April 2019, arsenal cinema

Life at Any Price –
 Bo Widerberg Retrospective

ELVIRA MADIGAN, 1967

Passionate rebellion and his desperate need to tell stories at any cost brought him to film, realizing his vision of a cinema combining social engagement and romantic devotion in his 13 features, shaping, examining, and celebrating humankind’s struggle for a dignified, self-determined life in great images of tremendous clarity: Swedish filmmaker Bo Widerberg (1930–1997) left behind a shimmering, multi-faceted oeuvre and was already regarded as one of the most important Swedish directors alongside Ingmar Bergman and Victor Sjöström in his lifetime. Unlike them, however, his work is hardly known outside his home country.

Widerberg once said that, “art is a possibility for self-defense, to prevent life from passing by without having commented on it.” Born into a working-class family in Malmö, the road to art required a great deal of effort on his part. He became known as a writer and film critic at an early age already and also made a plea for a new, up-to-date cinema much like his contemporaries of the time in France or Germany. At the beginning of the 60s, Widerberg publicly accused the internationally renowned Ingmar Bergman – with all respect for his oeuvre – of making films without any interest for social conditions and published an entire collection of essays about possible new visions for Swedish cinema. Shortly afterwards, the self-taught filmmaker received the opportunity to direct his own first works of cinema. With BARNVAGNEN (1963), Widerberg played a decisive role in ushering in a Swedish New Wave together with kindred spirits such as Jan Troell, Roy Andersson, and Vilgot Sjöman, but soon turned his attention to other genres and forms. From 1967 to 1976, nearly all his films enjoyed international success, while he was only able to make few films for the big screen from the end of the 70s onwards – due to the changing cinema landscape and his difficult, impulsive personality – and worked extensively in television.   
The retrospective presents all his cinema films for the very first time in Berlin, together with two shorts, a very seldom-screened collective documentary that Widerberg worked on with 12 other directors, and a documentary by Stefan Jarl (20 years after it first screened at the Berlinale Forum) on Bo Widerberg’s filmmaking.

ELVIRA MADIGAN (Sweden 1967, 12.4., with an introduction by Christoph Huber & 28.4.) One of the most beautiful elegies to love ever produced by cinema and still Widerbergs’s most famous film to this day, which even ended up giving its name to the second movement Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 21st piano concerto: married Swedish guard lieutenant Sixten Sparre falls in love with Danish tightrope artist Elvira Madigan, whose real name is Hedvig. Out of his love for her, he leaves his wife and deserts from the military, forcing the couple to flee to Denmark. This escape begins as a honeymoon of sorts, promising the exhilaration of love and freedom. Yet reality increasingly brings them back down to earth: their little money dwindles and they are in constant danger of being recognized and reported to the authorities. Widerberg’s interpretation of a story known to all in Sweden, of an unconditional love that contains a pre-revolutionary gesture, struck a nerve with international audiences. It was equally groundbreaking in formal terms, drawing on a realistic, modern palette of colors in adapting historical material and using natural light as far as possible.

BARNVAGNEN (The Baby Carriage, Sweden 1963, 13. & 24.4., with an introduction by Friederike Horstmann) 18-year-old Britt works in a textile factory, still lives with her parents and wanders through the streets of her hometown hungry for life. After a fleeting affair with a musician, she ends up pregnant. He refuses to take any responsibility and she decides to have the baby and use this moment to break out of her previous life.  At the same time, she meets Björn, a high school student driven by self-doubt, rebellion, and a thirst for knowledge. In his first feature, Widerberg implemented his central demands for Swedish cinema: authentic characters plucked from real life, an interest in the social setting, a fresh approach to the visual, and playful narration. For all its conceptual desire to shake things up, the film still exudes an overwhelming liveliness today, not least due to the cinematography by Jan Troell, who would later become a director himself. Beforehand, we are showing POJKEN OCH DRAKEN (The Boy with the Kite, Sweden 1962), Widerberg’s debut film, a touching portrait of a day in the life of a boy that was also shot by Jan Troell.

MANNEN PÅ TAKET (The Man on the Roof, Sweden 1976, 13.4., with an introduction by Christoph Huber & 26.4.) After a police commissioner is murdered, Detective Beck stats to investigate and soon discovers that the deceased was famous for his brutal investigation methods, although he was never actually challenged in employing them thanks to the solidarity between him and his colleagues. With his adaptation of a novel by famous Swedish writing duo Sjöwall/Wahlöö, Widerberg set out on new paths: his first genre film first carries out a bitter critique of society by way of a detective thriller, before suddenly one of the most lavish, breathless action sequences in European cinema begins. Widerberg’s film became the template for all the later so-called Swedish crime thrillers and was his last international cinema success.

FIMPEN (Scweden 1974, 14.4., with an introduction Christoph Draxtra) Widerberg also created a central work in children’s film and sport film alike: at a level of content, FIMPEN is a modern-day fairy tale from start to finish, full of absurd ideas and an impossible plot that is always conceived of in realistic terms; visually speaking, it forms part of the naturalistic portion of Widerbergs’s oeuvre, using a lively handheld camera which stays as close as possible to what’s happening in the game within the lengthy, celebratory sport scenes. A talent scout discovers six-year-old Johan (whose Swedish nickname means “cigarette butt”) playing football. He soon rises through the ranks to become of the most valued players in the national team, alongside several of the best (real-life) Swedish footballers of the era.  

LIV TILL VARJE PRIS (Stefan Jarl, Sweden 1998, 14.4.) One year after Widerberg’s early death, filmmaker Stefan Jarl released a documentary about his friend and directorial colleague. Jarl succeeds in approaching his work in unconventional fashion, primarily by way of unpublished notes and scenes from uncompleted film projects. Thommy Berggren, Widerberg’s main choice of actor between 1963 und 1971, plays a decisive role in the film, as does his relationship to the oeuvre of his former mentor. When the film received its premiere at the Berlinale Forum in 1999, Jarl wrote: “For someone from the working class like me, it wasn’t easy to find a hero. Bo became my mentor. He made films about reality. In his world, there was no God, just normal people. For him, film had something to do with life and life with film.”  

KÄRLEK 65 (Love 65, Sweden 1965, 15.4.) What Federico Fellini only tackled after seven and a half works was already being tried by Widerberg in his third feature: the attempt to create an unflinchingly honest self-interrogation as an artist and to address a crisis of meaning via film. Protagonist Keve, at once a director, husband, father, and lover, experiences a crisis during the preparations for his next film and plunges into a love affair with the wife of an acquaintance. Widerberg created a compendium of the film aesthetic and socio-political debates of the period, articulating bold thoughts about love and the relationship between art and life.

KVARTERET KORPEN (Raven's End, Sweden 1963, 16. & 26.4.) Widerberg’s second film takes the social realism of his debut feature BARNVAGNEN further, appearing more sober, more narratively direct, and even more unmistakably autobiographically inspired: young Anders lives in the titular Raven’s End, a poor district of Malmö inhabited by workers and large families. His unemployed father drinks, lies around on the couch, and has lost any hope in life, while also being the main obstacle to Anders’ path to freedom, which is his dreamed-of existence as a writer. The film established Widerberg as a central voice in the New Swedish Cinema and is still counted among the best Swedish films of all time to this day. We are showing the film in a 35mm print from the time as well as in a 4K digitization recently carried out by the Swedish Film Institute.

HEJA ROLAND! (Sweden 1966, 17.4.) is Widerberg’s only film largely designed as a comedy or a humorous (and shockingly topical) satire at the very least. Based on his own novel, it tells the story of a young advertising copywriter named Roland, who simply lives from one day to the next. One day, he is commissioned to carry out a market survey and discovers in so doing how powerful concerns seek to bring his generation to mindless consumerism. Widerberg’s last black and white film was also his farewell a Nouvelle Vague aesthetic and brought the first phase of his film career to a close.  

DEN VITA SPORTEN (The White Sport, Group 13 [= Bo Widerberg, Roy Andersson, Kalle Boman etc.], Sweden 1968, 18.4., with an introduction by Natalie Lettenewitsch) On May 3, 1968, the Swedish Tennis Davis Cup Team was supposed to play a match against Rhodesia, a state infamous at the time for its policy of racial segregation and ostracized by the majority of Western countries. Protests largely initiated by students ultimately led to the match being cancelled.  The “Group 13” founded to this end, which Widerberg also joined, filmed the leaders of the movement as they made preparations and on their way match venue, used five cameras to document the protest itself, and finally examined its effects by interviewing both those who supported and those who opposed the campaign. The result was a brilliant, differentiated, and still very much committed study on the mechanics and dynamics of a protest that bore witness to a shift in society’s thinking.  

ÅDALEN 31 (Sweden 1969, 19.4., with a video introduction by Olivier Assayas & 27.4.) In 1931, the workers in Ådalen in northern Sweden went on strike. Bloody clashes between them and the army ensued, which went down in Swedish history as “the Ådalen shootings” and left a lasting mark on the image of a peaceful society. Widerberg tells the story of this pioneering event from the point of view of young worker’s son Kjell, who falls in love with Anna, the daughter of an industrialist. Widerberg’s only film shot in CinemaScope (with camerawork by his then-standard cinematographer Jörgen Persson, whose images shimmer like springtime) shifts between private and social history to create the image of a resistance that comes across as entirely contemporary and enjoys the great admiration of many, including Olivier Assayas.

JOE HILL (Sweden/USA 1971, 19. & 25.4.) Born in Sweden, Joe Hill emigrated to the USA as a young man, becoming a singer, wandering worker and trade union activist. His eventful life, work, and state-ordered death are the subject of the only film that Wilderberg shot in the USA, which is put together like a ballad – in virtuoso fashion, he boils down and compresses many years in the life of Hill into turbulent episodes and formative meetings, which paint a sobering picture of life in the land of unfettered opportunity. In this film, as in his entire filmography, Widerberg’s direction of actors seeks truth of expression, with his final collaboration with Thommy Berggren containing some of the most moving moments in his whole oeuvre. Due to differences of opinion with the producers, two versions of the film exist, although the Swedish one (currently only available as a DCP unfortunately) is Widerberg’s preferred cut. Unlike the US version, it does without the song “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night” performed by Joan Baez.

VICTORIA (Sweden/West Germany 1979, 20.4., with an introduction by Gary Vanisian) This adaptation of a story by Knut Hamsun is about the impossible love between miller’s son Johannes and Victoria, the daughter of a manor house owner. Created as a co-production with ZDF, Widerberg adapted the original with fidelity to each and every detail while placing his own emphasis along the way. The translation of the dialogue into English – for production technical reasons – heightens the artificiality of the film, which can also be seen as creating an ironic distance to the romantic material. VICTORIA exhibits numerous similarities to ELVIRA MADIGAN, but remains more reserved, calmer, more autumnal. The film’s poor reception was one of the reasons why Widerberg was only able to make three more features in his final 18 years of life.  

MANNEN FRÅN MALLORCA (The Man from Mallorca, Sweden 1984, 20. & 27.4.) Just before Christmas, an unknown man carries out a raid on a post office and ends up getting away with a large sum of money. Shortly before the case is solved by two detectives, unexpected connections turn the whole affair into a politically explosive matter. For his second foray into the crime thriller genre, which is based on a novel by famous Swedish author Leif G. W. Persson, Widerberg chose a documentary-like, pared down narration which – far more than MANNEN PÅ TAKET – is concerned with undermining the expectations of the genre and showing the everyday tristesse of investigatory work. Not least due to the remarkably laconic and thus radical end to the film, he creates a devastating portrait of the state of Sweden society.

LUST OCH FÄGRING STOR (All Things Fair, Sweden/Denmark 1995, 21.4.) Widerberg’s first feature after nearly ten years and his last: only a year after its premiere in the Competition of the Berlinale, where he won a Silver Bear for the Special Jury Prize, he died of cancer. Here, he combines central themes from his earlier films to form a sensual ode to becoming an adult. Like he already did with KVARTERET KORPEN, he shot the film from an autobiographical script and set the plot in Malmö in 1943. While a cruel war rages in the world outside, 15-year-old schoolboy Stig (played by Widerberg’s son) has an affair with his English teacher Viola, who is twenty years older than him and yearns for the lust and great beauty (which is the Swedish title of the film) that she doesn’t find in her marriage.

ORMENS VÄG PÅ HÄLLEBERGET (The Serpent’s Way, Sweden 1986, 23.4.) This adaptation of a well-known novel by Torgny Lindgren tells the story of the repression of the rural population in northern Sweden in the 19th century. As her family is unable to pay their rent debts, a young woman ends up becoming sexually dependent on the old house owner. When he dies after many years, his son inherits the “right of the body”. As was already the case in ÅDALEN 31 and JOE HILL, Widerberg’s interest in historical material lies in the social decay of the era still yet to be addressed, although he avoids any sort of consternation and is primarily interested in creating a concise adaptation of the novel and its unmistakable black humor. Beforehand, we are showing EN MOR MED TVÅ BARN VÄNTANDES SITT TREDJE (A Mother with Two Children Expecting Her Third, Sweden 1970), a fascinating documentary in which actress Vanessa Redgrave talks about combining her role as a mother and an artist. (gv)

An event in cooperation with the Swedish Embassy Berlin.

arsenal cinema: UdK Seminar: Corpus-Container

05:00 pm Cinema 2


Farewell

Free Radicals

Stadt in Flammen

Garden of Chromatic Disturbance

Le retour à la raison

Negative Man

aus der leere

Sommererfrischung oder For Maria and Myself

Blutrausch – Bloodlust

Fuses

Weissfilm

*Farewell Stefan Zeyen Germany 2009 DVD 3 min
*Free Radicals Len Lye USA 1958 16 mm 5 min
*Stadt in Flammen Jürgen Reble FRG 1984 16 mm 5 min
*Garden of Chromatic Disturbance
Corinne und Arthur Cantrill AUS 1999 16 mm 11 min
*Le retour à la raison Man Ray F 1923 16 mm 2 min
*Negative Man Cathy Joritz FRG 1985 16 mm 2 min
*aus der leere Markus Ruff Germany 2005 16 mm 15 min
*Sommererfrischung oder For Maria and Myself
Milena Gierke USA/FRG 1987 Super 8 3 min
*Blutrausch – Bloodlust Torsten Fleisch Germany 2000 16 mm 4 min
*Fuses Carolee Schneemann USA 1965–68 16 mm 22 min
*Weissfilm Birgit und Wilhelm Hein FRG 1977 16 mm 5 min

arsenal cinema: Magical History Tour: Clothes in Motion – Costumes, Styles and Fashion in Film

07:30 pm Cinema 2


L’année dernière à Marienbad

L’année dernière à Marienbad Last Year at Marienbad
Alain Resnais F/Italy 1961 With Delphine Seyrig
35 mm OV/EnS 94 min

arsenal cinema: Life at Any Price –
 Bo Widerberg Retrospective

08:00 pm Cinema 1


Joe Hill (schwedische Fassung)

Joe Hill (Swedish version) S/USA 1971
DCP English OV 114 min