Eternal Sunshine Of The Swedish Kind

This is the last of the “revisiting” posts I had planned. When I started this project, I hoped that the pandemic would be in the rearview mirror by the time I finished. Ah, how naive I was back then….in March. It’s fitting that I saved Sweden for last, because the lesson I learned there is more relevant than ever…….

I think I secured my invitation to Sweden through my ability to name multiple Swedish pop stars. Sitting in a bar in Scotland, talking to a Swedish guy, I rattled off my favorite songs by Robyn, Roxette, Ace of Base, and, of course, ABBA. He had started the conversation with Avicii, but I soon discovered that he was a huge Roxette fan as well. From there we moved on to Ingmar Bergman films. I had only seen The Seventh Seal at that point, but, I mean, it’s one of those iconic films that you don’t forget. It turned out that my new Swedish friend lived next door to Filmstaden, often referred to as “Sweden’s Hollywood,” where Bergman created many of his films. And with that, the invitation was offered and accepted.

I followed through with a visit two months later, arriving in Stockholm on a beautiful July morning. The country was experiencing a summer heatwave, but I found the weather to be perfect, a welcome respite from the typical sticky, humid summer in D.C. One of our first stops was a stroll through Filmstaden. The studio was closed to tours for its summer break, but we were able to download an audio guide and explore the grounds on our own.

It was a fortuitous coincidence that the year of my visit was also the commemoration of Bergman’s one-hundred birthday (he died in 2007). Shortly after I returned home, I caught the latest Ethan Hawke movie at an indie theater in Baltimore and saw that they were having a Bergman retrospective. I spent the next few months back at that theater, watching Bergman films. I appreciated that his films always left me with a lot to digest, and I frequently found myself at the coffee shop next door, contemplating themes and symbols while sipping a latte, too lost in thought to drive straight home after the movie.

But while I enjoyed Bergman’s films, I could never recognize the Sweden I had experienced. Bergman’s Sweden was brooding, whereas mine was bright. Bergman’s Sweden had shadows, whereas mine had sunshine. Bergman had abstraction. I had ABBA. In fact, my visit to the ABBA Museum seemed perfectly in tune (pun intended) with the tone of my trip. It was like I was having my own Mamma Mia! experience.

I considered that I was seeing a summertime version of Sweden and imagined that it must be very different in the winter. Perhaps this could explain the fatalistic themes in Bergman’s work. Or perhaps it was the circumstances of his life and generation. But the enduring popularity of modern Scandi noir shows and cinema had me wondering if the Sweden I experienced was just an illusion. Yet if it was, then how to explain the kanelbullar? Could a country that produces such delicious cinnamon rolls really be that fatalistic? I mean, kanelbullar is something to look forward to every day. And what about the colorful buildings in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s “Old Town”? They cheerfully contradict any noir characteristic. I was downright jealous of the metro stations in Stockholm. They are literally pieces of art, visually stimulating and expressive. How could I reconcile all this and more with the Sweden I saw on the screen?

I was sure my experience was valid when, once again, Sweden was ranked as one of the “happiest countries.” The top tier countries are always primarily Scandinavian. Thinking back to the day I spent on a ferry ride along the archipelago, I was convinced there was no nicer place on Earth. No wonder it’s one of the “happiest countries,” I thought. So where does the noir come from?

Noir, of course, means black. These “happiest countries” experience long periods of darkness each winter. While I can’t pretend to know the Swedish character after one trip, perhaps that explains where the noir originates. So is it possible, then, that the happiness also come from the darkness? Because they go through periods of darkness, they know how to appreciate the periods of lightness? Conversely, does the fatalism come from knowing that the darkness will always return?

Mamma Mia, here I go again. I suppose that I can like Bergman and I can like ABBA and neither necessarily contradicts the other. While I was unable to recognize my Swedish experience in Bergman’s films, The Seventh Seal seems eerily relevant right now and for the first time I can understand his motivations. The lessons I’ve learned during our global pause this year – appreciating the beauty in what is before me, being content with what I have, stepping outside and connecting with my neighbors – have led me to think about Sweden often. It’s only been through this year of reflection that I realized the lasting impact of my time there. Sweden taught me that happiness can come from simply knowing the darkness will pass.

Just for fun – Following my trip, I took some of my videos from Sweden, converted them to black and white, and attempted my own Bergman-inspired edit.