Since starting the website and this very column, the two film directors I’ve covered the most have probably been Ingmar Bergman and Bo Widerberg. Whilst most people know about Bergman and his life many people (and when I say people I mean people who don’t live in Sweden but here too probably) may not know too much about him or his life, so I’m going to give you a little history lesson, and I’m doing this for a purpose later on. Widerberg was born in Malmö (southern Sweden) in 1930 to working-class parents. His father was a painter and his mother was more or less a housewife. He became a writer in the 1950s but remained feeling unfulfilled about his occupation. At this point however he didn’t have any aspirations whatsoever to become a film director, probably because it seemed so incredibly unlikely to get into the Swedish film industry at the time. But in 1962 Widerberg unknowingly shocked the Swedish film establishment with the publication of his book Vision in Swedish Cinema, a collection of film-related essays he had written for various newspapers. His thesis was that there was no vision in Swedish cinema, that we were stuck in the industry as it was in the 1930s by making comedies and melodramas that felt fake and artificial. But the thing that really caught people’s attention was his direct critique of Ingmar Bergman, whom Widerberg called “our spiritual Dala Horse in the world” and thought of his filmmaking as “working vertically on the elevator up to God” as he put it, meaning that such existential questions about the existence of God where trivial to the average Swede, and we didn’t have any filmmakers who reflected the daily reality of Sweden as Widerberg and many others saw it, and Bergman became the target of Widerberg’s wrath, although he never actually questioned Bergman’s worth and talent as an artist.
This piece of criticism made Widerberg semi-known, and he received an offer from the president of a company called Europa Film to make his own film to essentially show how he thought filmmaking in Sweden ought to be done. Instead of looking at early silent cinema or cinema of Germany like Bergman, Widerberg looked at the French New Wave and American cinema, particularly the works of Francois Truffaut, Elia Kazan and John Cassavetes when he wrote and directed his debut film, The Baby Carriage (Barnvagnen). Shot on real locations in Malmö in the summer of 1962 on a very low-budget, the film became something of a landmark in Swedish film when it was finally released in early 1963. Instead of relying on a conventional script, the “shooting script” consisted mostly of a collection of hand-written notes Widerberg used mostly as guidelines throughout the shoot, improvising heavily as he went along. Combined with use of jazz and swing music, it was as if real Sweden had snuck itself into the cinemas and audiences could see their lives the way they lived them. That’s not to say it’s a masterpiece as I think there are weaknesses in that film concerning plotting and some other things, but as a debut it works fine in trying to establish a style and a point-of-view that Widerberg carried with him throughout his career. Then after the success of The Baby Carriage, he was given the chance to make a second film, and this time he turned to a script he had written a few years earlier as a play but he figured could be made into a good film and it was shot once again in Malmö in the summer of 1963. That script would become one of the most highly regarded films of Swedish cinema, eventually voted the best Swedish film of all time by critics in 1995, Raven’s End (Kvarteret Korpen). And I have to say, I think they may be right actually.
The film is set in the titular block called Raven’s End, which is more or less a working-class slum located in Malmö. The year is 1936, Hitler is trying to demonstrate his power and aryan supremacy at the Berlin Olympics, the Spanish Civil War has started, and the repercussions of the Great Depression are still greatly felt in Raven’s End. We meet the protagonist, the 18-year old Anders, played by Widerberg’s muse and most frequent collaborator Thommy Berggren, coming home from working in the factory. He lives in an apartment with his parents, his mother (Emy Storm) and father (Keve Hjelm). Anders dreams of becoming a writer one day, but he feels weighed down by his parents. His mother is trying to keep their apartment (and indeed their lives) clean and orderly but her attempts are frequently thwarted by Anders’ father, a lifelong dreamer yet serious alcoholic who frequently fails to get a new job and spends any savings the family have gathered together on booze. Anders has a girlfriend named Elsie and a best friend in football player Sixten, and although there are many moments of happiness and joy throughout, the film takes on a rather somber and disillusioned tone throughout, as Anders’ future feels more and more hopeless as it goes on.
The whole film feels incredibly personal to Widerberg and is probably his most autobiographical with possible challengers of that title being Love 65 and All Things Fair. As a member of the working class, Widerberg was intent on capturing life as it was really like, and push realism to its limits as far as it could be done in 1963. But contrary to most of his films, Widerberg for once relied mostly on an actual script that was written and thought out and not just improvised the whole way through. Although his later films are wonderful and are films I dearly love, I do wonder if they perhaps wouldn’t all have been improved had they been shot using an actual script to guide Widerberg and his actors through. Maybe this is why Raven’s End is so highly regarded compared to some of his later films that rely much more on improvisation as the script serves as a structural and emotional anchor to the drama. But that’s mere speculation on my part.
But the part where the film excels the most at almost all of Widerberg’s films are the performances and sense of place and atmosphere. Widerberg’s penchant for using real locations (not a single set was used for the film) and non-actors in speaking roles would become some of his signature hallmarks, and right from the very first frame we see the very real and rugged block Raven’s End where we see kids play around whilst a Hitler speech is overheard in one radio from one of the windows. Right from the very first frame Widerberg really sets himself apart from Bergman. There’s even a few moments where we experience some subjective points-of-view shots, like when Sixten plays football and when Anders is looking around the publishing house he’s been invited to in Stockholm to discuss the publication of his manuscript. Despite this Widerberg never deviates from his naturalistic approach, and we believe everything that happens on-screen is real and genuine.
Berggren gives perhaps his greatest performance as the main character Anders. The whole film rests on his shoulders in a way and he manages to carry it throughout thanks to his naturalistic yet charismatic performance. That could be because the role is very much at home to him, as he much like his character grew up in a working-class environment in Gothenburg with an alcoholic father and a struggling mother. He conveys the feeling of love yet disappointment and frustration at his parents that perhaps only someone with that background could. Speaking of the parents, Keve Hjelm delivers an astounding performance as Anders’ father (who remains nameless throughout the film just like the mother). Hjelm’s performance is often hailed as one of the best of all time in Sweden and it’s easy to see why. He was legitimately drunk on camera whenever the character is supposed to be drunk aka most of the time and it translates into a fully believable and transforming performance. One should neither forget Emy Storm as Anders’ mother, who is possibly the least “showy” in terms of performance but adds so much weight to the drama and her character by her body language, way of delivering lines and sometimes indeed just by looking. You can tell she’s lived a life of hard work and disappointment and has been worn off by life.
Whilst there are moments of levity and even surprising tenderness, it’s a fairly grim and sad depiction of working class life and poverty and how such things can make life seem hopeless and even unworthy of living in a way. This is also a way of differentiating itself from Ingmar Bergman, as Widerberg deals with political issues and ideas head-on, but without it being overbearing or insulting to everyone involved. Widerberg believed in equal rights for the working class, voted to the left of the Social Democrats and was interested in depicting these issues on film as he does in Raven’s End and in various other films of his. I think fans of British kitchen sink cinema and the films of Ken Loach would get a kick out of this film for that reason.
Although Bergman and Widerberg appeared to have something of a public feud and spoke ill of each other on multiple occasions, they clearly respected each other greatly in private. When Bergman saw Raven’s End, he declared it one of his absolute favorite films and the well-prepared and more conservative (in terms of work ethics not politics) Bergman was amazed at how Widerberg was able to capture such realism and honesty through a small production, crew and script. The greatness in Raven’s End witnessed by Bergman holds up to this day. This film has influenced so many filmmakers in terms of making them realize they could tell their own stories, their own ways and in their own styles and for that, Raven’s End’s status as one of the best Swedish films ever made cannot be understated.