Revival - Tom de Castella charts how Swedish film finally cast off Bergman's shadow
There are many reasons why the Swedes are perceived as a sombre lot, but the work of Ingmar Bergman, Sweden's greatest film director, surely has something to do with it. As the late critic and film-maker Bo Widerberg complained in 1962: "What Bergman exports abroad consists of mystic light and undisguised exoticism . . . [he] reinforces the most trivial myths about Sweden and the Swedes."
It became hard for young, emerging Swedish directors, languishing in Bergman's shadow, to develop their own style or voice. Despite the best efforts of daring directors such as Widerberg, the industry declined in the 1960s. By the 1970s, one-fifth of all feature films produced were pornographic. The porn industry eventually relocated to cheaper, less well-regulated countries, and Bergman carried on, releasing the epic melodrama Fanny and Alexander in 1982. This year, at the age of 85, he has been working on the television film Saraband, for broadcast this autumn.
In the past five years, however, something remarkable has happened. Sweden has emerged from its post-Bergman hibernation. As the Danish provocateurs Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg were drawing up their Dogme manifesto in Copenhagen, the first results of Sweden's cinematic revival were completed in Trollhattan (later dubbed Trollywood), a small town north-east of Gothenburg. What began as a local regeneration project in a depressed region became a cultural phenomenon, shifting Swedish cinema's centre from Stockholm to the western part of the country. Trollhattan's appeal isn't confined to Swedes. Von Trier made both Dancer in the Dark and Dogville there, and he is expected to return next year for Manderlay, the second part of his US trilogy, premiered at Cannes this year.
The geographical shift was accompanied by a new generation of directors - Lukas Moodysson, Josef Fares, Reza Parsa, Roy Andersson and Reza Bagher - offering films that were more immediate and iconoclastic than anything since Lasse Hallstrom's enchanting My Life As a Dog a decade previously. Three directors in the new movement - Fares, Parsa and Bagher - came from the country's immigrant communities, testimony to the new variety and openness of Swedish film.
But the star of the new generation is undoubtedly Moodysson, now in his mid-thirties, but still very much the Angry Young Man of Swedish film. This former poet (who published his first anthology while still a teenager) has upset people with his sympathy for the anarchists who rioted at Gothenburg, his calls for revolution, and his perceived ingratitude after winning an award at the Swedish equivalent of the Baftas. But his work has flourished both at home and abroad. In three films, he has managed what many directors take a dozen to achieve - gain a foothold in the UK, which many cineastes consider to be the most hostile country in the world for foreign-language films.
Moodysson released his first feature, Fucking Amal, in 1998. Insipidly retitled Show Me Love for English speakers, Fucking Amal (also the first Trollhattan film to be released) was hugely successful in Scandinavia, and finally across much of Europe. Typically controversial, it is a story of the passionate love between two teenage girls in Amal, a small dead-end town in western Sweden, but was told with such a light, amusing touch that it managed to win over even the Finns, who usually spurn all things Swedish.
Two years later, Moodysson followed it up with Together, a clever and very funny film about life in a commune during the 1970s. But what established him as one of the most important young directors working today was Lilya 4-Ever, released last year. In a departure from his previous witty domestic dramas, he turns his camera on a 16-year-old Russian girl growing up on a bleak, post-Soviet housing estate. When Lilya's parents abandon her for a new life in the west, she is dragged into a life of prostitution. In one harrowing sequence, Moodysson shows us the ordeal of rape from the woman's point of view; the camera captures in grotesquely real terms the gasping faces of Lilya's assailants as they climax. The film is rescued from nihilism by the performances given by Oksana Akinshina, in the title role, and Artyom Bogucharsky, who plays Volodya, her 13-year-old companion. Sympathy with youth is a characteristic theme of Moodysson's work.
Ingrid Stigsdotter, curator of the recent season Beyond Trollywood at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, believes that "There has been a real change. The new generation of film-makers might admire Bergman, but they are making films from a very different perspective and don't feel they need to compete with the Sixties art-house films."
Or, as Moodysson put it in an interview with Sight and Sound magazine this year, in his matter-of-fact way: "I like Bergman, but I don't think he's inspired me much."