10 great Swedish films

From Ingmar Bergman to Let the Right One In, Sweden has proved a cinematic heavyweight, with a rich history stretching back to the silent era. These are 10 of its best.

A Man Called Ove (2015)

A comic drama about a curmudgeonly widower, Hannes Holm’s A Man Called Ove – released in cinemas and on BFI Player on 30 June – is the 15th Swedish title to have been nominated for the Academy Award for best foreign film. To date, only Ingmar Bergman has taken the prize (on three occasions), but there is more to Swedish cinema than the Master of Fårö…

In the 1910s, pioneers Charles Magnusson and Georg af Klercker established a tradition of combining social trenchancy with imaginative technique. This was furthered by Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, who used naturalistic settings, moving cameras and rhythmic editing to establish the psychological tension for which Swedish films remained renowned after the pair tried their luck in Hollywood.

Svensk Filmindustri struggled to make an international impact in the sound era, despite the efforts of Hasse Ekman, Gustav Molander, Anders Hendrikson and Alf Sjöberg. The latter gave Bergman his break, as the writer of Torment (1944). But, as he refined his early neorealist style to explore doomed love and crises of faith, contemporaries like Arne Mattsson and Hampe Faustman eschewed commercial comedy to introduce a new social consciousness. This in turn was seized upon during the 1960s by Bo Widerberg, Jan Troell and Vilgot Sjöman, who tackled sexual themes with a gravitas that was missing from the work of sexploitation specialists like Torgny Wickman.

But it wasn’t all smut, isolation and despair. Lasse Åberg followed the duo of Hans Alfredson and Tage Danielsson in producing popular comedies that found more favour with domestic audiences than the offbeat sagas of Roy Andersson, the polished melodramas of Lasse Hallström (who also directed the best ABBA videos) and the hip provocations of Lukas Moodysson.

These ranked among the most successful exports until the millennial vogue for genre cinema and Nordic noir reached its box-office peak with Niels Arden Oplev’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). But, in producing around 20 features each year, the Swedish film industry continues to diversify, with a growing number of female and second generation talents coming to the fore.

Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919)

Director: Mauritz Stiller

Sir Arne's Treasure (1919)

The golden age of Swedish silent cinema owed much to Nobel-winning novelist Selma Lagerlöf. Victor Sjöström adapted The Sons of Ingmar (1919), Karin Ingmarsdotter (1920) and The Phantom Carriage (1921) from her stories, while Mauritz Stiller followed this supernaturally inflected 16th-century ‘winter ballad’ with Gunnar Hedes Saga (1923) and Gösta Berlings Saga (1924), which made a star of Greta Garbo.

Mary Johnson and Richard Lund headline this tense, fatalist tale of an adopted child falling for the Scottish mercenary who has murdered her family and stolen its cursed treasure. But the focus falls firmly on the forbidding landscape, as Stiller and cinematographer Julius Jaenzon convey humanity’s insignificance through the poetic tinted images of the troops trudging through the snow, the villagers speeding by sleigh to the vicarage fire and the mourners proceeding to the ship trapped in the frozen fjord. John W. Brunius also specialised in period pieces, but, despite their grandeur, they lacked Stiller’s authenticity and finesse.

Häxan (1922)

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Häxan (1922)

Like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Dane Benjamin Christensen’s masterpiece adopted a novel structural and visual approach to its contentious material. Yet, while Wiene helped shape German Expressionism and the nascent horror genre, Christensen slipped into obscurity, along with his uncategorisable combination of documentary, burlesque, exploitation and morality play.

Fascinated by historical witch-hunts, Christensen had originally devised a trilogy before producer Charles Magnusson entrusted him with the biggest budget for any Scandinavian silent. Production designer Richard Louw and cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne worked minor miracles in recreating medieval Germany and realising such technically audacious scenes as the ‘flight to Bloksbjerg’. But, while the Surrealists delighted in the film’s discussion of cannibalism, blasphemy, torture, deformity and mutilation, as well as its images of fornication, urination and masturbation, Variety declared it “absolutely unfit for public exhibition”. Nevertheless, it acquired a cult cachet after William S. Burroughs collaborated on a 1968 version entitled Witchcraft through the Ages.

Miss Julie (1951)

Director: Alf Sjöberg

Miss Julie (1951)

Alf Sjöberg’s take on August Strindberg’s ‘naturalistic tragedy’ about a count’s daughter’s illicit midsummer tryst with her father’s valet won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Not only did Sjöberg open out the action from its kitchen setting, but he also introduced a smattering of background characters to help blur the lines between past and present, as Anita Björk struggles to come to terms with the psychological scars left by her unhappy childhood and to make sense of the conflicted notions of class, morality and sexual etiquette that Ulf Palme arouses within her.

Moreover, by dispensing with much of the original dialogue in order to disrupt the narrative linearity and allow deceased characters to wander into the densely symbolic Expressionist mise-en-scène, Sjöberg breached the reverential rules that pertained to European literary transfers (what François Truffaut called the ‘Tradition of Quality’). Critic Peter Cowie was prompted to declare that Sjöberg had fashioned “a new cinematic language”. 

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Wild Strawberries (1957)

Having been one of the architects of the classical screen narrative with Ingeborg Holm (1913), Victor Sjöström conspired with Ingmar Bergman to deconstruct it in this deceptively witty and optimistic road movie that shares many themes with Bergman’s previous picture, The Seventh Seal (1957).

Seeking to justify himself to his parents, Bergman borrowed ideas from Shakespeare’s King Lear and Strindberg’s A Dream Play and images from Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage and Sjöberg’s Miss Julie in steering a septuagenarian medic (en route to receive an honorary degree) through nightmares and reveries on a journey of symbolic doubling, regret, dread and self-realisation. It’s all the more affecting for Sjöström’s watchful performance, especially as daughter-in-law Ingrid Thulin sees past the aloof egotism and bonds with the vulnerable soul who has always been denied the love he craved.

Raven’s End (1963)

Director: Bo Widerberg

Raven’s End (1963)

Advocating a more politically conscious Swedish cinema, Bo Widerberg earned the first of his three Oscar nominations for this gritty kitchen sink saga (the others would come for Ådalen 31, 1969, and All Things Fair, 1995, rather than his best-known work, Elvira Madigan, 1967). Set in 1936, it highlights the conditions that incubated fascism, positing a radical departure from traditional morality to shatter the restrictions imposed upon the lower classes.

As a novelist himself, Widerberg taps into the chauvinist compassion of ‘angry young man’ fiction to convey the frustrations of aspiring author Thommy Berggren, who feels trapped in a tenement in the rundown Raven’s End district of the northern city of Malmö. But the influence of John Cassavetes and British social realism is readily evident in Jan Lindeström’s camerawork and Berggren’s seething encounters with his feuding parents, the sniffy Stockholm publisher, his ambitious footballing buddy and the adoring girl next door. A masterpiece awaiting wider discovery.

I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)

Director: Vilgot Sjöman

I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)

Having tackled bestiality in 491 (1964) and incest in My Sister My Love (1966), Vilgot Sjöman revelled in controversy. But this faux vérité appeal for change broke American box office records for foreign-language films after the supreme court sanctioned its release following its seizure by US customs. Moreover, this epochal blend of the cerebral and the sensual sparked a war of words at the New York Times, with Vincent Canby declaring it a “wise, serious, sometimes deadpannedly funny movie about the politics of life – and of moviemaking”, while Rex Reed fumed: “this genuinely vile and disgusting Swedish meatball is pseudo-pornography at its ugliest and least titillating”.

Switching between drama student Lena Nyman’s fraught relationship with menswear salesman Börje Ahlstedt, interviews with Martin Luther King and Olof Palme, and vox pops conducted on the streets of Stockholm, Sjöman touches on everything from sex and violence to class, gender and religion. Yet I Am Curious (Blue) (1968) had markedly less impact.

The Emigrants (1971)

Director: Jan Troell

The Emigrants (1971)

Despite being renowned for his 11-film collaboration with Ingmar Bergman, Max von Sydow also made eight features with Jan Troell, none better than this adaptation of Vilhelm Moberg’s bestselling quartet (1949-59), which formed part of a 394-minute duology with The New Land (1972). Costing 7m Swedish kronor, this was the most expensive Swedish film to date and became only the third foreign-language title to receive a best picture nomination at the Oscars.

Heading the ensemble with the impeccable Liv Ullmann, von Sydow excels as an impoverished farmer who leaves his rocky plot in Småland in 1850 and devotes four decades to taming the vast expanses around Chisago Lake in Minnesota Territory. Acting as his own cinematographer and editor, Troell achieves a documentary intimacy that belies the story’s epic sweep, for, while key events in American history impinge upon the community’s bid to fulfil its manifest destiny, this is also a chronicle of a marriage through better and worse.

Show Me Love (1998)

Director: Lukas Moodysson

Show Me Love (1998)

Northern Europe knocks the spots off Hollywood when it comes to kidpix, and 29-year-old Lukas Moodysson announced himself as an instant master with a debut that won Berlin’s prestigious Teddy Award and four Guldbaggen. The story sticks closely to the ‘lesbian coming out’ format, but Rebecka Liljeberg and Alexandra Dahlström are so natural as the misfitting newcomer and the class princess that their plight comes to seem like a female slant on Raven’s End, with the lakeland town of Åmål becoming the seething bed of crushing conformity that’s sapping the life out of the free-spirited lovers.

Having been a published poet since his teens, Moodysson deftly captures the teenspeak argot. But it’s his matter-of-fact approach to sexual identity, the tribal nature of high school, the ease with which labels stick, the immaturity of adolescent boys and the well-meaning cluelessness of grown-ups that make this so refreshingly authentic, although Ulf Brantås’s jittery reverse stock imagery certainly helps.

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

Director: Roy Andersson

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

Critic J. Hoberman considers Roy Andersson to be the “slapstick Ingmar Bergman”. But there’s more of Chaplin, Fellini, Buñuel and Tati about this riotously deadpan return to feature-making after a 25-year hiatus. In fact, Andersson cited philosopher Martin Buber and Peruvian poet César Vallejo among the inspirations for this descent into millennial mayhem, while Goya, Daumier and Dix helped influence the 46 static wide-angled tableaux in their painterly looks.

No scenes were scripted or storyboarded in advance, and the perfectionist auteur had to dig into his own pocket to complete the four-year project. But each shot makes intellectual and emotional demands on the audience, while also daring them to laugh at the collateral victims of the breakdown of complacent capitalism. This seethingly cynical yet sincerely compassionate blend of ‘complex images’ and ‘trivialism’ is utterly unique in giving the farcical events involving an arsonist furniture salesman, a brutalised immigrant, an unemployed clerk and a misfiring magician such disarming profundity. 

Let the Right One In (2008)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

Let the Right One In (2008)

Sweden’s first vampire movie was Anders Banke’s comedy, Frostbite (2006). But snow proves just as crucial to Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s bestseller. Owing little to the romanticism of Stephenie Meyer, this is horror with a cold, clammy hand, as bullied tweenager Kåre Hedebrant hopes to have found a kindred spirit in mysterious new neighbour Lina Leandersson.

Eschewing many of the traditional generic tropes, Alfredson focuses on the poignant platonic bond that forms between the self-loathingly melancholic Leandersson and the potentially psychotic Hedebrant. But, as Hoyte van Hoytema’s camera skulks around the 1980s Stockholm locales, there are also shocking incidents like the climactic underwater slaughter and moments of grim humour, as guardian Per Ragnar’s murderous shortcomings force Leandersson to seek her own prey. Beside the bloodletting, however, this is a chilling depiction of a society in which innocence is persistently imperilled, appearances are inevitably deceptive and good and evil are in a constant state of flux.

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