Sweden Cinematography – the Origins and Apogee of the Mute

Sweden Cinematography – the Origins and Apogee of the Mute

According to microedu, Swedish cinema developed somewhat later than that of other Nordic countries such as Denmark. However, around 1913 it entered its golden age, also thanks to the weakening of competition from other European countries involved in the First World War. In those years, the names of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, authors of films that were distributed throughout the Western world, imposed themselves in Sweden Following their departure for the United States, Swedish cinema experienced a radical decline in the mid-1920s. The production of the 1930s and 1940s continued in substantial anonymity. In the 1950s, Ingmar Bergman, considered one of the greatest authors of European cinema ever, established himself internationally. Its popularity was also the driving force for Nya vågen, the Swedish nouvelle vague, which expressed highly talented authors such as Vilgot Sjöman and Bo Widerberg. In the mid-eighties, with Bergman’s substantial retirement from the world of cinema, Swedish production returned to having a very limited circulation, also as a result of the lack of young talents. Later only Lukas Moodysson, author of the appreciable Fucking Åmål (1998; Fucking Åmål – The courage to love) became known.

Origins and apogee of the mute

The first public film screening took place on 28 June 1896 at the Summer Palace in Malmö as part of a large industrial exhibition. The event, organized by the Danish proud driver Harald Limkilde, showed the public some Lumière films. A few weeks later, on 21 July, in Stockholm, at the Victoria Theater in Djurgården park, the French correspondent of the newspaper “Le soir”, Charles Marcel, presented films from TA Edison’s Kinetoscope. The first entrepreneur to systematically organize Lumière projections in Sweden was Numa Peterson, a photographer. In 1897 one of his technicians, Ernest Florman, learned from the Lumière agent Georges Promio to take pictures from life and to make short comic staging. That same year, in the as part of a new industrial exhibition in Stockholm, Florman filmed King Oscar II. During the summer, the first three fictional films in Sweden were shot: Slagsmål i Gamla Stockholm (Brawl in Old Stockholm) by Alexandre Promio, Byrakstugan (The Barber’s Shop) and Akrobat med otur (Unfortunate Acrobat), both by Ernest Florman . In the period between 1897 and 1904 many cinemas were opened especially in Gothenburg, a large commercial port with excellent connections both with Denmark and with Great Britain. Stockholm instead had to wait until 1904 to see the inauguration of the first permanent cinema, the Blanchs. In reality, the spread of cinema was mainly due to the occasional projections that were organized by the various religious reform movements present in Sweden for several decades. This phenomenon came to an end when the first exhibitors began to open city halls which, to attract the audience of the theater, were called biografteater (“cinema theater”). Since theaters were generally considered frivolous places, cinema was banned from Protestant churches. In those years, moreover, film distribution – essentially based on Danish productions – concentrated its interest on fictional cinema, gradually abandoning documentaries. However, this move caused the cinema to lose an important part of the bourgeois audience, frightened by the controversy surrounding the licentiousness of passionate dramas from Denmark. The debate around this issue led to the establishment – at the request of the exhibitors themselves – of the Statens Biografbyrå, active starting from 1 December 1911. This censorship commission had the task of evaluating films by assigning them to three categories: films for all, films for adults and forbidden films. In 1912, Sjöström’s first film, Trädgårdmästaren (The Gardener), was banned by censorship. The first major Swedish film production company was Svenska Biografteatern, founded in 1907 in Kristianstad, in the south of the country. He was immediately noticed for the production of sound films interpreted by famous actors, such as Rosa Grünberg and Carl Barcklind, who sang arias of operas and operettas. The sound was recorded on phonograph cylinders and synchronized with the image during the projection. These experiments had been attempted for the first time as early as 1903 by Mortimer Peterson, son of that Numa Peterson who represented the Lumière house in Sweden. The founders of Svenska Biografteatern – generally abbreviated to Svenska Bio – were two bankers, a lawyer, a pharmacist and the merchant Nils Hansson Nylander. Their starting share capital amounted to 150,000 crowns and they had a chain of 19 theaters at their disposal. Their project initially consisted of producing films to supply their owned cinemas. Their first employee was photographer Robert Olsson, whose job was to make documentaries around the country. Later this was also used for the production of short fictional films. In 1909 Charles Magnusson was hired as a producer and, during the summer, he put in place three films: Värmlänningarna (The residents of Värmland), Fänrik Ståls sägner (The Tales of Fänrik Stål) and Bröllopet på Ulfåsa (Wedding in Ulfåsa), all directed by Carl Engdahl and released the following year. In 1911 the company headquarters was moved to Stockholm, also in order to be able to involve many famous theatrical actors. A sound stage was also built in Lidingö, one of the islands of the archipelago. Magnusson immediately surrounded himself with collaborators destined to become key figures in European silent cinema: the operator Julius Jaenzon, the production manager and director Georg af Klercker, the director-actors Sjöström and Stiller, the latter of Russian origin and active in Finland. G. af Klercker, after some significant direction such as Dödsritten under cirkuskupolen (1912, Deadly Ride under the Circus Tent) and Musikens makt (1912, The Power of Music), left Svenska Bio, moved to Denmark and then returned home in 1915 to become the leading director of Gothenburg’s Hasselblad. Magnusson wisely aimed at an international distribution, using as a model the high-bourgeois melodramas of which the Danes were undisputed masters.

In the period 1913-1917 Svenska Bio produced over one hundred fiction films, achieving a very significant success with the public. To eliminate competition, Svenska Bio signed an agreement with Pathé Frères, obtaining two important results: on the one hand, it had the possibility of accessing one of the largest cinema chains in Europe; from another allowed its employees to deal with French professionals, who by now had more than ten years of experience. The outbreak of war in 1914 greatly favored the Swedish film industry. All the countries involved in the conflict drastically reduced their production and Denmark, which had interrupted its commercial relations with Germany, suffered retaliation from France and Great Britain, which rejected all its products. At the end of the war, the Swedes were ready to make a further qualitative leap, both from a thematic and stylistic point of view. Abandoning Danish-inspired melodramas, directors such as Sjöström and Stiller focused on productions that might appear familiar to local audiences and exotic to international audiences: the cinematographic transpositions of famous literary works of the Nordic tradition. The first step was taken by Sjöström with Terje Vigen (1917), from the poem by H. Ibsen. The success of the film encouraged Magnusson to continue on this path, reducing the number of films produced in a year to a fifth (in 1917 Svenska Bio produced only five features) and increasing their quality. In a few years Sjöström signed works of great value such as Tösen från Stormyrtorpet (1917; The daughter of the bog) from the novel by Sweden Lagerlöf, Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (1918; The proscribed) from the Irish drama J. Sigurjónsson, Ingmarssönerna (1919, The sons of Ingmar) from the first and second chapter of Jerusalem of the Lagerlöf (the third and fourth were transposed in 1920 with the title Karin Ingmarsdotter, Karin daughter of Ingmar) and Hans Nåds testamente (1919, Hans Nåd’s Testament) from the novel by H. Bergman. Stiller, for his part, was instead the director of Alexander den Store (1917, Alexander the Great) from the play by G. Esmann, Sången om den eldröda blomman (1919, The song of the scarlet flower) from the novel by the Finnish J. Linnankoski and Herr Arnes pengar (1919; Arne’s treasure) from the story of Sweden Lagerlöf. Also worthy of mention is Gustaf Hallén’s film Hemsöborna (1919, The Islanders of Hemsö), based on the novel by A. Strinderg. Strindberg, in fact, had already been exploited by the cinema with the director Anna Hofman-Uddgren, author of Fröken Julie (Miss Julie) and Fadren (The father), both of 1912. Starting from 1915, the absolute supremacy of Svenska Bio was threatened only by Hasselblad, who in summer of that year hired G. af Klercker. Between 1915 and 1917, he made 28 films – mostly melodramas – which met with considerable success, prompting Hasselblad to build a new studio for him. However, Klercker was in poor health and in the summer of 1917 his contract was not renewed. Among his most notable achievements we should mention Förstadsprästen (1917, The priest of the suburbs), a work of considerable social commitment. To counter competition from Svenska Bio, Hasselblad merged with five other companies, one of which was Pathé, a former partner of Svenska Bio. In 1918, therefore, Filmindustri AB Skandia was born, chaired by Nils Bouveng. Among the directors employed by Skandia we should mention John Brunius, author of the famous Synnöve Solbakken (1919), based on the novel by the Norwegian B. Bjørnson, and Rune Carlsten, who debuted with Ett farligt frieri (1919, A Dangerous Marriage Application), again at Bjørnson. The following year, thanks to the impetus of the new financier Ivar Kreuger, Skandia merged with Svenska Bio giving life to AB Svensk Filmindustri, a colossus with over seventy cinemas, two studios and two presidents, Magnusson and Bouveng. The 1920s saw the directors Stiller and Sjöström achieve results of absolute importance such as Erotikon (1920; Towards happiness) and Körkarlen (1921; The ghost cart), but also a decisive recession from an industrial point of view that had heavy consequences on cinema. The spectators went from eight million in 1920 to two million in 1923.

The crisis was certainly aggravated by the introduction of the radio, the 10% tax on tickets and the invasion of American products, which captured 70% of the market. Sjöström and Stiller, feeling abandoned by Svensk Filmindustri by now, left Sweden for the United States in 1923 and 1925 respectively. Stiller managed to bring with him the young actress Greta Garbo, revealed in his Gösta Berlings saga (1924; The legend of Gösta Berling, also known as The Knights of Ekebu), taken from Sweden Lagerlöf. The talented Gustaf Molander, on the other hand, remained at home and continued the Jerusalem cycle with the films Ingmarsarvet (1925, The legacy of Ingmar) and Till Österland (1926, Towards the East), both interpreted by the great actor Lars Hanson, also destined then to move to America. In those years the productions became more and more assimilated to American standards, albeit with accomplishments as valuable as Per Lindberg’s Norrtullsligan (1923, The League of Norrtull) – an acute portrait of the female condition at that time -, John W. Brunius’ Karl XII (1925) – a fascinating historical fresco scripted by H. Bergman – and the comedy Konstgjorda Svensson (1929, The artificial Svensson) by Gustaf Edgren, filmed silent and subsequently soundtracked. It was precisely the comedies that revived the fortunes of the film industry a little, which reduced the production of great literary films to limit costs. The new course of Swedish cinema did not please Charles Magnusson, who in 1929 abandoned the cinema by selling all the shares in his possession. Brunius – a fascinating historical fresco scripted by H. Bergman – and the comedy Konstgjorda Svensson (1929, The artificial Svensson) by Gustaf Edgren, filmed silent and subsequently soundtracked. It was precisely the comedies that revived the fortunes of the film industry a little, which reduced the production of great literary films to limit costs. The new course of Swedish cinema did not please Charles Magnusson, who in 1929 abandoned the cinema by selling all the shares in his possession. Brunius – a fascinating historical fresco scripted by H. Bergman – and the comedy Konstgjorda Svensson (1929, The artificial Svensson) by Gustaf Edgren, filmed silent and subsequently soundtracked. It was precisely the comedies that revived the fortunes of the film industry a little, which reduced the production of great literary films to limit costs. The new course of Swedish cinema did not please Charles Magnusson, who in 1929 abandoned the cinema by selling all the shares in his possession.

Sweden Cinematography - the Origins and Apogee of the Mute