How to get rid of the ghost that you want to keep close? It's been more than twenty-five years now since Ingmar Bergman was regularly making feature films, but the master's mammoth shadow looms over the national cinema with undiminished dominance, and indeed most of European art cinema in general; meanwhile it's just one year after his death, at age 89, and Swedish cinema is still struggling with the legacy of this fearsomely popular and canonized auteur. Despite the domestic success of homegrown films such as Kay Pollack's "As It Is in Heaven" and Mikael Hafstrom's "Evil," and the ever-growing international reputations of festival-circuit favorites Roy Andersson and Lukas Moodysson (not to mention the imminent international release of Tomas Alfredson's already widely acclaimed, and Tribeca-feted "Let the Right One In"), Swedish cinema longs to crawl out from under the shadow of Bergman, even as it cannot afford to forget him.
Although American viewers only get the slightest sampling of Swedish films in any given year (other than Bergman's final film, "Saraband," U.S.-distributed releases from Sweden in the past five years included those by the increasingly difficult and militantly confrontational Moodysson, Hafstrom's film, and not much else), the industry is chugging along steadily, even if attendance for its own films has been on a downslide. (And in a search for stability, only twenty-nine films were made in 2007 -- as opposed to more than forty between 2005 and 2006 -- after too many production companies were trying to survive in Sweden at once.) Of course it goes without saying that the grant-based and state-sponsored Swedish Film Institute, which, founded in 1963, proudly touts itself as the world's first film archive, and which today produces, promotes, and preserves its country's cinema, needs to think about the future even more than the past, especially with Bergman's passing.
The international journalists' film program assembled this year by the Swedish Institute, a public agency promoting the exportation of their country's national culture, in conjunction with both the Swedish Film Institute and the organizers of the fifth annual Bergman Week festival, is a journey that exemplifies and clarifies this schism. Before embarking on the festival itself, held once again at Bergman's longtime home and current resting place, Faro Island, we were treated in Stockholm to a mini-festival of contemporary Swedish films, which provided a fascinating cross-section of the nation's cinematic output, shining a light on concerns both artistic and commercial, traditional and progressive.
Jan Troell, whose 1972 period drama "The Emigrants" was so popular in the U.S. (undoubtedly due, in part, to the presence of Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann, then the best known faces of the Bergman vogue) that it received a Best Picture nomination, a rare feat in Oscar history for a foreign-language film, comes back this year with "Maria Larsson's Everlasting Moment." Returning to the well of grimy turn-of-the-century struggle that marked his career-defining earlier film (and its sequel, "The New Land"), Troell has mounted a robust production, imbued with compassion and a definably Nordic no-nonsense, and based on stories of his wife's ancestor. "Maria Larsson's Everlasting Moment," shot in the faded bronze of a photograph album, begins as a fairly conventional, if remarkably authentic, depiction of a poor family in 1907 subsiding on the strike-prone factory work of a drunk father and the sewing and scrubbing of tough-as-nails mother Maria, while trying to raise seven children, not all necessarily wanted. Ultimately, though "Everlasting Moment" transcends its episodic, Scandinavian miserablism when it segues into an open and wondrous portrait of Maria's inner life, depicted through the images she takes as an amateur photographer. Finnish actress Maria Heiskanen, who appeared in Aki Kaurismaki's "Lights in the Dusk," makes for a compellingly stoic protagonist, enacting secret love affairs with both the camera-shop owner (Jesper Christensen) who feeds her hobby and the camera itself, which grants her the clarity to see those things that might get lost in the muck and soot of everyday living. Troell's obvious passion for the recorded image is all over this warm, humane, pragmatic film, yet it never overtakes his love for the woman at its center.
Hopefully "Maria Larsson's Everlasting Moment" will receive international recognition when it makes the eventual festival rounds; meanwhile Ruben Ostland's "Involuntary" already premiered at Cannes's Un Certain regard section this year and is one of Swedish cinema's great white hopes of 2008. A series of vignettes of social discontent shot in ominous single takes, "Involuntary" is in the vein of Michael Haneke's "Code Unknown" or Ulrich Seidl's "Dog Days," albeit with less fatalism or outright grotesquerie - it's also less formidable than either. Unlike works by Haneke, second-time director Ostland's film doesn't offer much in the way of forward motion, the personal horrors of contemporary social dynamics (unchecked sexual repression on an all-guys' weekend retreat; a bourgeois dinner host unwilling to admit a serious injury so his party can go on) dramatized as a nonstop succession of unmitigated bad behavior, interrupted by abrupt blackouts. Yet despite its narrative redundancy, "Involuntary" nevertheless showcases its director's ruthless precision with framing and his mastery at instantly establishing narrative information and emotional conflict with imagery at once direct and fragmented. Whatever its limitations as a coherent or expansive statement on the lack of individual responsibility in contemporary society, there's no doubt that only cinema can express ideas this way.
After the traditional Swedish period film from Troell and Ostland's very "now" piece of art cinema, Daniel Alfredson's "Wolf" seemed to best typify commercial native Swedish cinema. Perhaps accessible more in narrative flow than in the specifics of its location or characters, "Wolf" features Peter Stormare (one of Swedish cinema's few contemporary crossover stars, from "Fargo" and "Minority Report") as Klemens, a reindeer herdsman in northern Scandinavia who decides to shoulder the blame when Nejla, his nephew and part-time employee, illegally kills a wolf who's been attacking their cattle. If "Wolf"' doesn't seem to have much consequence for viewers in America or in most of Europe, either in its wilderness adventure or its eventual courtroom drama, perhaps it doesn't really matter. Appealing to a specific audience attuned to its subtleties of ongoing Swedish racial and class divides, "Wolf" has already proven a hit in its own country, where the industry always could use a hand.
After the wintry, mountainous expanses of Alfredson's film (not to mention the bustling cityscapes of Stockholm), it was on to the peaceful, seaside beaches and lush pastures of Faro Island, where Bergman Week was in full, albeit rurally paced, force. A testament to the remaining vitality of Ingmar Bergman's cinema, the festival has attracted not only swarms of the island's inhabitants but also Swedish film industry folk of all sorts; it's a reminder that in film the past is always present. To be continued.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor and staff writer of the Criterion Collection.]