Category: Swedish Cinema

Border (Gräns, Sweden-Denmark 2018)

Tina (Eva Malender), ever watchful

Border offers all kinds of challenges to the average film fan. It also challenges anyone who wants to write about it without spoilers. On this basis I’ll just offer clues without being explicit. The original idea is taken from a short story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, the Swedish fantasy author who became an international name with the publication of his novel Let the Right One in 2004 and its subsequent adaptation as both a Swedish film in 2008 (and then a US film) and an English-language stage production in 2013. The story, Gräns, was first published in Sweden in 2006 and the final script for the film was written by director Ali Abbasi, and Isabella Eklöf (whose new film as director is released in the UK soon). Fans of Lindqvist’s stories will know what to expect from Border, though I understand there are some additions to the literary narrative. Ali Abbasi is an Iranian who has lived in Sweden and now Denmark. His previous film, Shelley (Denmark 2017) suggests he might have pushed Lindqvist’s script in specific directions. The fact that he is a migrant may also be significant.

Tina (Eva Malender) is a customs official – a ‘border guard’ – at the ferry port of Kapellskär on the Baltic coast, north of Stockholm. Ferries come from Åland, Finland and Estonia. Tina has an unusual ability to ‘sniff out’ contraband. She may also have other unusual abilities to go with her appearance. These include a close affinity with wild animals and with the whole ecology of her forest home. Rather than me describing Tina, just look at her image and make up your own mind what her life might have been like up until now. She lives with a man who trains and ‘shows’ dogs, but her relationship seems not to be physical. Her only other contact is with her father who is in a care home. Work is the only part of her life which gives her satisfaction, partly because her special talent is appreciated by co-workers. One day she stops a man and discovers something which starts a criminal investigation in which she takes an active role. On another occasion she stops a man who turns out to share some of her own characteristics. She won’t be able to stop herself finding out more about Vore (Eero Milinoff). I won’t say any more except that the script manages to bring together three potential narratives. Tina and Vore must discover each other, Tina must discover herself (who or what is she?) and the criminal investigation must be resolved. Any understanding of her actions must also contend with Nordic folk tales.

Tina and Vore go out in the forest together collecting funghi . . .

Border manages to resolve all three narrative questions for me. I don’t want to make direct comparisons with Let the Right One In because that film seemed to me a unique film from a precise moment. Border does something slightly different and ‘fits’ another moment when film culture generally is focused on both gender and ecology as well as questions about migrants moving across physical ‘borders’. The acting performances of Eval Malender and Eero Milinoff are very good, especially given the make-up/prostheses they have to wear. I’ve seen Melander in other films but of course she was unrecognisable as Tina. Tina’s father is an interesting character. His role, as in many Swedish films, references the care system. He also represents a man from an earlier generation with a grown-up daughter – an important figure in different ways in the novels and film adaptations of Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson. Border seems to me a Nordic narrative with strong metaphorical references. It seems to have worked well with audiences and suggests that Nordic cinema still has much to offer. I watched the film on MUBI. I believe it is now available on other VOD services in the UK.

The short UK trailer:

Crisis (Kris, Sweden 1946)

Jack (Stig Olin) and Nelly (Inga Landgré) after the local dance. This feels like a Jean Renoir composition.

Crisis was the first feature by Ingmar Bergman as director after he worked as a scriptwriter and assistant director to Alf Sjöberg on Torment in 1944. It has just left MUBI’s streaming offer in the UK and is otherwise available from Criterion. Adapted by Bergman himself from a play by the Danish writer Leck Fischer this is a first film with several clear influences and as one critic noted, Bergman was still very much a ‘theatre director’ at this stage. I’m not a fan of Bergman’s later films in the 1960s and beyond, the ones that are usually most acclaimed, but I have enjoyed the handful of his earlier films that I’ve seen and in particular Summer Interlude (1951) and Summer With Monika (1953). I tried to approach Crisis with an open mind.

Nelly with Ulf (Allan Bohlin)

The plot outline of the film is very familiar and a staple of popular entertainment. The setting is a remote small country town by a lake in which Nelly (Inga Landgré), a beautiful young girl of 18, lives with her foster-mother Ingeborg (Dagny Lind) and a lodger, Ulf or ‘Uffe’ (Allan Bohlin), a dull veterinarian in his 30s. No sooner has the town been introduced via a voiceover narration than the ‘inciting incident’ occurs. Nelly’s mother, Jenny (Marianne Löfgren), returns from Stockholm to entice her daughter to join her in the city. That night at a local dance, Jenny will meet Jack (Stig Olin), a smooth-talking, street-smart young man who has followed Jenny from Stockholm. Is he Jenny’s ‘toy-boy’? Unaware, Nelly agrees to go to Stockholm. The country mouse goes to town and Ingeborg and Uffe are bereft.

Ingeborg (Dagny Lind)(left) with Jenny (Marianne Löfgren)

If there is a ‘crisis’ in the narrative, it is most likely a ‘crisis of conscience’ as this is essentially a moral tale. Having said that, there is a dramatic climax in Stockholm which eventually leads to a conventional resolution back in the country town. I take the film to be a melodrama and apart from admiring the beauty and vitality of Nelly, I felt most strongly for Ingeborg. The interest in the film is for me in the mixture of stylistic devices. I’ve already mentioned the narration which begins and ends the film. There is also the use of some very loud and dramatic music at moments of drama and music is also a crucial factor in the crude distinction between generations at the dance when a recital in one part of the building is interrupted by the dance band next door – this is the moment when Nelly and Jack first get together. There are similar symbolic moments elsewhere using expressionist lighting and simple effects such as the criss-crossing of railway tracks in a dream. Trains feature heavily in the narrative and at first I thought it was an almost Ozu-like obsession. But the trains are used functionally as night trains transporting the characters between the city and the country town and also simply as dramatic mise en scène with clouds of steam, whistles and other sound effects.

This publicity shot might not appear in the film like this but it does indicate some of the ‘in depth’ compositions

The cinematography is by Gösta Roosling who had experience of four or five features. How much of what we see might be down to Bergman’s ideas? The overall visual style appears to be an amalgam of German Expressionist ideas and French poetic realism alongside some deep-focus outdoor material with long shots that is more reminiscent of neo-realism (which at this time had barely been exported from Italy). Some scenes are nicely composed in depth and the melodrama use of mirrors and windows is noticeable, especially in Stockholm where Jenny runs a beauty parlour. The dramatic climax takes place on what I assume is a studio set with lighting that cries out film noir. Perhaps there is no clear defining style, but the film is always interesting to look at. One long shot shows Nelly in bed suddenly forced to rise when the door is opened (see above). We see her naked from the rear clutching the sheet to her chest. The inference is clear but I do wonder how such a shot would have been received by censors in the UK or US in 1946. I don’t think Bergman’s films came to the UK before the 1950s when they were sometimes cut for dialogue.

One of the more expressionist shots in Jenny’s beauty parlour at night

Given that this was a first feature, Bergman must already have built a reputation since there seem to be several official press pack photos from Svensk Filmindustri (SF) in circulation suggesting that there was expected to be considerable interest in the film. This joins the other early works by Bergman that I have enjoyed.

In the YouTube clip below you can see the scene including the image at the head of this post.It begins with the local dance before Jack and Nelly sneak off. I think it is supposed to be a ‘day for night’ sequence. The music at this point is more for the possible romance than the impending melodrama (indicated by the dialogue?). Nelly is wearing the dress Jenny brought her from Stockholm. (It’s worth watching the extract to the end.)

 

LIFF#1: The Raft (Flotten, Sweden-Denmark-US-Germany 2018)

THE RAFT

A raft of memories

My first film at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival was a fascinating documentary retelling an anthropological experiment organised by Santiago Genoves in 1973. In what would now be a fatuous ‘reality TV’ format, Genoves placed a multinational group of ten five men and five women, along with himself, on a raft that drifted across the Atlantic in over three months. He’d chosen the participants because he thought their differences would lead to violence; no books were allowed so boredom would ensue. He used questionnaires to test the psychological well-being of the participants. Director Marcus Lindeen reassembled the surviving members (above) to discuss their memories on a replica raft in a studio. 16mm footage from the voyage intersperses their dialogue.

Presumably because no British people were on board, I don’t think this ‘sexperiment’, as some newspapers salaciously covered the story, impinged upon the UK at the time (at lease I don’t remember it). The experiment now appears to be a horrendous abuse as the participants were at great risk.

Everyone survived the expedition but only six have out-lived death and Lindeen’s coup is to show the narrative of ‘the raft’ via their memories and actuality footage. The reformatting of the 16mm for the widescreen leaves the image extremely grainy; a perfect metaphor for memory. Genoves is represented via the voiceover narration based on his writings: so he is another teller of the tale. Hence the documentary is as much about ‘telling tales’ as it is about the raft. In many ways The Raft is an ‘observational documentary’ as Lindeen ‘shows’ rather than ‘tells’; the voiceover, although telling, is clearly showing one person’s perspective.

It appears that the audience is left to make their own mind up about what happened whereas, of course, Lindeen – particularly through editing – is the master narrator. As someone who knew nothing of what happened it was interesting to see the documentary, at its conclusion, come to the same view as mine. Except, of course it’s the other way around; which is not to say it is not the truth.

Spoilers:Genoves failed to find the violence he was looking for so he sought to stir it up. He’d placed Maria Bjornstam as skipper of the crew thinking the men would be resentful. He usurped her place when she said they should shelter from a hurricane. When threatened by a cargo ship he panicked but Maria’s calm expertise saved them; she took back control. We see, ultimately, the Genoves’ experiment tells us much about the type of man he was: full of self-regard, controlling and determined to be successful. His crew get along great amongst themeselves. In a short post-raft TV interview, shown during the end credits, Genoves admits he discovered much about himself but he doesn’t say what he learned. I suspect he blamed others for the expedition’s ‘failure’ whereas it was a great success in that they all survived and the people got along great.

Many of the memories of the survivors are, unsurprisingly, vague and they contradict one another. The abstract reconstruction of the raft, it’s full-sized but not equipped, brightly lit in the blackness of a studio gives a dream-like feel to the mise en scene

African-American Fé Seymour movingly tells of how she hallucinated that drowned slaves appeared to her as she realised they were tracing the route of the slave ships. Japanese photographer, Yamaki Eisuke, shyly relates who he’d fancied on the voyage. These human touches stand in contrast to Genoves’ hubris; but Lindeen is right to give him the voiceover as it was his experiment and he damns himself with his words.

The Girl Who Kicked in the Hornet’s Nest (Luftslottet som sprängdes, Sweden/Denmark/Germany 2009)

Mikael Nykvist as ‘Kallie’ Blomkvist

(I discovered this in a pile of unpublished posts. I’m posting it now as a tribute to Mikael Nykvist who died ridiculously young (of lung cancer) at 56 in June 2017. I also note that a second ‘follow up’ title in the Millennium series by David Lagercrantz has been published in the UK and that Sony has now decided to produce an adaptation of the first Lagercrantz follow-up, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Apparently Claire Foy is now to undertake the Lisbeth Salander role and the film comes out in a few weeks. I do wish they wouldn’t do this. I’ve read the Lagercrantz book and it’s fine but I’ve already forgotten the story. I’d prefer that the Anglo-American takeover of the Millennium series had never happened and that Stieg Larsson’s estate had stopped further exploitation. The original Nordic versions of the three central characters played by Noomi Rapace, Mikael Nykvist and Lena Endre will remain as the embodiment of Larsson’s characters for me.) 

The third instalment of the Millennium film trilogy suffered from the ‘diminishing returns’ that most film series eventually produce in terms of audience numbers. Certainly when I contemplated watching the film I felt dragged down by the knowledge that the third novel was extremely densely plotted and I’d been told that the third film was the weakest. In fact, I found it more enjoyable than the second film and possibly more interesting than the first (though of course not as thrilling to watch).

Annika Blomkvist (Annika Hallin) and Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) in court.

If you haven’t either read the trilogy or seen the first two films, much of this film may well pass you by. As was the case with the first film, the Swedish title offers a more useful clue to the way the narrative works with its reference to ‘castles in the air’ that are brought down. The first film’s Swedish title was ‘The Men Who Hate Women’ in which investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist exposes a family of rich industrialists as fascists and violent misogynists. Lisbeth Salander is his co-investigator and her experiences during the investigation set up the second story which indeed has her central role given in the title – as the ‘girl who played with fire’. The reason for her attack on her father as a 12 year-old is revealed as the motivation she requires to seek him out. But at the end of the second book, Lisbeth has nearly been killed and she spends most of the third story in hospital recovering. The narrative effectively passes back to Mikael who, with his sister the lawyer Annika and Lisbeth’s loyal hacker contact ‘Plague’, finds the evidence that both liberates Lisbeth and exposes a whole secret network of Cold War warriors of the worst sort, first established in the 1980s without the knowledge of the Swedish government executive. Lisbeth’s ‘legal incompetence’ is one requirement of keeping the network created around her father secret.

Promoting Lisbeth, one of the great female characters of the last twenty years, ahead of the seemingly less interesting Blomkvist as an investigator is perhaps inevitable when marketing these stories. The final section of the film in which Lisbeth makes an electrifying court experience alongside Annika is a fitting climax to the story of female solidarity that is there in the novels but is to some extent sidelined in the earlier films. Blomkvist for me is not ‘uninteresting’ and he gives the Millennium series its spine and ties it back into the tradition of Swedish noir and police procedurals initiated by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö with their Martin Beck books, followed up by Henning Mankell and his Wallander novels. Mikael Blomkvist is an investigative journalist rather than a police inspector, but he has the same dogged determination to solve the crime and expose the bad guy. He’s a middle-aged and not particularly glamorous character (which is why Daniel Craig was arguably a poor casting choice in the David Fincher adaptation of the first novel in the trilogy). By bringing together ‘Martin Beck’ and ‘Pippi Longstocking’, Stieg Larsson certainly hit on a good way to attract a broad audience in Sweden. Re-reading the Martin Beck books recently, I noticed that the Swedish ‘secret service’ agency, Säkerhetspolisen, usually abbreviated as Säpo was a target for Sjöwall and Wahlöö and turns up again in the Millennium Trilogy.

With fascism on the rise again in Europe it’s important to keep Sieg Larsson’s trilogy alive as a warning. Here’s the original Swedish trailer with English subs: