The Spies Who Did Not Come in from the Cold

An article by
Fredrik Gustafsson, PhD in Film Studies
Ulf Palme in High Tension (Ingmar Bergman, 1950)

From the mid-1940s to the end of the 1980s, the entire world was marked by the Cold War. Everywhere except in the Swedish film world, that is. It was like an iron curtain of its own, pulled down over Sweden and preventing Swedish film from dealing with larger, international issues or political discussions. But, there were exceptions where curtains were torn and agents could be seen roaming the streets of Stockholm as well.

Arguably, the Cold War broke out sometime around 1946. Winston Churchill’s speech in March that year, in which he described how an iron curtain had descended across the European continent, was a clear signal that East and West were no longer allies against a common enemy but opposed to each other. The Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948 became a tangible illustration of what the coming decades would look like. Almost immediately, these issues also began to become a theme for filmmakers. Jacques Tourneur’s Berlin Express (1948) is an early, exquisite example.

Sweden was also early in the game with High Tension (1950), directed by Ingmar Bergman after a screenplay by Herbert Grevenius. Bergman had just made Summer Interlude (1951), a much more traditional Bergman film (and one of his best), and now reluctantly, and only for financial reasons, agreed to do something audience-friendly. Later, due to various circumstances, High Tension was released in Sweden before Summer Interlude. The film deals with agents from the Soviet-like country of Liquidatzia, political refugees from across the Baltic Sea and the Swedish police. Ulf Palme plays Atkä Natas, the villain of the piece, (the strange name is “Äkta Satan” – True Satan – written backwards). But Bergman does not seem to have put much effort into the creation of the film. It’s a shame, because it had the potential to be as good as Fritz Lang’s similar thrillers about spies and double-dealings, but now it’s instead a half-baked concoction of silly dialogue, improbable coincidents and uninspired acting. Later, Bergman became increasingly uneasy with the film, not least about how it reduced the seriousness of the situation of the Baltic refugees, which may be one of the reasons why he later in his career banned the film from being shown. Few have seen it these days, and those who haven’t haven’t missed much.

The Baltic situation is also addressed in the completely different and partly documentary Baltutlämningen (‘The Extradition of the Balts,’ 1970), directed by Johan Bergenstråhle, after Per Olov Enquist’s book “The Legionnaires”. The course of events is slightly before the Cold War, but it can probably still be counted as an example of the theme of this article: Swedish films with connections to the Cold War.

Despite the fact that the Cold War dominated the political world and the description of international relations in the media, it wasn’t something that Swedish cinema dealt with. There’s probably a parallel here to how unusual it was with Swedish films about the war during the Second World War, and when it happened it was either in allegorical form or without specifying which war it was and who the combatants were (except for a couple of films about the Winter War in Finland 1939-1940) – which was largely due to the Swedish policy of neutrality. Making a film about the war, and especially taking a stand, was seen as a violation of this policy, and possibly there were similar thoughts about the Cold War. But it sometimes appeared in the plot, of course, not least in another film by Bergman: Winter Light (1963). The fisherman Jonas, played by Max von Sydow, has anxiety due to the world situation and the threat from nuclear weapons and war. His fears lead to him taking his own life.

Two other films in the similar thriller spirit of High Tension are Främlingen från skyn (‘The Stranger from the Sky,’ 1956), directed by Rolf Husberg, who also wrote the script together with Linda Larsson, and Den gula bilen (‘The Yellow Car,’ 1963) by Arne Mattsson. The former begins in the Swedish countryside where an airplane is shot down, which creates great commotion in the area. On board was a defected scientist (from the Soviet Union, we must assume) who is being chased by an agent. After a while, the action moves from the bogland to a train and then we wind up in a factory, the ironworks of Sandviken to be precise. It is a slightly languid but still somewhat exciting film where Husberg tries to make a Hitchcock thriller.

Mattsson’s film about the yellow car is part of his popular film series about private detective John Hillman, based on the book series by Folke Mellvig. The other films in the series, which also have colours in the titles, are all set in a specific place, but this sequel moves in on international big politics and is about an assassination attempt on Swedish soil on a president from an unnamed country (possibly Yugoslavia). The car in question is also the murder weapon and just like in Speed ​​(Jan de Bont, 1994), a bomb will explode if the vehicle travels too slowly. Hillman, as always played by Karl-Arne Holmsten, is of course readily present, but without his wife Kajsa (Annalisa Ericson) by his side this time around.

A slightly more curious contribution to the genre is Uppdrag i Korea (‘Assignment in Korea,’ Gunnar Höglund, 1951), a hybrid between documentary and feature film about a Swedish foreign correspondent played by Tord Andersén, and shot on location during the Korean War. Otherwise it was, as stated before, unusual for the Cold War to appear in Swedish film. Even films that deal with any part of the Swedish military, such as Ubåt 39 (‘Submarine no 39,’ 1952) by Erik Faustman, Gula divisionen (‘The Yellow Division,’ 1954) by Stig Olin, and Flygplan saknas (‘Aircraft Missing,’ 1965) by Per Gunvall, do so without involving the larger political context.

There have probably been more foreign productions about the Cold War where Sweden plays a small part than there have been Swedish Cold War films. Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) ends, for example, with a sequence in Sweden, it is unclear where and not filmed on location, but Jan Malmsjö appears as a representative of the Swedish press. Paul Newman plays the lead, and also stars in another American spy thriller, The Prize (Mark Robson, 1963). It takes place entirely in Stockholm, and the prize in question is the Nobel Prize. But Newman’s literature laureate barely has time to receive his prize before he is forced to fight agents from the other side of the Iron Curtain.

To come full circle, there are a couple of connections to Bergman in The Prize. Newman’s character falls, like Atkä Natas in High Tension, from Katarinahissen, a freestanding elevator and a Stockholm landmark, but surprisingly enough with a less fatal outcome; and Lars Passgård, who plays the little brother Minus in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), also has a small role in The Prize. Such unexpected coincidences could also take place due to the Cold War.

(originally published in Swedish in June, 2020; in English in March, 2021)

Swedish Cold War films

Six Swedish films and a couple of international titles where Sweden is part of the action.

  • There’s certainly no lack of talent involved here, neither in front of or behind the camera. Ulf Palme, Signe Hasso, Alf Kjellin, Gösta Cederlund have leading parts, Bergman directs, Herbert Grevenius wrote the script and Gunnar Fischer is the cinematographer. On paper, no one could see the failure to be. On the other hand, when none of the involved feel any kind of motivation, it’s hard to create something of substance.

  • The historical incident known as the Swedish extradition of Baltic soldiers took place in January 1946. During the war soldiers had escaped from the Baltic countries and now The Soviet Union demanded that they be sent back. As the by now annexed Baltic countries were seen as a part of the USSR, the issue became hot and political. The Balts, around 160 men, feared being treated as traitors and did not want to return. They were still sent back.

  • One of Bergman’s most austere films, dealing with a clergyman whose religious doubts causes him great pain. No one comes to church, he’s got relationship problems and has lost his faith in God. And he has a cold. But he persists in carrying out his duties.

  • The best thing with the film is how well the countryside and country life has been captured. There’s also the classic theme about how something evil suddenly turns up (or in this case, falls down) in the most innocent of surroundings. The story itself is quite haphazardly told, though. As a director, Husberg seems much more at home with the gossiping peasants than with the armed spies.

  • During the 1950s, Mattsson was a very popular and quite prestigious director, although he was often accused of prioritising images over script and dialogue. By the time this film was released, the critics had more or less given up on him. It’s a strange film, so stylised and abstract that it sometimes feels like a modernistic art film.

  • Not much is preserved regarding this film and it has never been released on DVD. The shooting script is ten pages and the working title was in translation “Reportage! A semi-documentary film about the Korea ambulance.” The small team consisted of director-writer Höglund, main actor Tord Andersén and D.P. Gunnar Westfelt – and that was it. It failed to get an audience and the critics were unimpressed, although they appreciated the ambition of wanting to portray a topical and highly political event.

  • Hitchcock went through an artistic crisis during the mid- to late 60s. The Birds (1963) hade been his latest success but Marnie (1964), one of his most original and personal films, had not done well. After a brief time-out, he tried his hand on the spy genre, which produced two unglamorous anti-Bond stories. Though they certainly have their good moments, Torn Curtain and Topaz (1969), are among his weaker works.

  • The Prize starts out with lovely views of Stockholm, and a person entering a limousine, carrying some important documents. The car drives all around town and finally arrive at its destination. Those who know Stockholm can fairly quickly see that this long drive really goes between two points that would have taken less than a minute to cover – by foot. All in all, there are lots of nice landmarks shown in the film, and it’s done with great ingenuity. The bad guy gets a spectacular end, penetrated by one of the lyre spikes of one of the statues in Carl Milles’ Orpheus group in front of Stockholm Concert Hall.