Enforced sterilization, one of the almost forgotten scandals of modern Sweden, is given somber but captivating treatment in the drama “The New Man,” helmed by Finland’s Klaus Haro. Positive reviews could help overcome auds’ reluctance to see a film on the subject and could make it a modest box office success. Offshore, fests looking for quality Scandi features should give it a look.
During 1934-76, Sweden had a law enforcing sterilization of those who were deemed unfit to have children. Aim was to create “a new man” –a country where all citizens were healthy and strong.
Often very young people were singled out: They were either feeble minded, promiscuous, suffering from diseases like epilepsy, or just poor and from a large family. They were put in institutions where, it was said, they would be asked if they agreed to be sterilized.
But there was nothing voluntary about it. In the 42 years of the policy, it’s estimated more than 30,000 persons, mostly young women, were sterilized.
In 1999, a series of articles in a daily paper blew the lid off the subject. Several books are now in the works including one by Kjell Sundstedt, who focuses on a couple of close family members, and uses it as the background for his script here.
Haro has turned it into a tragic, human and emotional film, made in his usual somber, elegant style. Nonetheless, pic, which is set in 1951, packs a punch, thanks to its unknown but excellent young actors.
Teenager Gertrud (Julia Hogberg), the eldest child of a poor family, is forced to leave her widowed father and her siblings and is taken to an institution for the feeble minded.
She gets to know the other girls there: Some have low IQs, some are also from poor backgrounds, and one suffers from epilepsy. They are all to be sterilized. Some silently wait for it to happen, others vocally protest.
Strong-minded Gertrud realizes sterilization is a way out of the place and, not really grasping what it means, she looks forward to the operation. But when she falls in love with the gardener, Axel (Christoffer Svensson), and gets pregnant, her situation changes.
Best-known thesp here is Maria Lundqvist (“Mother of Mine”), who plays head nurse Solbritt, a pragmatic worker who comes to doubt the humanity of her job. Casting unknowns as the girls makes their sufferings even more believable.