The most famous scene in Swedish film used to be Max von Sydow playing chess with Death on the seashore in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.” Now it’s Noomi Rapace carving “I am a rapist pig” on the belly of her hog-tied abuser in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
The global success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and their movie adaptations has transformed the image of Sweden in the eyes of the world. No longer just a country of austere artists meditating on the meaning of life, it’s now a hotbed of criminal perversion beneath the bourgeois veneer of a social democratic paradise.
First with the TV series “Wallander” and then with the Millennium trilogy, both based on best-selling books, the Swedes have found a way to package their reputa tion for Nordic gloom into a commercially appealing and internationally marketable genre, dubbed “Swedish noir.”
The resulting success has spread a wave of confidence not just through the Swedish film, TV and publishing industry, but throughout Swedish culture, and has got the rest of the world sitting up to take notice.
“Over the past five years or so, a lot of interesting stuff has come out of Sweden, not just books, TV and feature films, but also fashion and music,” says Piodor Gustafsson, commissioning editor for drama, culture and documentaries at pubcaster SVT. “When one odd thing happens now and then, nobody pays much attention, but when enough things happen from one territory at the same time, then the international market and particularly America will turn around and take a look.”
It’s a sign of the upbeat times that Lasse Hallstrom came home to make his first Swedish movie in a quarter-century, “The Hypnotist” (see story, this page); and that even Lukas Moodysson, often hailed as the true heir to Bergman’s mantle, is returning to the feel-good spirit of his early work after a long detour into hardcore arthouse miserablism.
Set to shoot this fall, Moodysson’s “We Are the Best,” about three wild teenage girls in 1982 Stockholm who form a punk band, exhibits welcome echoes of his exhilarating 1998 debut, teen lesbian romance “Fucking Amal.”
“The script isn’t finished but for sure the buyers are already interested,” says Rikke Ennis, CEO of sales outfit TrustNordisk. “Moodysson follows his own path and doesn’t care about what the world thinks, but everyone would be very grateful if he makes a similar film to ‘Fucking Amal.’ ”
Ennis suggests that even Moodysson is benefitting from the post-Millennium heat among foreign buyers, although he’s far removed from the Scandi crime wave. Sales agent Miira Paasilinna of the Yellow Affair agrees that the market is paying more attention to Sweden’s new arthouse filmmakers, such as Gabriela Pichler, whose debut “Eat Sleep Die” will screen at Cannes.
Yellow Affair sold Lisa Aschan’s acclaimed micro-budget debut “She Monkeys” last year to 20 territories for theatrical release, and Pichler’s pic is tipped to follow suit.
“There are quite edgy films coming out of Scandinavia in general, and Sweden in particular, and the production quality is extremely high,” says Paasilinna. That partly reflects the generous funding support from the Swedish Film Institute, which has switched its focus over the past couple of years to seek out fewer, bigger films that can travel, whether mainstream or arthouse.
The Millennium example has inspired more Swedish producers and directors to seek international success, which in turn has led to a greater willingness to invite feedback at the script and production stage from the key Nordic sales agents such as TrustNordisk, SF Intl., Yellow Affair and NonStop.
Even some arthouse producers, such as Erika Wasserman and Jesper Kurlandsky of Fasad, who made Toronto entry “Avalon,” are actively seeking out foreign co-producers to keep getting their films made, because their Swedish audience is too tiny to sustain them.
“Everyone is very focused on the international market now,” Ennis says. “Filmmakers understand more than they used to that it’s all very well to have success in your national market, but if you can cross borders, that’s when it gets really interesting.”
Success creates a virtuous circle where Swedish actors such as Mikael Persbrandt, the Skarsgard brothers Bill and Alexander, David Dencik, and Noomi and her ex-husband, Ola Rapace, are increasingly recognizable abroad, to join established stars like von Sydow, Lena Olin, Stellan Skarsgard and Pernilla August.
The decision by David Fincher to shoot his Hollywood version of “Dragon Tattoo” in Sweden, and to keep the story’s original setting, drew more attention to the country, and gave invaluable experience to local crews, even if the pic only delivered half the Scandi box office Sony was budgeting for.
“It was like opening a door to another way of producing films, and we’re all extremely proud it was made here,” says veteran producer Peter Possne. “The American version of Millennium is one reason why I’ve been getting more phone calls than ever before from American producers who want to bring projects to shoot in Sweden.”
The Swedish renaissance is spurred by a friendly rivalry with other Scandinavian countries. By and large, the Scandinavians don’t like watching each other’s films, but there’s a healthy spirit of collaboration among the national film agencies, TV executives and producers, to pool intelligence, financing, skills and creative talent, in order to raise the quality of their work.
Such cross-fertilization has always taken place in Scandinavia, and helps to broaden horizons beyond national audiences. After all, “Dragon Tattoo” was adapted by two Danes, Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, and directed by a Dane, Niels Arden Oplev.
“From the national film institutes, there’s a consciousness of trying to make films work across Scandinavia and internationally, and some producers are thinking about that too,” says Charlotta Denward, the SFI’s director of production and development. “Peter Aalbaek of Zentropa in Denmark thinks we would do better to create one single Scandinavian film agency, but he’s ahead of his time.”
- “Easy Money 2”: Sequel to the hit 2010 crime thriller, given an edgy twist by hiring Iranian-born helmer Babak Najafi, whose “Sebbe” won the debut trophy at Berlin and best film at Sweden’s annual Guldbagge awards. (TrustNordisk)
- “Eat Sleep Die”: First-time director Gabriela Pichler is regarded as Sweden’s Andrea Arnold, using amateur actors to craft a doc-style drama with a unique personal voice about small-town factory workers threatened with redundancy. (the Yellow Affair)
- “Bekas”: Tipped as a Swedish “Slumdog Millionaire,” this debut by Kurdish-born Karzan Kader is about two homeless boys in northern Iraq who dream of escaping to America, which they are convinced is just over the border. (TrustNordisk)
- “Call Girl”: After several acclaimed TV dramas and stylish commercials, Mikael Marcimain makes his feature debut with this $5 million political drama set in the 1970s that probes the sleazy underbelly of Sweden’s social democratic dream. (TrustNordisk)
- “Agent Hamilton — But Not if It Concerns Your Daughter”: Second film in the revived franchise with Mikael Persbrandt as the Swedish secret agent, this time trying to rescue a friend’s kidnapped daughter from al-Qaeda (SF Intl.).
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