I own one movie by fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman, because I have to. You can’t be a movie critic with a collection of six or seven hundred DVDs that includes everything from Tokyo Story to Poison Ivy: The New Seduction and not have a Bergman movie. The one I have is 1957’s The Seventh Seal—in which Max von Sydow’s medieval knight famously plays chess with Death—because if you have to have a Bergman movie, that’s the one you have to have. (Spoiler alert: Death wins!) Even if you haven’t seen The Seventh Seal, you’ve seen it. The influence is so vast and insidious, every image of a black-robed, white-faced Death is a rip or parody of The Seventh Seal. Before his big board duel, von Sydow spends the movie procrastinating, roving the literal and figurative hills and dales of his past until there’s no longer any putting off the inevitable. The Seventh Seal made a huge impact around the world; Hollywood snatched up von Sydow, rendering the obvious Christian metaphor of his knight more obvious by casting him as Jesus in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Of course the news of Death’s triumph spoils no plot, because if any Scandinavian were actually to win such a contest, he would demand a rematch. It’s in our nature; we don’t spend a whole life getting through life just to have to get through more of it. In a way, all Scandinavian movies are descendants of the original Scandinavian Christian-metaphor movie, Danish director Carl Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of the seven or eight best films ever made and impossible to watch more than once. Quintessentially Scandinavian in its unrelieved dread, it was ahead of its time in rigor and austerity; it’s difficult to imagine a video from the year 1431 being more authentic or immediate. Twice as old as the real Joan, Renée Falconetti in her only screen appearance gives what’s considered by some the single greatest performance in cinema, so immersed in the girl-warrior’s trial and execution that she never made another film and reportedly went a bit screwy afterward. Naturally this is because she was French. With all that joie de vivre, she was asking for it; a Scandinavian actress would have taken it in stride. Life is an existential and meaningless ordeal that shakes the foundations of faith and plunges one into an abyss of metaphysical imponderables and miserable absurdity? Welcome to my world, Joan, or, as Death would have it, rook takes queen, checkmate.
A couple of generations ago, Ingmar Bergman aside, movies from Scandinavia began reflecting its utopianism and sexual anarchy, Sweden in particular having morphed into the world’s most civilized society a millennium after all those rapacious Vikings. Such is the upside of a relentless rationalism that can be traced back to my own forebear, who was not, as with most Ericksons, the notorious Erik the Red but rather the designated stay-at-home Viking Erik the Well-Read, content to make up the plundering in his writing rather than do any of it. The most scandalous examples of these movies from the 1960s and ’70s were I Am Curious (Yellow) and I Am Curious (Blue), causes célèbres in the censor wars and something of larks, or as close to a lark as Scandinavians get, which is to say garden-variety dreariness interspersed with indifferent sex on an hourly basis. The newly socialist Sweden’s newly socialist Bergman made Fanny and Alexander, a childhood holiday memoir that attempted lightheartedness, dare one say warmth, so alarmingly out of character you would suspect it as a work of cinematic forgery if it weren’t bookended in Bergman’s oeuvre by Scenes from a Marriage, in which the titular relationship rots over the course of four hours, and Cries and Whispers, in which one woman is dying of cancer and another mutilates herself—the Scandinavian equivalent of John Belushi’s “Toga!” moment in Animal House.
In terms of sheer epic Nordic grimness, however, the recent “Millennium” movies—The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest—and the new AMC series The Killing are revelations nonetheless. There’s a line in a Björk song, “I thought I could organize freedom / How Scandinavian of me.” The Lisbeth Salander trilogy is a portrait of utopia, sexual and otherwise, not merely decaying but cast into hellacious havoc, the semblance of civilization not merely collapsing but doing so in a maelstrom of depravity. Tellingly, the late Stieg Larsson’s novel on which The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based originally was called Men Who Hate Women, drawing on the author’s experience of having witnessed at the age of 15 a gang rape that he failed to stop. The first film of the trilogy is being remade for stateside audiences by David Fincher, and you wonder on the one hand whether it can hold the same shock for barbaric Americans, and on the other hand whether, as with the sexual liberation that Scandinavian films commemorated in the ’60s, it will go further than what Americans can stand. There are scenes in Dragon Tattoo that are unwatchable for both men and women, and leave each gazing at the other across the gender chasm, stricken guilt stranded on one side and barely contained fury on the other. In her vengeful righteousness, the Swedish film’s Noomi Rapace is contemporary cinema’s most persuasively feral force; Rooney Mara, who won the American role over Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson (and was last seen in The Social Network telling Jesse Eisenberg to take a hike, thereby inspiring Facebook), will be hard-pressed to replicate it. Uneven as the trilogy becomes, the trial near the end, where Lisbeth finally gets justice for the lifelong sexual violence inflicted against her, is as viscerally satisfying as any half hour in recent movies, though it comes too late to restore the woman’s capacity for trust and intimacy at their most basic.
If anything, The Killing is richer, closely based on an acclaimed Danish series in terms of plot, character, and locale, taking place as it does in Seattle, which of course is the Scandinavia of the United States. Leads Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman even look Scandinavian (Kinnaman is half Swedish, Enos is half French). As a crime story about a teenage girl’s murder, The Killing is composed of stock motifs: A veteran (female) cop is literally hours from retirement before the case gets under her skin; a cocky young rookie (male) three decades from comprehending the difference between attitude and wisdom is a loose cannon; a wedding that we know is doomed to never happen is put on hold; a young idealist’s political campaign has a secret connection to unfolding events that represent the corrosive corruption of the social by the personal. From Prime Suspect to The Wire, other English-language series over the past two decades have done this better. What distinguishes The Killing has nothing to do with police procedural; rather it’s the nearly unbearable drama of a family coming to terms with a daughter’s death that is inexplicable only because those of us who are mothers and fathers can’t acknowledge the demons in our teenagers. As the parents of Rosie Larsen (note the homage to the Millennium novels’ author), Michelle Forbes and Brent Sexton steal the show; TV’s resident badass femme in Battlestar Galactica, 24, and True Blood, Forbes is the more devastating for a grief and helplessness we’ve not seen in her. Nothing about The Killing is more impressive than when the American sleuthing stops and the Scandinavian coping begins.
Which brings us back to the dread that’s finally too profound and pervasive to be funny anymore. Given the Scandinavian lack of sentimentality, what’s striking is how family is at the epicenter of every psychosis, as though emotional paralysis makes familial bonds that much more crucial and leaves them that much more embattled. While the cop narrative of The Killing spins circles of false leads and clues to nothing, the family chronicle is unflinching in its precision; if you’re a parent, it’s your worst nightmare, the one you never wake up from no matter how long you live. The mother hears over a cell phone the father’s discovery of their daughter’s murder. The father tries to make pancakes for his young sons, who don’t understand why their sister isn’t there. The act of choosing a casket and the mortician’s preparation of the girl’s body are so hushed as almost to be sensually luxuriant. Husband and wife collapse into a heated argument over which holiday it was when the girl gave her father cuff links that he now wears to her funeral. One of the small boys at the funeral is so consumed by feelings he can’t fathom that the only thing he can do is cruelly crush beneath his foot a centipede for which there won’t be the ritual of a chess match, whatever that ritual might be for centipedes. And the quiet, mounting wrath that manifests itself first in banal ways threatens to explode into something not in the least banal, at which point the convergence of the family drama and the crime drama feels utterly earned rather than contrived. Ingmar Bergman was more artful about it, but I don’t think he ever captured more insightfully domestic life and its relationships in all their raging inscrutabilities. If he did, someone out there should let Erik the Well-Read’s great-great-great-etcetera grandson know. I’m sure he can make room for two Bergmans on his film shelf.
Illustration by Sean McCabe