The spell that the Swedish-Danish silent horror classic “Haxan” cast on us was so powerful it made us curious about the current estate of Scandinavian movies. As luck would have it, they are having a renaissance in American theaters and streaming services. In recent years, attention-grabbing titles have picked accolades at film festivals and cult status in cinephile circles. Some have earned the ultimate back-handed compliment provided by Hollywood: an English-speaking remake.
We had not seen such an influx of Scandinavian cinema since the halcyon days of Ingmar Bergman when the Swedish master’s films were standards in the American cinephile cultural diet. Bear in mind he was a one-person juggernaut of Swedish cinema, representing a whole region. Now, we have Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and even Greenland breaking the ice that separates Europe from the United States. The funding dynamics of the European Union have fostered coproduction between these countries, strengthening the identity of Scandinavian cinema over a singular nation. Fire up your streamers and seek out the theatrical release.
Jacob Cedergren gives a tour-de-force performance in this claustrophobic, taut thriller about an emergency dispatch agent dealing in real-time with a kidnapping case. The movie falls gracefully in the tradition of what I like to call the “phoned-in” thriller. Not because the film is uninspired, but because pretty much everything happens over the phone. You are stuck with a single character, as the rest of the cast performs off camera, only using their voice - for another great example of the subgenre, check out the Tom Hardy vehicle “Locke” (Steven Knight, 2013) -. This dramatic format is perfect for low budget movies but puts unmeasurable demands on the lead actor, and Cedergren gives a career-making performance. The film is so good Netflix made a US-based version with Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role.
What do you get when you cross “Inglorious Basterds” with “John Wick”? Well, something similar to “Sisu.” Aatami (Jorma Tommila) is a grizzled old gold prospector who strikes it rich. His good luck seems to run out when traveling to the city to cash in on his newfound fortune; he crosses paths with a group of nazis. The power-mad villains steal the loot, but they are in for - as Walter Sobchack would say - a world of pain. It so happens that the man is a ruthless mercenary with nothing to lose and ready to kick ass. The title, “Sisu,” is a Finnish concept akin to stoic determination and resilience. Once you see how Aatami exerts his revenge, you’ll have no doubt it tracks. Make space for it in your action cult classic movies canon.
Of all the favorite Hollywood genres, the last one I would have expected European filmmakers to adopt was the disaster movie. You know, those special effects-laden extravaganzas where a bunch of handsome performers die one after another due to the lethal intervention of Mother Nature or some sneaky, greedy corporation. And here we have “The Wave,” a Norwegian movie so good the country’s cultural authorities submitted it as its candidate for Best Foreign Film. It failed to earn a nomination, but it was popular enough to inspire two sequels, “The Quake” (2018) and “The Burning Sea” (2022). Kristoffer Joner is a geologist caught in a scenic mountain town just as an avalanche provokes a monumental tsunami. How convenient!
Lukas Moodyson conquered America in the early Aughts with “Together” (2000), a magnificent adult comedy about the members of a multi-family commune in mid-seventies Sweden. Counter-culture social mores are experienced through the eyes of a woman running away from an abusive relationship with her two kids. This year, he surprises with an unexpected sequel, catching up with the characters 24 years later, in 1999. Only two stalwarts remain in the commune, and they desperately attempt to reach out to their former housemates to bring them back in their twilight years.
Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki is a master of understated, deadpan comedies populated by working-class characters. His latest work made a sterling run at film festivals and earned the Jury Prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Critics heralded it as one of the best movies of the year. Alma Poysti and Jussi Vatanen are a couple of lonely souls who meet at a karaoke bar and struggle to get back together again.
The spirit of indie horror movies thrives in Scandinavia. Director Hanna Bergholm premiered this psychological horror piece with creepy special effects at the Sundance Film Festival. A young gymnast (Siiri Solalinna) finds some respite from her overbearing influencer mother (Sophia Heikkila) when she finds a strange egg in the forest and decides to take care of it until it hatches. When it does, the balance of power changes, with bloody results. Two things become clear: Scandinavian horror is messed up, and influencers are primed to be the cinema’s go-to villains.
What is it with Scandinavians and motherhood? This claustrophobic drama with folk undertones follows a couple of childless frames in Iceland who stumble upon a chance at parenthood when a sheep in their flock births a lamb with some human features. Maria (Noomi Rapace) promptly takes it (her?) home, much to the distress of the biological mother. Can they take the lamb-child in and keep it (her)? Director Vladimir Johannsson received a Prize of Originality at the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival. He won the Best Motion Picture award at the Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival. Rapacce is better known for her breakout role as Lisbeth Salander in the Sweden-made film trilogy based on the wildly popular novels by Stieg Larson - which predate the David Fincher adaptation of “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” (2011) by a couple of years.
Swedish director Ruben Ostend took the world by storm with his social satires. He is one of a handful of filmmakers who have won the prestigious Palme d’Or twice - the group includes Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Hank, among others. He took the first Palme with “The Square” (2017) and the second one for “Triangle of Sadness.” The movie follows a cross-section of privileged Europeans on a luxury cruise bound for a shipwreck. A storm leaves them as castaways on a deserted island. The balance of power switches, with the swells unable to survive by themselves and the proletariat rising to the challenge - and taking over. He was nominated for Best Director and Original Screenplay at the 2023 Oscars.
Norway’s Joachim Trier got two Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film thanks to this prickly, bittersweet romantic comedy. The movie follows the romantic entangles of an aimless young woman, played with magnetic insouciance by Renate Reinsve. She charmed everyone on and off the screen, winning the Best Actress Award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival.
Cultural differences and prejudices come to the forefront in this stark period piece. In late XIX Century Scandinavia, a young Danish priest is sent to a remote hamlet in Iceland, tasked with overseeing the construction of a church. The landscape is spectacular, but nature is unforgiving. Father Lucas (Elliot Crosses Hove) falls out with his guide Ragnar (Ingvar Sigurdsson) and falls in love with a local girl, Anna (Vic Carmen Sonne). As the church nears completion, the entangled relationships reach a boiling point. Hlynur Pálmasson’s film earned Best Feature and Best Cinematography at the 2022 Chicago Film Festival. He was nominated in the Un Certain Regard sidebar at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
Lin Alluna’s revealing documentary follows Inuit lawyer and human rights activist Aaju Peter as she fights to vindicate the rights of Greenland indigenous peoples, confronting the policies of Canada and Denmark. These countries colonized her homeland in the past. The movie portrays the insidious effects of colonialism, bringing forward her own story. As a child, she was sent to Denmark and educated to assimilate the culture without ever belonging. The effects define her life in surprising and disturbing ways. The movie was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
A documentary that explores our complex relationship with nature itself and our contradictory behavior of caging what we fear may be lost.Stream Now
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