Scandinavian Drama at Cheltenham International Festival of Film.
By John Morrish
Snow and ice. Deep conversations about God and his absence. Blithe sunlit romance and bitter divorce. Disputes about farm animals.
The clichés about Scandinavian film come thick and fast, but the region has always had so much more to offer. In over a century of cinema, the Nordic countries – Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland – have produced films in all styles, from action to broad comedy, and continue to hold their place on the world stage. They have also produced a powerful string of fine directors and impressive actors.
Scandinavian cinema received an early helping-hand from war. Theoretically neutral in World War I, the industries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway found a ready market in Germany. It was a false dawn. When peace returned, the native directors fled abroad where the opportunities were greater. Among them were the legendary Dane, Carl Theodor Dreyer, who left for France, where he created The Passion of Joan of Arc and the extraordinary porto-horror Vampyr. Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller left for Hollywood, the latter taking with him one of Sweden’s most important national assets, Greta Garbo. They left powerful, innovative work behind them in Scandinavia. At MGM and Paramount they both failed dismally, and by then it was too late to go home. The Scandinavian industry did not adapt to sound and went into long-term decline from the 1930s.
Recovery took a long time, and it sometimes seems as if it was down to one man. Ingmar Bergman started as a screenwriter in the decade after World War II, then developed the unusual technique of writing novels before turning them into screenplays. His early works displayed some of the characteristics of Italian neorealism. In 1955, he tried a sex comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night, then lurched into the metaphysical dramas of his golden period. The Seventh Seal of 1957 almost single-handedly established the genre of European art cinema. He was, in his idiosyncratic way, a great religious artist who considered film making a collective endeavour akin to cathedral-building. He was never tempted by Hollywood.
More recent Scandinavian film personalities have been less fastidious. For a long time, Scandinavia’s most important export, following on from Garbo, was the incandescent Ingrid Bergman, who spent a decade in major American features before a marital scandal forced her out of the limelight for a while.
Meanwhile, directors began to emerge from the shadow of Ingrid’s namesake. At home, the Swede Bo Widerberg created the much-loved Elvira Madigan. The Dane Gabriel Axel gave us the delicious Babette’s Feast. The Swedish director Lasse Hallström, having made pop videos for ABBA, won international success with the delightful Swedish-language My Life As A Dog (1985) before happily catching the plane to LAX and moving into the big league with films such as What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat and The Shipping News. His Danish rival Bille August won the 1987 Palme d’Or for Pelle the Conqueror. His English-language career has been less notable but has included the well-liked Smilla’s Sense of Snow and a 1998 version of Les Misérables with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush.
The most controversial Scandinavian director working todayis probably Lars von Trier, co-creator of the Dogme 95 manifesto and director of cult classics such as Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, Melancholia and Nymphomaniac. We should also not forget newer names such as Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt), Suzanne Bier (In A Better World, but now probably best know for BBC TV’s The Night Manager), Joachim Trier (Oslo, 31 August), Ruben Ostlund (The Square), Lukas Moodysson (We are the Best!), Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), and of course Niels Arden Oplev, who gave us the original Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
One of the most heartening trends in recent years has been the rise of Icelandic cinema, particularly with dark comedies such as Grímur Hákonarson’s Rams, Benedikt Erlingsson’s Of Horses and Men and Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigur∂sson’s Under the Tree.
In the Cheltenham International Film Festival this year we are showing two Scandinavian films. Arctic is an Iceland/US co-production, starring Denmark’s finest Mads Mikkelsen as a man stranded in the frozen wastes. It was shot in Iceland over 19 days and Mikkelsen has referred to it as the most difficult shoot of his career. The Guilty is a Danish film, also from 2018, directed and co-written by Gustav Möller. It stars Jakob Cedergren as a Copenhagen police officer dealing with a kidnapping case and tempted to bend the law. A Hollywood remake is apparently rumored, to star Jake Gyllenhall. Scandinavian film retains its hold on the world cinema community.