Category: Swedish Cinema

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2017

The 31st Archive Festival presented by the Cineteca di Bologna ran from Saturday June 24th until Sunday July 1st. The Festival has expanded rapidly in recent years. During the day there were screenings in four auditoria – The Salas Mastroianni and Scorsese at the Cineteca and the Arlecchino and Jolly cinemas. And there are smaller salons for supporting events. In the evenings these four screens are added to by the Piazza Maggiore in the city centre and the Piazzetta Pasolini at the Cineteca.

My friend Peter Rist worked out that there were 250 titles in this year’s festival, and only a fifth of these had repeat screenings. Thus even the most dedicated cineaste could see even a fraction of the Festival programme. This year those cineastes exceeded 3,000. So popular titles nearly always involved queues and sometimes a fairly crowded auditorium. My strategy for coping was to focus on 35mm; these composed just under half the programme. I managed 30 35mm prints and then ten digital (titles described were in 35mm unless noted otherwise). Even then one had to make choices between interesting and even fascinating films.

‘A Hundred Years Ago: 50 films of 1917 in 35mm’ offered a series of daily programmes, with both short and feature-length films. One that caught a crowd was Abel Gance’s early masterwork, Mater Dolorosa. One of the finest was Thomas Graals Bästa Film / Thomas Graal’s Best Film ((Sweden). Directed by Mauritz Stiller, this was a  delightful comedy centred on a scriptwriter working on his next  film. The writer and title character was played by Stiller’s fellow-filmmaker Victor Sjöström. And as was often the case in Swedish films of this period there was a strong and independent minded female lead, Bessie (Karin Molander). We also enjoyed a film directed by Sjöström, Tones Fran Stormyrtorpet / The Girl from the Marsh Croft (Sweden). The film was based on a novel by Selma Lagerlöf, whose writings provided stories for a number of Swedish films in the silent era. The plot was familiar, focusing on class, bigotry and the restraints of religious morality. The put-upon young heroine Helga was played with real power by Greta Almroth, whilst future star Lars Hansen played Gudmund. The film made great use of contrasting spaces and offered that exceptional use of natural locations that grace the silent Swedish films.

‘Thomas Graal’s Best Film ‘

Also in the programme was a rare Triangle western directed by Frank Borzage, Until They Get Me ; a Lyda Borelli vehicle directed by Carmine Gallone, Malombra; and a German ghost film directed by Robert Wiene with a young Conrad Veidt and distinctive tinting, Furcht / Fear. Needless to say they all proved popular, generating queues of expectant admirers and full auditoriums.

The programme that I managed to see in its entirety was ‘The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness’. This was another programme curated by Alexander Jacoby and Johan Nordström. The titles all came from between 1937 and 1941 when Japan was under the control of a militaristic regime: all were jidai-geki or period films. In their introduction Alexander and Johan explained that the series of films selected all explored,

“how to present the past . . .”

and that all these films in some way

“challenge the samurai values . . .”

which were central to the regime.

The opening title was a film that I have read about often but which I had to wait until now to see, Ninjo Kamifusen / Humanity and Paper Balloons (1937). The film was directed by a promising young filmmaker Yamanaka Sadao, who sadly died in the war against China the following year. The film opens with a Samurai suicide and then follows the effects as they work through a small tenement community. The film has a substantial group of central characters and represents the class divisions underlying conflicts through the use of spatial difference. It also offers one of the great endings on film. There were seven others films in the programme, two of which, Hana Chirinu / Fallen Blossoms (1938) and Sono Zen’ya / The Night Before, are set in the crucial year of 1877 when a samurai rebellion attempted to stopped the modernisation led by the Meiji Restoration. And Kyojinden / The Giant (1938) was an impressive though not completely successful adaptation of Victor Hugo’s great French novel ‘Les Misérables’. All the films were interesting and worth watching. However, the print quality of some of these films, dating back decades, was mixed. Several did not have great definition or contrast: in the case of one film this meant that it was difficult to identify all the characters and their actions. The projection accentuated this because it mainly used the sub-titles as a point of focus, and on 35mm there is a slight difference in the plane.

‘Humanity and Paper Balloons ‘

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema project is now an established event in the Festival. The Foundation has now embarked on a project to restore fifty key films from Africa. So, as a real treat, we were able to see three films by Med Hondo. Born in Mauritania Hondo worked elsewhere in Africa and then in France. He took up acting and founded his own company in 1966. Then, working in television and film, he moved into cinema. Like some other notable filmmakers he has funded his film direction by his work as an actor. Since 1967 he has been able to make eight films. The Foundation has produced a digital restoration of his first, Soleil Ȏ (Mauritania, 1970 – DCP). Shot in black and white the film uses avant-garde techniques but it is better described as an ‘agit-prop’ documentary. Whilst it has a dramatised plot line the film presents the experiences of black people in Paris in this period.

“All the scenes were based on reality. Because racism isn’t invented, especially in film. It’s like a kind of cloak put on you, that you’re forced to live with.” (Med Hondo, 1970 quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

It is powerful document and stands up as relevant forty years on.

The programme also included two of Hondo’s later films in 35mm prints from the Harvard Film Archive. West Indies (France, Algeria, Mauritania, 1979) could be described as a period musical. The film presents

“a giant slave ship that symbolizes the triangular relationship between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean – as it explores the parallels between the forced migration of the Atlantic slave trade and the contemporary migration of Afro-Caribbean subjects to former colonial metropoles.” (Aboubakar Sanogo in the Festival Catalogue).

Sarraounia (Burkino Faso, Mauritania, France, 1986) dramatised the historical record and the successful resistance to a French colonial expedition in the late C19th. The film  had a more conventional linear narrative and was shot in colour and Technovision. Using African locations (but Burkino Faso not Niger), African songs, griots and cultural artefacts , the film celebrated both African culture and resistance. It also inverted the stereotypes of mainstream cinema with the psychotic French commander reduced to brutal sectarian violence.

‘Sarraounia’

Med Hondo was present to his introduce his films. He was clearly moved by his reception and by the re-emergence of his cinema. Hondo also was passionate about his films and the radical political content. The writings of Franz Fanon would seem to be central to his standpoint whilst stylistically the films use montage, both visual and aural, to create their effect. But seeing them in the UK (and likely elsewhere) has always been difficult. Soleil Ȏ, Les ‘Bricot Négres’ vos voisons (1974) and Sarraounia have been screened cinematically in the UK. Channel 4 screened the three films shown in Bologna in its ‘Africa Film’ season in the 1980s, but Sarraounia was cropped to Aacademy ratio.

The Foundation also continued its work in restoring Cuban classics. This year we had Lucía (1968). The film directed by Humberto Solás and also scripted  by him together with Julio Garcia Espinosa and Nelson Rodriguez, is a fairly epic work with three stories and running 160 minutes (DCP). The three tales present three women of the same name, from 1895, 1933 and in the present.

Lucia is not a film about women, it’s a film about society. But within society, I chose the most vulnerable character, the one who is more transcendentally affected at any given moment by contradictions and change. ” (Humberto Solás, quoted in the Catalogue).

There were also two films by Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa restored by the Academy Film Archive: Una pelea Cubana contra los demonios / A Cuban Fight Against Demons (1971 – DCP) and Los Sobrevivientes / The Survivors (1970). The programme was rounded off by a selection of ICAIC Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (1960 – 1970): the complete series has been restored and digitised by the French INA and is available on their website. This is clearly a welcome archival source: my main  reservation is that it seems that INA have bought and hold possession of the archive, which would be better retained and controlled in Cuba.

‘The Survivors ‘

There was a programme of films related to the French writer, ‘Colette and Cinema’. This included documentaries about her; films based on her writing; films that she reviewed  as a critic; and films that she worked on providing French sub-titles for foreign language films. One of the famous films from her writings is Gigi: but the festival screened the 1949 French version, directed by Jacques Audry.  This seems closer to the spirit of Collette’s writing than the Hollywood musical.

Gigi opened the way to films focused on the subordination of make characters to female ones ….” (Émilie Cauquy in the Catalogue).

A popular treat was Divine (1935), based on her novella and  with dialogue by Collette. The film has a rich representation of the French music-hall, but it was the stylish direction of Max Ophuls that made the film stand out. Her critical work was represented by Mater Dolorosa, directed by Abel Gance, another film from 1917. Collette had some reservations about the style and characterisations but

“I applaud a new use of the ‘still life’, the touching use of props, as in the fall of the veil on the floor.” (College quoted in the Catalogue).

The film is a marital melodrama and was relatively successful on release,. The cinematography of Léonce-Henri Burel is reckoned one of the films outstanding qualities.

The regular programme ‘The Time Machine’ focused on the year of 1897, right back in the pioneer days of cinema,. Both the Lumière Brothers and Georges Méliès featured here. The notable Lumière programme was ‘Palestine in 1896’, a ‘land without Zionists’. And there was a programme of film originated on 68mm by American and British Mutoscope Biograph, now presented on 35mm.

Another regular programme ‘The Space Machine’, included both Mexican and Iranian films of the past. The Mexican programme included Dos Monjes / Two Monks from 1934 (DCP). The restoration also involved The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. Most of the film was flashbacks prior to the monastery setting that opened the film. What stood out in a melodramatic tale was the style, which was at time expressionist and at time surrealist: visually potent. The stand-out film in the programme was Maclovia (1948), the name of the heroine played by Maria Felix and opposite Pedro Armendáriz as José Maria. The film is set on the Island of Janítzio where an indigenous people have their own mores and also suffer the contempt and oppression of the European élite. The film was directed by Emilio ‘El Indio’ Fernández working with the great cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. The latter’s use of the camera and lighting, together with what seemed to be all the fishing nets from around Mexico, was beautiful, especially as we happily had a 35mm print.

‘Maclovia ‘

I was less struck by the ‘Teheran Noir: The Thrillers of Samuel Khachikian’. Working in the developing days of the Iranian film industry Khachikian was clearly seeking out the conventions of film production and a style appropriate for the Iranian world of the time. The only title I watched was Chahar Rah-E Havades / Crossroad of Events (1955). The story follows a young man tempted into crime by his desire for a young woman. The tale was fairly conventional and the style did not really seem to suit the melodrama.

The Festival offers all sorts of other pleasures. One of these are the evening screenings in the Piazza Maggiore. A large screen offers open air cinema to thousands of people. There is a screening every night, unless the weather intervenes. The opening night saw the presentation of Jean Virgo’s classic L’Atalante (1934) accompanied by A propos de Nice (1930), part of a programme on this French filmmaker. By the end of the week a fellow French filmmaker Agnès Varda introduced her new film Visages Villages (2017). In between there were a number of digital screenings and two on 35mm; the famous Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosec Potëmkin (1925) with a full orchestral accompaniment; and then in a lighter vein The Patsy USA 1928) starring Marion Davies.

On three evenings the Piazzetta Pasolini was the site of screenings projected from a 1930s Carbon-Arc projector,. Therese events are equally popular and the particular palette from carbon arc through 35mm prints is a delight. The opening screening featured Addio Giovinezza! / Goodbye Youth (Italy 1918). The film was directed by Augusto Genina who was the subject of a programme of screening at the Festival. This was, as the title suggests, a bitter-sweet comedy. The young protagonist leaves his small town to attend Turin university. Not an engaging figure though, he exploits both his student friend and a young woman with whom he has a romance.

‘Goodbye Youth ‘

There were all sorts of other exciting and/or interesting films in the Festival. There was a retrospective of the US independent filmmaker Bill Morrison. I had seen many of the films when he visited the Bradford Film festival, so this was one of the choices I missed. One recurring programme is ‘The Cinephiles Heaven’. This included the fine restoration of Kean ou Désordre et génie / Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lovers (1924) from the Cinémathèque française which I had seen at the 2016 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. I was able to revisit Trouble in Paradise (USA 1932). This is one of the most delightful comedies by Ernst Lubitsch, with Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins and Kay Francis offering beautifully modulated performances. I also watched The Asphalt Jungle (USA 1950, on 4K DCP), John Huston’s fine crime/noir thriller, with an outstanding characterisation by Sterling Hayden.

‘Una Dominica a Bologna’. This was a varied and fascinating selected of ‘Sunday’ titles. I had to forgo seeing Menschen am Sontag / People on Sunday (Germany 1930) another time. But I did recommend to an Italian friend that he must see It Always Rains on Sunday (UK 1947, DCP).

‘Universal Pictures: the Laemmle Junior Years was a follow-up to the first programme in 2016. There were films directed by Lois Weber, Tod Browning, James Whale and Frank Borzage. ‘The Two Faces of Robert Mitchum’ included the classic film noir Out of the Past (1947) and Home from the Hill (1960). ‘In Search of Color: Kinemacolor and Technicolor’ featured films from as early as 1907 right up to the 1950s: there were the classic Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and Rancho Notorious (1952), plus three of the melodramas directed by Douglas Sirk in the same decade. And there was a programme dedicated to William K. Howard ‘Rediscovering a Master Stylist’. These were films from C20th Fox, including the much written about The Power and the Glory (1933, 4K DCP). The other featured filmmaker was ‘Watchful Dreamer: The Subversive Melancholy of Helmut Käutner’. His first film was an actor in 1932, then he took up scriptwriting and direction in 1939. He worked through the war years and on into the post-war industry up until 1977.

Unter den Brücken / Under the Bridges (1945/49 – one of those films which was released after the end of the war). There was little sense of the conflict going on around the filming. The story was fairly conventional, two friends running a barge were both attracted to a young waif who fell in their way. However, the film was finely constructed and there were excellent sequences by cinematographers Igor Oberberg and M. Wolfgang Webrum of the canals and especially the bridges that cross them. Ludwig !!. – Glanz und Ende Eines Königs / Mad Emperor: Ludwig II looked good but suffered by comparison with the Visconti film. And there was no Romy Schneider and no dog. Das Glas Wasser / A Glass of Water (1960) was set in C18th Britain, the reign of Queen Anne. It was very much in the style of 1960s tongue-in-cheek period comedy: reminiscent in some ways of The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (UK 1965).

‘Under the Bridges ‘

This only gives a sense of part of the Festival but you can check out the complete programme of titles.

The final screenings saw rounds of applause for the organisers and volunteers who worked on the Festival. It ran remarkably smoothly given the complexity of the venues and programming. There was also applause for the team of musicians who provided accompaniments for all the films from the Silent Era. The majority added to the films without overpowering them. There was one guitar accompaniment which I found rather over-the-top. And the projection teams did pretty well with the range of formats for screenings.

The weather, 30% some days, and the queues were an inevitable part of a summer festival. Less acceptable were problems with people using electronic gadgets. There were merciful few ring tones in the auditoriums but there were quite a number of members who seemed to need to check their phones/tablets for the time or something similar; or even for texting. The worst culprits were a few recalcitrant’s who used their machines to take pics during the actual films. One person took something like 20 stills or video clips during a two reel film running only 28 minutes. I did report her but I was disappointed that she did not appear in the stocks in the Piazzetta Pasolini rather in the manner of Maud Hansson in 1957. Mariann Lewinsky, a redoubtable programmer presence in the Festival, did ask patrons to desist before the Carbon Arc screenings, but I think this was the only example of warning given during the Festival. I think for the future they organisers need to introduce some notices before screenings to try and prevent this.

So we now await for 2018. Apart from Battleship Potemkin we only had four pre-revolution features from Russia and a short Danish animation in the 1917  ‘Film and Politics’ section. I hope we will get a revisiting of Soviet films as we pass the Centenary year of the Great October Revolution.

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A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove, Sweden 2015)

Bahar Pars as Ove's neighbour Parvaneh and Rolf Lassgard as Ove

Bahar Pars as Ove’s neighbour Parvaneh and Rolf Lassgård as Ove

I laughed and cried all through this film. It’s a ‘feelgood film’ with an edge of dark humour based on a popular novel by Fredrik Backman that has in turn become one of the most popular Swedish films of recent times. Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, it has already taken some $1.5 million from a limited US release and with a Swedish take of over $20 million it is odd that no UK distributor appears to have bought the film yet. This is even stranger when the film’s leading actor Rolf Lassgård is already well-known in the UK as the first incarnation of Inspector Wallander in the TV films based on Henning Mankell’s novels and more recently in Sebastian Bergman (2010-2013). It would be a surprise if A Man Called Ove didn’t end up on BBC4.

Ove, at least in later life, is a universal figure (not that dissimilar from the UK sitcom character Victor Meldrew). We meet him at the point when his employers of 43 years decide to ‘let him go’ aged 59. His beloved wife Sonja died just six months ago and his officious reign as the ‘regulator’ of his small block of houses also seems to under threat. Ove has had enough and decides to end it all and join Sonja. But he hasn’t taken into account the arrival of new neighbours, a heavily pregnant Iranian woman with two small daughters and a ‘useless’ (Sewdish) husband – an ‘idiot’ as Ove terms him. So far, so predictable. Three aspects of the film take it beyond the predictable. First is the power of Lassgård and the chemistry between him and his new neighbour (and her daughters). Second is the presentation of Ove’s ‘back story’ about his childhood and hesitant romance with the ever-smiling Sonja and third is that dark edge of Swedish humour. There are moments when it is possible to recognise the world of a Roy Andersson, especially in the several suicide attempts – and sudden accidents – all presented in a matter-of-fact way.

The first meeting between the student teacher Sonja and Ove

The first meeting between Ove and student teacher Sonja

Grumpy old men should love this film (I speak from experience), as will their partners and their children. Ove is rude and officious. He is very competent with all kinds of technology but rather lacking in emotional intelligence, though it is there for those with the know-how to release it in him. In the flashbacks we see Ove played by Viktor Baagøe as a boy and Filip Berg as a young man. Ida Engvoll plays Sonja. The back story introduces some of the reasons why Ove has grown up to be the man we see. In particular he’s clearly justified in being suspicious of ‘the men in white shirts’ and the pain that is experienced because of the incompetence of other workers. There is also an indication that Ove’s experience as a worker has imbued him with a sense of working-class solidarity and collective responsibility. It’s interesting to note that Ove collects into his band the physically disabled, those with learning difficulties, a young gay man and various migrants. He’s a role model for grumps!

Reading Blue Eyes (Blå ögon, Sweden 2014)

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Elin (Louise Peterhoff) returns to work in the Ministry of Justice.

Blue Eyes is a TV serial from SVT, the Swedish public service broadcaster, made as a co-production with the regional film fund Film i Väst and various other Nordic partners including the major player Nordisk and effects house Chimney Pot. Blue Eyes is very much a high-profile property and was broadcast on the UK channel More4 as one of the ‘Walter Presents’ series of European drama productions. It’s a 10 x 58 mins serial. Made in 2014 and broadcast in Sweden in late 2014/early 2015, its UK début came during the long campaign leading up to the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in April/May 2016. There are certain parallels between Swedish and British political developments over the last few years and this production focuses on the rise of nationalism and a ‘disguised’ far right party – not unlike UKIP in the UK. Watching Blue Eyes on ‘catch-up’, these parallels are even more stark with the senseless and tragic murder of the British MP Jo Cox.

Blue Eyes is the creation of Robert Aschberg of Strix TV, Alex Haridi and a team of writers. Haridi was also a writer on Real Humans, the original Swedish drama remade/adapted as Humans, a UK/US series for Channel 4. The opening titles for Blue Eyes are distinctive and to me suggest a political thriller. Much of this comes from the music, which I find difficult to describe, but which seems very familiar with its incessant urge to sweep through public events. It made me think of House of Cards (the original UK series). The titles include low angle shots of official buildings with clouds racing across the sky. This sequence is cross-cut with similarly low angle views of ordinary Swedes involved in various mundane activities, but again with speeded up clouds hurtling across the screen. Finally, the third element is a montage of blown up TV sequences, seemingly related to political campaigns. The overall effect is very unsettling suggesting a coming ‘storm’ overtaking Swedish society.

(There is some spoiler material in what follows, but only enough to enable a description of the genre mix in the serial.)

The serial narrative offers a large number of characters, some introduced very briefly (and therefore making the links between characters later on quite difficult to follow). There is one clear central character, a young woman, Elin Hammer (Louise Peterhoff). She is invited in mysterious circumstances to return to her old job as ‘Office Manager’ for the Swedish Justice Minister at the start of an eight week election campaign. The Coalition Party is in power but is facing a fight against the growing Security Party – a right-wing populist party. Elin is possibly an ‘investigator’ in two ways. First, she wants to discover what happened to the previous Office Manager who is now officially on ‘sick leave’ but whose disappearance seems odd. Later, Elin will find herself questioning the motives of everyone in the Swedish political system, including herself – an ‘internal’ or ‘self’ investigation perhaps. This narrative alone would make a political thriller, but a second narrative combines politics, crime and family melodrama. Sofia (a striking portrayal by Karin Franz Körlof) is a working-class young woman in a bad relationship with an abusive man whose behaviour threatens the couple’s young child, ‘Love’. Sofia has a teenage brother Simon and her mother Annika has been selected by the Security Party as a local spokesperson. What makes Blue Eyes so powerful – and disturbing – is that this family group becomes the locus for a discourse about working-class life in Sweden. When a tragic incident occurs, Sofia is pushed into joining a violent right-wing group with terrible consequences. But despite her fierce looks and aggressive stance as well as her extreme political views, Sofia remains a figure that many audiences will find sympathy for. In addition, there is at least one Security Party politician who also evokes some sympathy. At the same time, the Coalition Party is not all ‘above board’ and Elin will find various rotten apples in the barrel.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

Simon (David Lindström), Love and Sofia (Karin Franz Körlof) – at the centre of a family drama/melodrama.

The second narrative involves Sofia and Simon with a neo-Nazi group intent on terror aimed at breaking Swedes’ trust in their democracy. The terror is created by extremely violent actions (a reference to the activities of the Norwegian extreme right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik in 2011?) and simply by the two central characters responsible for these actions – one, older and seemingly ‘respectable’, one younger and highly-focused as a killer. There is a connection between the two narratives – involving problems at the heart of the Coalition Party. The key to this is briefly introduced in the first few minutes of Episode 1. Many viewers (me included) will struggle to remember these few minutes when the link becomes more obvious later on. Along with the resolution of the overall narrative (which leaves the possibility for a second series) and the large cast of characters, I think this makes the series a difficult (but still absorbing) watch for viewers outside Scandinavia. Reading subtitles is always a trade-off against missing visual cues and is also subject to the difficulties of translation. I’m not sure that the Swedish secret service organisation Säpo is ever properly explained. Also confusing for overseas viewers is the geography of the action. The Swedish government offices are in Stockholm, but much of the action takes place around Uddevalla, a small coastal town in Västra Götaland County on the other side of the country. This is where Simon, Sofia and their mother live – again a parallel for the run-down industrial towns of North-East England which have suffered from austerity and voted for UKIP and Brexit. Presumably this plot detail was necessary to justify funding from Film i Väst by filming in the region. The genre mix in this serial is unusual and that too might work against it. It was a massive hit in Sweden and perhaps the DVD box set may allow a more leisurely ‘reading’ environment. Kudos to Channel4/More4 for showing this but I do find the long advertising breaks tedious – I wish it had been on BBC4. But if this has crept under your radar, I recommend tracking it down

The Here After (Efterskalv Sweden-Poland 2015)

HereAfter

John (Ulrik Munther) is made to stand in class when the teacher introduces him on his return to school.

The Here After is a début feature from Magnus von Horn, a Swede who attended the famous Łódź film school in Poland where he teamed up with a Polish student, Mariusz Wlodarski. After several prize-winning short films and a documentary, The Here After produced by Wlodarski with a partly Polish crew was an official co-production, shot in Sweden, in Swedish. The film, like many other European films, tapped into the regional film fund of Film i Väst and the credits also suggest some form of support from the National Film and TV School in the UK and the French film school Fémis. The Swedish production company involved is Zentropa International, one of many ventures associated with Lars von Trier who started the Danish Zentropa with his colleague Peter Aalbæk in 1992. Zentropa is now 50% owned by Nordisk and ranks as the biggest Scandinavian producer. With this kind of muscle it isn’t surprising that The Here After screened in Cannes and that it has received a release in Poland, Scandinavia and UK with France due in May.

Von Horn has adopted the strategy of telling us nothing about the characters or the situation and forcing us to learn as much as we can as the action unfolds. We see a young man, John (played by a well-known young Swedish pop singer, Ulrik Munther) who appears to be being released from some kind of secure institution. His father has come to collect him and drives him home to a farm where we meet his younger brother, his grandfather and the family dog. John’s mother is never mentioned. There is a great deal of tension between John and the three other family members but his situation doesn’t become clear until he returns to school and an extremely hostile reception from the other students. What has he done? We will eventually find out, but again not directly, only through piecing together what’s said and following the action. John will make a new friend in Malin, a girl who is new to the school and doesn’t know the history (but who is inquisitive). Otherwise, virtually everyone is suspicious if not aggressively hostile.

At first, I felt quite hostile towards the film, partly because von Horn adopts a visual style with lots of shallow focus and which along with other devices such as shooting through windows/doors, often in long takes, helps to distance the audience from the narrative. I understand that this expresses John’s state of mind but it isn’t easy to watch. I was surprised to discover afterwards that the film was shot by Łukasz Żal, the Polish cinematographer who was one of the two contributors to the look of Ida (Poland-Denmark 2013), one of the most astounding visual treats of the last few years. Much is made on the film’s website about the meeting of Scandinavia aesthetics and Polish emotional intensity:

“An over-aesthetic Scandinavian world clashes in the film with Polish sensitivity, creating a new Polish-Swedish quality in world cinema.”

and:

“Łukasz Żal’s cinematography, enclosed in the sombre, sophisticated visual layer of the movie, enables the transition of the pain which accompanies the main character of ‘The Here After’ into an aesthetic experience. The world where John is doomed to live is meticulously scrutinised by the director. Von Horn and Żal have managed to wrap the bitter story in a soft, poetic form, giving rise to a remarkable sensitivity and a coherent cinematic language.” (See http://www.the-here-after.com)

There is a danger here of getting just a little too precious. As far as I can work out, the images are either drained of colour or it is particularly gloomy in Sweden in March (or May? – I couldn’t quite read the calendar on the wall). Either way, this is a world of predominantly blues, greys and greens. I think that I did eventually manage to gain some kind of entry into John’s world and the struggle may well have been worthwhile to experience ‘poetry’ and ‘sensitivity’. But I’m not sure that is what I wanted or expected from the film. I want here to speculate on issues of genre and representation. The Here After signs itself as an art film and as such has succeeded in getting widespread support. But I was also reminded of two other relatively recent films with similar narrative elements. The Swedish film Flocken (2015) has a similar visual style, a not dissimilar location and concerns a younger school student ostracised in her small community because she accuses a boy of sexually assaulting her. Flocken has not got a UK distributor and I wonder if it is thought too generic and not sufficiently ‘arthouse’? Another film which has something of the tone of The Here After is Lenny Abrahamson’s What Richard Did (Ireland 2012). This latter film did get a release and Abrahamson has become a very successful director straddling arthouse and mainstream ‘quality film’. All three films share a narrative in which a teenager does something that ‘shocks’ a relatively small tightly-knit community, leading to disturbing group behaviour and the sense that the various social institutions involved are less effective than they should be – implying perhaps some kind of metaphorical statement about a failing society. I think this is potentially a genre topic and relates to a wide range of films that play with morality, group behaviour and sensitivity around youth and adolescence. Back in the 1960s this would have been classed as a ‘social problem film’ in the UK. Then the narrative would have been expected to deliver an authority figure who would ‘solve’ the problem, but in these recent films a lack of narrative resolution has almost become conventional.

John with his father (Mats Blomgren) attempting to bond over shooting practice.

John with his father (Mats Blomgren) attempting to bond over shooting practice.

The Here After takes place in an unspecified region, although both the director and the young lead are from Halland county in Western Sweden. It seems to me that there are several films which portray life for adolescents outside Sweden’s main cities as tedious and dull. One of the best known is Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål (Sweden 1998). The original title of the film is the cry of teenage girls bored to death with living in Åmål. (The film was sweetly re-titled Show Me Love for release in the US and UK.) The Here After focuses on the more violent behaviour of teenage boys, but also on the way in which some of them are supported by parents for whom group solidarity is more important than any form of moral behaviour or social justice. Like What Richard Did, The Here After is based on/inspired by a news story. Even if there is a ‘truth’ in such a narrative, it still seems to me that there is a danger of ‘typing’ small town Scandinavia as particularly dismal in terms of social relations. Perhaps there is some Swedish scholarship on these kinds of films?

The Here After has received almost universal acclaim – though not too many screenings. It opened on just 10 screens and on its first weekend took only £330 per screen. None of the reviews I’ve read seemed interested in the kinds of sociological questions I wanted to ask. If this is meant to be Sweden, the judicial system and the rehabilitation of offenders seems out of kilter somehow. Of the various reviews, Jonathan Romney makes the most telling point when he describes Ulrik Munther as ‘delicately handsome’ and suggests that his pop star profile is well exploited (at least in a Swedish cinema market context). But too many reviews simply see von Horn as a diligent student of Michael Haneke. I was impressed by Munther’s performance and I certainly appreciated the way tension was built up but I would have liked more in terms of narrative development and more for the audience to chew on.

Official trailer:

LFF 2015 #1: Flocken (Flocking, Sweden 2015)

Jennifer Fatime Azemi) as the young woman

Jennifer (Fatime Azemi) as the young woman

LFF‘Flocking’ here refers to the ‘flocking’ of sheep rather than anything to do with fibres or fabrics. The sheep in this case are the inhabitants of a small community in Swedish Lapland who are all quick to denounce a 14 year-old girl when she accuses a boy in her class of sexually assaulting her in the school toilets.

The film was introduced by Agneta Fagerström Olsson, one of its producers who re-appeared for a Q&A after the screening. She told us that this form of criminal sexual behaviour was an increasing problem in Swedish schools and that the film’s director was very committed in her approach to the material. Unfortunately Beata Gårdeler was prepping her next film in Vietnam and Agneta did not want to answer questions about her director’s distinctive visual style. My problem with this was partly because it was my first visit to Hackney Picturehouse with its very large screen (in Cinema 1). The projected image for Flocken looked dark – as if the projector was underpowered. Presumably this effect and the frequent use of very shallow fields of focus was the deliberate decision of the director, designed to suggest the isolation felt by the young woman – or possibly the distorted views of the community. It isn’t a visual style that is easy to watch even if it makes sense as a device to disturb the viewer for good reasons.

The film narrative works well to develop the pressure on Jennifer and to keep the audience thinking about whether what she has reported really did happen. Jennifer’s behaviour is carefully represented. But as one questioner pointed out in the Q&A in some ways the narrative itself is quite familiar – a dreadful thought, but such cases are not uncommon and films have been made about them fairly regularly. The film is potentially different, however, in two ways. First it introduces a narrative twist involving anonymous social media attacks on Jennifer and second it takes place in an isolated community so the school itself is very small and the accusation is something everybody knows about.

Alexander (John Risto) as the boy accused

Alexander (John Risto) as the boy accused

The interesting question is why does this community collectively behave in such a brutal way? I fear that this seems like another story about the brutality of Northern Sweden – where too much alcohol is consumed and too many guns are used for hunting. I have seen several such films and read several such crime novels. I also worry that Jennifer is a target because she is ‘different’ – dark compared to her blonde sister and single mother. The young actor who plays Jennifer has a name that suggests a migrant from South East Europe. Although it isn’t overt, are we meant to read a racism discourse here? Perhaps the two girls have different fathers? Is this an attack upon the single parent/mixed family? For a UK audience it is revealing to see the local priest who effectively refuses sanctuary (through weakness) and the local judicial system which works properly but doesn’t satisfy most of the townspeople. In the Q&A there was a suggestion that it was mainly a social class issue that meant that Jennifer’s family was ostracised so quickly, but I’m not sure about this.

Flocking is well made with good performances and its mainly female creative team explore how rape charges are handled in a thorough and sober way. Whether that is enough to get the film a wider distribution outside the festival circuit is open to question. The most recent film with similar plot elements is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt (Denmark/Sweden 2012) but with its star cast, tight script and use of melodrama that is a hard act to follow. For me the visual style of Flocking was too much and it might have worked better for concentrated short bursts rather than seemingly throughout. Perhaps it would work better on a smaller screen?

Play (Sweden-France 2011)

'What's he going to do to me?'

‘What’s he going to do to me?’

I haven’t seen writer-director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (Sweden-France-Norway-Denmark 2014), one of the most feted arthouse films of this year,  but my anticipation has increased after watching (experiencing?) the film which preceded it, his second feature. There are at least two levels of ‘play’ going on in the film: there’s the ‘play’ of the boys (though it’s actually bullying rather than the ‘innocent’ kind); and the play with the spectator’s head, which makes for an interesting, and sometimes uncomfortable, experience.

Based on actual court cases in Gothenburg, Sweden, the film follows a group of black lads as they part con/part bully two white, and one lad of East Asian extraction, out of their stuff. The racial politics could, in the eyes of the ‘wrong’ (racist) audience, be quite incendiary as the film represents the black lads in a (negative) stereotypical way. As an arthouse film (in both Sweden and elsewhere given the film’s visual style – more below), however, we might expect it to be seen by the ‘right’ (middle class) audience who may be appalled by the racist stereotyping presented.

However, it all happened so it’s not racist is it? These questions might give you some idea of the way Östlund teases (plays) his audience. It’s a bit like near the start of Crash (US, 2004), where two African-Americans talk about negative stereotyping before robbing two middle class white people on the street. It’s shocking to see obvious racist stereotypes in modern cinema (there are plenty of non-obvious ones). Östlund, who co-wrote and directed, doesn’t offer the emotional catharsis of entertainment, which we get in Crash, but the unnerving camera eye, most commonly utilised by Michael Haneke, with which to observe events. The film virtually forces us to ask the question whether we are watching a racist film or not; it is a good question.

The camera is mostly still, with some pans, and uses long takes and long lenses to observe the action from a distance, which often appears to be taking place on location with passers-by oblivious to the filming. This ‘dispassionate’ distance puts us in the position of an onlooker who can only observe and not intervene. Very little intervention from passers-by actually goes on. In one scene, where the black gang beat up one of their own members, a man who saw what was going on tells the victim he’ll be a witness in court for him. While this scene is obviously completely staged (please let it be!), it’s still shocking to think people won’t get involved; though the passivity of people, when confronted with problems on the street, is well documented.

Östlund does not simply ‘have it in’ for the gang, as a coda the dads of the white lads take out their revenge in a quite outrageous way; presumably this too happened. Two women do intervene at this but didn’t call the police!!! Sorry for the exclamation marks but that’s how the film works: ‘call the police!’ was bellowing in my head.

Assuming it all happened, an absolutely key issue for if it hadn’t then the film would be read differently, Play brilliantly questions our morality. The Telegraph reviewer, who gave the film 5*s, felt the film was ‘partly about a kind of paralysis wreaked by political correctness’. That’s to be expected from a right wing newspaper that doesn’t understand that ‘political correctness’ is a term of abuse aimed at attempts to avoid discrimination. For me the film’s about voyeurism and interrogates our values; or rather encourages us to interrogate our values. And I don’t think the film is about race, rather it is suggesting that class is the key social factor. The gang have little, compared to their middle class victims, who we first see shopping in an anonymous mall; one of whom has just lost 500 kroner to no great distress. Their parents, barely seen, seem more interested in work and only belatedly respond to a distress call. In a materialist society, materialism is the source of conflict. Östlund doesn’t take sides he just shows us uncomfortable truths.

A mostly non-professional cast are brilliantly marshalled though I am still puzzled by the scenes on a train with a cradle which seems to show up near the end, but the point is lost on me. Enlightenment welcome in the comments below please.

Glasgow FF15 #12: A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron, Swe/Nor/Fra/Ger 2014)

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

In the opening sequence a visitor is mesmerised by this rather tatty stuffed pigeon in a glass case in the museum. Note his partner looking on in the background.

This was one of the first films on my booking list. Roy Andersson won the Golden Lion at Venice in 2014 for this, only his fifth feature in a career that began in 1970. I enjoyed his previous film You, the Living (2007) very much and hoped for something similar but also different. ‘Pigeon’ is referred to as the third in a loose trilogy so it is indeed similar and at first I was a little disappointed because the overall idea  and the approach – several short comic scenes knitted together by a handful of characters – are identical to the earlier film (and I suspect to the first in the series, Songs From the Second Floor (2000) which I haven’t seen).

Bruegel's painting

Bruegel’s painting

It wasn’t until a few days later when I studied Andersson’s excellent website for the film, watched the trailer and flicked through the stills that I began to remember more of the sketches and to understand more of what he was getting at. The strange title refers to the painting by Pieter Bruegel, ‘Hunters in the Snow’ (1565), and the three birds sat on branches in the tree in the foreground. This famous painting has been referenced by other filmmakers, including Andrei Tarkovsky. Andersson suggests that the birds take a panoramic view of human activities and the human condition – and that they are astonished that humans cannot see the coming apocalypse. Andersson shares their view and intends that we should be aware that we could change our behaviour and avert the tragedy for ourselves and the planet.

In order to present the pigeon’s view, Andersson selects a distinct aesthetic, moving away from realism and naturalism and drawing on ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ – the ‘New Objectivity’ art movement of Weimar Germany in the 1920s. He’s referring to both fine art and photography and in his notes he refers to a particular photograph by August Sander, entitled ‘The Pastry Chef’ (1928) in which the subject looks “trapped, aggressive and dangerous”. So, in his vignettes looking at the lives of ‘ordinary people’ in Sweden, Andersson sets out to tell little stories, some tragic, some sad, some pathetic. His chosen approach involves using painted sets with reduced colour palettes and using his company of ‘ordinary-looking’ actors with pale make-up. His camera usually remains static and keeps its distance from the actors so the vignettes play out in tableaux – often with a great deal going on in the background.

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of corse it is occupied!

A rider comes to announce that the King wishes to use the toilet in the bar – of course it is occupied!

Some of the vignettes are historical such as the one represented in the image above which refers to (I think) the young king Charles II in the Great Northern War of the early 18th century in which the Swedish Empire took on the Russians – please correct me if I’ve got this wrong. The bar is a popular location for Andersson since people go there to drown their sorrows and to seek solace with strangers.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop.

Anderson on set for a scene outside a bicycle shop – note the carefully painted walls.

'Sancho Panza and Don Quixote' – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

‘Sancho Panza and Don Quixote’ – the hapless travelling salesmen with their vampire fangs and laughing bags.

The main linking device between the vignettes id the sad progress of the two travelling salesmen. If you look carefully you’ll see them in the image of the bar above – one of them is wearing the ‘Uncle One-Tooth Mask’, one of their ‘bestsellers’.

I remember some very darkly comic moments in Andersson’s previous film. One included a man eating from a large box of popcorn as he watched an execution in a prison. This new film has two very disturbing scenes featuring animal cruelty and the hideousness of (British) colonial barbarism. I confess to being puzzled as to exactly what Andersson intended these to say – but perhaps I’m expecting too much in terms of clarity.

Overall this is a wonderful film because of its use of film language as well as offering both comic relief and piercing commentary. Oh, and I mustn’t forget the music. I loved ‘Limping Lotte’s Bar’ in 1943.

The trailer from the Roy Andersson website:

Persona (Sweden 1966)

Elisabet and Alma

This was the key film in the Leeds International Film Festival’s short retrospective of films directed by Ingmar Bergman and set on his adopted home Island of Fårö. This seems to me not only the finest film ever made by Bergman but also one of the outstanding masterworks in World Cinema. It parallels other films that address their own medium of cinema, like Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (Otto e Mezzo, 1963) and Chris Marker’s La Jetée, [a proposed title early in the project was Cinematography]. This is an intense character study involving two very fine actresses, Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson.

The film opens with an avant-garde montage of film – including the cinematic apparatus and apparently disconnected images: at least some of which do relate to the narrative that follows and some to other films by Bergman. Film as the subject re-appears near the middle of this work and again at the end with another montage which returns us to the cinematic apparatus on which the film relies. In between the narrative is presented in a more conventional style, which at the same time employs rigorous mise en scène, cinematography, sound design and editing. The film is graced by outstanding craft inputs from Bergman’s regular collaborators, Sven Nykvist, Ulla Ryghe, and P.O. Pettersson: and with more extracts from Bach on the soundtrack, [his Violin Concerto in E major]. There is also judicious accompanying music from Lars Johan Werle. And there is [once again] the influence of Strindberg.

The film offers a tight focus on two women characters, Elisabet Vogler (Ullman) and Nurse Alma (Andersson). We also meet a doctor who specialises in mental or psychological illnesses and the Elisabet’s husband .And we hear in the dialogue references to several characters including Alma’s fiancée. Bibi Andersson dominates the narrative because we learn most about the characters through her dialogue. For much of the film Ullman’s character is silent. There is a marvellous moment when we [think that we] hear her speak: reminiscent of the imperceptible movement after continuous stasis in La Jetée.

Whilst there is a tight focus on the two women, the Island of Fårö is important and it is recognisable from earlier films. There is a splendid long tracking shot as the two women walk along the beach. Much of the film occurs in the interiors, [mostly shot in a Stockholm Studio]. Later in the film there is a wonderful sequence running about eight minutes in length which consists of a long take that opens with a dolly, followed by a brief transition shot and then another long take in reverse shot, three increasingly large close-ups and then carefully crafted composite shots. What makes this sequence even more daring is the dialogue. The writing and delivery are impressive. There is an earlier monologue which relies almost completely on voice and tone – and it is far more erotic than many a visual sequence. Whilst near the middle of the film there is a brief male voice over

This is certainly a challenging film: a friend at the screening reckoned that one needed to see the film two or three times to fully comprehend it. It is also a richly complex film that pays the repeated viewings. This was my fifth or sixth screening of the film and I was still noticing aspects or noting possible meanings and references. We were fortunate to see the film in a good 35mm print: the cinematography benefits from the characteristic of the traditional medium. The Festival provides slips so audience members can vote on a scale of 1 to 5 – I ticked 5 on two slips and handed them in together.