Tag Archives: Sweden

At Doc/Fest: The Confessions of Thomas Quick

Has the moment arrived to call time on Scandi-noir? The new release of The Confessions of Thomas Quick might be the film where the concept finally reaches its breaking point. A documentary about a huge travesty of Swedish justice, the film unquestioningly plays out a true-crime story in the register of Scandi-noir in a deeply problematic manner. Playing fact against fiction the film switches constantly between straight talking-head testimonies and hammy crime recreations. For the un-initiated the story plays out along the familiar beats of a wintry crime drama, but as someone who has grown-up with the story unfurling over the last twenty years the whole sat very ill. To use an extreme comparison, imagine the story of the Moors murders retold as a hard-boiled Film Noir, intercut with uncritical testimonies from Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and well, you start getting an idea of why this film felt so disturbing to this poor half-Swede.

Sture Bergwall som ung

The tale is that of the titular Thomas Quick, the assumed pseudonym of Sture Bergwall, who grew in horrific infamy during the 1990s as Sweden’s first high profile serial killer. While incarcerated in a high security mental facility in 1993 Quick started confessing to a string of murders, 30 in total of which eight led to trial and conviction. He was the boogeyman your friends warned you about, the kiddie-snatcher with the weird name and the creepy glum face. A known figure locked away for good, he dropped out of the spotlight but remained in the public consciousness all the same. That is until the whole story unravelled in December of 2008, when Sture Bergwall retracted his story on national TV, and admitted to fabricating every one of his confessions.

The absurdity of this dramatic twist is that the Swedish justice system had managed to secure convictions against Bergwall based on little more than his testimony. Countless observers had criticised the process, especially since Bergwall was unable state where he had buried the bodies, or give any evidence which only the killer could know. Instead he was held up as the examplar of a particular kind of serial killer, whose behaviour chimed in with an elaborate theory established by the team of psychiatrists treating him. The problem was Bergwall had worked out what his therapists wanted to hear, and he spent the better part of ten years playing along every step of the way.

Sture Bergwall som Gammal

The documentary is built around the candid testimony of Bergwall himself, and he is quite clear that the pay-off for his elaborate lie was a heightened degree of psychiatric attention, and a ramped up prescription of sense deadening drugs. For an attention-starved recovering addict, this reward far outstripped the risk of lying, and so he became incredibly adept at playing along with the head psychiatrist’s pet theory. Reflecting on the process almost twenty years after the event Bergwall’s personal testimony is unnerving and astute, and there is a delicious irony in the redeemed killer psycho-analysing the psychiatrists who fundamentally failed him as a patient.

The scale of the lie and the institutional failings behind this travesty shook Sweden when it first came to light, and a straight re-telling of the story would be enough to hold anyone’s attention. Sadly the filmmakers didn’t think so, as the film plays out with bridging sections of dark, wintry scenes, swelling moody music, and the bleak colour palate of ever Scandinavian crime series of the last ten years. Bergwall’s back story, an important element in understanding the motivations behind the troubled figure, are recreated onscreen but still play out like the deleted scenes from an episode of Wallander. Somehow Bergwall is both a character ripped from the pages of crime fiction, while also being the institutionalised victim of a self-perpetuating psychological myth. The film flits between wanting to condemn Bergwall, but also giving him enough screentime to let him charm the viewers, to win our sympathy for his plight.

Sture Bergwall on Twitter

The documentary struggles to make sense of the figure that Bergwall has become, and the unquestioning space, and sympathy that the film affords him is deeply problematic. The serial killer that never was is portrayed as the real victim, but what justice is there for the parents of the children whose murders Bergwall cruelly claimed and later disowned? The catharsis of the film is seeing Bergwall reconciled with his once estranged brother, surveying a glorious Nordic landscape, and making plans for the future and the new life as a free man. A life alone, away from the spotlight you might think, but if you’re curious to see how he’s doing then go find him on twitter @sturebergwall. Pictures of said Nordic landscapes, retweets from the filmmakers premiering the film, the odd link to a positive review. A serial killer no more, but no less a media figure for that, the film’s complicity in pandering to his ego with the romantic trappings of Scandinavian noir remains deeply disturbing and more than a little problematic.

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Can Somebody Name a Film That’s Actually About Coffee?

A Film About Coffee: It’s title seemed to come more like a question than it did as a label for a new documentary. Maybe years spent in video rental stores and DVD libraries have somehow wired my lizard brain to instinctively assume the inquisitive tone whenever a film about ‘something’ comes up. Too many times I’ve had to look someone in the eye and recall a film that meets the wildly dissociated criteria they can dream up at the given moment: “give me a German film about, skaters maybe?” or even “can you think of an old British film about something, issues maybe. With a bit of grit?” or better still “have you got a Japanese comedy about food? Or better still a documentary about Japanese food?” Yeah sure, let me think about that, give me a minute and I’ll get you a few to pick from. But a film about coffee? That’s a much tougher question that you might first assume.

This Is CoffeeBecause certainly there have been a couple of documentaries that are explicitly about the bean, the process, the roasting, the industry and the global market for the rejuvenating juice, Black Gold being a recent example that comes to mind. Better yet is the delightfully perky THIS IS COFFEE! a public information film put out by the Coffee Brewing Institute in 1961. In its scant twelve and a half minutes it manages to be all your Mad Men wish-fulfilment dreams rolled into one. Exoticism, imagined foreign travel, brewing instructions, and staged tableaux of coffee being drunk “on the breakfast table” “at the writers desk” “at the college meeting” “at the romantic meal”. Coffee is LIFE, coffee is everywhere! It truly makes you wonder how many boozy lunches the dry men of the Coffee Brewing Institute had to sit through before Don Draper sold them that pitch.

The GZA the RZA the Bill Murray with Coffee and CigarettesBut how about films concerning coffee, than aren’t documentaries? Ask around and any hepcat worth their salt is bound to mention Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, so much so it’s practically a no-brainer. A good friend of mine hit the nail on the head when he noted that it’s essentially eleven short films that play like eleven awkward dates. Two people meet, they drink coffee, they have some stilted conversation, exchange a furtive glance or three, they maybe smoke a cigarette or two. The film’s a hit and miss oddity, a clever portmanteau of Jarmusch’s early short films glued together with some newer scenes, and it holds an undying attraction to music fans eager for theopportunity to see The White Stripes, or Iggy Pop and Tom Waits on screen. For myself the joy is seeing The RZA, The GZA and Bill “Groundhog Day, Ghostbustin Ass” Murray brought together in a mad moment of method acting. That and the fact that the three actually discuss coffee rather than just drink it.

But that’s it, that’s where the list stops short for most people I’ve managed to ask in the last couple of weeks. Whether it’s film nerds, or even challenging some of Bristol’s finest coffee experts, this line of inquiry has left me grasping for good films about, or at least intricately involved in the act of making, drinking and enjoying coffee. There are of course plenty of brilliant scenes built around drinking of coffee, sometimes the withholding of coffee, and more than few singing the praises of a “DAMN fine cup of coffee”. There’s some great comedy in the serving of coffee, some humour even in the noirish concoction of Steve Martin’s own java, but nothing which seems to distinguish itself beyond that.

Old Ingmar Bergman Having a Cup of JoeThe truth of the matter lies closer to my own crackpot theory about Swedish cinema, namely that there isn’t a single film (or TV series) set in the modern era which does not feature someone making or drinking coffee at some point in the whole affair. It’s a theory I’ve only had the casual chance to test in the Swedish films I’ve seen recently, but it’s holding up with an almost unnerving 100% consistency. Coffee is everywhere in Swedish film, just as it is an ever present part of Swedish life, and while neither a song or dance is made of the matter, it’s always just there.

And this truism obviously carries across borders, and my inability to find a good Film About Coffee hinges on the fact you don’t get good films about furniture, or breathing, or washing. Coffee is part of the firmament of everyday life, and until someone teases the subject out into something greater, the act of coffee itself is not likely step beyond it’s perennial bit-part status on screen any time soon. I’ll be curious to see what the actual documentary A Film About Coffee turns out to be like when it gets it’s South West debut at the Arnolfini in Bristol on the 7th of November, but I’m not expecting a paradigm shift in the starring role of coffee any time soon.

Instead I’ll end with my favourite coffee making scene in cinema, from the opening credits of the Ipcress File. Freshly ground beans and a French press isn’t a euphemism of how Michael Caine starts his days, but the brilliant title sequence to this spy classic still hints that there’s some romantic entanglement of which we’re not getting the full picture. Simple, effortless, and endlessly cool. Which is to say, quite unlike a good cup of coffee.

Tickets for the A Film About Coffee screening in Bristol are available on the Get Invited website.

All the other films I’ve been surreptitiously linking to can be found at the brilliant video store 20th Century Flicks, on the Christmas Steps in central Bristol. They too can do a brilliant job of recommending films to match your free-association taste requirements.

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The Bridge is Not a Documentary

“Come quickly, it’s Stockholm on the telly” my Mum shouts. It’s a BBC World documentary with a brief segment on the place of migrants in the city. Happy fruit and flower sellers on Hötorget speak proudly of how integrated they are, how their children have been born and raised as Swedes, and how glad they are for the opportunities afforded to them. Then the bright summery colours of the market fade as the voice-over concedes that “Sweden also has a darker side, as reflected in the recent popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction”. A bearded white baby-boomer is rolled out to read an extract from his latest novel, something about a dead woman, maybe strangled, something about the smell of flowers. This man’s books have sold well internationally, why is that asks the interviewer. Oh because it flies in the face of this utopian vision everyone has of Sweden, the sad reality that in some senses the country has become a “lost paradise”. Not that it took such a colossally ill-judged reference to Milton to raise the hackles of my family, as even the mention of ‘that’ genre had eyes rolling and groans rumbling.

The voice-over reflects that “this is of course fiction” with the qualification that it still “tells us something about the state of Sweden today”. Quite how well this crime novel matches Ulysses in capturing a city in a moment of time I’ll never know, as both will remain unread (or at least unfinished) for the foreseeable future as I busy myself unearthing the state of European relations in the 1930s from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

A Sunny Day on the Bridge Season 2

This of course is not to begrudge the relentless success of these marauding Nordic writers and producers, but rather an appeal against the endless, countless, and generally quite pointless one-note readings of the region spun out by tireless features writers everywhere. Social commentary is certainly a kernel to the formula of Scandinavian crime fiction, but it is not the sole point of the genre as boldly stated by at least one British journo. Maybe I’m too wound up as a half-native, but what can the average viewer hope to learn from The Killing, The Bridge, or indeed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo? Yes, Malmö and København are surprisingly close to each other after the opening of the Öresunds bridge. Migrant integration is a serious issue, look only to the Husby riots in Stockholm last spring for that. Racism is on many levels endemic, and worryingly institutionalised, although thousands have taken to the streets against this. Women are broadly speaking more liberated, but that isn’t for a moment to say misogyny has been eradicated. Likewise folks are generally a bit more open about sex, or at least not crippled by embarrassment at the hint of the subject, but neither does that preclude increasing levels of sexual violence.

Spelling out these issues in such ludicrously broad terms is making me feel like an idiot for even mentioning them, which is perhaps why I’m getting a tad fed up with crime fiction being taken as the outsider’s one true conduit to the ‘dark underside’ of the Scandinavian social model. To the uninitiated there is no doubt much to see and learn from a drama set in a completely new culture, yet for all this novelty and exoticism I doubt many will be blinded the simple fact that The Bridge is not a documentary, but rather an incredibly well paced thriller with interesting and three dimensional characters.

winter on the Bridge Season 2

The new season, like the first, is packed with flourishes, twists and seemingly ceaseless turns as the Danish Martin Rohde and Swedish Saga Norén again team up to solve a new sprawling mystery. Their collaboration, and their poles-apart approach to personal interaction cuts through the whole of their investigation, and it is their mutual drive which keeps the viewer interested and up to speed with every step of the drama. Although there are more than a few cheap narrative tricks along the way (last minute SUDDEN CLIFFHANGER warnings abound), the show steps far enough away from the recognisable conventions of the emerging Scando-crime TV format to keep things interesting and unpredictable. Dissect or analyse the narrative for whatever social commentary you can find (and good luck with that in the new series), the real strength remains the characterisation of the show’s two leads, and the new series does plenty of digging into both their psyches and their past. The culmination of this latest series and its absolutely dizzying conclusion will have audiences howling for answers, in the best possible way.

While the second series kicks off with a double episode on BBC4 tonight, the bad news for the newcomer is that you really really REALLY have to start with the first series, as the first two minutes of the new series completely gives away the game of the latter. The good news is that the whole thing is readily available on UK Netflix right now, so there are no excuses not to get stuck in right this instance. Any object lessons in Scandinavian culture picked up from either series will be gladly received on the back of a postcard, questions likewise so.

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Showing at the Showroom: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest

What started off as something rather unknown and unassuming has come full circle, and reached as satisfactory a conclusion as could be hoped for. The story of ‘The Girl,’ the hacker with sleuthing skill beyond expectation becomes the focus in the final instalment, where the injustices against her are brought to trial, but not without some daft low-rent action distractions en route.

First things first: those approaching the series for the first time are directed elsewhere, because this conclusion won’t make a blind bit of sense otherwise. The story picks up straight where the second one left off, leaving us slap bang in the middle of a bloody standoff, with Lisbet splatterd and dazed like some misplaced ‘last girl left’ evacuee from a horror film. When the next scene cuts to The Shady Conspiracy of Old Men discussing how best to silence a rogue agent, well that won’t make a jot of sense without any context. To the unprompted eye it’s just a living room full of aged Swedish actors (predominantly off the telly) discussing a ‘problem’ over some coffee. Not so much Jason Bourne, more like afternoon tea with my grandparents.

But where the weakness of the second installment lay in the shonky action sequences and general Bond-villian driven nonsense, the final film draws in some of the files-and-archives detective work of the first film to strike a tolerable middle ground. The story is split between the detective work of the journalists trying to patch together Lisbeth’s past for the case against the state, all while the shadowy agents of the very same system work desperately to cover their tracks. You wouldn’t know it from the start, but the film quickly sets about building some momentum towards a knockout courtroom confrontation.

Considering how anemic the Swedish legal system is in dramatic terms (think beige conferences suites, not wigs, gavels, and screaming lawyers) the film still manages to coax out some explosive confrontations as the film turns towards the dismantling of the titular Air Castle** of the original Swedish title. Having been through five hours of one hacker against the whole Swedish-model-of-social-responsibility-GONE-WRONG, well safe to say it’s quite cathartic to see it all so meticulously demolished, misogynist prick by misogynist prick.

Neither of the sequels ever hits the sure-footedness  of the first film, but if you’ve come this far then you’d be daft not to catch the final installment.  Just don’t make this the last Swedish film you see in the next five years…

Three out of Five.

[Note to Cinemas: please don’t make this the last Swedish film you screen for the next five years]

[Note to the Swedish Film Industry: please don’t make this the only film worth screening in the next five years. Seriously.]

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is showing at the Showroom cinema in Sheffield from the 26th of November 2010

** As with the Swedish titles of the previous installments, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest bears bugger all resemblance to the original: Luftslottet Som Sprängdes, which in literal translation is The Air-Castle Which Exploded. The term Luftslott/Air-Castle is an odd one, broadly speaking a lofty notion or institution built effectively on nothing but hot air. So to modify a straight forward translation that was suggested to me, consider The Bubble Which Blew Up. Or to take a further liberty: The Exploded Pie in the Sky. Now that would make a snappy title.

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A Long Take on Ruben Östlund and Involuntary

It’s no doubt hard to imagine a time when Swedish cinema wasn’t just about sadists and the broken individuals that pursue them. Sure enough there is a Swedish film industry apart from all things criminal and in the shadow of all this attention is a really rather brilliant film called De Ofrivilliga (or Involuntary to give it’s English title) that’s about to get a UK release. Five separate stories interwoven across and hour and forty minutes which, to quote the director Ruben Östlund, all build on the question of  ‘how is the individual affected by the herd mentality.’

Which is to say, how far would the individual go to not lose face in front of their peers? The conceit is simple, but the realisation nuanced, exploring a number of situations which not being universal are none the less recognisable in an abstract sense. The patriarch of the family gathering, refusing to admit the need for medical attention after taking a firework right in the eye; the tweenage girls leaning on a young man, a complete stranger, to buy them alcohol; the teacher ostracised in the staff room for speaking out against the transgressions of a colleague;  the recognised actress who can’t admit to having broken a coach toilet; the ‘lad’ who can’t reconcile his friends for having gone just too far. Each scenario is a unique approach to the same question, and watching the subject of each quietly writhe in subjugation is agonising yet perfectly recognisable. The fact that the film is shot in agonisingly long takes, consistently in extreme long-shot, or framed in such a manner as to exclude the majority of the action, really locks the viewer into every excruciating moment of discomfort.

Some might take this as a springboard to discussing how the pangs of individual concern throw a spotlight on the enshrined national responsibility towards social welfare, but this isn’t Wallander and all Swedish cinema is not just about the collapse of the Swedish Model. Not to underplay or under-read the film either, it’s just that Östlund’s filmography is far from conventional, and the stylistic influences he brings to bear aren’t so much Bergman and Sjöström, but by his own admission draw more from Youtube and extreme sports filmmaking. This is not to be glib or contrary either, as there’s a clear line of influence stretching right back to Östlund’s first break making off-piste skiing films.

The kind of fare in question is the sort you used to find on expensive vhs tapes, sold from behind the counter in skate and ski shops, and Östlund made a name for himself in the mid-nineties. His approach was marked by eschewing the fast cut, slow-motion-heavy ‘white powder porn’ of most skiing films,  and instead drawing on the unbroken aesthetic of skating and snowboarding videos. To borrow a well-worn truism from introductory film courses everywhere: Every Cut Is A Lie, but especially so in stunt driven extreme sports. With the cameramen perched on distant peaks, tele-photo lenses gazing across the valley, you don’t get any second chances and come missed jumps, broken bones, or even avalanches, whatever happens you keep on rolling. The effect is terrifying in it’s own right, and set to an upbeat soundtrack of mid-nineties Swedish indie-rock, the complete package is part travelogue, part music video, and bizarrely compelling irrespective of your prior interest in skiing.

His love of filmmaking came to supersede his interest in the subject, and his outsider filmography was his ticket to three years at the School of Photography at the University of Gothenberg. His approach persisted even in his graduate work, and in his 2002 documentary Familj Igen, in which Östlund reunited his divorced parents of 23 years, the 59 minutes of the film is broken by a mere 21 cuts. By the time he moved onto his first feature film the application of the extended take becomes a dangerously effective device in fudging the lines between fact and fiction. The provocatively titled Gitarrmongot [literally The Guitar Mongoloid, but you can replace Mongoloid with Spastic or any other equally un-PC playground barb] takes an even more disparate collection of characters and follows them as they go about their lives in Gothenburg. Some of it’s staged, some of it’s not. Some characters have their faces blurred out in a way which suggests they refused to sign an image-release form. Unless told otherwise you could easily mistake it for an open form documentary, much like the Finnish Living Room of the Nation. It’s not, but then you can’t say it’s a wholly fictional film either.

This merry melding of categories and expectations, a willingness to simply mess around with form is perhaps why I’m growing to like Östlund so much. I’ve not had a chance to see his latest short film Incident by a Bank, but it’s technical conceit alone is enough to really make me want to see it. A failed bank robbery, shot in high resolution digital (4K in case you care) in a single extreme long-shot take across a public square, with the narrative reconstructed by focusing the frame on specific actions within the fixed shot. Editing by means of pan and scan, if you will. Maybe I’m just curious out of a purely technical aspect, but a Gold Bear at the Berlin film festival gives me hope that it’s more than just a gimmick.

The shower of critical accolades and festival awards has also given Östlund enough of a platform to be technically experimental, and to stand by it. In a bizarrely informal breakfast programme interview on Swedish television Östlund was quietly taken to task for his ideology in approaching film. Gently pilloried for being internationally lauded but still overlooked by the Swedish Guldbagge film awards, Östlund gladly took the Swedish establishment to task for shunning non-conventional cinema. When asked what his main creative influences were he readily cites Youtube as his first port of call: an infinite sourcebook of staged and un-staged human emotion, both in terms of the viewer and the viewed. Allowed to cite a specific film Östlund asks the show to screen the clip Pygme Jerboa from Youtube, showing  a kangaroo mouse filmed by it’s doting owner.  To quote Östlund himself:  ‘In terms of vitality there isn’t a scene in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which can even measure with this clip.’ This isn’t said with the straightest of faces, but Östlund remains none the less earnest in highlighting how dead he feels the Swedish film establishment is.

When he says that his next film (called Play and currently in production) is primarily inspired by the Youtube film The Battle at Kruger you have to take him on his word, albeit with a pinch of salt of course. He’s no ‘Enfant Terrible’ but like his formal and aesthetic forebear Lars von Trier, you can’t take Östlund on his every word. There’s a humour and a openness in his approach to filmmaking, and goodness knows that’s something Swedish film is calling out for. A young Swedish director to get excited about is a very rare thing indeed, and hopefully there’s more formally interesting stuff to come.

If Involuntary is screening anywhere near you then you’d be well advised to seek it out.

Involuntary has it’s UK release on the 29th of October, and will be screening as such:

In London at the Apollo West End, the Odeon Panton Street and at the French Institute’s CinéLumière

Outside London at Zeffirellis (Amberside), The Filmhouse (Edinburgh), The National Media Museum (Bradford), and the Chichester Cinema at New Park.

[PS: If you’re at all curious about the film, do yourself a favour and skip the trailer and just watch this short film instead. It’s an obvious precursor in exactly the same vein as Involuntary but without giving the film itself away. It’s also a cracking short film in its own right.]


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A Swedish Crime Overlooked

No two ways about it, the new film adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire is unequivocally awful. Compared to the first, quite lean and brisk adaptation, the sequel is just one big fat raspberry of a film, full of Bond villains, gratuitous punch-ups, flat car chases, and lacking the hard-nosed sleuthing which was the driving force behind the original. I would recommend some other Swedish crime thrillers; the fruits of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Inspector Beck, as well as the new film Snabba Cash (Easy Money), were the titles available with English subtitles. But they aren’t, and it seems like some rights holders are really missing a trick not capitalising on this surging, possibly fleeting interest in such a narrow market.  

It’s possibly because this vogue in Swedish crime is seen with certain deference by the Swedes themselves, many of whom don’t get what all this international  fuss is about. Moving back to the UK to start university seven years ago I found it baffling that my tutors would ask keenly if I was a fan of a genre I didn’t readily disassociate from the worn out formula of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Inspector Morse isn’t a national treasure, so why the hell would you think that Kurt Wallander is?  

By this measure Swedish critics easily dismissed The Girl Who Played with Fire, as well as the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and their origin as a TV-movie was the stick they roundly beat them with. By contrast the anglophone critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on Dragon Tattoo, which in turn raised the hackles of Swedish critics, despairing at their peer’s inability to call out a trashy TV-movie when they saw one. The anglophone take on the sequel is only slowly starting to trickle in, and with opinion slightly more divided this time around, yet there are still critics who seem proud to champion the film in spite of it being an absolute dogs-dinner.  

The forces behind such a discreet polarisation can be summarised through one count of cultural cringe on the side of the Swedish (automatically dismissing anything home-grown) and a slight sheen cultural voyeurism for non-domestic viewers (the cagey exoticism of revelling in the grotty underside of the Swedish Social model). Even more broadly the polarisation boils down to a simple case of over-familiarisation versus relative ignorance, as Sweden is utterly saturated with the products of its own crime fiction, which is only just starting to trickle out to the English speaking world. To say that crime as a genre is ubiquitous in Sweden barely even covers the half of it, and while the majority of it is little beyond the Sunday night Midsummer Murder repeats, there are a few indigenous gems which are still refusing to find a market outside Sweden.  

The obvious first port of call is Henning Mankell’s tales of southern Sweden’s finest Insp. K Wallander, yet the existence and continuing success of the BAFTA award-winning  Anglophone adaptation rather negates the need for me to rake over matters any further. That the BBC adaptation was so popular that it even warranted repeat showings of the original language series on BBC4 is rather a big deal in my book. No Swedish TV series has ever had an airing on UK networks in my lifetime, and while I daren’t guess what the viewing figures were, it still sets a precedent that licensing-wise it can be done, and there might even be a market for it.  

Second in line would be Wallander’s literary predecessor, the well-spring of Swedish crime ubiquity: Insp. Martin Beck. He’s the obvious candidate for ‘readers who bought Wallander also bought…’ with the original ten books by the writing duo Sjöwall & Wahlöö gaining a tremendous foreign readership on the coattails of Wallander. Of the whopping thirty eight films that have come from the Martin Beck character, all but one failed to find a market outside the usual distribution outlets of Scandinavia + Germany. And rightly so, as the majority are the absolute tripe, clogging up the schedules and video store shelves across Sweden with the scowling face of actor Peter Haber. Seventeen of these twenty six modern adaptations have English subtitles, but for pity’s sake don’t look them up.  

The second actor to carry the mantle of Martin Beck is the rather unassuming Gösta Ekman, and his time at the crease is of far greater note, even if many Swedes are quick to roll their eyes at Just-Another-Beck. Ekman’s native profile is coloured by his long association with national comedic champions Hasse & Tage, and his not so serious demeanour brings a brevity which serves the otherwise portentous Beck well.* The six films with Ekman are solid TV-films, a bit dated since the early 90s, but all maintaining a tight knot of tension that keep them skimming along. The position of Beck always holding out against the solution of least resistance make him a likeable character, the obstinate thorn in the establishment’s side, always insisting on digging deeper however much dirt gets thrown up in the process. Where modern adaptations of Wallander seem to gleefully wallow at the never-ending weight of angst Kurt faces just getting out of bed every day, Ekman/Beck is a relative breath of fresh, if 20 year old air. If you had any choice in the matter I’d recommend Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy) or Polismördaren (Cop Killer), but neither are available with non-Scandinavian subtitles. The rights holders would do well to pull them all from wire-baskets of Sweden’s petrol stations, translate the lot, and export them in a cheap box-set. Money for some very fine old rope, in my opinion.  

Better still they could just cut straight to the outstanding classic crime flick, the one Beck film which did break internationally: Mannen På Taket (The Man on the Roof). Crudely pitched as the Swedish French Connection, Bo Widerberg’s 70s thriller is on paper just-another-Beck film, with a grisly murder of token Bourgeois arsehole, followed by an hours sidetracked investigation, ending in a dramatic confrontation in the final 10-20 minutes. The difference here is the execution, and the sheer brilliance of the film in capturing the inane domesticity the police are constantly disrupting in their investigations. Another comedian assumes the role of Beck, and the older Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt underplays an already understated character brilliantly. As the frustrations of the inquiry slowly starts to unravel in Beck’s hands, the revelation leads to an absolutely dizzying shoot-out finale with a district of central Stockholm held hostage by a crazed gun-man located, unsurprisingly, on a roof.  

At first glance the Swedish French Connection moniker is warranted, but an outsider’s approach shouldn’t be hamstrung by this, as Man on the Roof is anything but derivative. Friedkin’s gritty, almost observational perspective of New York finds an uncanny twin in Stockholm, the pale light of the autumnal city presenting a washed out pallette that’s visually striking without getting too wound up in that great Nordic angst Branagh/Wallander loves to fetishise. The budget was large for the Swedish film industry at SEK 3.9 million, but at the exchange rate of the time that still only comes to ~$780,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the French Connection‘s $1.8 million. The Man on the Roof doesn’t have the bombast, or the car chases of its American twin, but it still works brilliantly within its constraints. There is action, a few stunts and one eye-opening explosion, but at no point does the film ever look or feel cheap.  

By the same measure I would argue that’s the dividing line between Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, as one works deftly within its restrains, while the other is too busy pretending to be a Michael Mann film on a beggars budget. Not to say that Swedish film should ‘know its place’ but that a film that works within its financial limitations is going to sell a lot better than a half-arsed imitation. The Swedish DVD release of The Man on the Roof idiotically doesn’t list that it has English subtitles, even when it does have them. It’s really worth a look, and is more than due a revival in the wake of Swedish crime fiction’s current popularity.  

Finally a word to a contemporary Swedish crime film that hasn’t a jot to do with Stieg Larsson; Snabba Cash (Easy Money). Based on the successful novel by Jens Lapidus, the recently released film adaptation manages to make something of the contemporary, yet but my measure cringingly leaden original novel. At it’s heart the source material follows an unlikely trio of criminal compatriots, a Chilean immigrant, a Serbian immigrant, and blonde blue-eyed social interloper in Stockholm’s financial elite. A wholesale cocaine deal, and an elaborate money laundering scheme unite the three, all struggling with falling deeper down the hole of criminality, desperately trying to maintain the façade of day to day life.  

  

The original novel made a big hoopla of being an expose of Stockholm’s underworld, but coming from the pen of high-flying society lawyer assuming the voice of two ethnic minorities, the whole thing rang thoroughly hollow to me. Think Jeffrey Archer assuming Jamaican patois for a crime novel set in Brixton and you get some idea of my apprehension of it’s ‘ripped from the streets’ credentials. In the adaptation to the big screen a lot of this assumed bravado has been dropped, the narrative trimmed down, and an aesthetic found which doesn’t protest about its veracity like the novel. Even the casting is spot on, and miraculously for a Swedish crime drama, Snabba Cash doesn’t feature one of the litany of national character actors which are forever being recycled in the genre. Fresh faces in a tired genre is quite an achievement.  

Despite being on the very cusp of the zeitgeist, and for my money a worthy alternative to Played with Fire, Snabba Cash is out on DVD in Sweden, but still lingering without a UK distributor. The Americans have been quicker off the mark, with Weinsteins snatching up the film for US distribution. Of course more important for Hollywood are the remake rights to the next-up-and-coming-Swedish-film, and in a twist more baffling than any I’ve seen in the aforementioned crime films, Zac Efron (yes he of High School Musical) has bought the rights and is looking to produce the film with himself in the lead. The Swedish original will no doubt be kept from anglophone market until Efron’s new found pet project can be put into production, and more’s the shame. It’s all fine and well for foreign film fans to sit around speculating on how much better the originals of Let The Right One In and Dragon Tattoo are compared to the soon to be released anglophone remakes, but Hollywood is obviously canny to the fact that it’s much easier to just buy the distribution rights and deprive the foreign-friendly acolytes from that argument in the first place. Burying a decent film to save Zac ‘trying-to-prove-he’s-a-grown-up’ Efron’s blushes is pretty rotten in my book, but it just goes to show that Swedish rights holders are still oblivious to the value of what they have in their hands.  

* [of note here is that the Hasse of Hasse & Tage is Hans Alfredsson, father of directors Tomas and Daniel Alfredsson of Let the Right One In and Played with Fire respectively. Yes, the Swedish film industry really isn’t that big.]  

hate to be one in a minority of Anglophones to say this, but the new film adaptation of The Girl Who Played with Fire is unequivocally awful. Compared to the first, quite lean and brisk adaptation, the sequel is just one big fat raspberry of a film, full of Bond villains, gratuitous punch-ups, flat car chases, and lacking the hard-nosed sleuthing which was the driving force behind the original. I would recommend some other Swedish crime thrillers; the fruits of Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Inspector Beck, as well as the new film Snabba Cash (Fast Money), were the titles available with English subtitles. But they aren’t, and it seems like some rights holders are really missing a trick not capitalising on this surging, possibly fleeting interest in such a narrow market.  

It’s possibly because this vogue in Swedish crime is seen with certain deference by the Swedes themselves, many of whom don’t get what all this international fuss is about. Moving back to the UK to start university seven years ago I found it baffling that my tutors would ask keenly if I was a fan of a genre I didn’t readily disassociate from the worn out formula of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. Inspector Morse isn’t a national treasure, so why the hell would you think that Kurt Wallander is?  

Accordingly Swedish critics absolutely panned Played with Fire, as well as the Dragon Tattoo, and the films origins as a TV-movie was the stick they roundly beat them with. By contrast the Anglophone critics were falling over themselves to heap praise on Dragon Tattoo, which in turn raised the hackles of Swedish critics, despairing at their peer’s inability to call out a trashy TV-movie when they saw one. The Anglophone take on the sequel is only slowly starting to trickle in, and with opinion slightly more divided this time around, there are still critics who seem proud to champion this film in spite of it being an absolute dogs-dinner.  

The forces behind such a discreet polarisation can be summarised through one count of cultural cringe on the side of the Swedish (automatically dismissing anything home-grown) and a slight sheen cultural voyeurism for non-domestic viewers (the cagey exoticism of revelling in the grotty underside of the Swedish Social model). Even more broadly the polarisation boils down to a simple case of over-familiarisation versus relative ignorance, as Sweden is utterly saturated with the products of its own crime fiction, which is only just starting to trickle out to the English speaking world. To say that crime as a genre is ubiquitous in Sweden barely even covers the half of it, and while the majority of it is little beyond the Sunday night Midsummer Murder repeats, there are a few indigenous gems which are still refusing to find a market outside Sweden.  

The obvious first port of call is Henning Mankell’s tales of southern Sweden’s finest Insp. K Wallander, yet the existence and continuing success of the BAFTA award-winning Anglophone adaptation rather negates the need for me to rake over matters any further. That the BBC adaptation was so popular that it even warranted repeat showings of the original language series on BBC4 is rather a big deal in my book. No Swedish TV series has ever had an airing on UK networks in my lifetime, and while I daren’t guess what the viewing figures were, it still sets a precedent that licensing-wise it can be done, and there might even be a market for it.  

Second in line would be Wallander’s literary predecessor, the well-spring of Swedish crime ubiquity: inspector Martin Beck. He’s the obvious candidate for ‘readers who bought Wallander also bought…’ with the original ten books by the writing duo Sjöwall & Wahlöö gaining a tremendous foreign readership on the coattails of Wallander. Of the whopping thirty eight films that have come from the Martin Beck character, all but one failed to find a market outside the usual distribution outlets of Scandinavia + Germany. And rightly so, as the majority are the absolute tripe, clogging up the schedules and video store shelves across Sweden with the scowling face of actor Peter Haber. Seventeen of these twenty six modern adaptations have English subtitles, but for pity’s sake don’t look them up.  

The second actor to carry the mantle of Martin Beck is the rather unassuming Gösta Ekman, and his time at the crease is of far greater note, even if many Swedes are quick to roll their eyes at Just-Another-Beck. Ekman’s native profile is coloured by his long association with national comedic champions Hasse & Tage, and his not so serious demeanour brings a brevity which serves the otherwise portentous Beck well.* The six films with Ekman are solid TV-films, a bit dated since the early 90s, but all maintaining a tight knot of tension that keep them skimming along. The position of Beck always holding out against the solution of least resistance make him a likeable character, the obstinate thorn in the establishment’s side, always insisting on digging deeper however much dirt gets thrown up in the process. Where modern adaptations of Wallander seem to gleefully wallow at the never-ending weight of angst Kurt faces just getting out of bed every day, Ekman/Beck is a relative breath of fresh, if 20 year old air. If you had any choice in the matter I’d recommend Polis, polis, potatismos! (Murder at the Savoy) or Polismördaren (Cop Killer), but neither are available with non-Scandinavian subtitles. The rights holders would do well to pull them all from wire-baskets of Sweden’s petrol stations, translate the lot, and export them in a cheap box-set. Money for some very fine old rope, in my opinion.  

Better still they could just cut straight to the outstanding classic crime flick, the one Beck film which did break internationally: The Man on the Roof. Crudely billed as the Swedish French Connection, Bo Widerberg’s 70s thriller is on paper just-another-Beck film, with a grisly murder of token Bourgeois arsehole, followed by an hours sidetracked investigation, followed by a climatic confrontation in the final 10-20 minutes. The difference here is the execution, and the sheer brilliance of the film in capturing the inane domesticity the police are constantly disrupting in their investigations. The frustrations of all their inquiry slowly starts to unravel at Beck’s hands, and the revelation leads to an absolutely dizzying shoot-out finale with a district of central Stockholm held hostage by a crazed gun-man located, unsurprisingly, on a roof.  

At first glance the Swedish French Connection moniker is warranted, but an outsider’s approach shouldn’t be hamstrung by this, as Man on the Roof is anything but derivative. Friedkin’s gritty, almost observational perspective of New York finds an uncanny twin in Stockholm, the pale light of the autumnal city presenting a washed out pallette that’s visually striking without getting too wound up in that great Nordic angst Brannagh/Wallander loves to fetishise. The budget was large for the Swedish film industry at SEK 3.9 million, but at the exchange rate of the time that still only comes to ~$780,000, a drop in the ocean compared to the French Connection’s $1.8 million. The Man on the Roof doesn’t have the bombast, or the car chases of its American twin, but it still works brilliantly within its constraints. There is action, a few stunts and one eye-opening explosion, but at no point does the film ever look or feel cheap.  

By the same measure I would argue that’s the dividing line between Dragon Tattoo and Played with Fire, as one works deftly within its restrains, while the other is too busy pretending to be a Michael Mann film on a beggars budget. Not to say that Swedish film should ‘know its place’ but that a film that works within its financial limitations is going to sell a lot better than a half-arsed imitation. While The Man on the Roof DVD doesn’t have English subtitles, there are fan translations out there. It’s really worth a look, and is more than due a revival in wake of Swedish crime fiction’s current popularity.  

Finally a word to a contemporary Swedish crime film that hasn’t a jot to do with Stieg Larsson; Snabba Cash (Fast Money). Based on the successful novel by Jens Lapidus, the recently released film adaptation manages to make something of the contemporary yet but my measure cringingly leaden source material. Focused on an unlikely trio of criminal compatriots, a Chilean immigrant, a Serbian immigrant, and blonde blue-eyed social interloper in Stockholm’s financial elite. A wholesale cocaine deal, and an elaborate money laundering scheme unite the three, all struggling with falling deeper down the hole of criminality, while maintaining the façade of day to day life. The original novel made a big hoopla of being an expose of Stockholm’s underworld, but coming from the pen of high-flying society lawyer assuming the dialect of two prominent ethnic minorities range thoroughly hollow to this reader. Think Jeffrey Archer assuming Jamaican patois for a crime novel set in Brixton and you get some idea of my apprehension to the tales ‘ripped from the streets’ credentials.  

In the adaptation to film a lot of this assumed bravado has been dropped, the narrative trimmed down, and an aesthetic found which doesn’t protest about its veracity like the novel. Even the casting is spot on, and miraculously for a Swedish crime drama, Snabba Cash doesn’t feature one of the litany of national character actors which are forever being recycled in the genre. Fresh faces in a tired genre is quite an achievement.  

Despite being on the very cusp of the zeitgeist, and for my money a worthy alternative to Played with Fire, Snabba Cash is out on DVD in Sweden, but still lingering without a UK distributor. The Americans have been quicker off the mark, with Weinsteins snatching up the film for US distribution. Of course more important for Hollywood are the remake rights to the next-up-and-coming-Swedish-film, and in a twist more baffling than any I’ve seen in the aforementioned crime films, Zac Efron (yes he of High School Musical) has bought the rights and is looking to produce the film with himself in the lead. The Swedish original will no doubt be kept from Anglophone markets until Efron’s new found pet project can be put into production, and more’s the shame. It’s all fine and well for foreign film fans to sit around speculating on how much better the originals of Let The Right One In and Dragon Tattoo are compared to the soon to be released anglophone remakes, but Hollywood is obviously canny to the fact that it’s much easier to just buy the distribution rights and deprive the foreign-friendly acolytes from that argument in the first place. Burying a decent film to save Zac ‘trying-to-prove-he’s-a-grown-up’ Efron’s blushes is pretty rotten in my book, but just goes to show that Swedish rights holders still seem oblivious to the value of what they have.  

* [of note here is that the Hasse of Hasse & Tage is Hans Alfredsson, father of directors Tomas and Daniel Alfredsson of Let the Right One In and Played with Fire respectively. Yes, the Swedish film industry really isn’t that big.]  

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Desert Island Summer with Dolph Lundgren

Dolph Lundgren playing Drago in Rocky IV (4)That the whole world isn’t fluent in Swedish is a petty frustration I face on a nigh daily basis. Some words just lend themselves better in the Swedish tongue. Less often it might be a particularly brilliant blog post or maybe an article, or perhaps an interview that I just can’t share without the help of a hamfisted google translation. Only once in a blue moon do you get a radio broadcast with Dolph Lundgren, in which hearing the man in his dulcet mother tongue is a revelation in itself. That he then goes on to break every listener’s heart just makes the translation frustration even harder.

The show in question was Dolph’s stint on Sommar which in cultural comparison comes closest to Desert Island Discs. Broadcast daily between June and August, the format selects a new person everyday to present an hour and a half of music and monologue of their own fancy, and like Desert Island the show is predominantly made up of high profile Swedes. Dolph shared his summer with the likes of Björn Ulvaeus (of Abba), Pernilla August and Robyn, to name a few Swedes you might have heard of. Like Desert Island they throw a few non-celebrities into the fray, and at least one civilian gets selected each year, which in Dolph’s summer was a shy 19 year old who spoke out about bullying.

Dolph as the crazed assassin street preacher in cyberpunk car-crash of a movie Johnny MnemonicWhile the announcement of each summer’s roster is a pretty big deal in Sweden, there’s always a bit of speculation as to how interesting a known celebrity might be once left alone in front of a mic for an hour and half. That enigmatic musician you thought might be interesting turns out to be an absolute bore, while that centre-right politician you previous despised turns out to have a sense of irony and a good ear for a tune. The expectations going in for Dolph were without a doubt rock bottom. Sure, the action star with an MA in engineering alluded to hidden depths, but come on, Ivan Drago solo for 1h+ can’t be that good.

“Alright, this is Dolph Lundgren. I went on a touring holiday in December, a few years ago, when I was home visiting Sweden…” the host chimes in, at breakneck speed. The shock of hearing him speak Swedish (a first for most listeners) is one thing, to hear him then roll on with a bizarro Stockholm/Northern Swedish/Swenglish accent is another. The opening anecdote is about returning to his rural teenage home and getting accosted by a hick as ‘that there film bloke’ which immediate segways into a klämmig [gung-ho] folk tune.

Dolph was born and raised Hans Lundgren in the Stockholm suburb Spånga, one of the very same suburbs at the centre of horror fantasy Let the Right One In, and where I used to train rugby no less. Anemic little Hans was the eldest boy of a military engineer, a towering man who had the boy’s wholehearted adoration. The family fell on harder times as the father’s career faltered, and as a teenager Dolph turned into your run of the mill delinquent. Frustrated with life his father lashed out at his mother and his children, and Dolph speaks candidly of getting used to taking an odd beating every now and then, the awkwardness of hiding heavy cuts from his friends and teachers under a shaggy fringe. “My self confidence fell to nothing. My grades soon followed.”

Escape came in films, Easy Rider, kung fu pictures, and the martial arts. Hans got sent to his grandparents in Northern Sweden, to escape distractions and bad influences, but also to get him away from his aggressive father. The older Dolph reflects how in so many ways he ressembles his father, in his appearance, in his interests, in his love of a striking suit. Like his father he’s prone to a violent temper, but he’d never lash out at women or children, not even on film. His voice trembling Dolph recounts how he cried at his father’s funeral, and wishes he could tell his dad that he understands him, that he forgives him, and that he loves him.

Studies led to Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology, then a masters at the University of Sydney, where he moonlighted as a bouncer. Grace Jones pounced on him at her gig in the city, and Dolph quickly got roped into the world of celebrity. Working out daily he was at the peak of his physical abilities, but he couldn’t keep up with his new socialite friends who partied through the night. What was their secret? ‘Who knows?’ asks Dolph, as he cues up Eric Clapton’s Cocaine on the playlist.

On way to starting a Fulbright Scholarship in chemical engineering at MIT Dolph got waylaid, unable to resist the magnetic draw of showbusiness. A bit part in A View to a Kill followed by an impossible audition for Rocky IV, and the rest hardly needs recounting.

press photo from sr.se of Dolph Lundgren's stint on Swedish RadioWritten down the whole screed might sound like a fine candidate for the ‘tragic life stories’ section at WHSmiths, but Dolph doesn’t paint any grand tragedies of a hard-knock-life, and speaks happily of the incredible luck he’s had in life. As absurd as the adjective feels when applied to an on-air celebrity, Dolph just comes across as strikingly genuine. Talking to others a wide reaching consensus is that Dolph was quite possibly the greatest Sommar host there’s been in recent memory. While Jean-Claude Van Damme has bared all in his postmodern pour-your-heart-out action film JCVD, this growing trend of the 80’s action star confessional leaves me hoping that maybe the Seagal will see fit to walk the same path. Grand as it was to see him bumbling along with the Jefferson Parish police force in Steven Seagal Lawman, the real Seagal confessional is still begging to be told.

Dolph however is rolling on to brighter and odder things, the Sommar session leading to a slightly revived profile for the aging action star in his home country. A role as host for the regional heats of the Eurovision selection competition in Sweden is a bigger gig than might first be sniffed at, and his kung-fu kicking, if rather off-key, rendition of Little Less Conversation garnered more than a little attention on YouTube. This summer brings his return to the big screen in Clash of the Washed-Up Action Stars, or a film more commonly known as The Expendables. Lord knows quite how godawful or absurdly brilliant that might be, but contrary to reports in The Onion in 2004, Dolph hasn’t won his courageous battle against fame just yet.

 

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Some Blue Eyed Revisionism

Men Who Hate Women (or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as the publishers will insist on calling it) is just a week away from it’s UK wide release, and the TV/newspaper wide coverage is starting to reach fever pitch. The booming voice has slipped into a TV spot even more breathless than the knuckleheaded advert discussed in the last post, and from a few adverts in the papers it seems like every publication and its’ dog is giving MWHW (aka TGWTDT) a solid four, if not five out of five.

Which is no bad thing, as I can’t think of a single Swedish title which has ever had comparable pre-release hype. Take your pick of any worthy or big Swedish classic, and I can assure you it’s never found 30 seconds of airtime during the advert break of Death Wish on ITV. The Swedish film industry has desperately been striving for an international breakthrough hit that will warrant the attention of the non-arthouse masses, and up until now repeated been failing at the task miserably. Case in point: the collossal flop that was Arn: The Knight Templar, a multilingual mess of a crusading action film. Built on a successful trilogy of books by a multimillion selling indigenous author, I doubt Svensk Filmindustri have ever thrown so much money in the direction of a single film. When said film then flops to the point of not even breaking the British or American DVD market, then you’re talking about a film of a sub-Seagal standards, without the comfort of the unintentional laughs.

Along comes another multimillion selling trilogy of Swedish books that are, shock horror, actually pretty good in the first place. But talk of not knowing a good thing when you see it, Stieg Larsson’s smash trilogy is optioned, and then commissioned for Swedish television. Recording starts, and it seems that halfways through the recording of the first book someone had the bright idea that maybe this could be sold much better internationally as a feature film. The rest as they say, is history.

It seems to be a trend that top-drawer television is growing to struggle with more and more, and the issue has been echoed in the UK with the Red RidingTrilogy . Another trio of feature length TV specials with a strong literary source, shot with big indigenous names in front of the camera, and genuine visionaries behind it the end product is programme which literarlly pops off the screen. The trilogy has been touring across the States garnering wholly justified ecstatic write-ups from every corner smart enough to look in it’s direction. To have the New York Review of books declare the trilogy ‘better than The Godfather’ carries no small weight. Even Swedish critics have been looking across at the trilogy with hungry eyes, calling for a similar mini-tour to put the ‘film’ back where it belongs: the cinema.

[for fine words on Red Riding and it’s striking/stifling use of location and landscape, you could do a lot worse than check out David Forrest’s take on ‘The North as Abstract’ over at Words on What I’ve Seen.]

While Red Riding has found it’s feet abroad as a markedly British art feature, the selling of the first part in what the distributors are calling ‘The Girl’ trilogy is being played on completely different terms. Audiences familiar with the Anglicized version of Wallander will be more than prepared for ‘The Girl’, as it comes from exactly the same production company (Yellow Bird Films), utilising a lot of the same crew in the production of the film. Both have a very similar feel, bleached colours palettes, following broken souls looking for answers in a series of brutal acts, which in part are endemic of Sweden’s national failings.

The audience unfortunate enough to be stuck in front of Death Wish last weekend will now be approaching ‘The Girl’ with anything BUT the above criteria in mind. The marketing engine can’t seem to decide if ‘The Girl’ being Swedish is a good thing or a bad thing. As previously discussed, the trailer remains mute, but for reasons known only to the advertising team, the promotional material would have you believe that Lisbeth Salander is blue eyed. The exact detail isn’t made clear in the books, and in a straw poll of two the verdict leant towards the literary Lisbeth having green eyes. What is certain is that actress Noomi Rapace has brown eyes, so there’s no doubt that some sort of photoshop skull-duggery is at hand. Which begs the question, why bother?

To present a a sharper vision of Swedishness? Sexy blue-eyed liberal foreignness, a scando marketing tag anyone can get on board with? Maybe if you consider the country in terms ‘racial purity’ and ‘ayrianism’, which last time I checked was one of the very cornerstones of what Stieg Larsson spent his life fighting against. A mountain out of a mole hill maybe, but bloody daft whichever way you cut it.

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European Silent Cinema Trailers

Or more precisely the case of the mute trailer.

The sad fact is that Brits, as a whole, can’t stand listening to foreign tongues. Much can be made of the abysmal standards of modern languages teaching in the British school system. Marry that with the ‘everyone speaks English, why bother’ attitude and you’ve got cause for the unashamed dislike of many things culturally ‘foreign’.

In film circles this manifests itself in the bizarre notion of someone being ‘not too keen on subtitles’. By extension of the same logic you should have audiences biased against films with a lot of red in them, as ‘it’s quite demanding of your attention’ and ‘you can’t really relax when watching a [red] film’. In reverse the liking of predominantly [red] films is seen as a pretentious affectation, and some of those who actively seek out [red] films wear it as some sort of badge of honour. ‘If you didn’t see the original [red] version then you may as not have seen the film. The Hollywood remake is far too bland and unimaginative, and it overlooks a side of the film which is inherently [red] y’know?’

But laboured analogies aside, and Cannes and Oscars gongs aside, Brits can very rarely be sold on foreign language films. [Try convincing a class of undergraduate students that an American film is actually foreign and you open a whole new tin of worms.]

How then do you sell a foreign language feature to this stubborn audience? Quite simple: you make it mute. Which is not to say that you hark back to the good old days of silent cinema, but that you keep all the characters in any trailer from actually saying a word. It’s absurd to think of it, but once you notice it you’ll quickly realise that no one ever says a word in foreign language trailers.

The story which first flagged the idea was when audiences apparently walked out of The Lives of Others precisely because it was full of foreign speak. The trailer had led them to believe that it was in English, and would the box office very kindly refund them as this was obviously cut and dry deception of the highest order. That anyone would assume that a film about the Gestapo could ever be in English makes you wonder how apocryphal the story actually is, but the point remains. The scary fact is that The Lives of Others presents a very clear example of the muting process in action.

US Trailer :

The film’s initial release in the US was two months before it came out in the UK. Looking at the US trailer we can see it is 1min49secs long. Look at the UK trailer and you can note is only 1min27secs long. The only difference is that the UK trailer as had every iota of dialogue snipped out of it.

UK trailer :

Dumbed down trailers are nothing new, but to think that the only way cinema advertisers can engage with British audiences is by actively deceiving them is a return to a very sorry standard. The boom of foreign language films in the UK and US through the fifties and sixties was of course fuelled by the now totemic work of Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa and de Sica. The dark underside to this was that these films were often actively marketed as seedy and salacious imported films for ADULTS ONLY. While the sexual/emotional frankness matched with the chance of seeing some boob kept the seedy cinemas of Soho filled with Bergman, one particularly noteworthy advert in the New York Post sold de Sica’s Bicycle Thief as a sexual film of transgressions. Social realism doesn’t sell. Sex does. Go figure.

Arguably the selling of The Lives of Others taps into that as well, with the American DVD cover showing the Gestapo’s auditory voyeur sensationally listening in on the saucy bohemian playwright making passionate love to his creative muse. That’s not really what the film’s about, but it gets the Dirty Mac Brigade in all of us to at least pick up the DVD and have a closer look at it.

The two strategies of obscuring a film’s nationality with overplaying its sexy-sexy foreignness is coming to a nadir with the English language release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The Swedish trailer released last year plays up to the film’s strong narrative pull, the slow uncovering of a grander conspiracy through hard-nosed investigation and archive sifting. The two main characters Lisbeth and Mikael get reasonably equal billing, and the trailer culminates in quick cut action. It’s pretty representative of the film as a whole.

Looking at the dubbed German trailer a lot is made of the original novel which was incredibly popular in Germany. Again the detective novel aspects of investigation, archive cracking and the unlocking of secret codes is foregrounded, culminating in some breathless but unexplained action.

Get to the UK trailer and the frying-pan-around-the-head bluntness starts with the bass-y voiceover of reckoning from the spirit of Don LaFontaine. ‘HER JOURNEY HAS BECOME AN INTERNATIONAL SENSATION. HER SECRETS HAVE CAPITAVTED MILLIONS. THIS YEAR…’

The whole film is about Lisbeth and her secret, and lots and LOTS of action. The British distributors have even acquired the domain www.thegirl.co.uk for the film, just so we all know who the focus of the film is supposed to be. Poor acne scarred Mikael doesn’t get a look in, and heaven forefend if we should catch a glimpse of paper, or perhaps a file of archive materials.

And of course no one besides Hollywood -Voice-Over-Man gets a word in edgeways. You’d be forgiven for mistaking this for the Hollywood remake that’s already being negotiated. Shame that they can’t highlight the film’s inherent [red]ness, and how like pretty much all modern films from [red]land, that it’s largely about the failing of the [red] social model. After all the original [red] title was Men Who Hate Women, but I guess that wouldn’t trip off Hollywood-Voice-Over-Man’s tongue so well. But what do I know, I’m just half [red] anyways.

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The State of Swedish Cinemas Today

It’s not often you can blame a single supermarket (branch, not chain) for both winding you, shattering your childhood memories, and brining a glaze of tears to your eye. Unimposing as it may seem, this very supermarket did just that.

Filmstaden Söder

But first some clarification: growing up I had the good fortune of living in Sweden, and being of certain stock both in genes and culture I will forever be pining for the Holms. Or more precisely the Stock-holm, and its’ southern isle where I grew up.

In primary school I remember brashly boasting that I could see the new multiplex, the Palace of Cinema (or Biopalatset to give its indigenous name) from my bedroom window. It took some precarious leaning out of said window, but I could see the red glow of the sign, and it took me less than two minutes door to door. Lasting memories of seeing Jurassic Park with both my parents at a very tender age (as allowed with the Swedish 11-A certificate) was unquestionably a formative experience. Countless 90’s Batman films, less so.

Biopalatset

Biopalatset was run by the Sandrews corporation, whose rivalry with SF Bio was a constant thorn in the side of every child post-Christmas. Everyone was guaranteed to receive cinema gift vouchers for Xmas, and the days up to New Year would be busy with cine-going. Yet making plans with friends was always compounded by the fact that I would have vouchers for SF and Alex would have vouchers for Sandrews. Two incompatible sets of vouchers meant that instead of 1 free cinema visit for the both of us, we instead had to make do with two discounted trips. I’m sure it was tremendously profitable for all conglomerates involved. But that was life, and ultimately I saw more films, which was probably for the best.

When I was a fair bit older I moved back to the UK to start university. A year later Sandrews went bankrupt. Now I’m not saying anything, but then who am I to say if it was more than coincidence?

In the short term Sandrews was sold onto a new conglomerate called Astoria cinemas, who after considerable restructuring attempted to carry on business as usual. Yet in the face of the established SF cinemas the new Astoria chain was unable to secure enough exclusives from America, and after two years they too went bankrupt. SF leapt on the chance to buy up the competition, but many expected Sweden’s stringent anti-trust laws would defer any risk of a monopoly. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case as no other bidders were willing to shoulder the multi-million kroner debts that had been building up.

Victoria Svenska Bio GötgatanThe monopoly was set, and all that was left outside SF were the independent cinemas. Former Sandrews cinemas like Victoria fell under the mantle of indie out-fit Svenska Bio, others were boarded up or sold to other interests. Victoria is a fine example of a cinema working hard to survive in the pockets outside the mainstream. As can be seen in the photo, the cinema is now subtitled ‘barista’ supplementing film exhibition with the sale of coffee. A bit of a shame, but then you can’t begrudge the efforts of the indies to stay afloat.

And so to the supermarket. The multiplex I could see as a kid was Biopalatset, run by Sandrews, and built into the basement of the Söderhallarna shopping centre. When I was a teenager SF opened another multiplex, Filmstaden Söder, in the other end of the shopping centre, for such were the heady ways of this cinematic rivalry. Opening to great pomp, the complex boasted ear-blisteringly loud speakers in every imaginable crevice. It was the local cinema of choice for epic fare like the Lord of the Rings, or even the Epic FAIL of Star Wars: Episode 1.

It was to my horror then that on a recent trip to Sweden I found the still relatively fresh multiplex Filmstaden Söder had been turned into a brand new, not even day-old supermarket. As if to echo the irony of the two multiplexes’ close proximity/competition, this new supermarket is built underneath a rival supermarket. Who says markets cannot effectively compete under the shiny mantle of Swedish socialism?

Walking into the former foyer of the cinema I just felt a wave of sadness for the disappearance of something nominally ‘cultural’ and part of my youth having been turned into another surplus-to-requirements supermarket. Beyond my own nostalgic feelings for a multiplex of all things, a deep seated worry towards the precedents of exhibition history also presented itself. Simply put, the transformation of cinemas into supermarkets is the death knell of a cinema trade in recession. In broad terms, in both Sweden and the UK, the death of the weekly cinemagoing of the post-war generation was brought about by television, with the conversion of cinemas into supermarkets being a direct result of the widespread closures. The marks of the last wave can be seen in both Stockholm (with the kvartersbion) and Sheffield (with the suburban cinemas) with the sites of previous cinemas clearly marked on the sites of modern supermarkets. The Co-op in Crookes, the Nettos in Walkey and Hillsborough for Sheffield, and a number of ICA’s in Östermalm and Kungsholmen are but a few you can mention.

Röda Kvarn Urban OutfittersThis latest wave started in Stockholm thre years ago when SF sold off the historically important Röda Kvarn cinema in central Stockholm. Opened in 1915, Röda Kvarn was the oldest surviving cinema in region, a proper picture palace of the grandest ilk which was meticulously maintained. It cost a margin extra to go there, but there was little chagrin in paying to see modern film in a bizarrely historical setting. When it was sold off there were a few voices of discontent, balanced with an appreciation for the (at the time) struggling SF to sell off a cinema on Stockholm’s equivalent of Bond Street. In a matter of months the cinema was turned into Stockholm’s first Urban Outfitters, and the private boxes of old now took a different role as changing booths for the cities well moneyed hipsters.

With cinema-going in Sweden on a marked upturn in recent years you would think that the selling-off would have ceased, but with the monopoly that SF has on the mainstream it carries on regardless, cherry picking what stays open and what gets shut. As the closures show, their priorities lie solely towards profit over quality and diversity. Prices go up, the number of screens drop, the range of films gets slimmer, overall accessibility decreases, audiences miss out.

It’s difficult to say what impact this is all having on the nation’s film production, as to many eyes it’s in rude health. Let the Right One In and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo have caused ripples internationally this last year, but these success are far too irregular for a nation which consistently punches above its weight in the world of popular music and literature.

bio rioBut there are glimmers of hope. The last single screen local cinema (or Kvartersbio) in Stockholm, Bio Rio in Hornstull struggled on for a long time, run by a very old but very determined man. It used to be my grandparents weekly cinema of choice, and only a couple of years ago I saw Death Proof there. Truly a cinema across the generations.

Box office, ticket tearing and projection were all run by this one guy, who was persistently in the local press telling of his struggles to keep the rent from skyrocketing. When he announced his retirement many thought that was another cinema shut, but full plaudits to the cultural organisation Folkets Hus och Parker (the National Federation of People’s Parks and Community Centres) for stepping in and reviving it. Renovation, installation of digital projectors with the option for 3D film and live link ups to New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and a bursting film programme aimed directly at increased audience engagement. And reasonable prices too.

It’s only a 200 seater cinema, and it deserve better than parallels drawn to David and Goliath. It remains a tremendous hope in an otherwise dark situation. A glimmer of hope for the way things should be. A real palace for cinema, and not just another filmic supermarket.

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