Once Upon a Time There Was a Golden Age of Scandinavian Cinema – or Was There?

Once Upon a Time There Was a Golden Age of Scandinavian Cinema – or Was There?

By Malcolm Sharps

Malcolm Sharps recalls the films that first drew him to cinema and had an impact on him that no later films could ever have.

The importance you allot to those things which coincide with your early years can never be overstated. I was crazy about cinema in my youth, but what cinema I was crazy about is the product of those times. My awakening to the possibilities of film coincided with peaks in Italian, Japanese, Czech, French and Swedish cinema. Polish cinema had also recently had a surge with the moving but painful to watch ‘War Trilogy’ of Andrej Wajda. I had all of those to choose from at their best. American cinema has a continuity which guarantees it is always there and always has something to offer, but those other film cultures which ebb and flow peaked at that time and have arguably never reached the same heights again.

When I became aware of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, he was already on a second wave of phenomenal creativity, already the most talked and written about director in world cinema. The first phase was characterised by its staggering variety, in Lesson in Love, Wild Strawberries, The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring, Summer with Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, Waiting Women, Sawdust and Tinsel, The Magician, and others. No genre was beyond his mastery, be it period costume drama, decorative comedies of manners and contemporary social drama. No theme seemed to evade his observant eye, it enclosed intense first romantic relationships, reflections on age and death, the drama of birth, the primal forces which lie just beneath the front of civilization, Christianity against Paganism and the ambivalence of the Christian heritage.

Even now I have not completed viewing all the early masterpieces. It was the second wave which was my wave and created the Bergman for me, modern in both its innovative cinematic techniques and its no off-limits approach to human psychology.

The contrast of the public face and the private soul had always been there in Bergman but now he focused on the innermost aspects of the psyche, he probed them until there was pain, until there was blood. These were the Sixties, this was the Sweden of total sexual emancipation! And yet, the discovery of freedom was just the beginning of another discovery: that beyond the physical there was no necessary personal communication. And always the tradition of Nordic Puritanism casts its shadow of guilt and self-doubt on this pastor’s son, bringing, as Bergman stated, daily thoughts of death.

From Through a Glass Darkly (1961) Bergman went on giving us this vision of tortured, isolated, modern humanity in films like Winter Light, Persona, The Silence, Hour of the Wolf, The Passion, The Rite, The Touch, The Shame, Cries and Whispers, until in the view even of many of his fans he had repeated himself too often. By Six Scenes from a Marriage (1974) and Autumn Sonata (1978), I personally was no longer interested in sharing this vision.

The last phase of Bergman is virtually contained in a single film, Fanny and Alexander, also his longest (188mins in the cinema cut), and his most popular film in many years, winning him new fans as well gaining 4 Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography for Sven Nyqvist. His whole life, Bergman wrote and directed films which disturb, even when they are wry comedies; then, almost as if Bergman was saying that he too was tired of bleakness and pessimism and malice, he produced the great comfort blanket of Fanny and Alexander (1982). It is like a folk tale for adults, with innocents in jeopardy, a cruel stepfather, family ghosts, and eccentric uncles and aunts. Director Lars van Trier, a cult authority on Bergman, hated it as a piece of ingratiation with the audience, something Bergman should have been the last person in the world to do. I love it; I also love the nightmare scenes in Hour of the Wolf; I accept both Bergmans comfortably.

There was Ingmar Bergman and there was the rest of Scandinavian cinema, but did the rest amount to much? Was this a true Golden Age, or simply a one-artist phenomenon with a few hangers on who trailed in Bergman’s glory and found there was spare cash around at Svensk Filmindustri studios?

There was most certainly a rise in filming activity at the time which affected countries like Denmark and Sweden with already significant cinematic traditions, but it also stimulated the Finns and the Norwegians to contribute to the phenomenon.

Whatever the reason for this sudden Northern flowering, it brought to us the names of a new generation of directors: Vilgot Sjoman, Bo Widerberg, Jan Troell, Henning Carlsen, Gabriel Axel, and others, and it was accompanied by some major popular and critical international successes for a region whose cinema had not attracted such attention since the silent films of Carl Dreyer.

Elvira Madigan (1967) mounted the barrier set by any subtitled film and did well at art houses worldwide. It is very much a Scandinavian film in the mould of earlier Bergman, slowly alternating lyrical with dramatic content as well as applying unusual techniques such as the use of periods of total silence in the soundtrack. The film is compact like a single stranded short story following the elopement of a beautiful tightrope walker and an army deserter in their doomed search for love, freedom and happiness. But director Bo Widerberg is very much his own man. We feel the delight in the visual beauty of the film as an end in itself and Widerberg uses music to produce a serene background atmosphere against which the tragic action plays out.

Widerberg’s second most famous film, Adalen 31, about the brutal breaking of a strike in the early part of the twentieth century in northern Sweden, also mixes lyrical beauty and images of innocence with scenes of violence. With a length of 110mins, there finally seems to be too much of both. Without doing damage to the film’s fabric in any way, it would have benefitted from some sensitive cutting.

The same applies to Jan Troell and the Nordic school of stark Realism in Who Saw Him Die? (1968) The story is about a teacher in a middle school with discipline problems. But his biggest problem lies in the answer to a question which his wife asks towards the end of the film: do you actually like children? Troell holds up a steady and faithful mirror to the world. The skill in observation is remarkable, the result is compulsive, but somehow it is not enough. The great films give us more than a reflection of life, no matter how meticulously analytical. They do something this film doesn’t do often enough: they surprise us profoundly with what they bring out from behind the reflection. Though 1hr 51mins in length, the film has very sketchy sub-plotting and infrequent contrast scenes. One or more of the many similar scenes of humiliation for the teacher could so easily have been cut. The film gained actor Per Oscarsson several Best Actor awards at international festivals.

Troell’s first foray into directing was a fine 30 minute short, Interlude in the Marshlands from 1965, which has continued to attract viewers with its depiction of liberated bliss set against a scene of idyllic rural tranquillity. The purity and innocence of unspoilt nature is so often a background in the films of this time. Later in his career at the opposite extreme, Troell got into the record book as the director of the most expensive Swedish films made to date, and some of the longest too in the twin production of The New Land and The Emigrants. The films are about Swedish settlers in America in the nineteenth century and no doubt an American interest was counted on to produce some return on the investment. The films were highly praised and won a Golden Globe in 1973 for Best Foreign Language Film. But at the time I noted no release publicity in the UK. The films deserved better but simply vanished. Perhaps there was a wider showing in the USA.

Starting off from a known and seriously intentioned novel is always a good beginning for a movie. The Earth is a Sinful Song is from a novel by enfant terrible Timmo K. Mukka. It takes us to a raw remote Finnish Lapland that visitors today to ’Nokia Finland’, a country of social planning, technological devices and plenty, won’t recognise – though the retro here, we need to remind ourselves, is only a few decades ago. This take on Finland from a recent past where life for farmers and herders is harsh, primitive and bloody, alone makes this film memorable for me. The film was a great success at home but only sporadically noticed abroad.

I Am Curious (Blue and Yellow versions) is one of those disjointed and carelessly put together quasi-documentaries that throw in the political and sexual preoccupations of the director-writer along with some unengaging autobiography. In short, it’s a piece of self-indulgence. But in this case it was a piece of self-indulgence with a lot of nudity from which Vilgot Sjoman was able to make much more money than he usually did from his uninspiring films. Sjoman’s debut film was the more conventional The Mistress. With a cast including Bibi Anderson and Max von Sydow, and a tale of infidelity, we might think we were in a Bergman film, but the pace and the quality of the writing inform us immediately that unfortunately we are not. A dry, unexceptional film that generated no strong feelings in me. Most of Sjoman’s additional output was not widely released in Britain.

Two Danes, Gabriel Axel and Henning Carlsen, accounted for a high proportion of the serious productions of their country. Not all of their films are masterpieces but both men produced high quality films which gained them international reputations. Both men directed films based on some of the foremost literary works of the region. In 1966 Henning Carlsen directed the film of Norwegian Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. The film takes on the same expressive challenges as the novel. The story is intense but static, concerning the endless waiting of a young writer for acceptance of his works and his eventual payment by a publisher; meanwhile he starves. Hunger itself is an obsessive condition without relief, and both the book and film contain much of this quality. Per Oscarsson gave the same impeccable performance of tormented martyrdom as he did in Who Saw Him Die? and again picked up several Best Actor awards at international festivals.

Carlsen’s other film which got considerable exposure, was an erotic comedy, People Meet (and Sweet Music Fills the Heart), which I remember for some unerotic erotic moments, plus some self-conscious and quirky commentary captions, a device of the silent era which the film uses at intervals on a ‘let’s see how this works’ basis. The film is notable for an above average musical score by the Polish jazz musician, Krysztof Komeda.

Gabriel Axel presents us with an even odder mixture of qualities and themes in his output. With Danish Blue, he produced a documentary on porn, the object of which, apparently, was to press for the lifting of censorship from Danish porn; an aim achieved the following year. Call me cynical, but the documentary in itself seemed to me to be nothing less than a money-spinning piece of porn, and no masterpiece of the genre.

Babette’s Feast was unarguably more serious in intention and execution; it was also unarguably considerably more prestigious and won the year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, the first time ever for Denmark. The film respectfully adheres to Karen Blixen’s short story of a servant who blows her little store of wealth from a lottery win on one giant feast for herself, her employers and their friends. And what of her future security? ‘An artist is never poor’, servant Babette asserts blithely. Fine sentiments for a writer who was a Baroness and colonialist estate owner to put into her character’s mouth. If only she could have shared this wisdom with the starving writer character in Hunger. Half of the film virtually is devoted to a meal in real-time, which had me returning to the meals of my childhood when all I wanted was to get to the sweet and get it all over with.

Gabriel Axel’s further main claim to fame stems from his filming of The Red Mantle, reputedly the most expensive film in Danish film history. It is based on Norse legend and was released in Danish, Swedish and Icelandic, though its themes may not have been considered universal enough for wide release outside Scandinavia. A pity, since Roger Ebert thought it was worth 4 stars and described the battle scene as ‘among the most perfect and brutal I have ever seen’. I was looking forward to seeing some clashing of swords, but in England in 1967, if the film did have a release, it passed me by.

Unavoidably, in Scandinavia at this time, we had the rash (sic) of Sex Comedies, a genre which the Danes took to with far more eagerness and conviction than the Swedes, just as the Danes took to any form of comedy with an enthusiasm which generally exceeded their comic skill. The genre got underway primarily with a series known in Denmark as the ‘Bedside’ films. The most successful and watchable was the first one, Seventeen, which has an engaging and innocent charm as lead Ole Soltoft stumbles felicitously for the first time into the world of sex. The films were made under the conviction that sex was intrinsically funny. It was a conviction which the British censor, the Lord Chancellor, alas, did not share and the extant remains of these films after the Lord Chancellor’s office had done its job of dissection and amputation and castration, were hardly worth releasing. By the next film, the Sex Tile, a puerile romp set in a Hans Andersen tale Denmark, where charm was replaced with peasant buffoonery, it was clear the series was already over. It carried on uncensored in Scandinavia but in the United Kingdom it all but disappeared.

It isn’t just sex which Danes found funnier than the Swedes, it’s life in general. And if the size of the country’s cinematic industry was out of proportion with the size of the country, somehow the humour of the Danes brought it all back to scale. The Olsen Gang’s bumbling criminal comedies, with their unsophisticated slapstick capers, seemed to fit a place of four and a half million people to a tee. About a dozen films appeared, starting with the eponymously titled The Olsen Gang in 1968. This is comedy which makes the Three Stooges humour look suave and elitist. You have two choices; you can either cringe or you can find the ineptness of the humour funny in itself, and learn to love Kjeld, Benny, Egon, and Yvonne. I’m still hovering between the two the choices. The films scored considerable successes outside Scandinavia, but made little impression in the English-speaking world.

Scandinavia has one of the most productive and popular children’s literatures in the world, so it is not surprising that some films have come out of this culture. I am not devoted enough to know all of Scandinavia’s Children’s and Young Adult films, I’m more of an infrequent visitor than a resident. Astrid Lindgren was not just a popular children’s writer, she was a national figure in Sweden. Her most famous creation, Pippi Longstocking, spawned two feature films. I have to take it on trust some of the wit of the books found its way into the films.

The Moomins from Finland are a charming set of hippo-like figures that feature in strip cartoons and were energetically followed up with extensive merchandising of toys, clothes and accessories. There were also many shorts based on Tove Jansson’s characters to fill slots in children’s television. The first released Moomin feature-length film translated into English was The Finn Family Moomintroll. There were 2 further feature-length films in this niche market. The films have had a small but dedicated following scattered around the world ever since.

From the various shorts and features in C and YA cinema, the feature-length film Hugo and Josefin (1967) directed by Kjell Grede deserves a special mention. Based on the three books by Maria Gripe about the friendship between a lonely village girl and a Huck Finn-like character whose father is the village drunk, these are books which lift the soul and are one of the finds of YA literature. The books spawned an entirely original Swedish film, which adopts a more surreal yet matter-of-fact tone than the books. The film received one of the most positive reviews Roger Ebert ever wrote. Those who have been fortunate enough to see Hugo and Josefin remember the final scene as one of the great scenes of cinema. Here is the scene in the words of Roger Ebert.

The gardener packs his belongings and leaves in a pickup truck. The two children race after him. He stops, unloads a table, chairs, a couch and a grandfather clock from the truck and sets up housekeeping in the middle of the road. 

Dinner is served: hard-boiled eggs. He puts a whole one in his mouth. So does Hugo. Then Josefin does, and the way she breaks into giggles with a whole hard-boiled egg in her mouth is worth perhaps six dozen hours of the summer’s Hollywood releases. Then dusk falls, and the gardener lights an oil lamp. There they all are in the middle of the empty country road, and there we are, confronted with the way a movie can win our hearts.

Once upon a time there was a golden age of Scandinavian cinema. In this, Bergman’s output seems monumental, his position unassailable; but did the contribution of others constitute a wider golden age? Widerberg, Troell, Axel, Carlsen each produced at least one film and more that demanded we take notice. There were also oddities like Finland’s The Earth is a Sinful Song and Hugo and Josefin from Sweden. Many of the more complex productions, like A New Land and The Emigrants and Carlsen’s The Red Mantle met with critical acclaim, they often won awards at festivals, Best Director, Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, but they soon vanished from movie theatres or never appeared. I found myself making a discovery of a great film or simply a great performance or an outstanding scene and it was like discovering a great and precious secret that one kept all to one’s self because there was no one to share it with: a situation both stirring and frustrating. Recently I wanted to trace a film I had been very impressed by but which has left no lingering reputation. I couldn’t find it under its English release title My Love and I, then I tried in English to translate a half-remembered Scandinavian title – as The King’s Path – but then The King’s Trail came up, and finally I found the film’s original title in Lapp: Kungsleden. The real Kungsleden is as little-known as the film; it’s a path in the remotest part of northern Swedish Lapland (425km in all); in parts, spectacular on a par with any landscape in the world. The film is about a couple revisiting the trail where they started a relationship ten years before but there are disturbing flashbacks and premonitions of tragedy to come. After 55 years, so many of the details are lost, but above all else I can remember it has the same Nordic quality of crystal clear honesty of so many other Scandinavian films to observe the beauty of nature and the same directness to observe a human face, the power to objectify and see more deeply into it and identify the contradictions in the human soul.

4 Responses to Once Upon a Time There Was a Golden Age of Scandinavian Cinema – or Was There?

  1. David Daniel says:

    Aside from its brilliance of analysis and summary, what makes Malcolm Sharps’ brief history of Scandinavian cinema is its personal reflective look back to a time and place and feel.

    One who was young then remembers that span of years beginning in the early 1960s and continuing for about two decades and is struck by the power of recall: the heady feeling that in the films, especially of Ingmar Bergman, we were discovering something profoundly moving and important that would open our lives. And we were blessed in having not only these films but the music of Dylan, et al.

    Thanks for this essay.

  2. Peter Bendall says:

    A very impressive survey of Scandinavian cinema, which takes me back to my youth, when I watched all of a Bergman season at the Arts Cinema in Cambridge. But that is nothing compared to the indefatigable Malcolm Sharps, who seems to have seen everything Nordic, about which he makes shrewd and penetrative comments in his inimitable style. He really is a most perceptive critic.

  3. Malcolm Sharps says:

    Nice comments for an article I almost decided not to post. Thank you. I will feel gratified if a handful of people seek out some of these films – there is always something free on You Tube. Sounds like David has a piece on Dylan in the making. I remember those times too but it would be good to have it pitched as a New England nostalgia piece. I smell the cotton candy.