15 things to know about Swedish film – in alphabetical order.
1. Alicia Vikander
Raider of tombs, royalty, artist, agent, humanoid robot – there doesn’t seem to be a role that actress Alicia Vikander can’t master.
She 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.
‘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.
More recently, Vikander starred as one of four actresses portraying women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem in the biographical drama The Glorias (2020). In 2021, Vikander can be seen as Lady / Essel in The Green Knight – a fantasy version of the medieval story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Also scheduled for release in 2021 is Netflix thriller Beckett, with Vikander and budding superstar John David Washington as a holidaying couple who get entangled in a violent conspiracy in Greece.
Production of Tomb Raider 2, with Vikander reprising her lead role, has been announced.
Gender equality-rating of film
A-rating is a campaign initiated in Sweden to raise awareness about representation in film, based on the Bechdel Wallace test, which rates films based on how gender equal they are.
To get A-rated ('A' for 'Approved Bechdel Wallace Test'), a movie must have at least two named female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.
2. Amanda Kernell
Kernell’s debut feature Sami Blood (2016) explores a dark side of Swedish history – the discrimination of the indigenous Sami population in the 1930s.
Both written and directed by Kernell, the film centres around the struggles of Elle-Marja, a 14-year-old Sami girl who is forced to learn the Swedish language at a boarding school, where she’s also subjected to racial–biological examinations. Kernell was named Best Young Director at the 2016 Venice Film Festival with the feature, which went on to be showered with awards both internationally and on home soil.
Kernell’s next feature Charter, again both written and directed by her, arrived in 2020. It’s the harrowing story about a mother who decides to abduct her two children and take them with her to the Canary Islands. This drama was Sweden’s submission for an Academy Award in the Best International Feature Film category in 2021.
3. 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 follow-up 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 Mikael Persbrandt, perhaps Sweden's most known leading man on home soil.
At the 2020 Gothenburg Film Festival, Odell unveiled The Gynecological Cinema Chair, a video art piece where she talked one-on-one with several Swedish men she perceives as men in power, about equality, power and empathy. As part of the work, these men had to decide whether to undergo a gynecological exam.
4. 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 Best Actor and Best Actress.
5. 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 documentaries about troubles in the Middle East, such as The Deminer (2017), which won him the Special Jury Award at Amsterdam’s IDFA – by many regarded as the world’s most prestigious documentary festival. At the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, Hirori won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award for his latest documentary, Sabaya.
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.
6. 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 said: ‘I love science fiction…[But] I think I have done enough science fiction for a while now.’
In 2020, Kinnaman co-starred with Swedish actress Noomi Rapace in The Secrets We Keep, a film about a pair of Holocaust survivors starting a new life in New York after the war.
7. Ludwig Göransson (yup, that’s how we Swedes spell his name)
At the 2019 Academy Awards, Ludwig Göransson became the first Swede to win an Oscar for best music, for his original score to the film Black Panther (2018). With the same music he also won a Grammy Award for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media.
He has also composed music to blockbusters Creed I & II (2015, 2018), Venom (2018) and – more recently – Tenet, an espionage thriller directed by Christopher Nolan (2020). The latter earned Göransson another Best Original Score nomination, at the 2021 Academy Awards.
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, and had his first real break making the music for the popular sitcom Community (2009–2015).
He doesn’t limit himself to film music and has produced artists such as Alicia Keys, Travis Scott, Chance the Rapper and, perhaps most notably, Childish Gambino. The collaborations with Childish Gambino resulted in two Grammys for Göransson in 2018.
8. 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 roles in comedies such as the Farrelly brothers’ The Heartbreak Kid (2007), and a superhero part in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009).
More recent films include blockbuster Rampage (2018), musical A Piece of My Heart (2019) – her first gig ever in Swedish – and comedy Chick Fight (2020). The Swedish-born actress, who moved to Canada at age two, has made a name for herself on television as well, with a star role in the hit series Billions.
9. 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 also 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.
10. 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 2017 release, The Square, won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award.
Now we eagerly await Triangle of Sadness, with Woody Harrelson in one of the roles, which has been wrapped and is set to be released in 2021.
11. 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 crime thriller set in Cairo. The film is in Arabic, a language Saleh barely speaks, but it nevertheless earned him a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.
Next up for Saleh as a director is another thriller set in Cairo – Boy from Heaven.
12. The Skarsgårds
Since forever, actor Stellan Skarsgård has jumped between American blockbusters and European art-house films. More recently, he portrayed Boris Shcherbina in the critically acclaimed HBO mini-series Chernobyl (2019), which earned him a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. Next in 2021: Denis Villeneuve’s long-awaited take on sci-fi saga Dune, where Skarsgård portrays main villain Vladimir Harkonnen.
Three of Skarsgård’s sons are making their mark too:
Alexander Skarsgård was first to rival his father’s fame in the US with his portrayal of vampire Eric Northman in the series True Blood (2008–2014). Since then, he’s portrayed everything from Tarzan in The Legend of Tarzan (2016) to Nicole Kidman’s abusive husband in Big Little Lies (2017–2019), the series that earned him a Golden Globe nomination. In 2022, Alexander headlines as the Nordic prince Amleth in medieval thriller The Northman, set in Iceland. On ‘second fiddles’? Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe and Björk.
Gustaf Skarsgård portrayed Floki in historical series Vikings (2013–2017). Up for Christmas premiere in Sweden in 2021 is The Emigrants, based on Wilhelm Moberg’s classic novel from 1949. Gustaf has the male lead as Karl-Oskar, a farmer who emigrates from Sweden with his family to the United States because of poverty and famine in the 1850s.
Bill Skarsgård got his break in 2017 as the evil clown Pennywise in Stephen King adaptation It – by now one of the highest-grossing horror movies of all time. He reprised his role in a sequel in 2019.
13. 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 heaped 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 latest film Se upp för Jönssonligan is a reboot of the famous Swedish crime-comedy saga Jönssonligan (‘The Jönsson Gang’). It was released for streaming on Christmas Day 2020.
Sweden is also an attractive film location for international film. Which brings us to 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 an important film fund in Scandinavia.
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.
15. Tuva Novotny
Few actors or actresses can match the versatility of Tuva Novotny. She moves comfortably between roles in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish, not to mention English in which she’s held her own alongside Julia Roberts (Eat, Pray, Love) and Natalie Portman (Annihilation). But Novotny will not limit herself to just acting and is now establishing herself as a director, with two feature films under her belt to date.
In 2019 she released her first film in Swedish, the feelgood drama Britt-Marie var här (‘Britt-Marie was here’), with Pernilla August in the lead role. The story of the recently divorced Britt-Marie, who at the age of 63 gets a fresh start in life by getting to coach a young football team, is based on a novel by Swedish best-selling author Fredrik Backman.
Novotny’s debut film Blind Spot (2018) is a more grave drama, dealing with mental illness, and is all shot in one take. It’s in Norwegian, and it’s written by none other than Novotny herself.