Home Video Hovel: Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema, by Scott Nye
The risk of pitting yourself against a towering figure is that figure may just eclipse you. Whereas the French New Wave successfully overthrew the “tradition of quality” they railed against, creating a cinema that to this day remains the standard-bearer for their country, Bo Widerberg didn’t just reject, in abstraction, similar tendencies in Swedish cinema – he went after Ingmar Bergman, and Bergman, in the long arc of history, prevailed. After accusing Bergman and the entire Swedish film industry of prioritizing films concerned with craft and spirituality above bolder strokes of artistry and social issues, Widerberg set out to chart a new course for Swedish cinema that would make it more the contemporary of the French and Czech New Waves. Despite a distinguished career, particularly in the 1960s, Widerberg never fully escaped the rivalry he established; Bergman’s reputation only grew, his only diminished. Criterion’s new box set – Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema, containing four of the six films he made in the 60s – aims to give him his due with a modern audience.
Making his debut with 1963’s The Baby Carriage, one can see the course Widerberg was attempting to chart. Filled with the kind of first-film flourishes familiar to New Waves across the world, the film – about a lower-class woman (Inger Taube) who falls in and out of love with two young men (Lars Passgård and Thommy Berggren), becoming pregnant by one of them – is more image- than issue-driven, very much a reflection of what’s to come. While Widerberg’s films demonstrate deep concern with Swedish history and class relations, they are first and foremost cinematic expressions that emphasize beauty and joy, using those qualities to contrast the conflict his characters come into. In Baby Carriage, which was shot by future Swedish legendary director Jan Troell, Britt is contending with two volatile men who want everything from her but what she ultimately has to give them – a life more ordinary. Widerberg is quick to put his emphasis on the thrill she gets with each of them, the excitement of young sexual encounters, the joy of setting up a home of one’s own, the pleasure of dancing, and so on. Contrasted with Bergman’s Summer with Monika, a downbeat mourning for an unwanted pregnancy in a poor household, Widerberg acknowledges the difficulties while celebrating the life we have to live, concluding his film with a unique, poignant portrait of hope.
His next film, Raven’s End (also 1963), would more forcefully put him on the map. Competing in Cannes and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, it’s a significant step up formally, narratively, and emotionally. Berggren comes forward in his first starring role for Widerberg, playing Anders, a young man who aspires to be a writer, contending with his family, his love life, his friends, this tiny block in this small town from which he can’t seem to escape. The year is 1936, and a voice on the radio reminds a contemporary audience that life all over Europe is about to change, whether these people want it to or not. Anders wants a lot changed. He wants his father (Keve Hjelm) to stop drinking and get to work; he wants his mother (Emy Storm) to stop worrying and covering for his father; he wants a little fling with a fetching girl named Elsie (Christina Frambåck); he wants to be an author.
The film is striking foremost for its starkness; any sort of sentimental yearning trickles through the cracks like the puddles on the town’s unpaved road, cool and placid until splashed upon. Anders, to the extent he can, mostly buries his temper, pouring it into his writing, letting his parents’ indignities pass him by. After all, in a few years, he’ll be a successful writer, well out of here. But one can never leave home behind; it’s always tied up inside you. Berggren’s suitability for Widerberg’s cinema is immediately evident – in his mid-twenties but playing 18/19, he looks like an old boy, someone who’s still holding onto, and somewhat held back by, his joyful memories of youth, but seeing the world come into focus for what it is, and growing increasingly displeased by it. The structure of the film routinely comes around to both ends of that, making each confrontation a desperate desire to grasp the past again, a mounting realization for everyone that there’s no going back.
The Criterion set skips his next two films – Love 65 being an especially strange omission as it was restored by Svenska Filminstitutet alongside the four films in this set – and moves onto Elvira Madigan (1967), a clear leap forward for the filmmaker. With his first color film, Widerberg and cinematographer Jörgen Persson embrace the aesthetics of impressionist painters, creating a look much like that which Agnes Varda employed two years prior in La bonheur. Based on a real, doomed love affair well known in Sweden (it was previously told in a 1943 film by Åke Ohberg), Widerberg recounts how Elvira (Pia Degermark, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes), a circus performer, ran off with Sixten Sparre, a married Swedish lieutenant, their idyllic months that followed, and the tragedy they ultimately came to.
The film simplifies a lot of the real-life drama between the two – chiefly that Sparre was heavily in debt and went to great lengths to coerce Madigan – but the arc it opts for is a tried-and-true tale as old as time that is very beautifully rendered here. The film takes its time to luxuriate in their escape, soaking in all the joy they ran away to claim, before letting hardship descend on them. Once it does, it comes fast, and Sixten’s personal demons frequently stand in the way of whatever hope for contentment they could have. Degermark is a major discovery, but not even 18 when the film premiered, and unfortunately fell prey to the innumerable forces that come for young women in the entertainment industry, and only appeared in another three films.
Last up is Ådalen 31 (1969), another significant leap forward for Widerberg – his longest film to this point and the largest canvas he worked in. So large, in fact, that he and Persson went the extra mile to film in anamorphic widescreen in the Techniscope process, which couldn’t be developed in Sweden. This distinguishes it more forcefully from other Swedish films at the time, and is well suited to his expansive story, covering the struggle of several dozen people during an industrial strike in the titular town, which culminated in the Swedish military killing five people during a demonstration.
Though social and political critiques are inherent in all his work, this is the most directly political film Widerberg had made to this point, and thankfully only didactic in its framing (some text bookends the film that makes clear everyone’s intentions in making it). Aside from that opening, nothing in the film indicates the violence it will climax in – much of the first half of the film is about how people spend their time when money is tight and there’s no work to go to, wiling their days away on housework, inventions, games, and friends. The class divisions are established well in a brief romantic fling between a laborer’s son and the sawmill manager’s daughter, which sounds like an old folk song, but hey, some things ring true for a reason. While warmth and trust exists between the two families when their needs are not in opposition, a sense of “contamination” ensues once their tryst threatens to take on more permanent consequences.
As alluded to earlier, all four films were restored by Svenska Filminstitutet, which also handled the Bergman restorations that filled Criterion’s lovely box set five years ago. As such, the quality and characteristic of these will be very familiar to anyone who has those discs. The Baby Carriage was restored in high-def, Raven’s End and Ådalen in 4K, and Elvira Madigan in 2K, all from their original camera negatives. The black-and-white films only have a slight amount of grain, appear very clear and undamaged, and emphasize shades of gray over strong contrast. The Baby Carriage, due to the nature of its production (extremely low-budget, really utilizing natural lighting), is a bit more technically adventurous, and Svenska did a marvelous job translating the gradations of light that can come from having only one or two light sources in the night scenes. This is especially where the Blu-ray offers a significant advantage over viewing the films on their streaming platform, which can result in compression artifacts depending on your bandwidth.
The color films – Elvira Madigan and Ådalen 31 – are really spectacular, resisting the early tendency of HD films to over-sharpen the image, letting that “impressionist” influence shine through while still retaining a great deal of clarity. Both films are after something quite different – Elvira is heavy on yellows (sunshine, grass, flowers) that have to be carefully delineated while allowing for a degree of “bleed” that you get on 35mm, while Ådalen is sort of brown, red, and muddy, an earthier color palette that grounds the film out of the idyllic realm Elvira toys with, and into the raw concern of survival. Its naturalist tendencies do not exclude beauty by any stretch, and the 4K restoration is the set’s high watermark, with a lot of shadow detail and variations in light that help make what could have been a dour story into something vibrant and alive.
For a four-disc set, supplements are fairly light. The best are new interviews with Persson and Berggren, who are still alive and offer great insight into Widerberg’s working methods, status in the industry at the time, and the excitement of beginning their careers with such lauded work. Ruben Östlund (director of Force Majeure and Triangle of Sadness) provides a general introduction to Widerberg that, as these sort of art-house-celeb features tend to go, is largely an endorsement of the filmmaker without offering a ton of insight.
On the archival side, Criterion provides four TV interviews Widerberg did for each film. One offers a general overview of the Swedish film industry and how he hopes to disrupt it, another with him and his daughter Nina (who acts in The Baby Carriage, Raven’s End, Love 65, Elvira Madigan, and later Widerberg’s Man on the Roof). For Ådalen, Widerberg is joined by labor-union chairman Hjalmar Näsström, who was actually at the demonstrations depicted in the film, and shares his reservations about Widerberg making it, which the final film helped soothe. The best, though, is the one for Elvira Madigan, in which grade school children ask him questions, ones that are detailed enough to suggest they actually saw this frankly very adult drama. Sweden! The 1960s! Truly a different time. Each of these TV interviews runs under 10 minutes.
Criterion fills out the discs with a minute or so of behind-the-scenes footage from shooting Elvira and Widerberg’s early short film The Boy and the Kite, which he directed alongside Troell. Criterion packs all four discs and a booklet into an extra-wide Scanavo case, and the color palette of the package design goes well alongside their Three Films by Mai Zetterling and I Am Curious… box sets, which offer films contemporaneous to these. The booklet includes a very informative essay by Peter Cowie, along with excerpts from Widerberg’s writing that challenged the film industry.
Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema offers an excellent introduction to the filmmaker – though I wish they’d found room for Love 65 (perhaps forthcoming as an individual release?), all four of the films in here are really tremendous and well worth the time and study. Far beyond the pure polemic I expected, they’re rich, warm, humanist portraits of people at key life crossroads – maternal, familial, romantic, and professional – that cut them to the core and force them to uncover aspects of themselves they never knew were there. The transfers are especially gorgeous, and the supplements, though brief, offer a lot of ways to open the films up.