During the mid to late 1800’s, a staggering 1.2 million Swedes emigrated to the USA for a better life. Based on the 1950’s novel series by Vilhelm Moberg, the 2021 film ‘The Emigrants’ depicts this period.
It is hardly surprising then that Swedish DNA is mixed into the diverse genetic melting pot in America.
With this in mind, there are many stars who are proud of their Swedish heritage. Some, you could guess their ancestry by their names. Others not so much. But all of them certainly inherited the beautiful Swedish gene. Here are ten of them:
Julia Roberts – het great grandmother was born in the county of Värmland
Matt Damon – his grandmother was Swedish
Kirsten Dunst – has several generations of Swedes on her mother’s side
James Franco – has Swedish roots on his father’s side
Jake Gyllenhaal – his great grandfather was Swedish. He is also a part of a Swedish noble family.
Emma Stone – had a Swedish grandfather
Michelle Pfeiffer – her great grandmother emigrated from county Småland
Uma Thurman – her grandmother was Swedish, from county Skåne. She also speaks some Swedish.
Yesterday, a new book was published by author Rickard Gramfors. The book, entitled ‘Do you believe in Swedish sin?’ looks at Swedish exploitation and cult films. The book includes ‘350 outrageous, sexy, violent, fun movie posters from the Fifties to the early Eighties. Swedish films of all kinds, whacky co-productions, exported Swedish babes, and international films using the words Sweden, Schweden, Svezia, Suède as selling points; if it was “Swedish” – it was sexy!’
I have put my order in.
This international concept of Swedish sin still lingers around today, and influences some foreigners’ perception of Swedish women. Where does it come from?
Maybe unsurprisingly, it originates in the prudish conservative USA. In a speech given by US president Dwight D Eisenhower in 1960, he claimed that “sin, nudity, drunkenness and suicide” in Sweden were due to welfare policy excess. This was a rhetorical way to attack Swedish people and politics at the same time. However, the world quickly forgot the link to welfare policy – but the sin reference remains.
He was basing his opinion on the scandalous Swedish fifties art films like ”One Summer of Happiness” and ”Summer with Monika”, birth-control pills, sexual education publications and condom vending machines. Swedish nudity was prevalent in most of the films throughout the 60’s and 70’s thus cementing the idea of Swedish sin.
In 1971, the Swedish sex education film ‘Language of Love’ was released in London to massive protest. One anti-film sign read ‘Sweden – more pornography, more suicides, more alcoholism and more gonorrhoea every year’.
Place on top of these scandalous films, young women who were self-determined, educated, liberated and sexually-active, and the stereotype becomes fixed.
The interesting thing about stereotypes is that they remain for a very long time. This is why the notion still exists today even though Swedish film today is far from exploitative.
Additionally, stereotypes often have little to do with reality. The reality was of course something else in Sweden at that time. The country was not riddled with promiscuous, drunken people. For example, Sweden had the world’s most restrictive alcohol laws and was struggling with the oppressive inheritance of Lutheran thinking.
So, did Swedish ‘sin’ ever actually exist? Or was it a politically motivated attack aimed at undermining social democracy? Or was it just a marketing trick to sell films and magazines?
The legendary actress Julia Caesar was born in 1885 in Stockholm. And yes, that was her real name – Julia Maria Vilhelmina Caesar.
From a young age, she became typecast in the roles she was given, and frequently played the opinionated but loveable, old woman – often in comedies. They could be a mother in law, a cook, a nosy neighbour or a housekeeper – but they were always a battleax who were outspoken and candid. They weren’t always two dimensional characters, however. In many cases, she depicted strong feminist views and railed against the patriarchy.
You might not have heard of Julia Caesar, but she was a very popular and prolific actor with a career that spanned over 60 decades. In fact, she holds the record for the Swedish actress who has appeared in most films – 136 of them. In addition to this, she played many classic theatre roles and performed in reviews and cabaret.
Julia Caesar was enormously loved and had a huge following – she was an institution in Swedish theatre and film. In the Stockholm park area of Tanto, where she frequently performed in the outdoor theatre, there is a street named after her.
She died in Stockholm in 1971, aged 86. Privately, she lived a discrete life together with opera singer Frida Falk. Although Frida died 23 years prior to Julia Caesar, they are buried together in Caesar’s family grave in the cemetery of Bromma Church.
What words can be used to describe Swedish acting legend Max von Sydow’s career? Extensive? Impressive? Formidable? Whatever the word, there is no doubt that this man, whose career spanned 70 years, is a true Swedish icon.
In 1929, Carl Adolph von Sydow was born into an academic family in the university town of Lund. In early adult life, he moved to Stockholm to start studying at Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater in Stockholm. Here, he also took the name Max as people kept spelling his name incorrectly.
Max von Sydow’s career spanned theater, television, many genres and over 150 movies. To some he is known as an Ingemar Bergman actor, and especially known for playing chess with death in The Seventh Seal. In total, he starred in 11 Bergman films.
To others he’s known as the actor who played Karl Oskar in the epic Swedish film series The Emigrants about poor Swedes who emigrate from Småland, Sweden, to Minnesota in the mid-19th century.
To mention some other films, he starred in classics such as The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Exorcist, Flash Gordon, Pelle the Conqueror, Dune, Hannah and Her Sisters, The Quiller Memorandum, Minority Report, Never Say Never Again, Shutter Island, Robin Hood and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Younger generations might remember him as the enigmatic Three-Eyed Raven in HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Max von Sydow had a enormously successful international career. But it wasn’t always destined to be so. Early on, he was satisfied with his life in Sweden, and consequently turned down iconic roles such as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music and Dr No.
Towards the end of his life, Max von Sydow became a French citizen and had to relinquish his Swedish passport. He died in Provence and was survived by his wife and four sons.
Zarah Leander was a legendary Swedish singer and actor born in 1907 in the town of Karlstad. She was enormously famous in her day, a huge star and a scandalous provocateur. With her robust, characteristic deep voice, Zarah Leander was one of highest selling international recording artists prior to 1945.
Although a famous and popular film and cabaret artist in Sweden, she made her fortune in wartime Germany. Between 1936 and 1943, she was contracted by the German Universum Film corporation and starred in ten highly successful films. For the Germans of that time, she was a mega star – a box office sensation. She has been strongly criticized for participating in Nazi propaganda, although she vehemently denied that she supported the party.
It seems like she walked a hazardous line between entertainment and politics; she didn’t socialize with German officers, nor take part in Nazi party functions. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called her an ‘enemy of the state’, and once upon meeting her said ‘Zarah? Isn’t that a Jewish name?’ Her iconic response was ‘What about Joseph?!’
In 1943, she retreated to Sweden and died in 1981 of a stroke. Throughout her time in Sweden, she was considered highly controversial, partly because of her association with Nazi Germany and partly because of accusations against her for being a Soviet Agent operating under the name ‘Stina-Rose’. Naturally, she went to her grave denying all allegations.
After her return to Sweden, she eventually made a come back. She released hit songs, and performed in successful films and cabarets and, once again, reclaimed her mantle of prima donna supreme.
Zarah Leander was a fascinating woman, a legendary artist and a true diva. She is buried just outside the town of Norrköping, opposite the Zarah Leander Museum.
The signature song she is most associated with in Sweden is called ‘Vill ni se en stjärna, se på mig’ – ’If you want to see a star, look at me’. Many impersonators and drag queens have mimicked her melodramatic performance in this song. You can listen to it below.
One of the most influential film directors of all time, Ingmar Bergman was born in 1918 in Uppsala, Sweden. He directed over 60 films, such as the classics ‘The Seventh Seal’, ‘Persona’, ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, ‘Scenes from a Marriage’ and ‘Wild Strawberries’.
His films were often experimental and very dark, melancholy and miserable and many of them required patience to watch. He was nominated numerous times for an Oscar and won three times for Best Foreign Language film – ‘The Virgin Spring’, ‘Through a Glass Darkly’ and ‘Fanny and Alexander’.
He developed a legendary company of actors whom he frequently worked with, including great names such as Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann and Harriet Andersson.
Ingmar Bergman lived a stormy life and was notoriously hard to work and live with. He was frequently accused of being overbearing and misogynistic. Married five times, and with many other romantic connections, he fathered nine children, one of whom is the prominent Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann.
Bergman died in 2007 aged 89 in his home on the small Baltic island of Fårö, where he is buried. On Fårö today, there is a cultural center called the Bergman Center that focuses on his life and artistic achievements. Every year, they host the five-day long Bergman Week filled with film, discussions, drama, music and lectures.
I can’t write a series about Swedish icons without mentioning Greta Garbo, perhaps the most famous Swedish film star of all time.
Born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm in 1905, she first rose to international fame in the silent movies of the 1920’s. In 1930, she made a successful transition into talkies, in the film Anna Christie, which was marketed under the slogan ‘Garbo talks!’ Her first line was an iconic ‘Give me a whisky, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy baby’, which was delivered with a deliberately heavy and husky Swedish accent.
She appeared in classic films such as ‘Queen Christina’, ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘Mata Hari’ and ‘Camille’. Noted for her flawless beauty, cool persona and melancholy, she retired from the screen aged 35. For the rest of her life, she lived as a recluse, which passingly echoed her most famous film line from Grand Hotel – ‘I want to be alone’.
Garbo died in 1990, and her ashes are interred in Stockholm. In the Stockholm neighbourhood of Södermalm, there is a square called Greta Garbo Square, not far from where she was born.
Swede Anita Ekberg, from Malmö in Skåne, played an iconic leading role in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1961). She is notably remembered for the scene where she bathed in la Fontana di Trevi. Born in 1931, she won the Miss Sweden title at the age of 20, and then went to USA to compete in Miss Universe. Although she didn’t win, she worked as a model and a hostess and got small film roles.
She was famously opinionated and refused to change her surname saying that if she became famous everybody would learn her name, and if she didn’t it wouldn’t matter.
Ekberg appeared in many films, but interestingly never a Swedish one. She retired from acting in 2002 and died in 2015 at age 83 in Rome.
Marvel Comics recently released an advert for an upcoming event with the slogan ‘Knull is coming!’ The headline has caused raised eyebrows, and curiosity, in Sweden.
Knull is apparently a super villain in the Marvel universe. Knull is an all-powerful creature that kills other gods. He is immortal and self-healing. His name should imbue fear and dread. The problem is in Sweden, it is more likely to inspire ridicule.
The thing is that the word ‘Knull’ in Swedish means ‘fuck’.
So, ‘Knull is coming’ has a whole different meaning to the Swedes than the rest of the world.
I wonder who’s going to tell Marvel? Or maybe they already know – and don’t give a knull.
I remember the first Swedish film I ever saw. I was living in London, and there was a film festival in a cinema on the South Bank. I’d never heard of the film, but had heard of the author who’s book it was based on – Astrid Lindgren. The film was called ‘Ronja, the robber’s daughter’, and it was a dramatic romp set in the Viking era. I loved it.
Since then, I’ve seen many Swedish films, of varying quality, from Christmas romcoms to Bergman. The Swedish film industry is alive and kicking, and many films are released in the Swedish language every year. Sweden even has its own center of film-making lovingly nick-named Trollywood.
If you’re self-isolated at home and you’d like to watch a Swedish film, here are some that I think are good, in no particular order:
1. ‘Monica Z’ – drama about Swedish jazz legend Monica Zetterlund, played amazingly by singer Edda Magnusson.
2. ‘Border’ (Gräns) – dark drama about a border guard who can smell fear
3. ‘As it is in heaven’ (Så som i himmelen) – drama about a famous conductor who retires to a remote village and takes over the local choir. Drama ensues.
4. ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ (Män som hatar kvinnor) – a action thriller about legendary anti-hero Lisbet Salander and a twisted murder mystery plot. Starring Noomi Rapace.
5. ‘House of Angels’ (Änglagård) – a comedy drama about a modern young woman who inherits a house from her mother in a small rural village. But she is not welcomed by all.
6. ‘The Dalecarlians’ (Masjävlarna) – a comedy drama about a woman who visits her hometown to celebrate her father’s 70th birthday. An urban-rural clash takes centre stage. Starring ‘The Bridge’s Sofia Helin.
7. ‘Fanny and Alexander’ – a long Bergman film about a wealthy family in Uppsala. A classic Christmas saga and probably the only Bergman film that everybody likes.
8. ‘Let the Right One in’ (Låt den rätte kommer in) – a drama horror film about a vampire child living in a dark Stockholm suburb
9. ’My life as a dog’ (Mitt liv som hund) – a drama about a young boy and his odd way of dealing with life’s set backs.
10. ’The Hunters’ (Jägarna) – a drama thriller about a wicked group of hunters in the north of Sweden.
11. ’A man called Ove’ (en man som heter Ove) – a drama comedy based on the best-selling novel about the adventures of a grumpy, old man in a Swedish small town.
12. ‘Show me Love’ (Fucking Åmål) – a drama comedy love story between two young girls in the conservative town of Åmål.