The Golden Age of Swedish Cinema

An article by
Magnus Rosborn, Film Archivist, Swedish Film Institute
Terje Vigen

The year 2017 marks 100 years since the premiere of Victor Sjöström’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s epic poem “Terje Vigen,” a film often considered as the starting point for what later became known as the Golden Age of Swedish Cinema.

For a period of time from 1917 on, a number of directors granted Swedish film an unparalleled reputation, showing the world that film could be much more than mere entertainment.

Well-known literary works had previously been adapted for the screen, yet Terje Vigen ushered in a new era of filmmaking, one with higher artistic and production ambitions, which meant bigger budgets and prolonged filming schedules. After this film proved so successful, the company Svenska Biografteatern reorganised their production schedule to include fewer films but with higher production budgets. The company decided to retain only two of their previously contracted directors – Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller – who were granted the means to truly develop and display their talent with films such as Tösen från Stormyrtorpet (Sjöström, 1917), Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (Sjöström, 1918), Sången om den eldröda blomman (Stiller, 1919) and Herr Arnes pengar (Stiller, 1919).

The golden age, however, could be seen as more than just a period of time. This term is also used to categorise many of the films made during this period, those similar from a stylistic and production standpoint. Golden age films are often cited as involving lavish productions, as often (but not always) being based on literary works and as in several films, having Nordic nature play a significant role in the plot. With these parameters as benchmarks, Sjöström and Stiller were not the only directors to produce Swedish golden age films, as is sometimes suggested in the Swedish film literature. For example, in 1919 Svenska Bio hired another director who was still new on the scene, Ivan Hedqvist, who debuted that same year with Dunungen, an adaptation of a Lagerlöf play.

Furthermore, these types of films were were not limited to the producer Svenska Bio. In 1918, a number of rival companies joined forces and started up Filmindustri AB Skandia. The golden age production model was also adopted here, with fewer, yet big budget, literary adaptations being prioritised. Some of the company’s more renowned productions include Synnöve Solbakken (John W. Brunius, 1919) and Ett farligt frieri (Rune Carlsten, 1919), both based on writings by Norwegian Nobel Prize-winning author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and filmed on location in Norway. Brunius, Skandia’s leading director, went on to adapt works by other Scandinavian Nobel Prize laureates once the company merged with Svenska Bio in early 1920, forming Svensk Filmindustri.

The success of Swedish golden age cinema also managed to inspire the country’s Nordic neighbours. In Norway, Skandia’s Bjørnson adaptations both impressed the public but offended some of the critics, who felt these films infringed upon Norwegian cultural heritage and demanded that the hitherto dormant Norwegian film industry stand up to the Swedes. In Finland, Stiller’s films Sången om den eldröda blomman and Johan (1922) demonstrated that successful films could be based on Finnish literary works, galvanizing the country’s filmmakers. Swedish influence could also be witnessed in Denmark, where the leading production company Nordisk Films Kompagni adopted Svenska Bio’s strategy in 1918, focusing on fewer productions, investing in bigger budgets and basing the films on literary works. Their most prestigious productions, however, were not adaptations of Nordic writers but rather works by Charles Dickens.

One Danish director in particular adopted the Swedish golden age style. In an article from 1920, Carl Theodor Dreyer explained how the efforts of Swedish directors had granted film a place in art’s promised land. He displayed his mastery of this style in the Swedish-funded, set-in-Norway comedy, Prästänkan (1920).

Swedish Golden Age Films

A selection of noteworthy films from the Swedish golden age. This list contains some of the most well-known canonical works; in addition to a number of lesser-known, or even unjustly ignored, titles.