Sweden Cinematography – from the Advent of Sound to the Second World War

According to top-engineering-schools, the first Swedish sound film, Säg det i toner (1929, Tell in melody) directed by Edvin Adolphson and J. Julius (pseudonym of the famous operator Julius Jaenzon), was produced by Svensk Filmindustri and was a great success. It was actually a musical without dialogue: the sound was composed of music, songs and ambient noises. The costs of making the first sound films were very high, as a German sound recording system made by Tobis was used. It was soon replaced by the cheaper Aga-Baltic, developed in Sweden with the help of the Danish company Petersen & Poulsen. As mentioned, the favored genre was comedy, closely linked to the vaudeville experience and the peasant farces that were staged during the summer in small towns, taking advantage of the closure of city theaters. In many cases the actors employed were the same protagonists of the outdoor performances. One of them, Edvard Persson, brought two dialect farces to success that were seen by more than a million Swedes: Söder om landsvägen (1936, South of the highway) by Gideon Wahlberg and Kalle på Spången (1939, Kalle from Spången) by Emil A. Pehrsson. A very curious sub-genre was that of the militaristic farces in which the Swedish army was considered weak and badly equipped. In fact, a Social Democratic law promulgated in 1925 substantially reduced the funds for the defense and the cinema did not fail to represent this change of direction in a comic key. Director par excellence of the genre was Weyler Hildebrand, who also played the recurring character of an angry sergeant, as in Landstormens lilac Lotta (1939, The Reservist’s Little Lotta). Among the most charismatic actors capable of masterfully interpreting both comic and dramatic characters, Gösta Ekman emerged, who had already started his career in the silent era – he was among the interpreters of Sjöström’s Vem dömer (1922, La prova del fuoco). Ekman excelled in two Molander films: Swedenhielms (1935), based on the novel by H. Bergman, and Intermezzo (1936), alongside a very young Ingrid Bergman who three years later also starred in the American remake, directed by Gregory Ratoff. Bergman, together with Signe Hasso and Sture Lagerwall, marked the birth of a new generation of interpreters, more flexible and less formal, completely disconnected from the tradition of the mute which required an elaborate proxemics and not very suitable for sound. The couple formed by Hasso and Lagerwall starred in, among others, two notable films by Schamyl Bauman: Karriär (1938, Carriera) and Vi två (1939, Noi due). In the 1930s, the health of the Swedish film industry was generally good, despite the economic crisis that hit the country following the collapse of the Wall Street Stock Exchange and the suicide, in 1932, of the industrialist Ivar Kreuger.

In the summer of 1933 the Social Democratic government took serious measures to tackle unemployment, laying the foundations for that welfare state which had a wide international impact and a broad impact on Swedish culture. This air of renewal was breathed in many films of the 1930s: Valborgsmässoafton (1935, The Night of Walpurgis) by Gustaf Edgren and En enda natt (1939; Only one night) by Molander tackled the problem of decreasing births by encouraging Swedes to procreate more; Karl Fredrik regerar (1934, Karl Fredrik governs), still from Edgren, imagined that a poor farmer – played by the famous actor Sigurd Wallén – would become minister of agriculture, changing the fate of the country. Viewers showed their love for Swedish-language films starring their favorites. This led to the birth of many new production houses, the opening of new theaters (which exceeded two thousand units at the end of the decade) and excellent collection results (only a tenth of the distribution market was made up of Swedish productions, but they conquered the 30% of total turnover). Next to Svensk Filmindustri, which remained in first place throughout the decade, Europa Film – founded in 1930 – and Sandrews, which started production only in 1939. Europa Film, founded by Gustaf Scheutz and the future director Schamyl Bauman, appeared. he based his success mainly on the films starring Edvard Persson. Sandrews, firmly headed by its founder Anders Sandrew, who had initially only distributed Europa Film products in its own theaters, decided instead to focus on quality by hiring critics of the caliber of Bengt Idestam-Almquist and Rune Waldekranz as artistic directors (this one the last remained at Sandrews until the mid-1960s). In fact, in the 1930s there were over seventy producers on the Swedish market, many of whom closed their doors after only one or two films. Among the companies that stood out for their economic solidity should be mentioned Nordisk Tonefilm, Publikfilm, Svensk Talfilm, Irefilm and Wivefilm. Of course, there was no lack of bitter controversies related to the poor quality of popular cinema and complaints about the harmful consumption of beer and spirits in so many farcical productions. Among the most criticized films was Weyler Hildebrand’s Pensionat Paradiset (1937, Pensione Paradiso), considered by critics to be one of the lowest moments in the history of Swedish cinema, despite the great success achieved by the public.

Intellectuals and the state asked production companies to employ graduates in key posts and to restore dignity to national cinema. Svensk Filmindustri chose Carl Anders Dymling – a former radio executive – as the new CEO, Sjöström as the artistic director and Harald Molander – Gustaf’s son – as the director of the studios. G. Molander was undoubtedly the most appreciated director of the time, distinguishing himself both for the refinement of his screenplays and for the remarkable quality of the figurative and lighting choices; his extensive knowledge of the theater allowed him to be at ease in the brilliant and dramatic genres. Her sophisticated comedy Dollar (1937; Restlessness), starring Bergman as a stage actress, was seen as a perfect example of mediating between the tastes of popular audiences and the legitimate demands for higher quality voiced by critics. On the melodrama side, however, his En kvinnas ansikte (1938; Faceless) was celebrated, again with Bergman, a complex reflection on the theme of identity made very fascinating by a contrasted and chiaroscuro use of light. With the outbreak of the Second World War and the subsequent, immediate declaration of neutrality by the Sweden, the national film production underwent a strong boost. The importation of films from abroad collapsed, only British and German products resisted, the latter thanks also to the frequent use of Swedish actress Zarah Leander. On the other hand, exports increased, especially to countries allied with Germany, which were on good terms with Sveriges biograf och filmkammare, the body responsible for spreading Swedish cinema abroad. It was only the independent exhibitors who suffered, which largely offered American or French imported films. Svensk Filmindustri, Europa Film and Sandrews established themselves as the top three producing companies. During the war years, the average annual production increased from twenty-seven to about forty units. Characteristic of the war years were the beredskapsfilmerna (“the films of the state of alert”). The Swedes, although neutral, nevertheless had to mobilize by recalling the reservists to arms and rationing food. The population lived in a condition of constant expectation, without knowing exactly what would be the developments of the conflict and the fate of the country. This condition of frustration was represented in works such as Kronans käcka gossar (1940, The intrepid sons of the Crown) by Sigurd Wallén, Ta hand om Ulla (1942, Take care of Ulla) by Ivar Johansson and the notable Första Divisionen (1941, First Division) by Hasse Ekman, the son of Gösta.

Naturally, Sweden’s position of neutrality with respect to the conflict prevented producers from referring explicitly to the parties involved in their films. Many war-related works were therefore set in the past or in indefinite times and places. In the case of Snapphanar (1942) by Åke Ohberg, for example, it was decided to tell a story that took place in the 17th century. The only exception was related to the war in Finland, such as En dag skall gry (1944, A New Day Will Come) by Hasse Ekman. Molander also chose the seventeenth century for his Rid i natt! (1942; Brandebold’s Executioner), based on the novel by V. Moberg, but taking a firm anti-German stance. Instead they obeyed the principle of space-time indeterminacy Det brinner en eld (1943, A fire burns), again by Molander, and Mitt folk är icke ditt (1944, My people are not yours) by Weyler Hildebrand. The greater seriousness of content also led to a recovery of the literary genre, albeit with very corrective results, as in the various remakes of films based on the works of Sweden Lagerlöf. The only exception was the beautiful Doktor Glas (1942) by Rune Carlsten, from the well-known novel by H. Söderberg, interpreted by the excellent Georg Rydeberg. The film, which tells the troubled story of a doctor in love with one of his young patients, contains a sequence in which a clock without hands appears which will then be explicitly mentioned in 1957 by Bergman in his Smultronstället (The place of strawberries). The need for a more socially engaged cinema, which represented the proletariat in a realistic way, was satisfied by productions such as Ett brott (1940, Un delitto) by Anders Henrikson, Stål (1940, Steel) and Det sägs på stan (1941, Si dice in town), both by Per Lindberg.

The latter, in particular, gave his best when he had the opportunity to work with the excellent director of photography Åke Dahlqvist, who knew how to use light with extraordinary expressiveness and a sense of experimentation. Another theme dealt with in the period in question was the contrast between the countryside and the city, considering the latter a place of sin and bewilderment. Film AB Lux, which had under contract the very young actress Viveca Lindfors, made Anna Lans (1943) by Rune Carlsten, while the Terraproduktion of the enterprising producer Lorens Marmstedt entrusted Erik ‘Hampe’ Faustman Flickan och djävulen (1944, The girl and the devil), played by up and coming Gunn Wållgren. A significant sign of change was also found in the field of musical films, where the interpreters of vaudevilles were gradually replaced by jazzmen, such as for example. in Swing it, magistern! (1940, Suonala, maestro!) Directed by Schamyl Bauman, with the wild and seductive Alice Babs. enterprising producer Lorens Marmstedt entrusted Erik ‘Hampe’ Faustman with Flickan och djävulen (1944, The Girl and the Devil), played by emerging Gunn Wållgren. A significant sign of change was also found in the field of musical films, where the interpreters of vaudevilles were gradually replaced by jazzmen, such as for example. in Swing it, magistern! (1940, Suonala, maestro!) Directed by Schamyl Bauman, with the wild and seductive Alice Babs. enterprising producer Lorens Marmstedt entrusted Erik ‘Hampe’ Faustman with Flickan och djävulen (1944, The Girl and the Devil), played by emerging Gunn Wållgren. A significant sign of change was also found in the field of musical films, where the interpreters of vaudevilles were gradually replaced by jazzmen, such as for example. in Swing it, magistern! (1940, Suonala, maestro!) Directed by Schamyl Bauman, with the wild and seductive Alice Babs.

Sweden Cinematography - from the Advent of Sound to the Second World War