Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Nature Imagery and National Romanticism in the Films of Alf Sjoberg

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

Nature Imagery and National Romanticism in the Films of Alf Sjoberg

Article excerpt

An intense awareness of and response to the Swedish landscape, in particular to the short but intense Swedish summer, is widely considered an intrinsic part of a collective national heritage. The specifically visual elements of this construction of national identity and their codification as a recognizable norm may be traced directly to the national romantic movement of the 1890s, with its belief in a mystical link between landscape and the people who inhabit it. Painters like Anders Zorn, Richard Bergh, Karl Nordstrom, Bruno Liljefors, and Carl Larsson heightened Swedish awareness of the natural world around them.(1) Conventions and common motifs of the visual arts frequently carded over into the new medium of film. Beginning at least with Victor Sjostrom and Ingmarssonerna (1919) [The Sons of Ingmar], based on Selma Lagerlof's Jerusalem I (a novel that itself epitomizes many salient features of national romanticism), Swedish films from the silent era to our own time have employed a limited but recurring set of nature images in an emblematic manner to signify Swedishness. Many of these images--flowering meadows, rolling hillsides, birch trees blowing in the breeze, isolated lakes--seem stereotypical and overused today, but they nevertheless comprise a common visual vocabulary, a kind of shorthand that the Swedish audience recognizes.(2)

Identifying the essence of Swedishness with a pastoral idyll often implies nostalgia and a regressive attitude toward much that characterizes the modern world.(3) The conservative values promoted in this iconographic representation of nature would not appear, at first glance, to have much in common with the aesthetic, political, and social concerns of Alf Sjoberg, a socialist and progressive who was inclined toward experimentation rather than preservation of the status quo. Sjoberg's theoretical and international orientation and his reputation as an auteur have perhaps discouraged critics from considering his films in the context of this specifically Swedish national tradition.

Several of Sjoberg's films of the 1940s, however, incorporate visual commonplaces that can be examined in the light of national romanticism and the film conventions it inspired. Furthermore, Sjoberg's allusions to and borrowings from this movement are by no means restricted to representations of nature in the works of established painters or more generally to the "higher" visual arts. At the mm of the previous century, regional folk culture--or more frequently, the appropriation of this culture, usually by artists and intellectuals from middle-class backgrounds--also became a significant component in the creation of a collective sense of Swedishness. Sjoberg sometimes draws on or refers to interpretations of provincial culture by artists, writers, and musicians of that period, but he also includes or alludes to authentic examples of folk music and folk art. The following discussion will concentrate on three films, Hemfran Babylon (1941) [Home from Babylon], Himlaspelet (1942) [The Road to Heaven], and Bara en mor (1949) [Only a Mother].(4)

In Hem fran Babylon, based on a novel by Sigrid Siwertz, the title provides a convenient summary of the plot. Babylon in this context is the world outside Sweden, specifically identified with war--armed conflict in the Far East--and the sinful night life of Paris. Home, naturally enough, is Sweden, more specifically the small-town paradise of Mariefred. (The camera underscores the significance of the name by focusing first on the final syllable of an identifying sign.) Initially both main characters, Brita von Wendt (Gerd Hagman) and Linus Treffenberg (Arnold Sjostrand), find this setting stultifying and embrace a hedonistic lifestyle abroad, made possible because Linus has taken over the identity and fortune of a deceased adventurer, John Bidencap, pointedly called "svarte John" [black John]. Linus gradually realizes that he is dissatisfied with role-playing; throwing away his dark wig and the rest of his disguise, he returns to Mariefred. …

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