The First Decades Of Sound

After the departure of Sjostrom and Stiller, Swedish film production declined in quantity as well as quality, reaching a low point in 1929, when only six indigenous works premiered. Non-Swedish films, largely from the United States, made up the slack. The arrival of simultaneous sound and image recording at the beginning of the new decade brought profound changes to the industry. With the language barrier hampering exports, the domestic market predominated, but as moviegoing became increasingly popular, film production expanded again, to about twenty-five features per year during the 1930s. Chains of movie theaters were established throughout the country, the number doubling over the course of the decade, and several production companies arose in competition with Svensk Filmindustri, notably Europa Film (1930) and Sandrews (1937). In response to continuing Hollywood imports, the industry favored subtitles rather than dubbing, a consensus that still applies today.

The 1930s was a period of enormous change in Swedish society: the Social Democratic Party came to power in 1932 and the fundamental social legislation of the welfare state was put into place, but the country was also experiencing an economic depression. Almost all films of the decade responded to this social and economic instability by offering comforting images of security that focused on the preservation of the status quo, with conventionally happy endings rewarding virtue and punishing deviant, scandalous, or sinful behavior. The dominant film genres were comedy, generally with stage roots, and melodrama, where narrative patterns often were borrowed from Hollywood. Though the somewhat derisive term "pilsner-film" characterizes 1930s comedies as light, frothy entertainment, the focus in popular film on the family, domesticity, and conservative traditional values provides insight into the prevailing attitudes and concerns of the period.

Among the more skillful, versatile, and productive directors was Gustaf Molander (1888-1973), who had gained professional experience as a scriptwriter for Sjostrom and Stiller. Two Molander films, Swedenhielms (Swedenhielms Family, 1935), a comedy that exemplifies supposedly typical traits of the Swedish aristocracy, and Intermezzo (1936), a melodrama about an extramarital affair between a concert violinist and his accompanist, featured Gosta Ekman (1890-1938), the reigning matinee idol of the day, and a fresh discovery, Ingrid Bergman (1915-1982). The latter made several more films with Molander before leaving for Hollywood, the English-language remake of Intermezzo, titled Intermezzo: A Love Story (1939), and an international career. During World War II, Molander skirted censorship restrictions aimed at preserving Sweden's neutrality by directing three films that condemned Nazi oppression. His sixty-two films over a four-decade period include three scripted by Ingmar Bergman.

Spared direct involvement in the war, Sweden experienced a period of remarkable economic prosperity in its aftermath, with an influx of workers going from the countryside to urban areas as industry expanded. During the 1940s the number of Swedish films produced reached an all-time high, an average of more than forty each year. Film imports resumed after a wartime hiatus and movie attendance soared. While the pre-war orientation toward escapist comedy and farce receded, contemporary social reality remained conspicuously absent in the indigenous subgenre that dominated the 1940s and 1950s, the rural melodrama, which expressed nostalgia for Sweden's agrarian past. By idealizing and romanticizing the hardworking, self-reliant, God-fearing farmer and promoting the central unifying values of loyalty to the land and a traditional way of life, these films convey a fossilized image of Swedish national identity and a world-view that has little sympathy for social change. Conversely, the forces of modernity, associated with the city and the allure of its superficial lifestyle, are viewed with skepticism.

One of the most popular films of the period, Hon dansade en sommar (One Summer of Happiness, Arne Mattsson, 1951), embodies the city versus country motif in a doomed love affair, narrated in an extended flashback to underscore a sense of fatalism. Documentary filmmaker Arne Sucksdorff (1917-2001) also focused on the pastoral in nature shorts like Skuggor over snon (Shadows on the Snow, 1949), using cross-cutting to introduce dramatic tension and narrative continuity. Genre distinctions are blurred in Sucksdorffs feature-length Det stora aventyret (The Great Adventure, 1953), which combines extensive documentary footage of animals and the natural world with a fictional parable about the lost paradise of childhood innocence. Nostalgia is communicated both visually and verbally through the reminiscences of the voice-over narrator.

Among the directors who established themselves during the 1940s, two stand out: Alf Sjoberg and Ingmar Bergman. Sjoberg, a theoretician who experimented with different cinematic styles, was seldom constrained by genre conventions. Several of his films nevertheless incorporate characteristic rural settings and iconographic imagery, in particular Himlaspelet (The Heavenly Play, 1942), an allegorical Everyman narrative that draws on provincial folkloristic motifs. Bara en mor (Only a Mother, 1949) delineates the life trajectory of an impoverished farm laborer's wife but also addresses broader social concerns, as does Hets (Torment, 1944), a scathing indictment of the hierarchical, regimented structure of the school system and the bourgeois family. Though scripted by Bergman, visually the film is Sjoberg's, with expressionistic use of shadows and frequent high- or low-angle shots.

As a stage director, Sjoberg was renowned for innovative approaches to the classics, including works of August Strindberg (1849-1912), Sweden's greatest dramatist. Sjoberg's film version of Strindberg's Froken Julie (Miss Julie, 1951) opens up and extrapolates from the play to include interpolated scenes, characters, even subplots. Eschewing the conventional dissolve to indicate a flashback, Sjoberg positions past and present within the same space, even the same frame, a striking visual technique that also reinforces the theme of hereditary influences on character development. With a definitive performance by Anita Bjork (b. 1925) in the title role, Miss Julie won international accolades. Two later Strindberg adaptations, Karin Mansdotter (1954) and Fadern (The Father, 1969), were less successful.

In Sweden, Bergman has generally been perceived as outside the mainstream, but several films of the 1950s, in particular Sommarlek (Summer Interlude, 1951), Sommaren med Monika (Summer with Monika, 1953), and the many-layered comedy Sommarnattens leende (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955), use nature to frame and highlight the story in ways that recall both Sjostrom and the visual repertory of the rural melodrama. The subject matter of Torment and Summer with Monika, youthful rebellion against societal constraints, is a cinematic commonplace not restricted to that period.

Bergman was the first Swedish director since Sjostrom and Stiller to figure importantly in an international context. He frequently explored complex psychological, interpersonal, and existential issues, in historical settings in Gycklarnas afton (Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953), Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957), Ansiktet (The Magician, 1958), and Jungfrukallan (The Virgin Spring, 1960) and in contemporary milieus in Smultronstallet

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