The Landscape of Swedish Cinema: An Introduction

The warm, muted tones of a family's lives on the inside contrasts with the harsh, bright tones of their lives on the outside in the Swedish drama "Force Majeure." Via Magnolia Pictures.
The warm, muted tones of a family’s lives on the inside contrasts with the harsh, bright tones of their lives on the outside in the Swedish drama “Force Majeure.” Via Magnolia Pictures.
If you need to visualize the saying “small but mighty,” consider Swedish cinema.

According to the Swedish Film Institute, an organization established to support the Scandinavian country’s national cinema, this country of fewer than 10 million people releases 40 to 50 feature-length movies a year. So it seems natural that Sweden also has the most theater screens per capita in all of Europe.

Collecting hundreds of international awards each year, Swedish filmmakers use cinema to be proactive. They stand out with a strong sense of social justice, and they place a high value on family life and gender equality. To show that, directors often turn to realistic imagery and the use of muted or dark colors.

Master director Ingmar Bergman’s 1982 drama “Fanny and Alexander” is a perfect exhibit. Described by Woody Allen as “probably the greatest film artist . . . since the invention of the motion picture camera,” Bergman shows the development of family dynamics by using color. Starting from brighter tones, he gradually makes the setting washed-out as the story evolves.

For Swedes, films are also one of the primary tools to speak up about gender issues. In “Everlasting Moments,” a biographical drama that Filmworks screened in July 2009, director Jan Troell gives the lead female character the power to get through the horrors of war and poverty in order to nurture her family (as well as her hidden talent for portrait photography).

In one of three adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” crime novels, the 2009 Swedish version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” female lead character Lisabeth Salander’s extraordinary memory and social skills transforms her into the definition of power. The thriller–along with its sequels, “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”–portray a signature Swedish style of dark imagery paired with harsh Scandinavian landscapes to show an intense side of human emotions and nature.

Last year, aiming to further challenge gender bias, Swedish filmmakers launched a new rating criteria: A movie gets only gets an A if it passes the famous Bechdel Test. To do so, a movie has to have at least one scene with two named female characters discussing anything but a man. Hollywood blockbusters like “The Lord of the Rings,” “Star Wars,” and even “Harry Potter” have failed. (See if your favorite movie can pass the Bechdel Test.)

Another trait that sets Swedish cinema apart is an itch for the independence of people within their environment. Tomas Alfredson sets up an anxious 12-year-old boy with a teenage vampire in the 2008 horror film “Let the Right One In.” But instead of gratuitous and gory close-ups, Alfredson puts up pictures of a beautiful Stockholm suburb and tells a dark tale of love, alienation, and standing up for oneself.

This year, Swedish cinema has stepped into the international spotlight again with the Jan. 9 Filmworks selection, “Force Majeure,” a winner at Cannes, a nominee at the Golden Globes, and Sweden’s official Oscar entry. Described by critic Stephen Holden of The New York Times as “a clinically accurate depiction of a middle-class marriage,” the family drama also takes a challenging approach to gender issues. Instead of the familiar strong female lead, “Force Majeure” director Ruben Östlund instead goes in the direction of actively dissecting masculinity. In a world where cinema can fight for all genders to be equally strong, why not push for the ability to be equally vulnerable as well?

Olga Verkhotina lives in Los Angeles where she works in nonprofit marketing and event planning. She volunteers as a marketing assistant for Filmworks.