The very first film I covered in this series of columns/reviews of Swedish cinema was Bo Widerberg’s classic Man on the Roof from 1976. I loved the film and became eager to cover yet another one of his films, but I didn’t want to to it too soon. I wanted to try out a variety of films by different filmmakers as much as possible, and I think I’ve been fairly successful at it. I’ve covered many diverse yet equally great films like And Then We Danced, The Virgin Spring, Show Me Love etc. and it’s always been a lot of fun, both to talk about them and experience most of them for the first time but also to share them with a wider and more international audience. But now I felt the time was right to dig into another Bo Widerberg classic in what might be his greatest achievements and one of the finest and most beautiful films this young man has ever seen.
The film follows a young woman named Elvira Madigan (Pia Degermark), a Danish tightrope dancer with her father’s circus who meets married Swedish cavalry officer and count, Captain Sixten Sparre (Thommy Berggren) in the year 1889. They fall in love and decide to run away together. It may sound like a big and complex plot, but it’s actually very simple. The description I just provided covers maybe the first five minutes of the film, it in fact begins with them already in love and already on the run from society, the military and the law, since Sparre is a deserter which was punishable as a serious offence. The film is based on a true story, but it’s honestly not that important really for the overall film. It could very well have been a story Widerberg made up on his own because it doesn’t affect the film at all, and one certainly doesn’t need to have any prior knowledge of Elvira Madigan to enjoy it. This is perhaps why this was Widerberg’s greatest international hit in the day, the simplicity of the narrative makes it more accessible to an international audience somehow. Not that that’s a bad thing, far from it. In fact, the lack of story is one of the films many strengths to me.
The reason why the historical accuracy in the film doesn’t matter, in my opinion, is because Widerberg didn’t set out to make a historical film, he barely did any research on the topic (the entire shooting script merely consisted of the words “they pick raspberries.”) Widerberg set out to make a film about everything he loved in life, and those things include: good food, love, literature, classical music and sex. And we get plenty of those in the film, but just enough to not make any of it overused, with an exception to Mozart’s second movement from his Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Minor, which is used so much in the beginning of the film that I started to get tired of it but after a while I got used to it and thought it actually worked quite well and couldn’t picture the film without that particular piece. But since Widerberg was a director who was always concerned with reality in his films, he wanted to capture life as it had never been seen before on film. The film was shot with a very small crew, only two principal actors and a small budget, but also with very little use of artificial lighting. Whenever they could, Widerberg and cinematographer Jörgen Persson would shoot with whatever natural light was available to them. So in many respects, this predates Stanley Kubrick’s and Terrence Malick’s use of natural lighting in Barry Lyndon and Days of Heaven respectively, and making it just as visually beautiful and poetic as those two films.
I would say Widerberg’s films, not necessarily all of them but some of them, belong to a certain poetic realism. Not strictly speaking in reference to the Poetic Realist film movement in France during the 1930s personified by filmmakers like Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier (and Jean Vigo of course, I’m not forgetting him), but in terms of a more general poetic realism, that his films have a strong sense of realism in terms of location and use of actors but poetic in their filmmaking and depictions of life, not necessarily concerned with narrative storytelling, since cinema can depict life better than any other medium. Widerberg was a master at this, and the more of his films I see, the more I think of him as a cinematic poet of sorts, who aimed to depict life in all its beauty yet simultaneous tragedy, and that’s why I think Elvira Madigan is one of the best films ever made.