From an outsider looking in it is a curious thing that the Scandinavian nations with such a long, rich, tradition of the Christian faith should manifest such wide spectrum of values and social ills contrary to some of the basic understandings of that faith. Sweden that claims a 95 per cent adherence to the Lutheran Church (due of to the fact it is the state religion) is also a nation where premarital sex is explored by 98 per cent of the married population and a suicide rate higher than the international average.<1> Certainly the recurring themes in the films that I viewed of drunkenness, depression, suicide, class consciousness, relationships to mention a few, have been identified and go on to beg the question, "Where is the church in this?"
The reflections made in this paper are focused narrowly on Swedish and Danish films, therefore a danger in suggesting these are values represent the whole region is present when they are quite distinct nations. Moreover, Norway and Finland are seen by outsiders and themselves as more wholesome than their neighbours.<2> It is problematic to suggest that issues depicted in a film set in 1907, as is the case of Fanny and Alexander, are still contemporarily held views, but it must be said that the issues come up throughout the wider chronology of films represented. This adds weight for me, that what is outlined below is a fair representation of some of the main social concerns. The role of the church and views on religion are difficult to substantiate in a review like this as the personal biases of the writer, producer and director influence the end product. Moreover it is difficult to say how the heartfelt view of the average person is reflected in the films when religious conviction is often a considerably private matter. This being said I will attempt to interpret the writer's perception of the role of religion depicted in the film alongside the societal values expressed while recognising my own religious bias in this matter.
The role of the play and film plays a very important function in this culture as following in the tradition of Ibsen and Strindberg it is a vehicle that critiques society. The high social status of the actor allows a powerful, challenging message to be communicated. The function of the playhouse as a little world of its own in Fanny and Alexander is that it reflects the big world for a moment so we understand it better, or, as Mr Ekdah goes on, or do we give people who come here a chance of forgetting for a while, for a few moment the harsh world outside. The world is recognised as harsh, almost, out to get you. The escapes into decadence, addiction and fantasy provide a relief from the drudgery of each day and the reality of personal suffering.
Isolation and loneliness haunt the main characters of the films threatening at times to overtake them. The matriarch of the Ekdah family in Fanny and Alexander, sheds tears in her times of loneliness and grief, Karen Blixten, in Out of Africa feels intense loneliness as the men of her life come and go. The pastor, Thomas, in Winter light in his crisis of faith also grieves deeply for his dead wife. Much of Winter light focuses on his intense inner struggle, isolation and loneliness, using facial expressions, tones, music and subtle light to portray his anguish.
Depression exudes from some of the characters with an eerie solemnity, which threatens to engulf the viewer. The whole tone, setting, colour and musical underpinning of Winter light depict depression. The film opens with a strong feel of depression and detachment with the pastor leading the Eucharist in a way that would make anyone feel morbid, depressed and alienated. The depressed Mr Pearson comes to the pastor for help and finds that he is no help. In fact Mr Pearson is a "mirror" for the pastor to see himself and his inner condition of self-doubt and fear.
Insomnia, depression and mental illness are a feature in the life of one of the Ekdah brothers (Fanny and Alexander) whose feelings of loss and worthlessness drive him along a path of self destruction and abusive, cruel behaviour directed at his wife. The depression of the opera singer Achille Papin in Babette's Feast fills him with doubts in his ability while resting in the isolation of Jutland until he comes across the beautiful Phillipa giving him a new direction in life. At a later time, after the fans who had once applauded him had now forgotten him, he writes in his depression, What is fame? The grave awaits us all.
Suicide is recognised as an issue of social concern in Sweden and this was reflected in the films in suicidal thoughts of Thomas the pastor, the actual suicide of Mr Pearson (Winter light), and the threats of suicide by the Mr Ekdah (Fanny and Alexander) when he was displaying unstable behaviour. Karen Blixten's father ended his life when she was ten in Out of Africa.
Fanny and Alexander and Winter light present in a stark way the foreboding presence of death in the everyday. Why it is that Alexander as a young boy has special insight to death is not clear to me but the theme underpins the whole film. The idea that the living and the dead are still in close contact and there is a fine line between both worlds seems to be postulated. The fear of old age is closely akin to the struggles with facing one's mortality for some of the characters.
In I am curious-yellow, one of the major themes addressed by the interviewer was that of Sweden's class consciousness during the late 1960s. The responses of the interviewees proved interesting in a social democratic society that attempts to break down the barriers of class. Some workers believed they didn't experience class barriers, while others felt there was a long way to go. One person, a chef said, Undress people and they are all the same. Dress them again and you have a class system, meaning that we are all equal but the way some pad them themselves with external pretence puts them above others. Olof Palme then aged 39 and the Minister of Transport stated strongly, I think we still have strong elements of a class system. Someone called it a class system based on income. He went on to criticise the education system that perpetuated the class system. The overwhelming feeling that came through responses was that it was an extremely conservative society that was slow to change and the individuals prime motivation was to climb the class system. Class was also an issue in Fanny and Alexander , however it was the servants that expressed that it was "unseemly" to be all eating and socialising together over Christmas celebrations. Class, however seemed to make little difference at bed time. The high status of the actors is apparent and is evident in the state funeral of Ocar Ekdah. Karen Blixten's (Out of Africa) search for respectability and a title compelled her into a disastrous marriage.
Drunkenness was focused upon the bankrupt brother, in Fanny and Alexander and in a contrasting way the naive attitude of the community to alcohol in Babette's Feast makes a statement about their fear of being tainted, and overcome by such drink. It must be said though that some had no idea what they were drinking and thought it was lemonade.
One of the most startling disturbing aspects of the films was the attitudes to relationships. While there is an acceptance that while we are individuals with rights, people are basically using each other for advancement, sexual pleasure or to have power over others. In I am curious-yellow, the emptiness of the relationships leads the individuals searching for intimacy in sexual relationships. Near the close of the film the promiscuous producer states of the equally promiscuous actress, She is using me. That dammed girl. She uses me like everyone does. The statement indicates to me his emptiness and sadness, having seen life and love traded for advancement and that sex is both for self-gratification and a tool for getting where you want in life. Sexually transmitted diseases are a closing feature of this film and in for Karen Blixten (Out of Africa) the price is high for her husband's infidelity. It is clear by the films that sexually, Sweden is a very open society but it is just as clear, that it is a society that displays an emptiness and devaluation of self. Perhaps this accounts for the high depression factor and suicide rate.
So where is religion and the role of the church in these films and how do they relate to these problems and values? The answer to this I believe varies but in the most part the portrayal of religious themes was slanted to the negative and in many cases could be seen as contributing to the social problems. The educated, aloof, detached, doubt ridden, depressed pastor (Winter light) had nothing to say to the one suffering. Yet all the time the image of the suffering Christ was behind him in the form of the crucifix, this to me is the ultimate statement of God suffering with humanity. The crucifix symbolises that God is not at all detached and aloof as the pastor was portraying in his disposition, words and actions. It is the woman who loves him displaying Christ's action in this situation. The director focuses on the image of Christ's broken hands on the cross making a link to her raw hands resulting from her personal suffering. It is her that has a clearer vision of the nature of God. It is another simple person who enables him to come to some understanding about the nature of doubt and in particular self-doubt and God's silence. It appeared through the film that God had little intimate understanding of human suffering in issues of doubt, depression, grief, love and suicide, yet all the time images to the contrary where in the background.
The Cathedral towers over the theatre in Fanny and Alexander as a symbol of ominous power. The same power that the evil bishop displays over the, beautiful and grieving actress Emilie. The attraction to a simple and pure life has great attraction to her in a vulnerable state yet it is not long before the hash cruelty of her new husband is realised. At one point depicting the mystery of God she says, My God is so different Evard. He is like myself, ill defined and intangible. I am an actress, I am used to wearing different masks. My God wears a thousand masks. He has never shown me his real face just as I have never shown him mine.
Alexander's experience is shaped by his suffering. For him God judges and punishes little children and the Bishop represents God. In a fit of anger at the bishop he says of God He's the dirty bastard I think He is. The love expressed by his mother is warm, nurturing and embracing, yet the bishop claims his love for the family is strong and harsh. Sinister connotations are made throughout and a sense of demonic is evident in his money counting using a black cat to highlight this. Throughout the film the bishop is depicted as evil, ethically and morally bankrupt. This too may be an interpretation of the writer of the church's relation to the community. The Bishop's end is ugly, and in his blindness cries out, My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me portraying to me that in all his "piety" he was blind and absent from God while at the same time it is the theologically illiterate who are close to God. A strong theme of Hebrew Wisdom surfaces in the influence of Uncle Isak who introduces themes of journey, search and thirsting while in a state of despair in life. Alexander's cruel punishment is executed in a dark lonely attic with a large crucifix in the background.
In I am curious-yellow, the issue of religion is dealt with dismissively and sarcastically. In contrast to this the focus in Babette's Feast is primarily on the puritanical faith of the small community in Jutland, contrasting the philosophy and lifestyle of the a select number of visitors to make the main point of the film. The puritanic theology of this community was based on the notion that things of the soul were good and things of the body that detracted from the spirit life were bad. Their focus was heavenward with little to enjoy in the here and now. Simple living, self-sacrifice and good works are virtues highlighted by the sisters Martina and Phillipa. Rules and restrictions giving guidance to how to live within these narrow confines were taught. In the film while there was plenty of emphasis on forgiveness, but the resentments, old hurts and back biting threatened to tear the community apart. It is the extravagant expression of love in Babette's gift of a feast, symbolising to me the extravagant love of God's unconditional love, that breaks through the narrow and legalistic faith of the puritans. It is the contrasting figure of General Laurens Lowenhielm at the dinner that makes it possible for them to transform the meal from something to suffer to a feast to enjoy this results in the healing of old wounds and ingrained bitterness.
Social Democracy's attempt to salve its war conscious and de-sin the nation has harvested a range of social ills that have no easy cure.<3> It seems from the attitude of the film makers that the church has contributed to the nations' problems and has little contemporary relevance. The church is depicted as alienating itself from the community and is isolated from social justice concerns.
The films depict various theologies and understandings of faith but overall it is my impression that the images represented are couched in the negative. While this may be a true representation of public perception, from my perspective it is a sad one and makes a strong statement regarding the health and relevance of the church in that society. Further it makes tragic statements regarding the value of life in the society manifesting in drunkenness, depression and suicide. The inability of the church with its life enhancing message and practical care seems unable from the perception from film to bridge the void to the social problem of the society.
Griffiths, T. Scandinavia, p. 237.
<2> Griffiths, T. Scandinavia, p. 237.
<3> Griffiths, T. Scandinavia, p. 189.