This article is available in the December issue of Cinema Scandinavia. In this magazine, we focus on contemporary concepts of ‘identity’ in film, television, and documentary.
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A Review of the Swedish Documentary ‘Citizen Schein’
The documentary film Citizen Schein, directed by Maud Nycander Jannike Åhlund, Kersti Grunditz Brennan, deals with a man’s life as dramatic as that of the newspaper tycoon who missed Rosebud at his last moment. What did Harry Schein, the protagonist of this real story, think of when he put an end to his eighty-one-year life in 2006? Did his soul travel to his mother country, Austria, from Sweden, where he had long held sway as a businessman and a cultural elite? Combining the archival material and the interviews with the people near him, the film illuminates both the public and private life of Harry Schein, “the man who never loses”.
Born in a rich, bourgeois, Jewish family in Wien in 1924, Harry Schein in his early teens saw the wave of Nazism in Austria. In 1939, he left the country alone and arrived in Småland, Sweden, where he began his new life as a refugee at a farmhouse. It didn’t take so long until he moved to the capital to find a more suitable way of living for a young, ambitious, and intellectual man with political and cultural interests. While working as an engineer, he opened his career, at the age of only twenty-two, as a cultural journalist in Hollywood, which he visited for his first business trip. What Harry did after that was just like a success story from a Hollywood film. He became a millionaire with water purification business, got married with “the most beautiful woman in Sweden”, actress Ingrid Thulin, became the best friend to the future prime minister, Olof Palme, and the country’s most renowned film director, Ingmar Bergman, and grounded the Swedish Film Institute to promote quality Swedish films in the world. The star-studded short film as a present for his 50th birthday simply epitomises how he was enthroned in the contemporary Swedish culture.
However, Citizen Schein also proves that no hero can escape hardships. From the late 60s to 70s, Schein was harshly criticised by young Swedish film directors who regarded Scheinism as embodiment of elitist and bourgeois values. At the same time, his aversion to the beloved Swedish film series Åsa-Nisse made the general public outraged. (Beginning with the first film in 1949, more than 20 titles with thcharacter were produced and gained much popularity among the Swedish audience.) The film contextualises these events by calmly reminding us of Schein’s foreign origin and his tragic background as a victim of anti-Semitism. In so doing, the audience of the film can get a glimpse of the history of modern Swedish politics. 1976 saw the fall of the Social Democrats and the rise of the first non-Socialist government since forty years ago, while Harry was driven away from his own “empire”, the Swedish Film Institute. Though, it was not the end of the story. The comeback of Social Democrats with Olof Palme as a flag-bearer put Harry back on the map, even though he could not save his best friend from the tragic murder in 1986. Schein’s tight connection with the political power is convincing enough to realise how some might have experienced him as a controlling tyrant over the Swedish culture. However, the friendship with Palme betrays such an expectation that Schein simply exploited the former’s influence as a politician. The memories shared by the nearest people, as Palme’s son or Schein’s friends, or by his own words from the memoir tell us that it might be so that a Social Democrat from Austria happened to find a real personal bond between another Social Democrat from Sweden. In this sense, the different character of the relation between Schein’s another best friend, Ingmar Bergman, might appear intriguing especially for film lovers. However, as the director’s son is explaining, Bergman suddenly cut off the connection to Schein is told. Nonetheless, the film does not include the archival footage where the director himself spoke of Schein. This stimulates, if not by intention, the audience’s curiosity about something a bit fishy behind all those masterpieces by the great auteur who won the first Guldbagge (the largest Swedish film award) for the best director in support by Schein, the very grounder of the prize.
Having said that, it should be mentioned that Citizen Schein, as a non-fiction film created by the three talented women with rich experience within documentary film-making and journalism, skilfully keeps a good balance between the entertaining tone and the objectively informative one. While neatly overviewing Schein’s achievements as a public figure, the film depicts his loneliness in his private life without dramatising or sentimentalising it too much. Still, the comments on the complicated relationship between Schein and his wife Ingrid Thulin made by Liv Ullman, the Norwegian muse of Bergman, are quite touching and beautiful, and the credit goes to the three directors who successfully had them in the film: “They shared the state of estrangement. Perhaps they saw in the other something that was precisely what they longed for… They were two afraid people who had found and needed each other but who could not always express that.”
Thus, Citizen Schein is a film that is well-structured, and offers a good view on the social, political and cultural climate in Sweden from the 40s to 90s, as well as the interesting story of one individual man who is appealing in many ways. It can be enjoyed by anyone, but, after all, it will be enjoyed the most by audiences who love the country’s rich film industry during the 60s.
Featured photo by Åke Borglund/TT