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17 Swedish film acts you should know beyond Bergman

Ingmar Bergman was a brilliant director and writer, granted. But Swedish film is more than just Bergman. Here, in alphabetical order, are 17 great Swedish film acts.

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First an Academy Award winner, now an action heroine. What’s next for Alicia Vikander?

Photo: CAP/MFS/Capital Pictures/TT

17 Swedish film acts you should know beyond Bergman

Ingmar Bergman was a brilliant director and writer, granted. But Swedish film is more than just Bergman. Here, in alphabetical order, are 17 great Swedish film acts.

#1 Alicia Vikander

Raider of tombs, royalty, artist, agent, humanoid robot – there doesn’t seem to be a role that actress Vikander can’t master. ‘I just think of these once-in-a-generation actresses who kind of explode onto the scene and what strikes me about her is I can’t see where her limits are,’ Matt Damon said after co-starring with her in Jason Bourne.

Vikander is already an Oscar winner, having bagged the best supporting actress statuette in 2016 for her portrayal of artist Gerda Wegener in The Danish Girl. And she looks set to build on her versatility – before headlining Tomb Raider, she did voice performances for two animated features.

She has also appeared in the female-fronted noir thriller The Earthquake Bird, and stars as one of four actresses portraying women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem in the biographical drama The Glorias. Production of Tomb Raider 2, with Vikander in the lead role, has been announced.

#2 Anna Odell

First, she stirred a cultural debate with an art school project where she faked a suicide attempt and was rushed to a psychiatric hospital. Then, four years later, Anna Odell turned around to charm Swedish critics and audiences with her directorial debut The Reunion (2013), which she also wrote and starred in.

The film is as complex as it sounds: An artist who isn’t invited to her class reunion makes a film about what could have happened had she gone, and then shows this film to her former classmates. It’s a disturbing but highly engaging film, which deservedly earned her international awards, including two at Venice. Her latest film, X&Y (2018) – which like The Reunion is also framed by a fictitious film project – is an examination of gender roles, starring herself alongside Swedish heartthrob Mikael Persbrandt.

#3 David Sandberg

David Sandberg was a man with a script and a hard time getting funding. So he spent his own money on making a trailer that he then used to build crowdfunding interest. And it worked. Enough money was raised to produce the much-hyped short martial arts comedy Kung Fury, nominated twice at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and scoring over 30 million views on YouTube.

The success has prompted Sandberg to re-use the lead character, played by himself, for a feature-length sequel that takes place in the same universe as the short. Kung Fury 2 – which is in post-production – will likely be an even bigger homage to the 1980s, with era icons Arnold Schwarzenegger and David Hasselhoff alongside Michael Fassbender.

#4 Family of actors

Stellan Skarsgård has been acting since the 1960s and has polished off both Hollywood blockbuster series like The Avengers and art-house films like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. More recently, he portrayed Boris Shcherbina in the critically acclaimed HBO mini-series Chernobyl (2019) – directed by Johan Renck, another Swede making his mark on US soil. In 2021, if the release goes according to plan, Stellan will be seen on the screen in Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited adaptation of sci-fi novel Dune. Stellan portays Baron Vladimir Harkonnen.

Alexander was first to rival daddy’s fame in the US with his portrayal of vampire Eric Northman in the series True Blood (2008-2014), and has since portrayed everything from anarchist group leader (The East, 2013) to Tarzan himself in The Legend of Tarzan (2016). This tall heartthrob recently appeared in The Kill Team (2019), a soldier drama set in Afghanistan. The film won him the IMDb STARmeter Award at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Then there’s Gustaf, who has appeared as quirky Floki in the series Vikings. Gustaf has opted to work steadily on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2021, he stars in the Swedish production The Emigrants, based on Wilhelm Moberg’s classic novel from 1949. He portrays Karl-Oskar, a farmer forced to emigrate with his family from Sweden to the United States because of poverty and famine in the 1850’s.

In 2017, brother Bill turned himself into the monster Pennywise in the adaptation of Stephen King’s novel It (2017) – by now one of the highest-grossing horror movies of all time.

Now we’re all excited to see what the youngest actor in the family, Valter, will counter with one day.

Two girls decide to film the real story of their declining hometown in Gabriela Pichler’s comedy Amateurs.

Photo: Tobias Henriksson

#5 Gabriela Pichler

Pichler has said that Swedish film is way too narrow, especially in portraying gender, ethnicity and social background. Her films sure do their part to broaden the perspective.

Her first feature, Eat Sleep Die (2012), takes a modern look at the Swedish working class with the lens particularly focused on second-generation Swedes. The film won both the Audience Award and the International Critics’ Week Award at the Venice Film Festival.

In 2018 Pichler released her second feature, Amateurs, which she co-wrote with Swedish author/playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri. An appropriately named feature as Pichler rarely works with established actors, yet the film won four Guldbagge Awards in Sweden, including for best actor and best actress.

#6 International documentaries

What Sweden’s most prominent documentary filmmakers perhaps share more than anything is a global perspective, whether it’s interviewing the widow of an overthrown Shah, as Nahid Persson did in The Queen and I (2008), or digging up a forgotten musician as Malik Bendjelloul did in his Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man (2012).

Kurdish-born Hogir Hirori represents another example of the trend with his harrowing documentaries about the Middle East troubles, most recently with The Deminer (2017). The film won him the Special Jury Award at Amsterdam’s IDFA, widely regarded as the world’s most prestigious documentary festival.

Another noteworthy documentarian with an international outlook is Göran Hugo Olsson, whose works cover themes such as African club music, 70s soul music, and colonial violence, and include the Sundance-winning The Black Power Mixtape 1967–1975 (2011) about the black power movement in the US.

In sci-fi series Altered Carbon, Joel Kinnaman portrays Takeshi Kovacs, a prisoner who returns to life in a new body. He aims to solve a murder in order to gain freedom.

In sci-fi series Altered Carbon, Joel Kinnaman portrays Takeshi Kovacs, a prisoner who returns to life in a new body. He aims to solve a murder in order to gain freedom.

#7 Joel Kinnaman

Joel Kinnaman has an edge compared with other Swedish actors who cross the Atlantic to make it in Hollywood: he speaks English fluently, and that’s also how he managed to avoid starting roles as quiet Scandinavians.

After making a name for himself in Sweden through the film trilogy Easy Money, it didn’t take long for him to become a household name also in the US, with lead roles in the reboot of RoboCop, the super-villain film Suicide Squad, and the sci-fi series Altered Carbon. In a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone, he says that ‘I love science fiction…[But] I think I have done enough science fiction for a while now.’

Kinnaman stars alongside Swedish actress Noomi Rapace in the upcoming The Secrets We Keep (2021), a film about a pair of Holocaust survivors starting a new life in New York after the war.

#8 Ludwig Göransson (yup, that’s how we Swedes spell his name)

At the 2019 Academy Awards, composer Ludwig Göransson became the first Swede to win an Oscar for best music, for his original score to the film Black Panther (2018). He has previously worked on other blockbusters such as Creed I & II (2015, 2018) and Venom (2018).

Göransson, who has a degree from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, started working on shorts and television shows while a student at University of Southern California. He had his first real break scoring popular sitcom Community (2009–2015), where he met actor–musician Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino.

In 2019 Göransson also won three Grammy Awards, one for Black Panther and two for his recording work with Glover (This is America).

In 2020, his music featured in espionage thriller Tenet – a $200 million bonanza directed by none other than Christopher Nolan.

Calling Ludwig Göransson one of the big boys is probably fair by now.

#9 Lukas Moodysson

He hasn’t made a film in years, but in 2019 wrote and directed the first Scandinavian original production for HBO Nordic, Gösta. The series, which he aimed to be ‘a mix between comedy and Dostoevsky’, tells the story of Gösta, a child psychologist who tries to please everyone – putting things mildly.

Not surprisingly, Gösta also brings up teenage issues. So has many of his previous films, from his breakthrough Show Me Love (1998) – awarded at Berlin and by the British Film Institute, among others – to his most recent feature We Are the Best! (2013), which prompted The Guardian to name him ‘cinema’s eternal teenager’.

He has also stirred up controversy through his films, most notably with Lilya 4-ever (2002), a mainly Russian-language film about forced youth prostitution. His closest flirt with mass appeal was perhaps his English-spoken feature Mammoth (2009), which starred Michelle Williams and Gael García Bernal.

Max von Sydow as Antonius Block (right) challenging Death (Bengt Ekerot) to a chess match in Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal.

Photo: Toppfoto/TT

#10 Malin Åkerman

A humble acting start as an avatar in a TV series whetted her appetite, and a few years later Malin Åkerman moved up into the big league with starring roles in comedies such as the Farrelly brothers’ The Heartbreak Kid (2007), and a superhero part in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009).

The Swedish-born actress, who moved to Canada at age two, has since made a name for herself through both television, including a star role in the hit series Billions, and movies, recently in the blockbuster Rampage (2018). She recently appeared in A Piece of My Heart (2019), a musical in Swedish – a double first considering she had neither done a musical nor acted in Swedish before.

#11 Max von Sydow

From Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) to the television phenomena Game of Thrones, Max von Sydow (1929–2020) enticed new audiences throughout his career. There was no character imaginable that he couldn’t lend his magic to, and almost no celebrated director he didn’t work with.

In The Seventh Seal, he immortalised the medieval knight who played chess with Death – arguably the single most famous and most parodied of all of Bergman’s film scenes. He went on to act alongside Charlton Heston (The Greatest Story Ever Told, 1965), Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist, 1973), Robert De Niro (Awakenings, 1990), Tom Cruise (Minority Report, 2002) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Shutter Island, 2010) – to name just a handful. And like any decent movie star, he also guested The Simpsons.

The Square, Ruben Östlund’s art-world satire about a museum curator’s downfall into professional and personal crisis, won the 2017 Palme d’Or.

Photo: Tobias Henriksson/TriArt

#12 Ruben Östlund

It takes a special kind of talent to make the audience giggle while brooding on the absurdity of human behaviour. Ruben Östlund manages to tip-toe between realism and the absurd, coaxing a laugh here and there as he goes. In his own words, all his films are about people trying to avoid losing face. Artists, suicide jumpers, fathers.

And for being such a ‘serious’ writer–director, he certainly has a handle on the parodic. With that handle, he wins over audiences and critics alike. His latest feature, The Square (2017), won the Palme D’Or in Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award. Not bad for a guy who started out directing skiing films. Östlund’s next film Triangle of Sadness, with Woody Harrelson in one of the roles, is expected for 2021.

#13 Sound

Swedish sound is sought-after in Hollywood, in part thanks to the work of Paul Ottosson and Per Hallberg.

For Ottosson, the big break came ten years into his career when he was asked to work as Sound Designer and Supervising Sound Editor on Spider-Man 2 (2004), for which he earned an Academy Award nomination. Per Hallberg, meanwhile, was active on big-budget productions as early the 1980s but rose to fame with his first Academy Award for Braveheart (1995).

Now both of them have three Oscars under their belt – and they even shared the stage at the 2013 Academy Award ceremony for two different films (!). Ottosson (Zero Dark Thirty) and Hallberg (Skyfall, jointly with Karen Baker Landers) were awarded the prize for Best Sound Editing.

#14 Swedish Crime

From the time of Ingmar Bergman until today, two settings have been dominant: dramas exploring the inner landscape of humanity – of which Bergman was the unrivalled master – and crime movies.

Swedish crime is not a new phenomenon set off by the success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy; rather, it started with the first screen adaptation about fictional police detective Martin Beck, Roseanna, in 1967. Of the over 40 films made about Beck, Man On the Roof (1976) by Bo Widerberg is widely regarded as the masterpiece.

Recent film and television series that have managed to avoid old clichés and bring the genre some well-needed new blood include the Swedish-Danish production The Bridge, created by Hans Rosenfeldt, and writer Henning Mankell’s Wallander films, which have lived through three rounds of film series adaptation, most recently starring Kenneth Branagh (2008–2016).

Tarik Saleh’s political thriller The Nile Hilton Incident won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2017.

Tarik Saleh’s political thriller The Nile Hilton Incident won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2017.

#15 Tarik Saleh

‘What motivates me is to create something I myself yearn to watch,’ Tarik Saleh has said in an interview. And what he wants to watch is apparently almost always daunting.

From co-directing two charged documentaries with Erik Gandini – one about the death of Che Guevara in 2001 and then Gitmo (2005) about interrogation methods at Guantánamo Bay – he moved on to create Metropia (2009), a dystopian computer-animated drama that landed him an award from Venice.

In 2017 he upped the ante again and made The Nile Hilton Incident, a politicised crime thriller about corruption made in a country that lacks freedom of speech – in a language he barely speaks. Besides providing him with that challenge, the film also earned him a Grand Jury Prize from Sundance.

In the pipes he has another political thriller, Charlie Johnson in the Flames, starring Liam Neeson. It seems Hollywood has opened its arms to yet another Swede.

#16 Tomas Alfredson

For years, family entertainment and comedy pretty much covered everything that Tomas Alfredson worked with, culminating with Four Shades of Brown (2004), which was as much a drama as it was a comedy.

Then he made a film about a bloodthirsty teenager in a Stockholm suburb, Let the Right One In (2008), and nothing would be the same. The film was showered with international awards, and Alfredson has since had quite an international career. He followed up by directing the spy thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), a film that won the BAFTA award for Best British Film and starred Gary Oldman, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy.

In 2017, he moved on with the crime mystery The Snowman, starring Michael Fassbender and Swede Rebecca Ferguson.

Alfredson’s upcoming new film Se upp för Jönssonligan is a reboot of the famous Swedish crime-comedy saga Jönssonligan (‘The Jönsson Gang’). Scheduled for release in 2020 – on Christmas Day!

#17 Trollywood

Sweden is also an attractive film location for international film. The most successful of them all is a town called Trollywood… No, wait, that should be Trollhättan. This southwest town with less than 60,000 inhabitants is home to Film i Väst, one of Europe’s most successful co-producers and Scandinavia’s preeminent film fund.

Over the past 25 years, more than 1,000 feature films, television dramas, shorts and documentaries have passed through their doors, and so have actors such as Catherine Deneuve (Dancer in the Dark, 2000), Nicole Kidman (Dogville, 2003), Willem Dafoe (Antichrist, 2009) and Matt Dillon (The House That Jack Built, 2018) – all of them through working with the great Danish director Lars Von Trier.

Trollhättan productions also frequently earn nominations and awards from Cannes, Berlin, Stockholm, and even its namesake, Hollywood.

Last updated: 11 June 2020

Rikard Lagerberg

Rikard Lagerberg is a writer living in the middle of Sweden.