In one of Ingmar Bergman’s most reflective and personal works “Wild Strawberries, we find the story of an aging and prosperous man looking back on his life as he struggles to find meaning in his accomplishments. On the cusp of receiving a lifetime achievement award, he struggles with feelings of insignificance and purposeless as he searches for some kind of narrative to which he can feel he belongs. It reminds me of powerful A Man Called Ove, another story about an aging man stuck with feelings of insignificance and purposeless, although his journey is shaped by grief.
It’s a powerful film from one of Sweden’s most celebrated Directors, and in no small way this film captures the spirit of Swedish film history in a significant and powerful fashion, a history that mirrors the story of the Country these films have helped define.
Neutrality, Drama, and Cinematic Storytelling
Perhaps most significant is Sweden’s long history of neutrality. As the rest of world twisted and struggled around it, Sweden managed to remain largely unscathed, finding economic prosperity and stability in times where other Countries were left to rebuild.
This same trajectory follows the Country into the modern age, setting the stage early for the development of a strong social system, a unifying characteristic of Sweden’s national and civic expression. This is a Country that has found “cooperation” between all levels of of class and sector, allowing it to avoid the class divisions that tend to define so much of film worldwide as democracies struggled to emerge. One thing that’s important to recognize here as well is that if you follow Sweden’s cinematic growth, unlike other industrialized nations it remains decidedly unindustrialized, having no real need to get wrapped up in the business of it all because of the way the Country has functioned as a welfare state. This protects it from the trappings of the movie star that we see in many other Countries, as well as distinctions between filmmaker and film viewer. There is much to learn from Sweden in this regard.
Which is simply to say, if film tells the story of a Country’s struggle, often giving voice to the people as they try to make sense of their nations “story” and their role in it, what happens to cinema in a Country where these common human dramas, save for the rare economic struggles that would emerge late in the modern era (perhaps due to their commitment to those same social policies)? What kind of stories do you tell in a landscape that is decidedly undramatic, cinematically speaking?
For Sweden, they tend to turn their stories inwards into self reflective pieces. And they contain a surprising amount of spiritual reflection as well, inspired by Bergman but also reaching back into the fabric of early Swedish film as well. When you aren’t talking about wars and socio-economic instability, it leaves plenty of room to consider those deeper questions, and not unlike the aging man in Wild Strawberries this becomes a means of finding significance in a life that seems and feels methodical and perhaps predetermined. With the lack of outside forces motivating their story in one way or another, they are left to find meaning, and even wrestle it out of their story.
Cinematic Identity, Industry and Invention
In the early 1900’s, Sweden travels a similar path as most of Europe, emerging around 1907 and becoming “organized” between the years of 1910 and 1920, particularly with the development of the “Svensk Filmindustri”.
And while Sweden avoided many of the trappings of industry, most sources recognize its desire to develop Swedish films and bring them to the “world’s stage”. Their unifying social character benefited them to this end, allowing Swedish films to develop a real identity in the silent age, accentuating the Swedish northern landscape and its unique lights, shooting on location and getting creative with exposure. And early on, which you can see in classic films like Sir Arne’s Treasure and the Phantom Carriage, Haxan, there is a dedication to inventive narrative structures emerging as well, bringing to light the sort of introspective, spiritually concerned stories that Bergman would later refine and make ultimately familiar.
Ingmar Bergman and the Evolution of the Swedish New Wave
And it would be impossible not to speak of Sweden and find yourself somewhere in Ingmar Bergman’s extensive filmography. One of my personal favorites is The Seventh Seal, an existential quest to find the spiritual in the everyday, using strong allegory and Biblical imagery to bring its story to life in a powerful way.
As one description I saw described Bergman’s films, they “illustrate the internal struggles of individuals, particularly through such themes as isolation, religious doubt, and insanity while using the landscapes of his country combined with creative composition and editing styles to reflect his ideas.” This is a great article on his aesthetic: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/sweden/articles/bergman-and-the-swedish-aesthetic/_
But what might be worth pointing out even more so, given one could dwell on his filmography for a good length of time and still not exhaust the commentary and perspective available, is just how long Bergman stood as the face of Swedish film, essentially emerging in the post war period, a time of relative stability, opportunity and global reach for neutral Sweden left relatively untouched and unscathed, and defining its trajectory both locally and even more so internationally. Which is great for Swedish film. With his rise after the war, Sweden was able to stay creative and influential as an industry while others were not. However, this also created challenges for Swedish society as the years moved forward, given the long shadow that he cast, particularly in a society that was still largely patriarchal.
So perhaps the most interesting faze to consider in Swedish cinema is its New Wave, a period of filmmaking that would emerge in the wake of Bergman’s peak and into his retirement as we lead into the new millenium.
All a New Wave suggests is a period of time in which we see a burst of fresh creativity and prosperity, new styles of film emerge, and a reinvigorated spirit and potential for filmmakers, much like the one we see in the post war period with Bergman. Leading up to this period would see a host of young filmmakers gradually stepping into the industry, breathing into it certain liberties and social expressions that could push its boundaries and allow it to recreate itself with time. It certainly helped that emerging with this fairly modern new wave in the new millenium were some economic struggles that added to the Swedish story, giving these filmmakers something to comment on on a domestic level. This reinvigorated these films with social interest, new genres and focuses, and more importantly began addressing the lack of female auteurs (Pernille Fischer Christensen’s Becoming Astrid being one of my most recent favorites).
What’s interesting too about this most recent New Wave is that one could see it from the larger perspective of Scandinavian films and Nordic Cinema, something it shares in common with the Scandinavian Nations that surround it. There is a shared story here, one that perhaps gets richer once boundaries have been broken and socialist states and cultures that did get wrecked by the war, civil issues and economic problems can speak to one another more liberally and effectively. Heck, even my home Country of Canada has a real interest in these modern narratives, as they can help shed light on how to navigate certain socio-political ideas on a human level, particularly as we look at our Swedish immigrant roots. It’s in ways like this where film can play a powerful role in helping foster dialogue among cultures, and it is what continues to make Sweden a fascinating Country and narrative to discover and explore on a cinematic level.
Here is the List of Films That I watched for my cinematic travels through Sweden, ranked and reviewed:
a brief history of Swedish film