Friday 3 February 2023

The past and the future

I have been blogging about films since Februari 2005 (the first post), first in Swedish and then, after I moved to Scotland in 2009, in English. Blogging obviously suits me. Back when I started, blogging was hot and trendy but at some point it stopped being that. People kept blogging, but it was not necessarily called blogging anymore. People have told me that this is not a blog either, because to them a blog is not a good thing so if they like what I am doing here it cannot be a blog. Yeah, it is weird to me too. 

However I feel the need to reconsider how, when, and where I write. During autumn I felt that I was doing too much in too many places, and that it was time to slow down a bit and be more focused. I write journal articles and book chapters and I have a Substack account and I have my new duties as chairman of the Swedish Film Critics Association, and other things too. So I have decided to cut back on blogging here. Once I blogged once a week (how was that possible?) and then for a long time every second week was the default setting. The last couple of years it has been every fourth week. Now instead I will not have a schedule, but whenever I have done some new research I can write about it here, to keep the blog alive but not be ruled by it. We shall see. I have some other creative ideas too, so I am not sure exactly how things will pan out. It will all work itself out. Just bear with me, and the blog. And thanks for reading me.

Friday 6 January 2023


 As usual I am keeping my hands off the blog over the holidays. See you in a couple of weeks.

Friday 9 December 2022

Dilys Powell

 One of my favourite quotes from a film critic is the following: 

To explain to a sophisticated taste why The Sun Shines Bright is so good a film strikes me as nearly impossible. A sophisticated literary taste, that is. In the cinema sophistication wears strange colours, and the most austere judge will admire a piece which to a reading man may appear tearful tosh. Nothing sadder than to watch some devoted film critic trying to explain to a dramatic or a literary critic - or even an art critic, for artists outside their own field are ruled more than they think by literary ideas - that to appreciate a film you have to look at it, not just listen to it. Human desperation can go no further.

That was Dilys Powell in her review of John Ford's The Sun Shines Bright (1953) in the Sunday Times. Powell, whose writing has been collected in, for example, The Golden Screen - Fifty Years of Film (1989) and The Dilys Powell Film Reader (1991), is someone I always enjoy reading, and often have reason to return to. I share with her a love of westerns for example ("There are no bad Westerns. There are superb Westerns; there are good Westerns. And there are Westerns." she wrote in 1964), and of Vincente Minnelli.

She did not only love Minnelli's famous musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, which it is common to love, but his more challenging and lesser-known films too, which often only Minnelli auteurists like. An example is her review of Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). An excerpt: "Return to form by a brilliant director: something to celebrate. The director is Vincente Minnelli/.../The story deals with extravagances which in the hands of another director might be merely absurd. Not in Minnelli's hands./.../This time the frenzies of the film studio and the desperate dolce vita of Americans working abroad are rightly set in their period; the result may be a fantasy world, but it is a fantasy which this director understands and makes his own and into which he can breathe an intense, feverish life."

Something that often shines through in her writing is a defensive position vis-à-vis a certain kind of people, of which she most certainly had had many encounters, who take a belittling view of her chosen artform; literary types for whom film is mere entertainment. As part of her efforts to emphasise the artistic value of cinema she early on highlighted the director. In 1946, for example, she gave a talk about the role of the director in relation to the national, industrial and cooperative aspects of cinema. She asked the rhetorical question: “How can one man leave the mark of his personality and his talent on this hugger-mugger?” and answered, “But he does.” She also wrote that the visual language of a great filmmaker is the equivalent of the written language of a novelist. In her reviews of Antonioni's films of the 1960s, which she loved, she writes as much about the buildings and architecture as she does about the actors. Speaking of Antonioni, I love this sentence from her review of Bullitt (1968): "And outside the work of Antonioni I haven't seen such effective narrative and emotional use of an urban background."

One of the joys of reading collections like these is that you can see how her views evolve, as from the opening paragraph of her review of Nashville (1975), "Robert Altman has never been among my idols." to the last paragraph of her review of Quintet (1979), "And once again you are reminded of the astonishing range of Altman's work. M.A.S.H. and Images, Brewster McCloud and Three Women, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Nashville, and Quintet - one never knows what this extraordinary director will do next. And thank heaven for that."

Another treat is when there are several reviews in a row of exuberant excitement, as from 1955, where she shares her joyful pleasure of experiencing the greatness of Seven Samurai (1954), A Star is Born (1954), and, slightly less great, Buñuel's The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz (1955). She also liked the first Bond film, Dr. No (1962), and she was an eager fan of Miklos Jancsó. She called Henry Hathaway an "old-time spellbinder" and referred to Fritz Lang's "cold, savage skill." This is another thing I like about her, the range of what she likes. She is open to almost anything, except a certain kind of violence, like Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971) which she hated even though she liked many of his other films. At times she wrestles with a film, where the reviews move back and forth between what she likes and what she dislikes in the film under consideration, weighing the good and the bad against each other as she writes.

Powell was born in 1901 and after studying at Oxford she began working at the Sunday Times in 1928. She became their film critic in 1939, and in 1946 she was elected president of Fipresci, The International Federation of Film Critics. She stayed at Sunday Times until 1979 after which she spent 13 years writing criticism for Punch. She also returned to Sunday Times, writing about films on television up until the day she died, in 1995. That shows how committed she was to both films and film criticism. 

Beside films, her great love was Greece, a country where she spent a lot of time during her life. First as part of her first husband's archaeology expeditions in the 1920s and 1930s, then doing war service during World War 2, and then as a friend and lover of the country. She also wrote several books about Greece, which I have not read but am curious about, in particular An Affair of the Heart (1957).


The London Film Critics' Circle has (or at least had until 2019?) an annual award called the Dilys Powell Award for Excellence in Film, and its first winner was Dirk Bogarde. He wrote a beautiful introduction to The Golden Screen, about his friendship with Powell. Here is a sample from it: "Playing a small part in a not very remarkable French film she said of me tartly, but not unkindly, 'Given too little to do Mr Bogarde does far too much.' Which was precisely what I did. And how I learned from that phrase." They became friends and remained so for life it seems.

Another connection between Bogarde, Powell, and Greece too, is that she was a friend of fellow philhellenist Patrick Leigh Fermor, whom Bogarde played in Powell/Pressburger's lovely Ill Met by Moonlight (1957). It is set on Crete, although due to lingering fighting there after the Greek civil war, filming took place in southern France. I do not know how she felt about that film, but she did love the films of Powell and Pressburger in general. The one exception was Peeping Tom (1960), which she, like many other British critics, eviscerated in her review. But she regretted this later and wrote an apology, in Sunday Times of course. I can quote it in full I think, and notice that this second review is prefiguring the contemporary idea of the "elevated horror film":

Michael Powell has long been known as one of this country's most distinguished film-makers. But when, in 1960, he made a horror film, I hated the piece and, together with a great many other British critics, said so. Today, I find I am convinced that it is a masterpiece. If in some afterlife conversation is permitted, I shall think it my duty to seek out Michael Powell and apologise. Something more than a change of taste must exist. The original story and screenplay come from Leo Marks; at their centre is a cameraman (played by Carl Boehm) whose scientist father used him in childhood in a study of fear. The boy grows up obsessed by images of the human face frozen in extremes of terror. He multiplies them by himself photographing death, and, in fact, becoming a multiple killer.

With so gifted a director this can hardly be anything but a frightening movie, but its object is the examination of emotion and not titillation. Interesting that it should be revived now when there has been much concern about the influence of cinema. All the more reason to distinguish between the serious and the merely sensational horror. Reading now what I wrote in 1960 I find that, despite my efforts to express revulsion, nearly everything I said conceals the extraordinary quality of Peeping Tom. See it, and spare a moment to respect the camerawork of Otto Heller.

Link to my Substack

Friday 11 November 2022

Little Vera (1988)

Not that long ago, the Ukrainian city of Mariupol had approximately 430 000 inhabitants. That was before Russia began its invasion and initiated its genocidal campaign against Ukraine. (Is it genocide? Some links to discussions below.) Now nobody knows how many people are still left in that city, but because of the Russian method of war, the wholesale destruction of civilian areas and infrastructure and mass killings of young and old left behind, it is a fact that many, maybe most people, have either fled or been killed; some estimate that up to 30 000 might have been killed in the city, which is now occupied by the Russians, but it could be more and in any event it is not over and people continues to be killed.

Mariupol has a special place within film history as it is where Little Vera (1988) was shot, and where it is set, although the city was called Zhdanov then. It was directed by Vasili Pichul, who was born in Mariupol, and written by his wife Mariya Khmelik. I do not expect many of you to have heard of this film, but while I was too young to watch it when it came out, I remember that occasion well because it was a sensation. Little Vera was a hip, topical film from the Soviet Union about young people giving the finger to the system, to the older generation, to communism. Such films were rare in Soviet at the time, although there had been a few earlier examples such as Courier/Messenger Boy (1986) or Assa (1987). There was a new trend with a type of films, dark and even nihilistic films sometimes referred to as chernukha, about family breakdowns and societal malaise, and Little Vera can be included in this tradition. It broke box office records in the Soviet Union, over 50 million saw Little Vera during its first release, and was popular in Sweden as well. I remember the trailer, and the excitement around the film, even though I never saw it then. It also has nudity and sex scenes, unheard of in Soviet cinema, and no doubt that was also helpful at the box office.

Vera, wonderfully played by Natalya Negoda, is a teenage girl who lives with her brother and their parents. The father is an alcoholic who can get nasty and violent when he is drunk. Vera has her friend Chistyakova, and she is dating Andrei. Then he is called up and she meets Sergei. They decide to get married, on rather flimsy grounds. It is not much fun. Life is hard, the apartments are small, and the neighbourhood is worn down and ugly. Her family consists of four people who can barely stand each other but they are forced to live together because they depend on the money the father earns. But Vera has a fierce personality and an explosive laughter. In one scene, when an outdoor party is broken up by the police, she kicks one of the policemen in the crotch, several times, in order to get away. Escaping the police is one thing though, the dreariness of a life under a communist state on its last leg can break the spirit of anyone, even a fighter like Vera. 

The narrative is a bit awkward and clumsy, it lacks a good rhythm, but the film is powerful just the same. The story is interspersed by shots of the Azovstal steelworks, that the current war made famous in March and April of 2022, and these shots have an eerie poetry to them, which is quite striking. 

The film's relation to sex and nudity is interesting. Here for example is a poster that was used in the marketing campaign:

As Vera is a sad, struggling teenager and not an avenging action hero, and the film resembles Ken Loach and not Paul Verhoeven, the poster has nothing to do with the style and content of the actual film. It does however say a lot about distributors' focus, and their, probably accurate, idea of what would sell. But most people seeing that poster, and expecting something like it, would be certain to be disappointed. Natalya Negoda was however able to trade on that sexual angle, as she got to appear on the cover of Playboy magazine. And the Soviet women did take notice, and appreciate, the fact that in the sex scenes, Vera was on top of her boyfriend, showing yet again that she was a new kind of woman. She became emblematic of the rapid changes in the Soviet Union during the years of reformist chairman Mikhail Gorbachev. 

Little Vera was made little over a year after Gorbachev had announced the new policy of openness, glasnost and perestroika (these are terms that are synonymous with my childhood), which also affected Soviet cinema culture. It meant that older films that had been censored and banned could now be shown, sometimes for the first time, and dark and rebellious films like Little Vera could be made. It has its flaws but it is a powerful film; you should definitely search for it. 


Today the film has a certain urgency to it, as most of what is seen in it has been destroyed by Russian artillery and missiles. The whole city has become a crime scene, a crime against humanity. 

Pichul never got to experience the demolition of his hometown; he died from lung cancer in 2015. Now the whole city is dying. Although knowing about Ukrainian resilience and resourcefulness, I do not doubt that as soon as the Russians are defeated, the locals will make the city flourish again. The human spirit lives on, even if it sometimes must do battle with the dark forces of fascism and vicious drunken madness.


On the question of genocide:

Friday 14 October 2022

Swedish Film Recommendations - Part 1 (1913-1959)

Sometimes I get emails from readers asking about recommendations of Swedish films I think they should watch, sometimes I am asked in person. Hence, I thought I could write down some recommendations here on the blog. I will ignore availability for now and just mention films I think should be watched if you can find them. To make it manageable I start now with the period 1913 to 1959, i.e. from the earliest feature-length masterpiece until the arrival of TV and the disruptions that followed. During the years in question, over one thousand Swedish feature films were released so the ones mentioned here are only a fragment of all films released. These are not the only good ones, or the only ones of interest from those years, but they make for a good start. Neither are all the films I mention below great works of art, a few are more of historic interest than anything else. But I like all of them. I will not mention any films by Ingmar Bergman or Hasse Ekman. There are too many of them. All Bergman's films of the 1950s are recommended viewing, and some of the 1940s too, and besides they are well-known already. Most of Ekman's films are recommended as well, and especially the ones he made from 1945 to 1954. 

Most of the films below have official English titles but when they have not, I have included a direct translation of the Swedish title within []. At a later date I will continue with films made from 1960 and onwards.


Swedish cinema reached spectacular heights early on, such as Ingeborg Holm (1913), directed by Victor Sjöström and with Hilda Borgström in the title role. This powerful melodrama, of a mother and two children who fall into destitution and despair after the sudden death of the father, is a contender to the title of being cinema's first feature-length masterpiece. Whatever you feel about such a classification, the film is still required viewing for anyone interested in the development of, not just Swedish cinema, but cinema overall. The acting, the storytelling, and Sjöström's use of space and compositions in great depth are part of the reasons why it is so remarkable. It is my oldest recommendation, and here are the rest:

Vingarne (Mauritz Stiller 1916) Erotic affairs, gay and straight, among artists in this meta-film. Based on Herman Bang's novel Mikaël, which was later adapted by Carl Theodor Dreyer as Michael (1924).

Kärleken segrar/Victory of Love (Georg af Klercker 1916) Melodrama with all kinds of complicated love affairs, misunderstandings, blackmail attempts, and suicide attempts, with impeccable mise-en-scéne.

Thomas Graals bästa film /Thomas Graal's Best Film (Mauritz Stiller 1917) Victor Sjöström stars in this witty meta-comedy about the making of a film. 

Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru/The Outlaw and His Wife (Victor Sjöström 1918) Melodrama in the far north of Sweden, shot on location, with great scenery, and nerve-wracking mountain climbing stunts. Sjöström wrote, directed, and plays the lead.

Nattliga toner/Night Music (Georg af Klercker 1918) Not as ambitious as Sjöström or Stiller, this tells the tale of a rich man with artistic ambitions but no talent discovering that a dirt-poor tenant of his has written a play that is a masterpiece. He steals it and kills its author, but eventually he gets his comeuppance. A morality tale in four acts.

Herr Arnes pengar/The Treasure of Arne (Mauritz Stiller 1919) Scottish mercenaries wreak havoc on unsuspecting Swedes and are haunted thereafter. One of Stiller's most majestic films.

Erotikon (Mauritz Stiller 1920) A sophisticated comedy of romantic shenanigans and illicit interludes that inspired Lubitsch. As is so often the case with such films, it is based on an Hungarian play. Can profitably be watched together with Cecil B. DeMille's great films of a similar style from the late 1910s/early 1920s. 

Prästänkan/The Parson's Widow (Carl Theodor Dreyer 1920) One of Dreyer's Swedish films, a sad tale of an old widow who marries a young parson, to fulfil a local tradition.

Körkarlen/The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström 1921) Sjöström's most famous film, and one of the most famous of silent films, a Dickensian ghost story about sin, redemption, and death. Incredible cinematography by Julius Jaenzon.

Häxan (Benjamin Christensen 1922) A weird and unique film, about the medieval legends of witches and the devil. Is it an essay film? 

Flickan i frack/The Girl in Tails (Karin Swanström 1926) A rebellious student refuses to accept that her brother gets nice clothes when she does not, so she borrows his tuxedo and wears it at a student ball. An instant scandal. She proceeds to demand a life of independence and moves in with a community of female intellectuals. Visually plain but amusing story, and lots to enjoy from a queer perspective.

En natt/One Night (Gustaf Molander 1931) Molander, with the help of cinematographer Åke Dahlqvist, tries to bring a touch of Soviet cinema to Sweden, and is partly successful.

Röda dagen/The Red Day (Gustaf Edgren 1931) Light-hearted political drama about a day of demonstrations between communists and Nazis in Stockholm. Written and directed by Edgren who at the time specialised in this kind of film.

Karl Fredrik regerar/Karl Fredrik Reigns (Gustaf Edgren 1934) Another of Edgren's political dramas. Karl Fredrik is a union man who becomes a minister for the Social Democratic Party, trying to build the welfare state.

Flickorna från Gamla Sta'n/[The girls from the Old Town] (Schamyl Bauman 1934) The lives of two young women in Gamla Stan, the Old Town in Stockholm. Troubles with both work and men in one of Bauman's more delightful films.

Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander 1936) One of the highlights of Swedish 1930's cinema, a fine melodrama and possibly the biggest international success since the silent era. Gösta Ekman and Ingrid Bergman are lovers, but he is married elsewhere, and she has a career she needs to focus on. Molander and Dahlqvist are not trying to be Russians this time, and the film is the better for it. Exquisite.

Karriär/Career (Schamyl Bauman 1938) One of Ingmar Bergman's favourite Swedish films, about a small touring theatre company and their constant struggles to keep going despite financial hardship. Beautifully acted and sensitively directed.

En kvinnas ansikte/A Woman's Face (Gustaf Molander 1938) Ingrid Bergman as a leader of a band of blackmailers, traumatised from having her face badly scarred, is given a new chance to happiness. Uneven but many good scenes and a Hitchcockian sleigh-ride. Remade in Hollywood by George Cukor and Joan Crawford

Vi två/The Two of Us (Schamyl Bauman 1939) Yet another delightful film by Bauman, this time about a young couple trying to get ahead in the early days of the Swedish welfare state. More neorealistic than De Sica.

Juninatt/June Night (Per Lindberg 1940) Ingrid Bergman's last Swedish film before going to Hollywood is a tense melodrama. Surprisingly not remade in Hollywood.

Stål/[Steel] (Per Lindberg 1940) An unusual film in that it is about a steel mill and the people who work there. A narrative experience in a way. The mill itself, captured by Åke Dahlqvist's cinematography, is the real star, overshadowing the plot and the characters.

Det sägs på stan/The Talk of the Town (Per Lindberg 1941) Lindberg had a short and fascinating film career, experimenting with structure, images, and narrative. This is yet another example, about a small town torn apart by anonymous letters.

Hets/Torment (Alf Sjöberg 1944) Famous for being the first film with a script by Ingmar Bergman but Martin Bodin's cinematography is the real star here, and Stig Järrel as the horrible Latin teacher.

Stopp! Tänk på något annat/[Stop! Think of something else] (1944) Romantic drama by Åke Ohberg which happens to be the first film in which Hasse Ekman and Eva Henning acted together. That is reason enough to watch it.

Rallare/Navvies (Arne Mattsson 1947) Victor Sjöström plays the lead in Mattsson's gritty film about the building of the railway in the far north of Sweden, from Luleå to Narvik. Could be watched together with Jan Troell's Här har du ditt liv/This is Your Life (1966).

Eva (Gustaf Molander 1948) Childhood traumas, repressed sexuality, death, dream sequences, and anxieties aplenty in this narratively complex adaptation of an idea by Bergman.

Främmande hamn/Strange Harbor (Erik 'Hampe' Faustman 1948) A Swedish ship trapped in a Polish harbour on the cusp of World War 2. The crew is wondering what to do, play it safe or rebel against the fascists.

Vi flyger på Rio/[We're flying to Rio] (Åke Ohberg 1949) An early example of the travelling soap opera, of a group of passengers and crew on a long-distance flight experiencing love, bad weather, and emergency landings. It is all there long before it became a 1970s convention.

Bara en mor/Only a Mother (Alf Sjöberg 1949) Eva Dahlbeck exceptional as a hard-working mother in a poor rural area. Beautiful cinematography by Martin Bodin.

Farlig vår/[Dangerous spring] (Arne Mattsson 1949) Today Swedish crime thrillers have become a global phenomenon, (and now also Danish ones, under the Nordic Noir umbrella). In Sweden that tradition began in the immediate post-war years, and this is the best of the early ones, where a killer threatens the students in Uppsala.

Leva på "Hoppet"/Living on "Hope" (Göran Gentele 1951) Hoppet is a boat, and the people who live on it are a group of young actors waiting for their breakthroughs in this very endearing film. It won the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival.

Frånskild/Divorced (Gustaf Molander 1951) Inga Tidblad plays a middle-aged woman whose husband suddenly leaves her for another woman, and she goes through several stages of shock, grief, and anger.

Hon dansade en sommar/One Summer of Happiness (Arne Mattsson 1951) One of Sweden's biggest international box office hits, no doubt because of the generous amount of nudity. A powerful tragedy about two young lovers surrounded by conservatism, hatred, and gossip.

Fröken Julie/Miss Julie (Alf Sjöberg 1951) Beautifully photographed and beautifully acted version of Strindberg's play. The cinematographer, Göran Strindberg, is related to August.

Kärlekens bröd/The Bread of Love (Arne Mattsson 1953) The success of One Summer of Happiness meant that Mattsson got carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. He wanted to do a sombre, haunting, visually expressive war film from the Eastern front, with Swedish soldiers fighting in Finland against Russia. A remarkable film

Det stora äventyret/The Great Adventure (Arne Sucksdorff 1953) A documentary, partly staged, about life on a Swedish farm. Moving and thrilling, and very atmospheric cinematography.

Anaconda (Torgny Anderberg 1954) Anderberg alternated between documentaries, primarily from South America, and trivial family films. It is the documentaries that matter, and this is a fine one about life in the Amazonas.

Expedition Röda havet (Bengt Börjesson 1956) A documentary about a group of Swedish divers who explore the Red Sea. Magnificent Eastman Color cinematography by Börjesson.

Det är aldrig för sent/It is Never Too Late (Barbro Boman 1956) A marriage falls apart and the wife remembers her relationship with her mother, while trying to reconcile with her husband. It is a bit bland, but as one of only two films in 1950s Swedish cinema, it deserves to be known. And the acting is fine.

Nattens ljus/Night Light (Lars-Erik Kjellgren 1957) A Felliniesque tale of a night in Stockholm, based on an idea by Kjellgren and his good friend Ingmar Bergman.

Fröken April/Miss April (Göran Gentele 1958) The main reason to mention this one is its spectacular Eastman Color cinematography. All interiors and exteriors look remarkably good, and few (if any) films have shown a more beautiful Stockholm. Shot by Karl-Erik Alberts. Otherwise, a comedy that is more annoying than charming.

Mannekäng i rött/Mannequin in Red (Arne Mattsson 1958) A Swedish giallo. Murder and mayhem in Stockholm's fashion industry, and the best of Mattsson's five films about the detective John Hillman, played by Karl-Arne Holmsten.


I wish I knew which Swedish films are available for streaming in various countries, so I could tailor the recommendations somewhat. Should you happen to know which of these, and other Swedish films, which are available in Chile or Japan or Kenya or Morocco or the Philippines or New Zealand, or any other country, feel free to write to me and let me know. Maybe I can post that information here too.

Here are links to articles I have written about Georg af Klercker and Arne Mattsson and Torgny Anderberg and Arne Sucksdorff.

Link to my Substack.