Swedish film is hugely influential around the world. Stylistically speaking, but also for its directors and actors: both Ingrid Bergman and Greta Garbo were named fourth and fifth Greatest American Screen Legends, despite being Swedish! Important contemporary names include the Skarsgård Family, Alicia Vikander, Noomi Rapace, and director Ruben Östlund.
Swedish film began life as a newsreel, screened at the Stockholm Exhibition in 1897. Since then, Swedish cinema has gained an international audience and developed some unique artistic approaches and themes. The two main examples of these are:
The Swedish Gloom (Det Svenska Tungsinnet)
Swedish cinema is full of attitude: heavy stories, dysfunctional families, bitterness, coldness, and melancholy. Often these themes work really well in tandem with the grim nature and dark winters that are an inevitable part of Swedish life. Ingmar Bergman, arguably the most influential Swedish director of all time, is the master of this particular style of Swedish gloom. During his illustrious career, Bergman made more than 60 films, each one more soul-searching than the last.
The Swedish Sin
Almost the antithesis to Swedish Gloom, another important theme in Swedish cinema is “the Swedish Sin” – a liberal view of sexuality. Films such as “Fäbodjäntan” (1978) or “Jag är nyfiken – gul” (1967) have been immortalized due to their explicit scenes and depiction of sexually liberated women.
Even though the sexual revolution swept across large parts of the world in the 60s and 70s, Swedish cinema was truly one of its flag bearers. When “Jag är nyfiken – gul” was exported to the US, it was held in US customs to prevent it from being screened. When it was finally released, it became the most successful international film export to the US, even though it was banned in 18 states and ultimately only shown in 10. Free the nipple, anyone?
What is great about Swedish film is that it simultaneously embraces the precocious, contemplative kid in the class as well as the rebel that laughs too loud and smokes during the lunch break. There’s room for experimentation, silliness and deep philosophical contemplation – sometimes even in a single film.
Whether you’re in the mood for gloom or sin, these are the 10 essential Swedish films to watch to satisfy your appetite:
Det Sjunde Inseglet (The Seventh Seal)
1957 – dir. Ingmar Bergman
“Who are you?”
“I am Death.”
“Have you come to get me?”
“I have long been at your side.”
This iconic exchange is as engrained in Swedes as their love for Ingmar Bergman himself. In The Seventh Seal, a medieval knight challenges Death to a life-or-death game of chess. Chances are you’ve heard a Swede ask “who are you?” to someone dressed all in black, hoping for the answer “I am Death.” It’s a ritual of sorts, a litmus test to show that you know the basics of Swedish Cinema.
The Seventh Seal is available on SF Anytime.
Jag är nyfiken – gul (I am curious, yellow)
1967 – dir. Vilgot Sjöman
Curious about what would happen if you have sex outside of the Royal Castle in Stockholm? Look no further. I am Curious, Yellow is part experimental fiction, part critique of the political reality in which it is set. The film was banned or heavily censored in many countries because of its explicit sex scenes. No surprise then that it was wildly controversial that the Swedish communication minister (later prime minister) Olof Palme participated in the film…
I am Curious, Yellow is available on Cmore.
Utvandrarna (The Emigrants)
1971 – dir. Jan Troell
Once upon a time (around the second half of the 19th century), Sweden was such a miserable and impoverished place that 1.5 million Swedes decided to emigrate to the promised land: The US. The Emigrants compassionately shows the desperation and courage it took to leave everything behind in search of something better. The theme of the film can teach us important lessons 50 years after it was produced, as thousands of people now cross the Mediterranean to reach their own promised land: Sweden.
The Emigrants is available on SF Anytime.
Bröderna Lejonhjärta (The Brothers Lionheart)
1977 – dir. Olle Hellbom
Sweden’s beloved storyteller and superstar grandma, Astrid Lindgren, wrote the most heart-wrenching children’s book of all time, The Brothers Lionheart in 1973. The book, and later the film, deals with unusually dark themes for being a children’s story, such as death, betrayal, and tyranny. If you are not in tears after seeing this film, you might want to consider seeing a therapist.
The Brothers Lionheart is available on SF Anytime and Cmore.
Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander) – 1982 – Ingmar Bergman
Fanny and Alexander is a semi-autobiographical period drama based on Ingmar Bergman’s own life. It won four Academy Awards and has been hailed as one of his best works. If you are a Swedish millennial, it’s very likely you have a friend called Fanny. We’re not saying it’s because of this film’s popularity, but we’re not ~not~ saying it…
Fanny and Alexander is available on SF Anytime.
Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love)
1998 – dir. Lukas Moodysson
“Jag vill knarka!“, meaning “I want to do drugs!”, is another classic line you’ve probably heard someone yell at a party. By following Agnes, who is secretly in love with Elin, we get an intimate look at the difficulties of being gay in a small town in Sweden. This late 90s classic taught a generation all they needed to know about love, group pressure, and friendship, as well as now dated fashion and lifestyle advice.
Show Me Love is available on HBO Nordic.
2000 – dir. Lukas Moodysson
In this mildly hysterical story about the collective Together, we get to know a diverse and complicated group of adults and kids, who try their hardest to live – as the name suggests – together. Set in the vibrant 1970s, Together is a film about trying to peacefully coexist despite our differences, but also about how lonely you can feel in a room full of people.
Together is available on HBO Nordic.
De ofrivilliga (Involuntary)
2008 – dir. Ruben Östlund
The King of Cringe, Ruben Östlund, is one of the 2000’s most influential directors in Sweden. Did you want the world to swallow you when you watched “The Square” or “Force Majeur”? You have seen nothing yet. Involuntary makes you bitterly regret the fact that you are human. Every single scene and every character are exquisitely dysfunctional, but you are also left with a nagging feeling that you have been, or are, that person.
Involuntary is available on SF Anytime.
Låt den rätte komma in (Let the right one in)
2008 – dir. Thomas Alfredson
Let the Right One In put Swedish horror on the map. The film tells the story of Oskar, a 12-year-old bullied boy, who becomes friends with Eli, who isn’t like other kids. She’s pale, serious, and feeds on human blood. “Let the right one in” came out the same year as Twilight, but not to worry, there isn’t a brooding heartthrob in sight. But “Let the right one in” is not your standard vampire film: it’s a scary, beautiful story full of humanity.
Let the Right One In is available on Netflix.
Återträffen (The Reunion)
2013 – dir. Anna Odell
Anna Odell became famous overnight when she faked a psychosis on a bridge in Stockholm and was forcibly hospitalized. At the time, she was a student at Konstfack (University of Arts, Crafts and Design), and her explanation was that the sequence of events were part of her art project about her own mental health. “The Reunion” is her debut film, where she confronts her old bullies during a school reunion.
The Reunion is available on iTunes.