Donald Dewey. Scandinavian Review. Volume 99, Issue 2. Summer, 2012.
The Swedish film industry isn’t synonymous with Ingmar Bergman; it just seemed that way for about half a century. Not all of its most luminous actresses ended up in Hollywood, either; plenty of them made a very quick round trip, others went abroad only to other European countries and still others never went much of anywhere at all. And especially in recent years, yet another common preconception—about Sweden as the most dominant film force in Scandinavia—has been refuted by the rapid ascent, globally as well as regionally, of the Danes. It hasn’t exactly been the hour of the wolf in Stockholm film circles of late, but there haven’t been quite as many smiles in the summer night, either.
As in other Scandinavian countries, Sweden was introduced to the motion picture medium through the traveling road shows of rival brother teams—the Lumières of France and the Skladanowskys of Germany. The former are credited with hosting the first public projections of assorted clips at the Malmö Trade Fair in June 1896. A couple of months later, the Skladanowskys shot the first film on Swedish territory—a slapstick one-reeler that was lost soon afterward and never shown in its country of location. The following year, it was the Lumières again, with one of their representatives tutoring two proprietors of a Stockholm photography shop—Carl Ernest Oliver Florman and Numa Peterson—in creating brief celluloid portraits of Swedish life around the capital. Though the pair liked aiming their cameras at barbers, acrobats, tennis players and just about anybody else who moved, they were particularly fascinated by aristocrats, both the domestic and foreign kind. Florman’s coverage of a visit by Siamese king Choulalongkorn is widely regarded as the first genuine Swedish film. More generally, his ties to the court of King Oscar ? through his photography put him in position to record the doings of the monarch on the silver jubilee of his rule. Florman’s productions, underwritten by Peterson, included a paean to the aristocracy, Slagsmâl i gamia Stockholm (A Battle in Old Stockholm), set in the 17th century and one of the continent’s first costume dramas. The team was also responsible for adapting scenes from the plays of Henrik Ibsen and for a 1903 proto-narrative tale Sköna Helena (The Beautiful Helene) with Anna Norrie, a 43-year-old actress who would still be working after World War II.
Their sallies into short fiction pieces aside, Florman and Peterson largely followed the model of the Lumières—organizing road shows for acquainting communities with the film medium and devoting most of their own production efforts to sketches of life that met the turn-of-the-century definition of documentaries. This encouraged others, markedly in Goteborg and Malmo, to organize production companies, if often only for some single undertaking. Although the sheer variety of the locations made it somewhat inevitable in any case, the suggestive landscapes captured by many of these pupal efforts would prove to be a signature of the Swedish cinema, most effectively when the backgrounds layered literary works for indigenous cultural significance. The road shows probably left their most indelible imprint in Kristianstad, where Franz Wiberg’s 1907 Hans som klara boven (The Man Who Takes Care of the Villain) has been credited as a trailblazing narrative. (The problem with that claim is that the piece was never released theatrically, making the trail pretty invisible.) More critically, Kristianstad was also the home of bookkeepers Gustav Björksman and N.H. Nylander, who in 1907, after a couple of years of projecting the Florman-Peterson reels as a sideline to their day jobs, founded AB Svenska Biografteatern (usually shortened to Svenska Bio and later renamed Svensk Filmindustri), in so doing opening the door to what was later hailed as the golden age of Swedish cinema.
The key to Svenska bio’s impact on the fledgling industry was the hiring of newsreel cameraman Charles Magnusson as production chief. It was under Magnusson and cinematographer Julius Jaenzon that the company turned increasingly to fictional projects, mainly stagey adaptations of popular plays and novels by August Strindberg, Selma Lagerlöf and similar luminaries. One conspicuous production of the period, co-directed by Magnusson and Jaenzon in 1912, was a film treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Vagabonds Galoshes. More ambitious than artistically satisfying, The Vagabonds Galoshes generated a great deal of talk for including original footage from France and Niagara Falls, and startled audiences for tracking shots taken from a Broadway trolley in New York City.
As elsewhere in Scandinavia, the growing of motion pictures alerted churches and watchdog groups around the country to the potential moral dangers of the medium. The result, in 1911, was Statens Biografbyrâ, the first official national censorship board in Europe. The three-person panel was empowered by the legislature to license everything from fictional features to newsreels, and continued in that role for an entire century. Particularly vulnerable to cuts if not outright bans were depictions of screen violence or intimations of it. Thus the completely oudawed pictures in the 20th century would include the horror classic Nosferatu and several Hollywood film noirs from after World War II (e.g., Out of the Past, The Street With No Name, etc.) as well as, more predictably, slice-anddice features like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The board was also known to consult with the military when stories touched on defense issues; there was more than one conference in this vein during the wars when the nation walked carefully its neutrality. On the other hand, there was a far more benevolent attitude toward sex, certainly in comparison to censors in the United States and other Western countries. Licensed nudity or not, though, Sweden turned out to be not just the first nation to set up a censorship board, but also the last democracy to abolish one, in 2011. Remaining restrictions govern the ages of children allowed entrance to theaters.
The adaptation of The Vagabond’s Galoshes proved to be merely a warmup to Svensk Bio’s importance after moving from Kristianstad to Stockholm in 1911. Once he was swimming in the capital’s larger talent pool, Magnusson recruited the best and the brightest from the Swedish theater, in more than one case having to combat an initial reluctance to performing before the cameras. His happiest finds came in 1912, when he wore down the resistance of actors-directors Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, the shiniest emblems of the golden age.
Sjöström, who had spent a substantial part of his childhood in Brooklyn, made his feature debut in 1912 with Trädgardsmästeren (The Head Gardener). The following year, he gave a jolt to more than film spectators with his social melodrama Ingeborg Holm, dealing with the brutalities of child labor. The picture galvanized child abuse opponents throughout Europe and North America, prompting stricter legislative measures against the practice in several countries, including Sweden. Playing the title role was Hilda Borgstrom, the highest paid Swedish performer in the country (and second only to Denmark’s Asta Nielsen overall). While not affecting national laws, Sjöström had success of another sort with his 1916 production of Terje Vigen A Man There Was), a tidy saga of cruelty, vengeance and nobility based on Ibsen’s poem. The film was successful both critically and financially throughout Europe, its reception aided by neutral Sweden’s relatively unfettered access to continental markets when World War I audiences were routinely served propaganda as meaningful drama. As with Ingeborg Holm, it made great use of natural landscapes for underlining what one critic called the “peculiar Swedish eye.” For Svenska Bio the picture’s success was motive enough for eliminating all the studio’s one- and tworeel fluff, concentrating instead on producing only a few pictures a year based on seminal national works. Terje Vigen was also the first motion picture considered serious enough by the Swedish press to merit newspaper and magazine reviews.
There was much more to Sjöström than somber social drama. A lithe man whose acrobatics earned comparison to Douglas Fairbanks, he usually danced away from the maudlin despite the temptations offered by some of his screenplay topics. Jean Cocteau pointed to the Swede’s elaborately poetic 1920 adaptation of Lagerlöfs novel Korkarlen (The Phantom Carriage) as the main inspiration for his Blood of a Poet 1 3 years later. But for all the praise he received, Sjöström became increasingly antsy in the early 1920s over the steady decline of the Swedish industry, precipitated primarily by a flood of American films saturating Scandinavian markets. Making matters worse was the decision by Svensk Filmindustri and other producers to abandon the Great Literature approach to subjects for lowest-common-denominator comedies allegedly more in tune with a postwar spirit; in the view of Sjöström and many others, this amounted to throwing away what had been unique about Swedish film.
The director finally gave up banging his head against studio walls in 1923 and went to Hollywood. While there, he made nine films, the most accomplished of which was The Wind (1928) with Lillian Gish. Again, though, he became restless, this time in the opposite direction. In the same year that he was winning plaudits for The Wind, Sjöström (whose name had been changed to Seastrom by MGM because it sounded “less foreign”) returned to Sweden to the deathbed of his friend Stiller and didn’t make the return trip. He all but abandoned directing over the rest of his 32 years, making a couple of Swedish-German co-productions in the very early 1930s, then coming out from behind the camera altogether after Under the Red Robe, a 1937 costume drama made in England and set in Cardinal Richelieu’s France with Conrad Veidt and Raymond Massey. Thereafter he remained busy as artistic director at Svensk Filmindustri during World War II and with periodic acting appearances, most notably as the protagonist in Bergman’s Smultronstälkt (Wild Strawberries, 1957).
As close as he was to Sjöström on a personal level, casting him more than once as his leading man, the Russian-Polish Stiller shared little of his aesthetics, specializing in the kind of sophisticated indoor comedies that Ernst Lubitsch would make his own in the United States. His most realized project was undoubtedly Erotikon (The Bonds that Chafe, 1920), a round-robin of sex-spiced misunderstandings and jealousies that, in contrast to what would have been Hollywood’s puritanical approach, ends with the central characters divorcing and finding other partners. The subject matter attracted audiences wanting to be shocked to a first-run theater in Stockholm for three straight weeks, an unprecedented run at the time. The picture didn’t suffer, either, from aerial shots taken from an airplane and an appearance by the Stockholm Opera Ballet.
Despite the polished command he showed in Erotikon, Stiller became equally noted for two other pictures of vastly different tones. The first was the atypical (for him) Herr Arnes pengar (Mister Arnes Treasure, 1919), a violent drama based on a Lagerlöf story about a woman who unknowingly falls in love with the murderer of her foster parents and gets killed because of her indecision about what to do after she discovers the truth. The picture established the ethereally haunting Mary Johnson as a star and also demonstrated Sailer’s mastery of outdoors location shooting, most memorably in a final sequence showing a long line of geometrically arranged dark figures plodding across a field of snow and ice.
If Erotikon was Stiller’s best film and Herr Arnes pengar his most unlikely, the most consequential for his career was his 1924 version ofLagerlöfs Gösta Berlingsaga (The Atonement of Gösta Berling). His major problem shooting the turgid tale of the moral descent of an unfrocked pastor was Lagerlöf, who, unhappy about earlier screen versions of her work, hovered over every word of the script, driving him to repeated threats of walking off the project. If he never got beyond the threats, it was in good part because of his Svengalilike absorption with Greta Gustafsson, a young actress he had discovered at the Royal Dramatic Theater, whose name he changed to Garbo and whom he cast prominently in the picture. Once that film was completed, he persuaded G. W Pabst to hire his Trilby for the German production of Street of Sorrow as the second female lead to Nielsen. It was while the mentor and his student were in Germany that they met Louis B. Mayer of MGM and agreed to go to Hollywood.
Once he hadjkem under contract and in California, Mayer made a point of disparaging Soîler as excess baggage to Garbo, consigning him to the job of an assistant director for her debut film in America, The Torrent (1926). When she demanded he be made the director of her next project, The Temptress, he lasted only briefly before his loathing of Mayer got him fired. Away from MGM, Stiller turned in two respectable Pola Negri vehicles for Paramount, but when serious respiratory problems were piled atop the humiliation that had separated him from Garbo, he returned home a broken man and, after a brief return to stage directing, died at the age of 45.
While Sjöström and stiller dominated the pre-talkie era, they were hardly alone. One of the more intriguing figures was Anna Hoffman-Uddgren, a turn-of-the-century actress and cabaret singer labeled Stockholm’s “Queen of Entertainment.” In 1911, she became the country’s first woman director with Stockholmfresteler Stockholm Temptations), a gauzy look at the capital’s night life. After that, she did screen treatments of Strindberg’s Miss Julie and other stage pieces. Throughout her career, Hofrman-Uddgren had to pretend not to hear rumors that she was the illegitimate daughter of King Oscar II. For their part, directors such as Gustaf Molander and John W. Brunius had to pretend not to hear they weren’t Sjöström or Stiller. What made this a special challenge for Molander was that he had worked as a writer for both directors and that when he got his own opportunity to call the shots, he drifted toward the mechanical comedies and melodramas that had helped drive the two more acclaimed filmmakers across the ocean. Though not in the class of Sjöström and Stiller, Molander ended up as the most prolific director in industry history with more than 60 features. He would also be remembered as the most prominent director bridging the silent and sound eras with such dramas as En Nan (One Night, 193 1), set against the civil war in Karelia in 1918, and then as the man responsible for introducing the public to Ingrid Bergman. Brunius’s taste was for spectacular historical dramas such as Karl XII (Charles XII, 1925), which substituted size for substance and bled the industry’s treasury dry with the gamble world audiences would be fascinated with historical footnotes. They weren’t.
Coming when it did, sound was exactly what the Swedish industry didn’t need. First, there was the all-but-monopolistic hold on European markets by American distributors. Then there were the defections to Hollywood by the industry’s top talents—not only Sjöström, Stiller and Garbo, but, among numerous others, leading man Lars Hanson, who had worked for Stiller in Erotikon and Gösta Berling and who turned up as Gish’s co-star in Sjostrom’s The Wind, The talkies only aggravated the industry’s shaky foundations by necessitating dialogue for a relatively confined language and adding the expense of having to translate it in the midst of an economic depression for any hope at all of export sales. As well, the tendency of stage-bred actors to recite for the camera in the most emotive sense of the term, while common to all countries, accentuated a habit in Sweden that not even the silence of the golden era had completely muffled. (One theory was that the extensive use of outdoor landscapes had made Swedish actors doubly insecure, driving them to exaggerated competitiveness with their surroundings.) The solution by most producers was to keep things as modest, inane and domestic as possible, as epitomized by the first Swedish talkie released in October 1929, a banal comedy entitled Konstgiorda Svensson Artificial Svensson). One critic decided that the only difference from one local film and another in the late 1920s and for most of the 1930s was in the beverages drunk by the characters. As Aleksander Kwiatkowski put it in a survey of early Swedish films:
“Champagne, cognac, and meals on silver services … that was the world of Svensk Filmindustri and that of Gustaf Molander. Grits in a pot, vodka and beer were the identifying marks of the newly founded Europa Films, which specialized in folk farces … Oscillating between the two extremes were some of the smaller studios whose output exemplified the restlessness of the middle class, ambitious for promotion to the aristocracy or upper bourgeoisie while their financial means were more in line with the beer-consuming masses. ‘Pilsnerfilm’ was the nickname given to the most numerous group of pictures.”
The generally bleak artistic terrain of the thirties had its idiosyncrasies. One was the Social Democratic sentiments creeping into even the blandest comedies in reflection of the political changes in the country as a whole; several “Pilsner films” were financed by either the Social Democratic party or labor unions and, between one comic bit and another, were pretty preachy about the need for class reconciliation. The best of these productions was probably Gustaf Edgren’s KarlFredrik regerar KarlFredrik Reigns, 1934), a Romeo and Juliet tale against the background of class differences. As often as he was ridiculed by critics for his humdrum work, Molander’s six melodramas with Ingrid Bergman produced Sweden’s only international star of the decade, and also gave her a resume from her native land that Garbo didn’t have. The height of their collaboration was Intermezzo (1936) in which the actress’s frequent persona as an “innocent femme fatale” drew so much attention that she was signing a contract soon afterward with David O. Selznick to remake the film in English in Hollywood. As profitable as Intermezzo, Dollar (1937), En kvinnas ansikte (A Woman’s Face, 1938), and the other Bergman pictures were, they were not the most successful in the pre- World War II period. That primacy went to the Pilsner productions featuring Edvard Persson, a jovial singer-comedian whose studio claimed that not a single one of his many pictures between the mid-thirties and mid-forties failed to sell at least a million tickets. It was also in the thirties that it became apparent that a motion picture culture had matured in the country, witness the organization of film clubs, the opening of a few art houses, the publication of movie magazines and the institution of a film academy with an archive.
Sweden’s neutrality in World War II didn’t offer the same export opportunities as the first European conflict had because of the wider devastation and the more tyrannical hold of the Nazis in occupied lands. Instead of worrying about its foreign trade, the industry filled the void by turning even more inward, and to such an enthusiastic degree that it averaged 40 productions a year (for a äscreen subjects. There was also the new in Alf Sjöberg and Ingmar Bergman.
Before focusing on the theater, Sjöberg had directed one silent film about seal hunting in the Arctic that over the years has drawn comparisons with the work of Robert Flaherty. Wth the promise of more artistic freedom, he was drawn back to the screen at the start of the new decade, making a couple of films that were viewed as oblique protests against Nazi Germany. Their tentativeness was all but swallowed up by the attention given his film treatment of playwright-actor Rune Lindström’s Himlaspelet (The Road to Heaven, 1942). Based on folk tales that Lindström had turned into a play for modest community theaters, The Road to Heaven was a pseudo-mystical affair following the odyssey of the hero (the playwright) to rejoin his lover after she has been burned at the stake as a witch. The reconciliation takes place in Paradise, but only after a benevolent God foils the Devil’s attempts to sidetrack the hero’s quest. Aside from creating outdoor visuals that reminded critics of Stiller at his best, Sjöberg sculpted out the kind of metaphysical questions about good and evil that had remained somewhat obscured in the play version of the piece and that formed the first artistic bond between him and Ingmar Bergman.
The two filmmakers became a little more explicit a couple of years later with Hets (Torment, 1944). The Bergman screenplay revolved around a sadistic high school Latin teacher known to his students as “Caligula,” who was also at least indirectly responsible for the death of a woman friend of the young protagonist. While some critics found the film an indictment of the Nazis (Stigjarrel in the role of the teacher strongly resembled Heinrich Himmler), others dwelt on the hero’s exasperating struggle to combat Caligula as abstract Evil, a crusade in which he was given little aid by his parents, friends and society in general. The ensuing public debate on whether the director and writer should have given priority to the socially specific in the grim realities of 1944 or to the metaphysically general as a human condition touched not only Sjöberg but would continue to mark responses to Bergman’s work for the rest of the century, and not always to his advantage. Hets won numerous European prizes, including the first Cannes Festival award conferred after the end of the war. It also grouped together several performers who would become prominent in Swedish films in the coming years, including Alf Kjellin, Maj Zetterling, and Gunnar Björnstrand.
Sjoberg’s reputation as the country’s finest director since Sjöström grew over succeeding years, reaching its crest with his 1951 version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, another Cannes prize winner and regarded by some as the single most accomplished film ever shot in Sweden. But while he devoted more time to the theater, Bergman (who always referred to the older man as his artistic “father”) was getting over the hesitant first steps of his own directorial career to become the industry’s dominant force, even if that often seemed more true internationally than domestically.