For a while, I was thinking of ditching a column on Bo Widerberg’s classic Ådalen 31 simply because I struggled to finish the column. I sometimes struggle with a point of view in my reviews and also how I present my criticisms and how to direct those said criticisms. This also explains why there haven’t really been any columns in a few weeks, due to my indecision on whether or not to scrap this column and move on to another Swedish film. But in light of the mass protests and demonstrations that have occured in the United States and also the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Spain (even here in Sweden) it seems fitting perhaps to deal with a film that centers around a peaceful demonstration that resulted in the deaths of five people and major political reform in Sweden, albeit a workers’ rights demonstration rather than a racial demonstration.
The film follows the fictional Andersson family, who live in Ådalen in northern Sweden in May 1931. The father Harald is part of a major sympathy strike movement in solidarity with the workers in Marma who received cut wages. The mother Karin is doing the washing and looking after their youngest son Martin (played by Widerberg’s son of the same name) and their second-youngest son Åke is playing dangerous games with his friends. Their oldest son Kjell (effectively the protagonist) spends time being part of a workers union orchestra but he’s more attracted to playing American jazz with his friends, including Nisse. Kjell also spends time being taught French impressionism by the factory director’s wife. He falls in love with the director’s daughter Anna, and they accidentally have a baby together. All of this is there to draw us into the world of the demonstrators and workers and their lives, that will all inevitably lead up to the horrific Ådalen shootings, where the army opened fire on peaceful demonstrators who had been sent there to protect strikebreakers.
Ådalen 31 could in fact be seen almost as the second part of an unofficial trilogy in Widerberg’s career, as he made three similar films in a row; Elvira Madigan, this and later Joe Hill. Whilst Elvira Madigan doesn’t concern itself with politics, all three films share traits such as being rather impressionistic portraits of working class people and their daily lives, with a fair dose of lyricism and beauty in all of them. In fact, Widerberg was criticized at the time of the release of Ådalen 31 in Sweden by the left for making the film look ‘too pretty’ and ‘too beautiful’. They thought it should’ve been in black-and-white and much more gritty and dirty, but I think those writers forgot that a) it’s historically accurate that it was a particularly beautiful day the day of the shootings and b) Widerberg wanted to juxtapose the beauty of life with the horror and chaos of the shootings, and I think it works very well in the film. As a member of the working-class himself he also liked to point out that they always kept the house clean and tidy. In fact it’s quite common in Sweden to clean your house regularly, so I completely understand where Widerberg is coming from. But enough of this, let’s get on with the actual review.
On the whole I think Ådalen 31 is a deeply flawed but admirable film in many ways. On the positive side, the film is simply astonishing to look at. Widerberg and his cinematographer Jörgen Persson continue their work in Elvira Madigan and use primarily natural lighting for a majority of the film (this time in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio, something of a rarity in Sweden at this time), and having seen the film on the big screen after a digital restoration I imagine it looks even better now than it perhaps did fifty years ago and looks like it could’ve been shot yesterday. The film also continues Widerberg’s eagerness to depict the working-class and their daily lives, because that’s one of the abilites of cinema when you think about it, the ability to show someone’s life cannot be done in any other artform, so on that front Widerberg belongs in the same league as directors like Robert Altman who are more interested in people and reality as opposed to a narrative plot. But in there also lies most of the films flaws.
The film clocks in at just under two hours, and I must admit it did try my patience on numerous occasions, as there are many scenes that feel meandering, unnecessary and straight up confusing. I definitely understand why Widerberg included most of the scenes in the film as he hoped to make a very lyrical and poetic film but it did make the whole thing feel more drawn out and made me uninvolved in a lot of the events taking place. I think there’s definitely the possibility that I simply need to rewatch it, because I had the same reaction to Man on the Roof, and you all know how much I love that film (which has recently been released on blu-ray for the first time in Sweden), so maybe Widerberg is simply in that class of filmmakers that require multiple viewings in order to fully understand what makes them special. But I would be lying if I said I wasn’t bored at times. There’s also a hideously outdated subplot involving Kjell’s friend Nisse, who is learning about the homogeneous zones and explores hypnotism on girls. I think I understand what Widerberg was going for but all of those scenes made me deeply uncomfortable as they border on sexual abuse, yet they’re treated as funny and/or innocent. Not okay Mr. Widerberg. Not okay at all.
The films strong points are the beginning and the last forty minutes or so. The beginning works because we get to establish all they characters and watch them deal with their daily lives, and that aspect I liked very much. And from the fatal demonstration on the film is very strong. The shooting itself is chaotic and swift as it should be, and also keen on showing the consequences to the violence and how that affects our characters. Then the rest of the film revolves around the aftermath with a title card at the very end saying that the Liberal government was voted out and the Social Democrats had remained in power ever since (their rule lasted until 1976), but with the biting final remark saying “full equality has not been achieved.” So it’s really the middle in a way that bring the movie down for me and prevent me from calling it a masterpiece or essential viewing.
Still, I appreciate and above all respect Widerberg’s dedication to bring the working man into focus through social realism rather than through lectures or talking down to the audience, and one can definitely see it on display here. So despite my reservations I still like Ådalen 31 and think it is a solid piece of work. The performances are very good, the cinematography is lush and gorgeous, the sense of realism truly strengthens the film. It’s hindered however by a bloated running time and some outdated aspects. But again, I appreciate Widerberg for his attempts to create poetry out of real life, and lord know we don’t see that too often in films.
Fun fact: a young Roy Andersson (the same Roy Andersson responsible for Songs from the Second Floor and About Endlessness) worked on the film as Widerberg’s assistant director just a year before his own directorial debut, A Swedish Love Story. I promise you, I will get to Andersson’s films eventually, but that’s gonna have to wait a little further down the road.