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17 Swedish film acts you should know beyond Bergman

First an Academy Award winner, now an action heroine. What's next for Alicia Vikander? Photo: CAP/MFS/Capital Pictures/TT

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 of today.

#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, and her next challenge is the female-fronted noir thriller The Earthquake Bird.

#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 next film, X&Y – 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 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

There’s no more successful Swedish family in film than the Skarsgårds. Father Stellan and four of his sons have laid countless roles behind them and have collectively earned awards from Berlin, the Golden Globe, the Emmy, the Screen Actors Guild, European Film and so on. 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. 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). Then Gustaf appeared as quirky Floki in the HBO series Vikings. It wouldn’t end there, because in 2017, Bill turned himself into the monster Pennywise in the adaptation of Stephen King’s novel It (2017). 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. This year, Pichler is finally back with feature number two, Amateurs, which she co-wrote with Swedish author/playwright Jonas Hassen Khemiri. An appropriately named feature as Pichler rarely works with established actors.

#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 to 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. I think I might go play someone with a terminal disease, or something.’

#8 Lisa Langseth

Langseth started out in theatre, both as director and writer, and decided early on to work actively on improving women’s roles, which she found flat and stereotypical. She’s brought that approach into film as well, with all three of her features to date putting female characters into main focus. Her debut drama Pure (2010) gave Alicia Vikander her big break in Sweden, and the pair worked again in Hotell (2013). Langesth’s latest, Euphoria (2017 ), is her first English-speaking film and it earned her a nomination at the Toronto Film Festival. The international project, once again with Vikander in one of the roles, also starred Eva Green and Charlotte Rampling.

#9 Lukas Moodysson

He hasn’t made a film in years, but judging by his past, he will deliver once again as he writes and directs the first Scandinavian original production for HBO Nordic, Gösta. His goal is for the series to be ‘a mix between comedy and Dostoevsky’. Not surprisingly, the series will bring up teenage issues, as 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 (yup, that’s how Swedes spell her name)

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, most recently in the blockbuster Rampage (2018). New challenges continue to entice her onwards, and she recently signed up for a musical in Swedish, a double first considering she has neither done a musical nor acted in Swedish before. The Swedish premiere is scheduled for Christmas 2019.

#11 Max von Sydow

The esteemed film critic Terrence Rafferty has called Max von Sydow the greatest actor alive. From Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) to the television phenomena Game of Thrones, von Sydow has continually enticed new audiences. There’s no character imaginable that he couldn’t lend his magic to, and almost no celebrated director he hasn’t worked with. In The Seventh Seal, he immortalized the medieval knight who played chess with Death – arguably the single most famous and most parodied of all of Bergman’s film scenes. Since then he has acted 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’s 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.

#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 Wideberg 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, this time 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. But in interviews, Alfredsson admits that his dream project of several years, a new take on the classic Astrid Lindgren family adventure story The Brothers Lionheart, is all but forgotten and might bring him back to family entertainment.

#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.

Rikard Lagerberg

Rikard Lagerberg is a Swedish writer, editor and translator who has spent most of his adult life in the US and Ireland. Returning to Sweden he discovered a new curiosity for his native country.