Dedicated to Sven Wollter (1934-2020)
My very first column for the site was for Bo Widerberg’s 1976 cop thriller Man on the Roof. Besides from being a masterpiece of the genre and Swedish cinema in general, it was also one of the most commercially successful films made by the film company SF (Svensk Filmindustri i.e. Swedish Film Industry) in their history, taking in a total of ten million Swedish crowns. But despite this, SF and its head at the time, Jörn Donner, refused to work with Widerberg on his planned sequel to Man on the Roof. This was due to them simply being sick and tired of working with Widerberg. As beloved and as gentle he was with his actors (many of whom said he was the best director they ever worked with), he could often be very difficult to his crew as he hated planning and was very impatient. This didn’t help him win favors with the film establishment (he would later accuse Donner of being biased to Widerberg’s rival Bergman), and thus he was forced to look elsewhere for his next project. He chose to adapt Knut Hamsun’s novel Victoria, a project he had been attached to since Elvira Madigan. The film was made with a West German producer, but they immediately butted heads resulting in many conflicts and lawsuits. When the film was eventually screened at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival it became a disaster, as Widerberg was more or less still editing the film as it was being projected (and the whole film was dubbed so you can imagine how bad it must’ve been for the members of the audience). The film wouldn’t be theatrically released in Sweden until 1987, and Widerberg’s reputation was virtually destroyed. Eventually, after a number of years in the wilderness directing televised plays, he finally made his cinematic comeback by returning to the genre of his biggest commercial hit.
The Man from Majorca (Mannen från Mallorca) is adapted from Leif G.W. Persson’s 1978 novel Grisfesten (The Pig Feast; the title was changed to tie in with Man on the Roof and also to avoid confusion with a Swedish comedy with a similar title to the book). Set in Stockholm around Christmas and New Year, the film opens with the robbery of a postal office with the robber getting away. After a short while, two men are found murdered. Two cops from the vice squad and the film’s protagonists, “Jarnis” Jarnebring (Sven Wollter) and “Johan” Johansson (Tomas von Brömssen) sense there is a connection between the robbery and the murders and start their own private little investigation, which may lead to the very top of law enforcement and the Swedish government.
Much of the same cast from Man on the Roof return here. The most obvious examples are Wollter, Håkan Serner, Thomas Hellberg and Ingvar Hirdwall with new faces being von Brömssen, Ernst Günther (who looks like a walrus) and Rico Rönnbäck. And as per usual, Widerberg directs the hell out of the actors and they all deliver standout performances, including the smaller roles and even the extras with lines of dialogue. The chemistry between Wollter and von Brömssen is so darn entertaining (and they’re both from Gothenburg so they both speak with the same wonderful accent) and what drives home a lot of the movie for me. They really are like a buddy cop pair much like Riggs and Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon and they’re every bit as good. They act like they’ve known each other for years and we believe it for every second they’ve on screen together.
Another aspect of the movie that I think is impressive is the photography and shot composition. I’m not sure if the version of the movie I saw was somehow a digitally restored version of the movie (as far as I know there has been no major restoration of Man from Majorca) but I noticed the image was much clearer and crisp than I had previously experienced and that made me appreciate the cinematography even more. As much as I love Widerberg and as gorgeous some of his films are, he could get a little sloppy when it came to cinematography, most likely due to him focusing so much on the actors (also his belief that things didn’t have to be captured perfectly on set and could be solved in editing). But here there are several dynamic shot compositions and good use of pans and visually interesting engaging locations. I don’t know if that depends on the films cinematographer Thomas Wahlberg or maybe Widerberg not wanting to replicate himself too much from what he did with Man on the Roof, but whatever it was it was a smart decision. And the film includes it fair share of thrilling and suspenseful moments including a smaller car chase throughout actual Stockholm traffic. Apparently they were waiting for permission to start shooting but Widerberg grew impatient of waiting so they started anyway, which didn’t make Stockholm police too happy.
But much like Man on the Roof, as entertaining as The Man from Majorca can be there is a sense of melancholy and cynicism running through it. In this case it’s in Wollter’s and above all von Brömssen’s characterizations and it’s subject matter of political corruption. von Brömssen’s character is definitely the saddest of the two, having undergone a divorce and feeling extremely lonely. He occasionally flirts with a woman on the subway but it never lead anywhere. Wollter at one point says to another cop “try to imagine how much fun it is to lay the table for just one day in and day out.” They’re old and rusty and they know it. And it’s no fun. When they get a wind of political corruption going on in government, all of their attempts to deliver any sense of genuine justice are thwarted. They’re completely incapable of contributing any major change, they’re really powerless and they know it. And you know what? That’s sad.
So if you can find a digital (or indeed physical) copy of The Man from Majorca I highly recommend it. It’s low on action but high on wonderful character moments, a suspenseful story and lots of coffee, it’s Sweden after all.
This column is dedicated to Sven Wollter’s memory. I will cover one more of his films in my columns before the end of the year.