Denmark is the happiest country on Earth. Never mind the weather; according to numerous studies – including the European Union’s “Eurobarometer” well-being survey, the Gallup World Poll, the United Nations’ World Happiness Survey and Oprah Winfrey – life in wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen is exactly that.
Finns, on the other hand, have the world’s best education system and are, even within upright Scandinavia, the world’s most trustworthy people; they regularly top the so-called “wallet test”, in which wallets are dropped throughout a capital city to see how many are returned (in Helsinki, it is all of them, always). As for Sweden, its thriving mixed economy and consensus-driven politics have made it, to quote the Guardiannewspaper, “the most successful society the world has ever known”.Metalhead (Iceland) – The rugged, isolated beauty of Iceland sets the scene for this powerful family drama of loss and grief starring an award-winning performance by Thorbjorg Helga Thorgilsdottir who plays a 12-year-old girl dreaming of a metal rock future.
These are the published facts as reported – albeit with considerable irony – in Michael Booth’s recent book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: the truth about the Nordic miracle.
That isn’t the story told in Scandinavia’s cinema, however. Lars von Trier’smelodramas of mutilation, the gritty police series derived from so-called “Nordic noir” detective stories, realist dramas about perverse goings-on behind resolutely closed doors: the picture afforded by the cinema screen’s window is as dark as a December afternoon in Stockholm.
Perhaps happiness here is the satisfaction found in excellence – the Nordic countries punch way above their collective weight in cinema, thanks to all that high-grade education and public funding – but the fact that countries with notably low crime rates make so many films about murder remains a puzzle.The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared stars Robert Gustaffson.
Or does it? The Scandinavian economies have not escaped the force of global downturns or, for that matter, the incursions of neo-liberal thinking into public policy. Many of the films chosen for the inaugural Scandinavian Film Festival, which tours Australia this month, play out the anxieties felt within societies where the progress towards ever greater equality, once seen as inevitable, has been partially derailed. Nobody can count on cradle-to-grave security any more.
Even the comedies throw light on aspects of life that don’t feature in the brochures, such as the credit squeeze on home-buyers in Iceland’s tanked economy (Agust Gudmundsson’s Spooks and Spirits, which is actually a rather frothy story about a persistent ghost that owes a good deal, nicely acknowledged by the film itself, to Noel Coward’s classic Blithe Spirit) or Finland’s uncomfortable acquiescence to Soviet influence during the Cold War (Taru Makela’s August Fools,a sweet tale of September romance across the Iron Curtain featuring Aki Kaurismaki favourite Kati Outinen).
In Sweden, as the British journalist Andrew Brown observes in his excellent memoir Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared, the Social Democrats who took power in 1932 entirely remade “a poor, patriarchal and formal society” into “a rich, feminist and fiercely egalitarian one”. By the time they eventually lost power in 1976, equality was as much a universally accepted norm as the baroque stratification of classes had once been. Even so, Brown says, those old distinctions survived in the shadows, emerging into the light as recession hit in the ‘90s and a new Conservative government committed to shrinking the state.Easy Money
What that meant on the ground can be seen in Easy Money, a trilogy about organised crime that also addresses largely unspoken nervousness about immigration and growing disparities of wealth in Sweden. In the first of the series, directed by Daniel Espinosa, JW (Joel Kinnaman) is a clever economics student who lends his skills to a gang of drug-runners in order to buy entry to the magical, champagne flute-clinking world of privilege he glimpses among the richer students to whom he sells essays. All in vain, of course. “You’ll never have it,” says one of his faux friends, adding – in English, for emphasis – “Class!”
The gangs in Easy Money are run by Syrians, Serbs and Albanians: the emerging hero, if that is the right word, is a Mexican smuggler (Matias Varela)who hooks up in the second of the trilogy, Babak Najafi’s Hard to Kill, with a trafficked prostitute from somewhere in Eastern Europe. Sweden is the most culturally mixed of the Nordic countries, with 15 per cent of the population born elsewhere; otherwise, the region is notably homogeneous.
Everywhere, however, there is clear association between crime and immigrant populations, a fact that is difficult to discuss in societies officially built on cornerstones of equality and tolerance. Unofficially, racism thrives and, according to some observers, is distressingly acceptable.
In Finland, according to film director Dome Karukoski, racial attacks on immigrants are common but are rarely reported by the press for fear of sparking copycat crimes. His film Heart of a Lion, which centres on a member of one of the country’s small but growing number of neo-Nazi gangs, is a festival highlight. “As I see it, there is a high level of racism in the country,” he says. “People will openly shout at a person of a different colour on the tram; it happens all the time.”
Karukoski’s wife is Kashmiri.“We had our first baby two and a half months ago,” he says. “And when we were waiting for the birth, I was afraid of what colour he would be. That if he were the colour of my wife, he would have problems.”
This is in the best-educated country in the world, remember – but also, as Karukoski points out, in a country that took its first refugee in 1980 and has been so historically isolated that its population is regularly used for genetic studies. “Always it comes from fear, which easily translates to hatred,” he says.
Experiences of racism vary, of course. The Danish film Keeper of Lost Causes is a brisk, intelligent detective story in which a pair of mismatched cops investigates the disappearance of an attractive politician. Carl (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is an old-school policeman who drinks too much and is married to the job; his new offsider is cheerful, outgoing and obviously Arabic. In the books by Jussi Adler-Olsen on which it was based, says Kaas, his character’s hostility included knee-jerk racism; in his film, race is barely mentioned.
Fares Fares,who moved to Sweden from Lebanon with his family when he was 12 and learned Danish to play the policeman Assad, says he didn’t want to play his ethnicity as a problem. “Maybe it’s because I live in the city,” he says, “but I don’t feel that tension. Sweden is more of a multiculture than it is in Denmark, but when I went into the project I was very clear from the start that I was not interested in doing the cliche people expect to see. I wanted to be a person and it’s up to you to see his differences.”
There are many angles to cultural difference, however. In Iram Haq’s I Am Yours, the Norwegian-born daughter of a Pakistani family is harangued by her parents about the way she dresses, for drinking, for having boyfriends and, as a result, for losing her dependable Pakistani husband. The fact that some of their accusations stick – Mina (Amrita Acharia) is an irresponsible mother by any cultural yardstick – makes the tangle of her failures more poignant.
This isn’t some banal Islamophobic tract about an oppressed woman throwing off her hijab; Mina will always be a square peg. When she lurches at a potential bar-room conquest announcing ‘I’m not shy!’, she is crashing another cultural barrier; in Scandinavia, writes Michael Booth, “shyness is not perceived as a social handicap but more often as a quality demonstrating modesty, restraint, one’s willingness to listen to others”. None of these could count as Mina’s strong points.
It is this kind of nuance that is the strength of Nordic cinema. Films where nothing is straightforward or simple, where there is always doubt, where every beacon has its shadow, are never going to offer unblemished cheer or an inexorable progress towards a happy ending. There is something rotten in every state, even one as happy as Denmark, as rich as Norway or as well-run as Sweden.
Of course, you can pick up those things on the news. How they feel in life, however, is slippery and complicated. That felt experience is the stuff of cinema.
Five more films from the North
Hotell: Bereaved mother Erika (rising Swedish star Alicia Vikander), on the brink of destroying her marriage from grief, finds refuge in a self-help group and the pleasurable anonymity of business hotels; the resulting adventure is surprisingly effervescent.
The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared: Based on Jonas Jonasson’s hugely successful novel, this story of an elderly wanderer whose life has a been a Zelig-like series of entanglements with world events has been winsomely interpreted by director Felix Herngren, and can be read as a kind of comic metaphor for Swedish neutrality.
Metalhead: When Hera’s beloved elder brother dies, she remakes herself in his heavy metal image, taking up guitar and, as she grows older, a destructively nihilistic attitude. Icelandic Ragnar Bragason’sevocation of grief, small-town Icelandic life and the love of power chords has been a widespread festival hit.
Someone You Love: A grizzled, misanthropic musician – actually a dead ringer for Leonard Cohen, played by The Hobbit’s Mikael Persbrandt – returns from LA to record a new album and finds himself looking after his estranged grandson. The results are predictable, but Danish director Pernille Fischer Christensen brings a well-worn story of grief and redemption to new life.
Heart of a Lion: Dome Karukoski’s portrait of a Finnish neo-Nazi and his awkward relationship with a new girlfriend’s black son (Peter Franzen and Yusufa Sidibeh, both indisputably excellent) deserves another mention; its blend of violence and human comedy and the repellent subject matter have moved some critics but appalled others.
The Scandinavian Film Festival runs in Sydney from July 9-27 in Sydney at Palace Norton Street and Palace Verona. See www.scandinavianfilmfestival.com for details.