THE SWEDISH CHALLENGE
2017 marks the centennial of the start of what has became known as the “Golden Age” of Swedish cinema. This “Golden Age” is commonly regarded in film history as the Swedish film industry’s artistic peak in the years following the success of Victor Sjöström’s Henrik Ibsen adaptation A Man There Was (Terje Vigen), which premiered in January 1917. It is associated with films with large budgets and artistic ambitions, based on acclaimed literary works, and mostly set in a rural milieu, with location anchoring the action in the Scandinavian landscape. These films were often referred to as “national films” because of their reliance on national literature, national landscape, and national costume.
There has been a tendency, however, to focus accounts of the Swedish “Golden Age” exclusively on the films made by Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, leaving out all other Swedish directors who made films in the same style. Many wonderful films have thus slipped from view because they do not match this overly narrow conception of Sweden’s film history.
This 2-part film series, which will continue next year, is built around the argument that the first Swedish “Golden Age” films constituted a significant challenge to filmmakers in the neighbouring countries, as well as in Sweden itself – aesthetically, commercially, and culturally. By showing a variety of important but lesser-known Swedish “Golden Age” films in combination with artistically connected films from the surrounding countries we want to emphasize to the Giornate audience how the Swedish films functioned as a catalyst in the other Nordic countries for the conception of what a national cinema is and should be.
With A Man There Was, the leading Swedish production company Svenska Biografteatern (Svenska Bio, for short) set a new standard for filmmaking. Films based upon acclaimed literary works had been made before, but the costs and production time – as well as the overall artistic ambition – were much higher for this film than for any other Swedish film made up to that time. The result was successful, and from the following season, overall production was shifted to fewer but much more expensive films, often (but not always) based on literary works and with the Nordic landscape as an important element. Out of Svenska Bio’s five previously contracted directors only Stiller and Sjöström had their contracts renewed.
The new production model was also adapted by its main rival Skandia, which had been formed by a number of smaller production companies in 1918 in an effort to compete with Svenska Bio. Among Skandia’s most prestigious projects were films based on the works of Scandinavian Nobel Prize laureates Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and Henrik Pontoppidan, followed by further adaptations of Nobel Prize winners after Skandia merged with Svenska Bio to form the big combine Svensk Filmindustri in December 1919.
In Norway, the Bjørnson adaptations were seen as rather provocative. Not only were they based on works by one of the most acclaimed Norwegian authors and shot on location in Norway, scenes in the films also recreated some of the most iconic artworks of the Norwegian 19th-century national romantic movement. Norway had only become fully independent from Sweden in 1905; these Swedish films were seen by some critics as an appropriation of the Norwegian cultural heritage, and loud demands were made for a revival of the then-slumbering Norwegian film industry. Beginning with Rasmus Breistein’s Fante-Anne (Gypsy Anne, 1920), a series of Norwegian national films based on the country’s own literary heritage were made following the Swedish model.
Finland’s independence from Russia came only in December 1917. Mauritz Stiller’s Song of the Scarlet Flower (Sången om den eldröda blomman, 1919, adapted from a story by the Finnish author Johannes Linnankoski) was appreciated in Finland and gave a glimpse of how Finnish cultural heritage and national themes could be transferred to the screen. Like Norway, Finland had a small film market, and setting up viable production companies proved difficult, but in 1919, two new ones were established, both explicitly committed to making national films. One of them, Suomen Filmitaide (Suomi-Filmi, from 1921), with directors Teuvo Puro and Erkki Karu, and the ambition to film national literary classics, would become the dominant Finnish film company of the 1920s.
Denmark, on the other hand, dealt with the challenge presented by the Swedish literary films in a different manner. The leading Danish production company, Nordisk, struggled economically during and after World War I. In 1918 Nordisk adapted a production policy similar to Svenska Bio, with fewer but more expensive and ambitious films, but apart from a few exceptions they chose not to emphasize Danish or Scandinavian stories. Instead, the clearest expression of the Swedish influence was probably director A. W. Sandberg’s series of four Dickens adaptations, starting with Our Mutual Friend (Vor Fælles Ven, 1921, shown at the 2012 Giornate). There were, however, a handful of films based on Nordic literary works: Gunnar Sommerfeldt’s Icelandic drama Sons of the Soil (Borgslægtens Historie, 1920), and A. W. Sandberg’s Struggling Hearts (Lasse Månsson fra Skaane, 1923), set during the 17th-century Scanian wars. Sandberg’s The House of Shadows (Morænen, 1924), written directly for the screen but set in the Norwegian countryside, was compared by Danish critics with the finest Swedish achievements.
Of the very few Danish films that tried to adopt the Swedish model fully, one of the best examples is Carl Th. Dreyer’s Once Upon a Time (Der var engang, 1922), which was based on a famous, explicitly nationalistic play and produced by the Danish distributor of Svensk Filmindustri’s films. No one embraced the Swedish model of literary adaptations with psychological intimacy set in natural Nordic scenery more eagerly than Dreyer, and his mastery of the Swedish style can be seen in films such as The Parson’s Widow (Prästänkan, 1920) and The Bride of Glomdal (Glomdalsbruden, 1925), produced in Sweden vand Norway respectively but both set in the picturesque Norwegian countryside. That Dreyer’s embrace of the Swedish model was deliberate can be seen from an article he wrote in 1920, in which he proclaimed that through the Swedes’ achievements, cinema had been let into “art’s promised land”. – Casper Tybjerg & Magnus Rosborn
Si ringraziano/With thanks to: Jon Wengström, Svenska Filminstitutet; Thomas Christensen, Marianne Jerris, Lars-Martin Sørensen, Danske Filminstitut; Morten Egholm, DIS Copenhagen; Antti Alanen, Tommi Partanen, KAVI (Kansallinen Audiovisuaalinen Instituuti); Bent Kvalvik, Nasjonalbiblioteket (National Library of Norway); Anne Bachmann, Bo Florin (University of Stockholm); Jaakko Seppälä (University of Helsinki); Claire Thomson (University College London); Gunnar Iversen (Carleton University); Flemming Behrendt.
SYNNÖVE SOLBAKKEN [A NORWAY LASS]
John W. Brunius (SE 1919)
Dom/Sun 1 – 9:00 – Teatro Verdi
FANTE-ANNE [GYPSY ANNE]
Rasmus Breistein (NO 1920)
Lun/Mon 2 – 14:30 – Teatro Verdi
THORA VAN DEKEN [A MOTHER’S FIGHT]
John W. Brunius (SE 1920)
Ven/Fri 6 – 14:30 – Teatro Verdi
Teuvo Puro, Jussi Snellman (FI 1922)
Sab/Sat 7 – 10:30 – Cinemazero
VEM DÖMER? [LOVE’S CRUCIBLE]
Victor Sjöström (SE 1922)
Mar/Tue 3 – 20:30 – Teatro Verdi
MORÆNEN [THE HOUSE OF SHADOWS]
A.W. Sandberg (DK 1924)
Sab/Sat 7 – 16:15 – Teatro Verdi
GLOMDALSBRUDEN [THE BRIDE OF GLOMDAL]
Carl Theodor Dreyer (NO 1926)
Gio/Thu 5 – 22:45 – Teatro Verdi
- 16 March 2017