Underdog is a film that critically discusses the current tensions between Swedes heading to Norway for work. This is Swedish director Ronnie Sandahl’s critically acclaimed debut film, which has the English title ‘Underdog’ but the Swedish title ‘Svenskjävel’ roughly translates to ‘Swedish bastard’. Sandahl, who writes a column for the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet, says he first noticed a shifting power balance shortly after the 2008 financial crash, when many young people in his town were struggling to find work.*
In the film, a young Swedish immigrant named Dino (Bianca Kronlöf ) begins a steamy affair with her Norwegian employer Steffen (Henrik Rafaelsen), a retired tennis star who now runs a busy sushi restaurant. While at first he is reluctant to employ her, she forms a relationship with Steffen’s teenage daughter Ida (Mona Kristiansen), a shy misfit quietly tormended by body and food issues, and seizes the chance to volunteer as a babysitter. With the wife semi-estranged, sexual attention between Dino and Steffen forms, raising eyebrows among Steffen’s friends. Ida also finds Dino an object of fascination, adopting her as both feminine and feminist role model. While the romance does not last, it unravels in a way that makes a positive statement about class and gender empowerment.
My life’s so much better now that I get my morning coffee served by a Swede. My lunch is served by a Swede. And when I take a shit, a Swede cleans it up after me. It’s karma.
The largest theme in the film is obviously the relations between Norway and Sweden, especially after Norway struck rich with oil. When the Swedish economy hit a slump in the early 1990s, Norway’s was still growing, continuing to enjoy the benefits of the discovery of North Sea oil in 1969. Instead of spending the sudden riches, Norway invested profits into a giant wealth fund now worth 6,900bn krone (£590bn), which effectively turns each of its 5m citizens into millionaires. The film is full of reflections to this rivalry, such as Dino’s comment at a Norwegian dinner party: “We think of you as a retarded cousin who won the lottery” or one of Steffen’s guests deciding that it was Sweden’s comeuppance for remaining neutral while the Nazi’s destroyed Norway: “My life’s so much better now that I get my morning coffee served by a Swede. My lunch is served by a Swede. And when I take a shit, a Swede cleans it up after me. It’s karma.”
Touching on Scandinavia’s self-image as a classless paradise, plus rising tensions about immigration, Underdog is a great human drama formed by timely social and political issues. While at times the message can be too pretentious and forced on the audience, overall it raises and discusses an underlying issue that we seldom see mentioned anywhere. Furthermore, I believe the film is strongest when it is not discussing the Norway-Sweden tension; rather I find the subplot with Ida to be the most endearing.
Underdog has been critically acclaimed in Sweden and Norway, receiving the highest average review rating locally since Force Majeure. The film won the top prize for Director in Chicago and won the Critics prize in Zurich. Underdog is currently appearing at film festivals globally.
- Production companies: Anagram Produktion, Cinenic Film
- Cast: Bianca Kronlöf, Henrik Rafaelsen, Mona Kristiansen
- Director, screenwriter: Ronnie Sandahl
- Producers: Annika Hellström, Gudny Hummelvoll, Martin Persson
- Cinematographer: Ita Zbroniec-Zajt
- Editor: Åsa Mossberg
- Music: Stein Berge Svendsen, Gunn Tove
- Sales company: The Yellow Affair