When Sexual Liberation Reached the Silver Screen

An article by
Anna-Lena Lodenius, journalist and co-author of a current Swedish book on when porn became culture, and culture porn
Christina Lindberg and Stellan Skarsgård in Anita (1973)

There was a time when it was considered modern, liberated and above all completely natural to appear in more or less pornographic films.

Swedish actors like Tor Isedal, Kim Anderzon, Stellan Skarsgård, Ulf Brunnberg, Gio Petré and Sven-Bertil Taube willingly ditched their clothes on the big screen. Hjördis Pettersson, John Harrysson, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs and others would appear in supporting roles, fully dressed, to deliver the generally meagre lines that carried the thin plot forward.

Bare breasts and a freer sexuality had been associated with Swedish film ever since One Summer of Happiness (Arne Mattsson, 1951) and Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman, 1953). But from the mid-1960s, there was a steady stream of films that far more clearly made sex the main theme, often with low budgets and low ambitions. The titles were released at regular cinemas and were reviewed in the press, where they were often slated. The film critics expressed both anger and sadness at seeing so much talent go to waste on such abysmal films, lamenting what they regarded as a victory for money-making over artistic ambition.

And it’s easy to agree with the critics. But in some cases, these works also had a certain entertaining playfulness. They are films that don’t take themselves very seriously, which is exactly why they can have a certain charm. The greatest value for a modern audience is the palpable sense of the zeitgeist, conveyed in everything from clothes, set design and dialogue, to the general plot. And there is of course a certain amount of humour in watching famous faces pass by in unexpected contexts. Also fairly odd by modern standards are the occasional attempts to counteract unashamed speculation in sex with genuine efforts to discuss serious issues.

There were famous names in all areas of production. The music might be composed by Björn and Benny (of ABBA fame), Georg Riedel, Bernt Egerbladh or Janne Schaffer. The film crew could be made up of the same people who had previously worked on Ingmar Bergman’s films. Several cinematographers became porn directors under their own names, such as Mac Ahlberg and Gustav Wiklund. Even Bergman himself wrote the screenplay for a softcore porn film, a project which, for various reasons, he decided to shelve. (Although truth be told, it would have been a film like no other in its genre.) Other established directors tried the genre and actually followed through, such as Arne Mattsson.

Most of the actors who took part were either in the very early days of their profession, or at the end of a failing career – in both cases probably motivated by having to make a living. But even respected names like Keve Hjelm could intertwine TV theatre and roles in plays by Shakespeare and Euripides on national stages, with nudity in speculatively erotic dramatizations of classic novels. That didn’t stop director Bo Widerberg, who admitted finding the expected nudity difficult, even demanding a thick woolly sweater for a sex scene in Love 65 because of Keve’s ugly body.

To begin with films generally showed a more innocent form of porn, so no explicit intercourse, but gradually the boundaries of what could be shown shifted. In this, the educational film Language of Love (Torgny Wickman, 1969) and its successors played an important part. The total of four films were based on the idea that experts, some in white coats, discussed sexuality in completely serious tones, combined with sex scenes that were often more explicit than in feature films of the time. A turning point came in 1971, when Sweden abolished its formal law “against the wounding of conduct and morality”. Famous names grew sparse in the credits as the pornographic elements increased and became more uncultivated.

Although the films were shown in cinemas, the big money did not start coming in until they were exported. On their launch abroad, they were given new titles that clearly showed where they had been made: Swedish Sex Games (Torgny Wickman, 1974, original title: Inkräktarna, ‘The Intruders’), One Swedish Summer (Ulf Palme, Gunnar Höglund, 1968, orginal title: …som havets nakna vind, ‘…As the Naked Wind of the Sea’), Anita – Swedish Nymphet (Torgny Wickman, 1972, original title: Anita – ur en tonårsflickas dagbok, ‘Anita – From the Diary of a Teenage Girl’), and so on. Eventually it became increasingly common to shoot the films in English from the start, and to edit in more sex scenes featuring other actors. Swedish sin continued to attract people and bring in money. This meant that even films that only made a very brief appearance at Swedish cinemas could still enjoy a long life.

(published in Swedish in April 2021)

A selection of films produced during Sweden's period of sexual liberation

  • This dramatization of Siv Holm's successful book was a Danish-Swedish co-production and was the directorial debut of established cinematographer Mac Ahlberg. It could also be called the film that began the sexual liberation in Swedish film. In her screen debut, Essy Persson stars as the nurse Siv, sexy but with a strict Christian upbringing. The film came in for criticism for showing masturbation and simulated intercourse.

  • American porn director Sarno made several Swedish films. In this one we meet the young Inga, who is employed by a wealthy author who turns out to have an incestuous relationship with his daughter; which leads to jealousy, and of course a lot of sex in various constellations. Tommy Blom, known in Sweden from the pop group Tages, plays a flirtatious singer with whom Inga falls in love. In the film, he hangs out with Göran Lagerberg and Lasse Svensson from the same band. We also see Lissi Alandh as a brothel madam. Music: Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.

  • Fourteen-year-old Eva (Solveig Andersson) exposes herself and has sex with lots of men. She is described as a Rousseauian child of nature beyond all morality, overemphasized in a scene where Eva and a friend dance half-naked in front of a mirror singing a famous Swedish song called just that: 'Child of Nature.' The film claims to be on the side of Eva, against the men exploiting her, but it exposes her nudity in a voyeuristically ambiguous way. The cast also includes Hans Wahlgren, Göte Grefbo, Barbro Hiort af Ornäs, Arne Ragneborn, Jan-Olof Rydqvist and Charlie Elvegård.

  • Arne Mattsson wanted to ride the softcore porn wave, as well as hit back at the critics whom he claimed had ruined his career. So, between the many scenes of intercourse are serious discussions about film critique. The star-studded cast includes Gio Petré, Heinz Hopf, Birger Malmsten, Tord Peterson and Agneta Prytz. Music by trumpeter and composer Bengt-Arne Wallin.

  • A German sociologist visits Sweden to try to reveal that Swedish sin is a myth. Screenwriter Nine-Christine Jönsson envisaged an erotic comedy that would also poke fun at sexual liberation and ideologies as well as the 1968 radical leftist movement, but most of the more serious ambition vanished along the way. This West German/Swedish co-production was promoted with a 'laughter guarantee', but only survived a week in theatres. The cast includes Lissi Alandh, Lil Terselius and Sune Mangs.

  • Wiklund had a background at the experimental Pistolteatern theatre and had worked with Ingmar Bergman on several film shoots and at the Royal Dramatic Theatre. In his debut film, Christina Lindberg plays an imaginative teenage girl who is torn between her regular, yet sometimes harsh boyfriend, and depraved photographer Helge (Heinz Hopf). In minor roles we see Tor Isedal, Bert-Åke Varg, Siv Ericks, Håkan Westergren, Margit Carlqvist, and Janne 'Loffe' Carlsson. Music by jazz pianist Berndt Egerbladh.

  • A young nymphomaniac (Christina Lindberg) wants to have sex with everyone she meets, from string orchestras to vagrants. Young psychology student Erik (Stellan Skarsgård) realizes that Anita has had a loveless childhood, and after she's been cured they begin a more normal sexual relationship. The film is said to have inspired Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (2013), also starring Skarsgård. Other cast members include a young Per Mattsson, as well as Swedish film's recurring bad guys, Arne Ragneborn and Jan-Olof Rydqvist.

  • Bo Arne Vibenius, who had worked as an assistant director to Ingmar Bergman, made under the pseudonym Alex Fridolinski this particularly brutal revenge drama with stylized and almost aesthetically depicted violence. Madeleine (Christina Lindberg) is kidnapped by a pimp (Heinz Hopf), pumped full of heroin and forced to work in a brothel (the sex scenes show other actors edited in afterwards). The film was originally banned outright. The revenge theme and Christina Lindberg's eyepatch-wearing character inspired Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. Music by electronic musician Ralph Lundsten.

  • Gustav Wiklund's second film contains at least two noteworthy scenes, both featuring Christina Lindberg: one where she's having sex in a barn, observed by curious mooing cows, and one where she's vacuum cleaning naked and is kicked by the nasty Peter (Leif Ahrle, later known from the long-running TV series Varuhuset). The cast also includes Tor Isedal, Åke Fridell and Jan-Olof Rydqvist.

  • The title role of Mac Ahlberg's dramatization of John Cleland's novel is played by Diana Kjaer. Fanny is seduced by a lascivious rich art-lover (Keve Hjelm), who has plenty of opportunities to stroke bare breasts and speak lines unlikely ever to be heard at the national theatre. Other cast members include John Harryson, Gio Petré and Jarl Borssén. Mona Seilitz is present at a Midsummer party on an island in the archipelago where everyone gets drunk, makes out with each other and goes skinny-dipping – the epitome of Swedish sin. Music: Georg Riedel.

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