Science fiction on the Swedish screen – Aniara and its forerunners

An article by
Sebastian Lindvall, film writer
Aniara

Is  the tide possibly turning for Swedish sci-fi on the big screen? Sebastian Lindvall looks at Aniara and traces some forerunners of a nationally neglected genre.

Cinema, once itself regarded as mere scientific fantasy, has since the very start had its eye on the science fiction genre. Illusionist turned cinema pioneer Georges Méliès was the first to transfer experiments, bodily modifications and space travel onto the silver screen. On October 29, 1902, his A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune), made that same year, had its Swedish premiere at the banquet hall of Gothenburg’s Realläroverket secondary grammar school.

Méliès took inspiration from “From the Earth to the Moon” by Jules Verne – one of the fantastic literature giants. The closest Swedish equivalent would have to be Claës Lundin, who in “Oxygen and Aromasia” (1878) – sub-headed “Pictures from the Year 2378” and based on Kurd Laßwitz “Bilder aus der Zunkunft” (1874) – envisioned a future Stockholm. A purer representation of science fiction would not yet be present until Otto Witt started the magazine Hugin, which was published 1916–1920.

The peripheral position of the genre in the Swedish literary landscape could possibly explain why it took so long to hit the screen. After all, the hallmarks of the Golden Age of Swedish film were adaptations by Nobel laureates such as Henrik Ibsen, Selma Lagerlöf and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. With these films’ focus on Nordic nature, one can imagine that works by Lundin or Witt hardly topped the list when studios such as Svenska Bio and Filmindustri AB Skandia wanted to make prestige films.

It would take until 1959 – the only year in the 1950s, incidentally, that Ingmar Bergman didn’t release a film – before a feature-length Swedish sci-fi film would enter the cinema repertoire for the first time. This cause célèbre is a Swedish-American co-production called Terror in the Midnight Sun (Rymdinvasion i Lappland, director: Virgil W. Vogel).

Since then, the world has changed. “How inappropriate to call this planet the Earth when it is quite clearly the Ocean”, as sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke put it. The words gain a special resonance now that Nobel laureate Harry Martinson’s space epic “Aniara” (1956) has gone from text and stage to finally becoming a motion picture. Faced with the climate scientists’ warnings about rising sea levels, coupled with the imminent commercial space tourism, this story of a spacecraft getting thrown off course on the journey from the desolate Earth to the promising neighbouring planet Mars seems disturbingly topical these days.

Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja’s adaptation is a breathtaking, visually astonishing and daring piece of vision. In space there are a lot of emotions, it turns out, and rarely has the End – society, planet, life – come across as beautifully as here.

In addition to the disasters that have driven mankind to flight in films such as Aniara, there are also other types of dystopian depictions in Swedish film: Peter Watkins’ consumption-critical gladiatorial game The Gladiators (Gladiatorerna, 1969) is one example, Tarik Saleh’s filthy urban animation Metropia (2009) is another.

The celestial sphere is given a touch of sanctuary in Andreas Öhman’s success debut Simple Simon (I rymden finns inga känslor, 2010), where a young man with Asperger’s syndrome escapes reality by locking himself in a barrel and floats away towards the stars. A similar playfulness, albeit more childishly charged, is seen in the scenographically ambitious Kenny Begins (2009) and also in Up in the Sky (2016).

In addition to Terror in the Midnight Sun and the shameless commercial for the Skara Sommarland theme park, Gröna gubbar från Y.R. (‘Green Men from O.S.’, 1986), the contributions are few and far between – beyond cult-worthy short films and experimental interpretations à la Eric M. Nilsson’s Ormgard (1967) – when it comes to bona fide genre representatives. An exception that appeared on the cinema repertoire in 2006 was Storm, made by the duo Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein. As an early taste of the directors’ Hollywood outing Underworld Awakening (2012), we were offered martial arts scenes and impressive special effects in a cyberpunk Pandora’s box with references to both George Lucas THX 1138 (1971) and Kathryn Bigelows Strange Days (1995). “A Swedish welfare state Matrix,” wrote Jan-Olov Andersson in Aftonbladet. And yes, he meant it as a compliment.

Those who came across the hand-painted, retro-romantic poster for Ted Kjellsson’s kid-friendly space adventure Alone in Space (Ensamma i rymden, 2018) must have looked twice to make sure that this wasn’t a new Star Wars movie. As in Aniara, we follow humanity – this time condensed into a sibling-couple in a large space ship, equipped for a large group of climate refugees – moving in the direction of an unreachable destination. “Here we have a director who likes to get lost in a genre that is so desperately uncommon in Sweden, but is given a chance to revel in things we usually see in American films where the budgets are in another galaxy”, wrote Lars Böhlin in Västerbottens-Kuriren.

So, is it just money and more affordable computing power for the visual effects that are required in order to cure the Swedish sci-fi drought? An optimistic lesson to be learned from Aniara, whose futuristic environments were partly found in the location of a large Stockholm shopping mall (Mall of Scandinavia, to be specific), is that creative solutions are worth more than high budgets. And creative innovation was after all exactly what enabled Méliès to take us to the moon, all those years ago.

Imagination is born out of practical resistance and existential challenge. Let’s hope that we do not have to see every forest burn and inland ice melt before we can enter the golden age of Swedish sci-fi film.

This article was published in May 2020, translated from an article originally published in Swedish on this site in February 2019. 

Some tentative statistics in Swedish sci-fi

Unfair treatment 51%
Climate anxiety 27%
Failed space travel 16%
Sex 6%

Swedish sci-fi - a selection