which was really great for us.
As you got to know him more, what surprised you the most?
Kristian: After a year or so, we could sit and have a coffee or something, and he said, “By the way, did I tell you about Carrie Fisher?” He had an affair with her. They were friends. My God, we have to shoot this. We have to. But then she died, of course.
Kristina: They met in Paris, and he told us about the evening when he met her: she was with a theatre in some play and they were just dancing in the hotel at night, round the tables. They had a great time.
It’s difficult to know what affected him the most, the fame or the tragic family history. What do you think had the bigger impact on him?
Kristina: The family backstory made him maybe more affected by the events, when he came into this limelight. It’s very hard to say, and it’s not black and white, because Visconti chose him because he had these parents, and there’s this sadness and darkness in his parents and in his eyes as well. So I think it’s lingered together.
Kristian: It’s a lethal combination, or a good combination – depends on who is watching. For Visconti, it was a good combination.
Kristina: It’s impossible to know what would have happened if this hadn’t happened to him, this extreme situation, just when he was about to go into that adolescence and form himself.
In the film, the clips we see of a leering Visconti casting Björn look quite unsavoury. What do you think of Visconti and his methods?
Kristian: This is just speculation from my side, of course, but from what I’ve seen of Visconti, it’s like he cannot control himself because this is the one he’s been looking for. And when we talked to the casting director, the Swedish girl who’s standing beside him, she said also, he was totally overwhelmed. It’s physical.
Kristina: As he said, dancing through the air.
Kristian: This is it. And of course, they asked [Björn] to take off his clothes, and they went out to buy swimming trunks and all of a sudden he was extremely angry and humiliated. It was a horrible experience. But then he said yes to taking the part anyway.
Kristina: A very strange thing is that… We didn’t put that in this film, but it’s that Visconti himself did a film about the most beautiful child in Rome, Bellissima (1951). He made a film about a mother in such anger because her daughter is not chosen by the director.
Do you think there’s anything that the industry can do to protect child actors from bad situations?
Kristian: I hope it has developed but, still, I’m sure children are being exploited. Fifteen years ago, I shot a TV series, and I was casting a young boy, and he was supposed to be ill, some sort of lethal allergy. And I shot it, and I found this beautiful boy, not beautiful in the sense that Björn was beautiful maybe, but I mean, he was so good. He had such a presence. And then I found out, two weeks after that, his father had just committed suicide, half a year before this. I had to talk with the mother and the relatives and him again in another way. And I wonder, is that what I saw when I saw this? Of course, it’s this horrible experience, it’s there, but I didn’t know at the time. I mean, why would I choose him before all the others?
Kristina: But what can he do? I mean, there are regulations, and I guess you have to really make sure that there is a safety net around children.
Kristian: The film industry has a history of sad stories about child actors.
Ultimately, is there anything that we can do to stop the pressures of fame killing people? It seems like some people are better cut out to deal with it than others.
Kristina: Yes, that’s right. And that’s why you have to see the child. I think that is what our film is about. When we were editing it, we called it The Boy. And that, in a way, is more than Björn. To see the boy, the child, to see that person, because they can say yes to many things that they don’t know anything about, to please, and because they are insecure, and they cannot see the results in the long term.
Kristian: Have you seen the film about the Swedish pop star, Avicii? He killed himself. And there was a documentary being made during his last year, and it’s so fascinating and so sad to see. Because he’s saying in the documentary, “I cannot do this, I feel so bad, please, somebody help me, take me away from this.” But all the people he said were all dependent on him [said], “No, come on, one more concert, come on.” And he’d say, “I cannot do this. I hate this.” Nobody listens, nobody. It’s so horrible.
This being the case, how do you see your film’s place in the world? Aside from telling the story, do you see it as a kind of warning?
Kristina: It is, and it could be. It’s not black and white. You have to see the complexity in things. People can say yes and they mean no.
Kristian: I hope so also. I mean, it’s a film about film, and a film about Björn and his life. But apart from that, I definitely hope it can help someone.
The Most Beautiful Boy in the World is in cinemas and on digital platforms from 30 July 2021.