Show Me Cinema #1: The Man on the Roof (1976)

Anyone who is Swedish will know that we have no shortage of crime or detective fiction. Film, television and literature has been dominated by the genre for at least 50 years and it’s still going strong. Many of them are almost interchangeable with one another and aren’t terribly interesting. But few of them are as exciting, witty, energetic and clever as Bo Widerberg’s classic film from 1976 Man on the Roof (Mannen på taket) which, in my opinion, rivals many of the greatest Bergman films as the greatest Swedish film ever made and solidifies Widerberg’s position as one of our finest filmmakers.

Man on the Roof is based on a book by the writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and is one of several books in their series about police commissioner Martin Beck (played in this film by Carl-Gustaf Lindstedt). The film revolves around Beck and his team of investigators, Kollberg (Sven Wollter), Larsson (Thomas Hellberg) and Rönn (Håkan Serner) who are trying to solve the murder of police commissioner Sven Nyman. It is revealed through the course of the film that Nyman was a highly controversial figure in the force known for his brutal tactics, drawing numerous complaints. The investigation finally leads to the titular man on the roof shooting on police officers as Beck and his team must stop him.

Widerberg’s ambition with Man on the Roof was to make the Swedish equivalent to The French Connection, and I don’t say it lightly when I say the film holds up to that comparison. But it’s far from a carbon copy or quick cash grab of William Friedkin’s classic cop film (even though it shares some superficial traits like both being cop films and utilizing primarily handheld camerawork), it is very Swedish in a sense. The dryness, the coldness, the bureaucracy, the humor and the need for coffee are all very Swedish in nature, and Widerberg beautifully translates that onto the screen. It could however be a little too Swedish for international audiences and could perhaps explain why the film is such a classic here but not so much abroad. It might in fact seem a little bit slow at times (especially around the middle) but it’s part of what makes the movie so special and it all pays off in a very exciting climax including a helicopter crashing down on Odenplan.

Widerberg was also known for his penchant for realism and it works quite well in this film. As previously stated, the the entire film employs a handheld camera, which was quite unusual at the time in Sweden, and it gives the film a very authentic film feeling which is further aided by the incredibly naturalistic yet engaging performances (especially from Lindstedt, Wollter and Serner, the latter serving as the butt of many of the jokes in the film) and use of real locations, which also makes the film a time capsule of Stockholm in the mid-70s. Widerberg also used many real cops and civilians in speaking roles, and many of them are very convincing (he would also do such things as place an actress to scream in a bus of unsuspecting civilians to get their genuine reactions) and it’s all there to serve the film. The realism also extends to the several murders in the film. The opening murder in particular is quite spectacular, starting out as a suspenseful sequence Hitchcock could be proud of, then goes into a brutal murder one would normally expect from a Dario Argento film, with a chaotic subjective camera, jump cuts and genuine pigs blood, all to make the scene as realistic yet startling as possible.
Finally, I want to talk a little bit more about Widerberg himself because I don’t think he gets enough credit as he perhaps deserves, if not domestically then definitely not internationally. It should be noted that besides The Man from Majorca, The Man on the Roof is the only film of Widerberg’s that I’ve seen, so perhaps I’m not the best authority to talk and shower praise on him, but reading about him and his opinions makes me feel a strong kinship with him. We’re both Swedish (we’re in fact from the same part of Sweden, Scania), we both seem to share a disdain for the general Swedish film industry and we both enjoy American and French films. So I’m looking forward to seeing more of his films in the coming year, which hopefully will lead to more reviews. Bo Widerberg may have been a stubborn and tough son-of-a-bitch, but he was damn good at his job, which was to make movies.

Bo Widerberg (1930-1997)

Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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