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.