Folklore, Greta and the contaminated society – environmental themes in Swedish films

An article by
Karin Svensson, culture journalist and film critic
Still from the film Faro by Fredrik Edfeldt. Photo: NonStop Entertainment

How is the environmental theme represented in Swedish film history? Karin Svensson takes a closer look.

It was arguably the least surprising news of 2019: climate activist Greta Thunberg will be the protagonist in an upcoming documentary. Her journey from lone school striker to world-famous environmental icon has everything a filmmaker could wish for – the personal difficulties that turn into triumph, the double-edged attention of admirers and online trolls, the girl with the braids who educates the world rulers in expensive suits. Director Nathan Grossman probably had no difficulty pitching the idea for Greta vs. the Climate, where he follows her on her journey.

We are in a flood of environmentally aware filmmaking. Around the world, film festivals are arranged with names such as Eco Film Fest (London) and Planet in Focus (Toronto), while Hollywood runs amok with bombastic stories of extreme weather and post-apocalyptic misery. In Sweden, the environmental threat is dealt with in low-key sci-fi for both adults and children. In Aniara (Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja, 2019), humanity leaves a no longer liveable planet with stormy seas and brown-burned land masses for a bleak life in space. In Alone in Space (Ted Kjellsson, 2018), a space engineer steals a spaceship to save her children from the impending disaster.

But films with environmental messages are not a new phenomenon, and certainly not in Sweden. The romanticism of the late 19th century and the passion for nature and folklore made a mark on the early Swedish films. In the newly restored Song of the Scarlet Flower (1919), Mauritz Stiller portrays nature’s indispensable beauty with the glow of a Greenpeace activist. When we first meet the farmer’s son Olof Koskela, he gets thoroughly exhilarated in a forest grove, talks about the happiness of being in the enchanted nature (“like in a castle”), and when his neighbour Annikki shows up in the grove, she instantly becomes his forest nymph.

When he later meets Kyllikki, as proud as “the wild foaming rapids”, his fate is sealed, but he does not realize it – not until he is confronted with the city’s dirt and shabbiness and promptly returns to the village, and into the forest.

Similar declarations of love for nature and criticism of the progress of modernity can be found in all of Swedish film history, from Victor Sjöström’s A Man There Was (1917) and Gustaf Edgren’s Rain Follows the Dew (1946), up to the 21st century films Burrowing (Henrik Hellström and Fredrik Wenzel, 2009) and Faro (Fredrik Edfeldt, 2013). The connection to folklore is particularly evident in films such as Trollsommar (‘Troll Summer’, Hans Dahlberg, 1980), where a family of trolls in the Dalecarlian woods quite cunningly sabotages the forest felling, and Border (Ali Abbasi, 2018), where the troll Eva prefers the companionship of animals over humans.

The more obviously political environmental film had its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s. In Grisjakten (‘The Pig Hunt’, 1970), Jonas Cornell explored how the soulless bureaucracy can contaminate our society in the story of the official who is commissioned to exterminate all pigs in Gotland. Deadline (Stellan Olsson, 1971) depicts the consequences of a poison attack on the idyllic seaside resort of Mölle in the south of Sweden. Stefan Jarl raged over human abuse on the landscape in the essay film Naturens hämnd (‘Nature’s Revenge’, 1983) and in Tong Tana – A Journey to the Heart of Borneo (Jan Röed and Fredrik von Krusenstjerna, 1989) we got to meet the people who are hit the hardest when the rainforest is pillaged.

But it is also possible to make comedies about the environmental threat. Tage Danielsson tackled tourism as environmental destruction in Äppelkriget (‘The Apple War’, 1971), where the rural municipality of Änglamark (loosely translated as Angel Land) would be transformed into a paved holiday paradise under the slogan “turning ancient countryside into future countryside” (exemplified by a stone circle where the stones have been turned into slot machines). But it’s not as smooth sailing as the municipal council has envisaged, as environmental activists get help from both the water spirit and the forest nymph. Their victory is celebrated with a picnic on the grass, accompanied by the music of Evert Taube.

And the question is what is most effective, if you really want to inspire the audience to action: to be intimidated by the threat of the world’s downfall or to be converted through beautiful pictures of what is in peril. A research study from 2018 shows that children who spend a lot of time in nature – who have been fascinated by bird nests and ant hills – were more likely than other children to grow up to be environmentally engaged adults. Mauritz Stiller knew what he was doing when he made Olof Koskela a tree hugger.

This article was published in May 2020, translated from an article originally published in Swedish on this site in February 2020. 

Swedish films with environmental themes - a selection listed chronologically

Fler miljörelaterade artiklar i Svensk Filmdatabas