Swedish icons 20: Julia Caesar

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.

Swedish icons 13: Max von Sydow

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.

Sweden’s nazi sympathiser, secret agent, communist spy, musical diva!!

ZarahLeander

Long before Swedish pop sensation Zara Larsson became famous, she had another famous namesake from Sweden.

Also a singer, Zarah Leander was her name, and she remains an enigma to this day. Active during the war years, was she a source of pride or a source of shame for Sweden? Nobody really knows.

Zarah Leander was born in the town of Karlstad in 1907 by the name of Sara Stina Hedberg. She began her singing career in the late 1920s, and by the mid-1930s she was hugely successful in Scandinavia and in Europe. In particular, the Germans loved her and in 1936, she was contracted to work for the German Film Foundation for whom she made many movies. As her employer was subordinate to the Third Reich, many people viewed her films and her music as nazi propoganda, although Zarah Leander herself never took a public political stance or officially joined the Nazi party. She performed live at many concerts, even after Nazi Germany had invaded Denmark and Norway. She profited from being the biggest, and most well-paid, star in Germany at that time.

After her home in Berlin was bombed towards the end of the war years, she returned to Sweden under much criticism. She was shunned by the artistic community but eventually managed to resume her career. She died in 1981 in Stockholm at the age of 74.

So was Zarah Leander a source of shame for Sweden? Was she a cold-blooded, fame-seeking, profiteering, Nazi sympathiser? On paper it would seem so. But who really knows?

Or was she a source of pride? Was she, as she herself claimed, just an entertainer working to please an enthusiastic audience in a difficult time?

Or was she in fact a spy? Soviet intelligence officer Pavel Sudoplatov claimed, just before his death, that Leander had been a Soviet agent with the codename “Rose-Marie”. He claimed she was a secret member of the Swedish Communist Party and conducted the work for political reasons.

Zarah Leander talked openly about her past and consistently denied that she had any sympathies with the Nazi or the Communist parties or that she worked as a spy for any country. But was she telling the truth? The mystery of Zarah Leander followed her to the grave and today the only legacy we have is her music and her films.

Zarah Leander, 1907-1981. Nazi sympathiser? Communist spy? Secret Agent? Musical Diva!!!

Great Swedish Women -Part 5 – The Legend 

Since March 8th was International Women’s Day, I  am writing a series on Great Swedish Women, past and present: women with strength and passion, women who create change. For seven days, I am writing about these women, one per day. I hope you want to join me in celebrating them.

Part 5 – the vengeful Viking Blenda.

In the county of Småland in Southern Sweden, there is a legend about a brave Viking woman named Blenda. According to legend, the menfolk of Småland were at war in Norway, leaving the women and children alone and defenceless. The Danes learned of this and chose this moment to invade and attacked the region.  Blenda was a woman of noble descent and she decided to rally all the womenfolk in the hundreds of Konga, Albo, Kinnevald, Norrvidinge and Uppvidinge. The women armies assembled on the Brávellir, which according to Smålandish tradition is located in Värend.

The women approached the Danes and told them how much they were impressed with Danish men. They invited the men to a banquet where they were provided with food and drink. After a long evening, the Danish warriors fell asleep and the women killed every single one of them with axes and staffs.

When the king returned, he bestowed new rights on the women. They acquired equal inheritance with their brothers and husbands, the right always to wear a belt around their waists as a sign of eternal vigilance and the right to beat the drum at weddings amd wear armour.

There have been various disputes about the validity of this legend, if and when it happened. One theory is that it happened around the year 500. At this time, female soldiers existed in Sweden. Called Shieldmaidens, three hundred are known to have fought during the great Battle of Bråvalla in 750.

Blenda is perhaps the first known woman in a long line of strong Swedish women who defend themselves from aggressors and contribute to better equal rights between the sexes.