STOCKHOLM MEMORIES AND CINEMAS

08/04/2020 10:50

By the beginning of this century, I worked at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), which at that time was located in very centre of Stockholm. From my office window I could look down over Malmskillnadsgatan, which at that time was Stockholms preferred street for kerb crawlers, and a little further away I could spot the King Towers by Kungsgatan, The Royal Street. For a country boy like me, it was a powerful feeling to sit by my desk and look out across Stockholm's legendary metropolitan heart. Malmskillnadsgatan and the King Towers reminded of the city's grandeur and misery. Its allure, pride and shame.

 

 

By the fin de siècle, Stockholm was striving to take its place among Europe´s modern metropolises, and just as the case was with them Stockholm's decision-makers wanted the Swedish capital to visibly unite tradition and modernism. Stockholm had already manifested itself as the custodian of the fatherland's popular treasures by the establishment of the impressive open-air museum Skansen, inaugurated in 1891, soon to be supplemented by the Nordic Museum, completed in 1907.

 

Progressive and stylish urbanization was to be demonstrated by Kungsgatan and in 1891 a wide high street was dug and blasted straight through the Brunkeberg Ridge. Old houses were demolished and tons of rubble cleared away, as in August Strindberg's poem The Esplande System from 1883

 

Where ancient hovels stood abreast

and shut out of light from every nook,

a crowd of youngsters, full of zest,

came bearing axes, bars and hook.

 

Soon chaff and dust

flew in the air

as cowbars thrust

through floor and stair. […]

 

An oldster passes there one day

and sees, amazed, the dreary sight.

He stops, shows sadness and dismay

while stalking through the dismal blights.

 

What do you plan to build here now?

A row of private homes? A mansion?” –

We clear for the street expansion!”

Yes, tearing down! The habit of our day!

But building up? … It´s horrifying!” –

For light and air we´re making way!

Is it not well that we are traying?”

 

 

Soon, impressive and lavish buildings rose along the 1.5-kilometer-long Kungsgatan; Myrstedt & Stern, the Concert Hall, and not the least two stately King Towers, united by Malmskillnadsgatan's bridge span, which ran across the wide parade street. The 60 metres high towers were inaugurated in 1924 and 1925, respectively, and were at the time Sweden's tallest skyscrapers. They became a symbol for the modern, sturdy and forward-looking Stockholm, intended to be a peer among Berlin, Paris and New York.

 

In one of the towers, the well-known photographer Karl Werner Gullers had his Studio Gullers. Gullers described his Stockholm in books and photographs and became the model for his friend Stieg Trenter's Harry Friberg, a hero in a number of detective stories which above all are remembered for their suggestive descriptions of Stockholm.

 

 

Gullers was the first Swedish photographer whose work was exhibited in Swedish and even international art galleries and came to be appreciated at the same level as other artists. In Guller's pictures and Trenter's detective stories Stockholm is at the centre, and not least the Kungsgatan. We perceive the clear light during spring and summer days, caused by the abundant presence of various watercourses, but just as often we are confronted with a light autumn haze, creating mild, muted colours. We watch the trams and rain-soaked asphalt on Kungsgatan, where bulky taxis pick up late strollers and well-behaved couples. Or we are taken to taverns where Guller's photographs depict their satisfied visitors and tempting dishes, while Harry Friberg in Trenter's detective stories all too often enjoys iced vodka shots and frothy beer along with a piece of herring on crispbread and all the other delicacies of the Swedish smorgasbord, while pondering a murder case, which, after all, occasionally burst open in the seemingly reassuring idyll.

 

 

I described myself as a country boy and it is true to the extent that I was born in the rural, small town of Hässleholm, but my grandparents lived in Stockholm. Since childhood and early adolescence, I had thus become quite familiar with Stockholm, which I was already then fascinated by – yes, it is no exaggeration to claim that I had learned to love the city.

 

Stockholm is one of the most beautiful cities I have lived in. I am fairly familiar with Rome, Paris, London, Berlin, Prague, New York and also somewhat knowledgable about Buenos Aires, each of these cities has its own specific charm. However, remembering the Stockholm of my childhood makes me slightly sentimental. I can still with a nostalgic smile, listen to Zarah Leander when she in 1930 sang:

 

You who sit there full of misery and despair
claiming that Stockholm has nothing to give.
You talk of Paris and Rome´s charm and air
though Stockholm is where you want to live.

Because …

 

Stockholm is Stockholm
the town without menace
Stockholm is Stockholm
a Nordic Venice.
What does it matter if the sky isn´t blue
Stockholm is Stockholm
the right town for you.”

 

That thing about Stockholm being a ”Nordic Venice” is not entirely correct. I have neither seen nor experienced a stranger and more incomparable city than Venice, but the comparison is correct to the extent that the presence of water, the sea, is very noticeable in Stockholm.

 

There are few big cities where nature is as close and tangible as there. When I for a couple of years lived in the city, I found during weekends and after work great pleasure in wandering around and it then often happened that I ended up in the middle of ”nature”. I often steered my steps towards Djurgården, but as far as I remember I only once visited Skansen, which is situatated on that island. I assume the reason to why avoided a visit was probably due to a subconscious thought telling me that I did not want to ruin my shimmering childhood memories by revisiting what I then considered being a magical place. As a child, I often went there in the company of my younger sister, my cousins and parents, or alone with my grandfather. Each visit was a moment of reverie and enjoyment.

 

I recall that it was always sunny and summer. I perceive the scent within the various old cottages that littered the area, the small shops and workshops, remembering the wonder with which I studied at the objects exposed inside these buildings, which my always equally well-informed father or grandfather could tell me all about. There were also ice cream parlour and café visits, sun-warmed rock slabs, the crunching sound of silica-covered walkways and the wide views that occasionally opened up, revealing the beautiful city where it spread out on its islands and promontories surrounded by sun glittering water.

 

 

At Skansen I would encounter a living history, imbued by my ancestors' faith, aspirations and pleasures. A national romantic spirit in the best sense of the word, strengthened by the presence of all the animals; the free roaming squirrels and captured bears, moose and wolves. This amazingly strong concentration of Swedishness did unreservedly and enchantingly grab the little boy I was in those days.

 

Nevertheless, I can now only regret the chauvinistic, limiting and for me utterly unpleasant anti-human abuse of National Romanticism which prospers and thrives within disagreeable political circles around a growing, populist political party called Sweden Democrats. A chimera unreservedly trumpeted by the party's ideologues and leaders, poisoning other political parties in their hunt for the popular vote, while alluding to the Swedish Soul, whatever that ridiculous construct might be. To me, such goofy noise sounds like a stale and unappetizing mishmash inherited from distorted ideologies that once plunged Europe into ruin.

 

 

Of course - rotting unpleasantness always lies smouldering within all grandiose nationalistic schemes. Wherever I have lived, often in vastly different countries, I have sooner or later encountered the same xenophobic stench. I cannot find anything beneficial in all this beat-your-chest and bragging about ”how great it is that I am a Swede”. A spirit that undoubtedly exhales from Carl Milles´s impressive and six meter high and mighty sculpture of painted, solid Swedish oak that meets us when while entering the foyer of the Nordic Museum. There sits the powerful and despotic Patriarch Gustav Vasa, misanthropically, overwhelmingly narcissistically and firmly placed on a solid throne, under which the cryptic motto WAREN SVENSKE, ”be Swedish”, is engraved.

 

 

Now, I am an adult and Stockholm has certainly changed. My childhood paradisical refuge – Grandpa's Tallebo, ”Home of the Pine Trees” as he called it, no longer exists, though rather – the place was bought by a medical doctor at Sida and can impossibly remain the same as in my nostalgic memories. I have no desire to see it again. Its mystery must by this time have vanished; its large garden, extensive library and mysterious attic where Uncle Gunnar's cut-out self-made figures with Carolus the Twelfth´s entire army lay packed in boxes, ready for me to play with among the strange and exciting paraphernalia that could be found in that mysterious attic.

 

Instead of taking the subway to Enskede Gård, as I so often had done as a kid and youngster, I travelled during my time at Sida after work all the way out to Alby's concrete-grey suburban area, with its shopping centre and impersonal storey buildings. On my way to the Metro, I did not usually take the stairs down to the station located under the office building of Sida, but instead took a walk down to Gamla Stan, the Old Town. On weekday evenings it was a fairly peaceful and stimulating walk, but on Fridays and Saturdays the quiet stroll became a hike through Dante's Inferno. Roaring, drunken youths swayed in the alleys, where they often urinated and vomited. In Rome and New York, where I have lived for several years, I have never seen or experienced anything like it. Not even in Bronx and Harlem was I overtaken by a sudden fear similar to the one I could encounter while encountering dead drunk, black-clad skinheads who threw bottles and roared insults at immigrants and dark-skinned people.

 

 

Admittedly, I could occasionally share a couple of drinks with friends and acquaintances somewhere in Gamla Stan, especially in a jazz club called Stampen, ”The Pawn Broker”. However, most part of my spare time I spent listening to music alone and reading novels out in Alby, or by visiting my friend Mats Olin among the books in the basement of Hedengren's Bookshop.

 

As I wrote in the beginning of the essay I could from my desk at Sida look down at Malmskillnadsgatan where the johns began to kerb crawl after five o´clock, hunting for streetwalkers, who became increasingly numerous during the advancing evening hours. I wonder if Stockholm looked the same at the time when Kungsgatan was fairly new; a mixture of rural idyll with disturbing mischief, drunkenness and chaos.

 

I read Kungsgatan, a novel written in 1935 by the former bondager Ivar Lo-Johansson, describing the by then, according to him, hectically pulsating metropolitan life of Stockholm. With its sparkling neon lights, restaurants and cinemas, fancy cars and well-dressed people, Ivar Lo's Kungsgatan became a symbol of what attracted young people from rural areas to the growing, big city.

 

 

The peasant boy Adrian and the Marta, daughter of dirt poor bondagers, experience a short, but dizzying love affair in the hicksville of Humla, where life generation after generation had largely remained unchanged. Marta's and Adrian's delicate but intense love relation is broken off by Marta's dreams of the big city. She does not want to waste her life growing up in the poverty of a dying countryside, exposed to an ever-increasing interest from dreary people with whom she is forced to share her monotonous existence. Marta experienced how her parents wandered along the same trampled paths, day after day, from cradle to grave, chained to a hopeless existence of permanent poverty. No – Marta wanted to forge her own success. On her own, she wanted to create an independent existence in which she could earn money and perhaps even contribute to her parents well-being by being enabled to liberate them from their bondage. She wanted to come back and visit her home village as a successful person, someone who had become wealthy and urbane.

 

 

Marta arrived in Stockholm, got a job at a café. However, her meagre salary was not enough to enable her to purchase any of the attractive abundance exposed in shop windows of luxury stores lining the way to her work, though she discovered that her advantageous appearance attracted the city dwellers. Dazzled by all the luxury and flair she desired Marta dressed as elegantly as she could afford.

 

Together with a friend, she planned to open a perfumery, but they are lacking the necessary capital and a realization that her appearance could become an asset turned Marta into one of Kungsgatan's ”ladies of easy virtue”. As the money began to flow in – she could even send some of it to her poor parents and her prestige with them increased – Marta became increasingly bold and careless. The disaster became a fact when Marta's mother came to see her elegant daughter. During a restaurant visit, the truth about the daughter's activities dawned upon the deeply religious, old lady. Among the openly distressed diners, she broke down and burst into tears. Shame and despair made an increasingly desperate Marta going downhill. Previously, she had managed to choose her customers with some discernment, but now she lost all control over her existence and became contaminated with a serious venereal disease and finally perished.

 

 

Slightly later than Marta, the more reserved and thoughtful Adrian has comes to Stockholm. Like her he does at first feel lost without the village's security and life begins to sway for him. Admittedly, Adrian is now more free and unbound, though at the same time he has become a loner. He gets a job at a construction site and initially suffers from his co-workers' harsh treatment of an inexperienced yokel. Gradually, he adapts to his new existence. Liberated from parental dominance and suffocating social control he seeks out bohemian artist circles. Gradually, Adrian realizes who he really is – a young man who, despite being disillusioned, defenceless and marginalized, is a man, an adult, someone who actually can stand on his own two feet. A bright and rapidly changing future lies ahead of him. He begins to write down his impressions and thoughts.

Occasionally Adrian encountered Marta, though the meetings were short and awkward. They lived in two different worlds. To cover up their rural origins both of them had changed their speech and attitudes. They had become stuck in their respective roles and did not want to acknowledge the betrayal to their background, of each other, their own sincerity. Both were impatient and ambitious, wanted to advance in society, make money, and experience adventure. Despite their awkward ambivalence, they tried to regain some of their lost love. As a result, however, Adrian became infected with Marta's dangerous venereal disease. Both were admitted to a clinic. Their convalescence became protracted and painful. Adrian was strengthened by the trial. He is a searcher who has become stronger through each experience. We anticipate the emergence of a successful writer: ”What is experienced may not be meaningless, on the contrary, it is the only capital for a man like me.” Both Adrian and Marta got lost, but Adrian eventually found meaning with his life, while the beautiful Marta became a bitter loser.

Adrian's rebellion against a permanent state of affairs, his quest for self-insight, his observations and disappointments became central to the novel, while Marta was gradually transformed into a secondary protagonist, an educative contrast to Adrian, subordinated a deepening description of his development. Nevertheless, Ivar Lo-Johansson appears to have striven toward achieving a realistic and convincing portrayal of the fate of a woman against the backdrop of a rapidly transforming rural life and an unstoppable urbanization. It was for sure a laudable attempt by a male proletarian writer to bring a female protagonist to life, although I wonder if Ivar Lo succeeded with his intention.

Lo-Johansson's principal aim appears to have been to write what he called a ”collective novel” and through his writing capture a specific time period, how an entire social class was striving for change and improvement. In several novels, for example Gårdfarihandlaren, ”The Peddler”, which dealt with Ivar Lo´s own life story, his writing became more engaged and alive than in Kungsgatan.

What particularly struck me when I read Kungsgatan was how young people arriving in big cities became captivated by the dazzling and for them wide range of various forms of entertainment. Something that must have been especially overwhelming during a time when there was no TVs around and radio broadcasts were limited, if at all available in the Swedish backwoods.

Dreams about escaping poverty and boredom inherent in the countryside and small towns is a theme appearing in novels around the world, several them written during the same time as Kungsgatan, when longing for travels far away and illusions about happiness found elsewhere were often fuelled by films.

 

 

Carson McCullers was only twenty-three when her first novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in 1940 became a precocious shooting star on the U.S. literary scene. This highly original tale is well deserved of its position as an American classic. It takes place in a 1930s mill town in the state of Georgia, where  the teenager Margaret ”Mick” Kelley cannot find any peace, neither within herself, nor among others. She wants to be transported to another, better world, both literally by leaving the dreary town and figuratively through music and the emotional impact it has on her.

Mick cannot experience the magical power of music in the house she shares with fourteen people; her mother, her loving, but disabled and work incapacitated, father, four siblings and seven boarders. There is no gramophone, no radio, no playing, no singing. Mick sneaks out to sit outside premises where music is played, or searching out listening opportunities wherever she might find them.

When she walked out in the rich parts of town every house had a radio. All the windows were open and she could hear the music very marvelous. After a while she knew which house turned in for the programs she wanted to hear. There was one special house that got all the good orchestras. And at night she would go to this house and sneak into the dark yard to listen.

Since Mick nurtured such a desperate desire to escape from a wretched reality of material and spiritual poverty and furthermore found it difficult to communicate what she desired, she was considered to have her head in the blue. Like several other of the odd characters McCullers presented in her novel, Mick becomes an image of how difficult it is for an individual, living within an uncomprehending environment, to get anywhere with her/his integrity and expectations intact, especially if you are poor and uneducated.

Strangely enough it is a deaf-mute and empathetic man who serves as a hero, counsellor, and reference point for a group of dreamers and outsiders depicted in the aptly titled The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. He even buys a gramophone and brings it to his boarding room in Kelley´s house, not for his own benefit, he is after all deaf, but because he knows that Mick will listen to the music.

Mick shares her room with her two sisters, who in spite of being very different from her both wish they were in another place, another sphere. All three sisters love the movies, though they satisfy them in different ways. The eldest, Hazel is lazy and a sybarite, who goes to movies just to relax and dream away an hour or two. This while Mick is transferred to the magical sphere of music, art and literature she wants to become a part of. Etta, is at the same time the most unworldly and most practical of the sisters. She is obsessed with going to Hollywood and become a movie star, spending an inordinate amount of time grooming herself.

Hazel and Etta were O.K. as far as sisters went. But Etta was like she was full of worms. All she thought about was movie stars and getting in the movies. Once she had written to Jeanette McDonald and had got a typewritten letter back saying that if she ever came out to Hollywood she could come by and swim in her swimmingpool. And ever since that swimming pool had been preying on Etta´s mind. All she thought about was going to Hollywood when she could scrape up the bus fare and getting a job as a secretary and being buddies with Jeanette Mac Donald and getting in the movies herself.

In his novel The Day of the Locust from 1939 Nathanael West wrote about those who really made it to Hollywood:

All their lives they had slaved at some kind of dull, heavy labor, behind desks and counters, in the fields and at tedious machines of all sorts, saving their pennies and dreaming of the leisure that would be theirs when they had enough. Finally that day came. They could draw a weekly income of ten or fifteen dollars. Where else should they go but California, the land of sunshine and oranges?

Such elderly people mixed with hundreds of thousands youngsters who dazzled by movie glitter flocked around the film studios hoping that someone would pay attention to their often insufficient talents and appearances. Many of them were ruthlessly exploited, while others were entirely ignored by an increasingly rich and cynical jet set of decision makers and powerful influencers.

It is in this dark underbelly of Hollywood that West´s characters move around. While the down-and-out people in Carson McCuller´s novel circle around the saintly and mute John Singer, the centre of attention for the losers in West´s novel is the beautiful, sprightly and continuously play-acting starlet Faye Greener, who has realized that she has the face and body for Hollywood, but cannot admit she lacks the necessary talent for even extra parts and generally have to be content to be a crowd filler, or escort girl.

It is an intense, easily read, humorously written but essentially tragic novel, which W.H. Auden aptly described as a parable ”about a Kingdom of hell whose ruler is not so much a Father of Lies as a Father of Wishes.” Accordingly, it is a Trump Country Nathanael West is writing about. A make-believe society that to a great degree is based on the concept of ”we and the others”, all for me and nothing to the losers.

The author´s original name was Nathan Weinstein and his parents came from Kovno, present-day Kaunas in Lithuania. As a Jew with ancestors from Eastern Europe, Nathanael West was acutely aware of the dangers brewing in Hilter´s Germany and the apocalyptic final scenes of in his novel, depicting uncontrollable and brutal mob violence, might be considered as a warning of what was about to happen in Europe. Show business based on lies and entertainment against a backdrop of social inequality and xenophobia was a Bitches´ Brew. The ”locusts” of West´s novel are the ”have-nots” of Hollywood:

Once there, they discover that sunshine isn’t enough. They get tired of oranges, even of avocado pears and passion fruit. Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. […] Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, wars. Their daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.

The tragic anti-hero of The Day of the Locust is Homer Simpson (yes, this is his name) a former accountant at a hotel in Iowa who came to California at the recommendation of his doctor to restore his health. During his lifelong struggle as bookkeeper, with only essential expenditures and a heritage from his parents, Simpson has become a relatively wealthy man. He assumes he came to California to die, though what he actually was searching for is love, unconsciously lured there by a desire for that which movies have told him about. Soft-mannered, horribly sexually repressed, and socially ill-at-ease,

whether he was happy or not it is hard to say. Probably he was neither, just as a plant is neither. He had memories to disturb him and a plant hasn't, but after the first bad night his memories were quiet. […] chastity served him like the shell of a tortoise, as both spine and armor.

The aspiring seventeen-years old starlet Faye moves in with the starstruck, elderly gentleman; exploits, teases and humiliates him. Everyone in the novel plays a role in the tinsel city where everything is backdrops and props pretending to be something they are not. The English director John Schlesinger, who had made several great movies like Billy LiarThe Marathon Man and Midnight Cowboy did in 1975 direct a Hollywood colossal of The Day of the Locust, where the great actor Donald Sutherland made a memorable interpretation of Homer Simpson. Nevertheless, in my opinion, Schlesinger made the same mistake as many other directors before and after him – he took a great novel that in itself is so visually suggestive that you believe it is easy to make a film of it, even if the opposite is true. I come to think of other novels like that, for example The Great Gatsby and Anna Karenina, which for their reader recreate the entire world they describe, with all its details and perceptions. Such novels are so well accomplished that any interpretation on a movie screen becomes a reduction, an inadequate simplification. This does not mean that Schlesinger´s The Day of the Locust is a bad movie, though if you ever come across it – read the novel before watching it.

Kungsgatan was filmed in 1943 and the reviews were rather lukewarm, although it was pointed out that it was one of the first attempts to openly and critically portray social misery and prostitution. The film attracted some international interest, probably due to its at the time rather bold way of portraying prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases, a foretaste of the international success that Swedish films would later obtain if they were capable of mixing social criticism with sexual openness.

In his charming and beautiful A Stockholm Melody, a tango inspired by his time in Buenos Aires, the in Sweden immensely popular troubadour Evert Taube provided a lyrical depiction of Stockholm's entertainment possibilities one evening by the end of the 1920s:

Stockholm in your womb I want to dream

carefree, when your evening hour strikes![...]

But, in neat flocks like bouquets

of lilacs, roses and daffodil

Stockholm's young ladies and coquettes

are glimpsed at Feiths and the Red Mill.

– A Love Night in China, on the Sphinx a whirl!

– Stolen Happiness are found at Rivoli!

– Did you at Regina see the Pale Earl?

– Have you listened to My Heart´s Melody?

Feith's Patisserie was a fashionable establishment that opened in 1904 close to Dramaten, the national theatre stage at Nybroplan. ”A large ladies' café housed in a basement floor overlooking the quay, spacious, expensive and elegantly furnished it has become a gathering place for ladies of the glamorous world.” The café became a haunt for actors and other ”celebrities” and thus a central gathering place for the city´s entertainment, especially through a trio in which the popular composer Jules Sylvain and violinist, journalist and hit writer Gösta Rybrant were prominent members.

Röda Kvarn, the Red Mill, was Stockholm's oldest cinema, established 1905. In 1915, Röda Kvarn had been refurbished in a refined Art Nouveau style and became Stockholm's foremost premiere cinema. It counted not only upon a piano, or a Wurlitzer Organ, but on an entire cinema orchestra.

The luxurious dance hall The Spinx was located on Kungsgatan and a newspaper article from 1927 described it as “a place with style. The musicians wear tuxedos and the audience is unusually well and properly dressed; several of the men are suited up in the increasingly popular city suit. i.e. dark jacket and dark striped trousers.” The ”jazzy dance restaurant” changed in the mid 1930s its name to Café Prag and did during day time assume an approach more adapted to ”family outings”.

A Love Night in China, may allude to a play at the China Theatre, which mostly presnted vaudevilles and comedies. Maybe Taube meant A Love Night by the Öresund (the straight between Sweden and Denmark) a popular play filmed in 1931. Stolen Happiness was an early Swedish movie filmed in 1912 and it could hardly have been presented at the cinema Rivoli at the time when Taube wrote his song. I have not been able to trace a song entitled My Heart's Melody and this title is probably invented by Taube, whose song indicates how immensely popular cinemas was in Stockholm at the time. By the end of 1940´s there were more than 100 cinemas in the city and the trend was very similar all over the world. It was not until the first years of the sixties that the cinemas' great attractiveness diminished in Sweden, while television viewing became more and more popular. In my family we did not have a TV until 1961. Before that time, cinemas had been available and highly popular among both the poor and the wealthy.

A novel like Kungsgatan reflected the big city's prostitution and misery, something that I still could discern only by looking down at Malmskillnadsgatan just below my office window, or when I stumbled across empty bottles and drunken young youngster in the Old Town. However, Kungsgatan also described the intellectual liveliness among journalists and socialists in Stockholm's Klara neighbourhood where most of the publishing houses and newspaper offices were located. The 1920´s was a time when mass production of books and newspapers, as well as increasingly sophisticated films became a part of the development of big cities, where modern culture became affordable even for less affluent citizens. However, the film art of the time did with some outstanding exceptions generally convey more escapism than social criticism. Most of the films constituted means to forget about everyday boredom. The glamour and adventure displayed on the screen made women and men trying to imitate female movie stars such as Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo and Clara Bow, or male role models like Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks.

The Palladium became Sweden's first film palace, and was opened by Kungsgatan as early as 1918. Several other film palaces were soon constructed throughout Stockholm, most important and popular were those established by and around Kungsgatan.

Film Palaces were a sophisticated development of the often insignificant cinema premises established at the turn of the last century and the following two decades. At that time, films were still considered to be a relatively simple pleasure for the lower strata of society, while the metropolitan jet set continued to attend operas and lavish theatre performances within luxurious venues. Gradually, however, cinema films became more refined and began to attracted prominent theatre actors and versatile directors. The upper class and upper middle class began to demand more luxurious premises than the often cramped, poorly ventilated, and often inflammable cinemas where they were also forced to crowd with ”common and vulgar persons”.

The first exclusive movie palace mimicking a luxury theatre was the Regent Theater, which in 1913 was built in New York. It was established up in Harlem and became a great success, though the wealthy audience soon demanded that such premises should be established in the more central and fashionable theatre district around Broadway.

During the twenties, thousands of movie palaces were built throughout the United States. The general aim was to satisfy the demand not only of the ”priviliged classes” but also to make the ”ordinary citizen” feel as if s/he ”had for a while become part of a royal family.” As a result, the design signature of movie palaces became an extravagant ornamentation. Such amusement palaces were provided with bars and restaurants and constructed in accordance with an eclectic exoticism mixing a variety of styles, even making them collide with each other. The extravagant cinema venues were inspired by French Baroque, Italian Renaissance, High Gothic, Arabic -, Hindu -, Babylonian -, and Aztec exoticism, and especially after the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 – ”ancient Egyptian style”. The better-off could, in general, just like in theatres and opera houses, enjoy the comfort of expensive lodges and galleries separated from the cheaper seats.

A visit to the cinema not only meant an immersion in the chimeras presented on the white screen, in these times of TV, videos and various digital curiosities, which may be enjoyed within the four walls of our home, it might be quite difficult to understand what the total experience a cinema visit could entail ninety years back in time. It was often not just the film's merits that contributed to the awe and wonderment of a cinema visitor, but the whole exotic and seductive environment built up around the experience.

In an attempt to exemplify what I mean, let me describe a fascinating and aesthetically pleasing film palace which is still more or less intact – the Skandia Theatre by Drottninggatan, The Queen Street, close to Kungsgatan. Its inauguration took place in 1923 with the presence of the crème de la crème of Stockholm's bourgeoisie. The cinema was a creation by no less than Gunnar Asplund, who became known as one of Sweden's few internationally appreciated architects. After visiting Skandia several years ago and now experiencing how a lot of book stores and cinemas here in Rome have collapsed and closed down due to COVID-19, I wonder with great concern if we might, after all, now witness the end of the enchanting era of cinema visits.

The time when the Skandia Theatre was created was completely different from the epoch we no find ourselves in. Then cinemas were the future and great care was taken to bring their interior design to perfect beauty. When I visited the Skandia Theatre cinema during my time at Sida, I was surprised to find that it was a master like Asplund who had created the venue. Gunnar Asplund and his colleague Sigurd Lewerentz had in 1915 won a competition for the design of what would then be Sweden´s largest cemetery – The Woodland Cemetery in Enskede. At the same time as he created the Skandia Theatre, Asplund was busy with his work on the cemetery, which was not completed until 1940, just before Asplund´s death. The two architects designed the entire complex, from the surrounding landscape to the smallest lamp. Their cemetery is now one of the eleven Swedish World Heritage Sites on UNESCO's list of particularly important monuments around the world.

I am fairly familiar with The Woodland Cemetery and its meditative symbiosis between nature and architecture. Since it is located in Enskede where my maternal grandparents lived they are both buried there and during my time at Sida I was present at two funeral ceremonies in the cemetary´s chapel.

Asplund has been of great importance not only for Swedish architecture, but for the emergence of the whole of modern Swedish society. As one of the most significant representatives of Swedish functionalism, which was introduced on a large scale through The Stockholm Exhibition in 1930, for which Asplund was the architect in charge, his ideas came to influence Social Democratic strategies for modernizing Swedish housing standards. A policy that also was inspired by the pivotal book acceptera! Accept! Written the year after The Stockholm Exhibition by Asplund and a couple of like-minded architects.

Let us now return to 1919 when Svensk Film's CEO Magnusson contracted Asplund to ”recreate and decorate” a couple of already completed, empty spaces, transforming them into a cinema that could ”accomodate aproximately 1,000 vistors.” Magnusson did not request an ultra-modern, functionalist work of art, but a ”light and playful edifice”. Asplund went to work by designing every detail, including the staff's uniforms, supported by friends and acquaintances among young, and by now legendary, Swedish artists, several of them labelled as Fauvists, since some of them had been pupils of Matisse in Paris.

Asplund´s client, Charles Magnusson, was the son of an architect. He had visited several movie palaces in the U.S. and now demanded something that was not ”overly ostentatious and extravagant” but ”stylish and exclusive”. The Scandia Theatre would become what the Americans called an Atmospheric Theater, i.e. a cinema that provided the sensation of finding oneself on a mild evening in a southern amphitheatre. Asplund claimed that he fully understood Magnusson's intentions and added that

it must be something festive, something of glitter and shine, somewhat lighthearted and superficial, providing a sense of being lost in the moment within the comfort of an intimate, warm and cosy salon, after entering from the winter cold, or dreary autumn wetness, reigning outside.

When he started outlining his plans, Asplund remembered

an evening during the carnival in Taormina with coloured lanterns and colourful people listening to an orchestra in the central piazza under an endless, starry sky.

 

 

During the years 1913 and 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I, the then twenty-year-old Asplund had undertaken a trip to Italy and Northern Africa to ”study the source areas of architectural culture along the Mediterranean shores.” There he had been seized by what he called ”the great architectural space,” a concept he tried to realize through his design of The Woodland Cemetery. In Italy and Tunisia, Asplund had marvelled at how the infinite sky sheltered wide landscapes and a feeling of ”light, closeness and distance” that overwhelmed the lonely wanderer within a natural habitat that everywhere exposed the ”discrete imprint of human presence”. Asplund declared that he had sensed this intimate connection between space, nature and art when he ended up standing in front of the ”masterpieces of Pompeian painting”.

 

 

Asplund intended that ”his” cinema should mirror the awe he had felt while wandering around in Italy and the delight he had found by looking at Roman frescoes. Light, colours, material and painted surfaces would fuse art and nature and thus create an architectural illusion that could induce the cinema visitor into a responsive mood that prepared her/him for an appreciation of the illusions created on the screen. The environment Asplund wanted to bring about could be characterized as

 

poetry cast in a noble form and enriched by radiantly beautiful details. Above the large salon a vaulted ceiling would rest like an artificial night sky above a soothing, quiet, harmonious, and classically inspired room, able to create feelings of warmth and intimacy.

 

 

The ceiling was painted in a colour that would remind of a darkening South Italian evening sky and under it Asplund placed round lamps indicating either celestial bodies, or the orbs of street lamps in an Italian smalltown piazza.

 

The seats were covered in i Carnelian red velvet that matched the textile friezes of the gallery barriers, which like the stage canopy were made in Pompeian red with embroideries in gold and silver. The friezes had been designed by the artist Alf Munthe, who like the rest of the other participating artists was in his early thirties, and during half a year´s time had been embroidered in so called Schatter Broiderie by fifty embroiderers from Thyra Grafström´s textile workshop.

 

 

Inspired by classical Roman art, Munthe had on the gallery barriers depicted acanthus loops interleaved with portrait medallions.

 

On the back stand of the salon, Hilding Linnqvist, who eventually ended up as professor of the Royal Academy of Art, had made a gilded relief of Venus. The movie screen was flanked by two natural seized sculptures of Adam and Eve, created by Ivar Johansson.

 

 

Cinema visitors entered the salon through a severe, classical hall in cream-coloured marble.

 

 

Under the foyer ceiling the sculptor Stig Blomberg had around the entire hall created reliefs depicting different art crafts.

 

 

By the foyer were several oval shaped ”waiting rooms” in Roman style with friezes by Einar Forseth, who two years later created the huge mosaics in the so-called Golden Hall of Stockholm´s City House, now famous for its sumptuous Nobel Prize dinners.

 

 

A staircase with handrails designed as red snakes with bronze heads conduced to a second floor where the theatre boxes and galleries could be found.

 

 

The ceiling of the staircase was decorated with frescoes depicting a poem by the Finnish author Zachris Topelius, The Milky Way, and painted by Leander Engström, who was one of the Swedish Matisse pupils who had formed an influential group called The Young Ones.

 

 

The corridors were flanked by entrances to boxes and galleries, inspired by those that can be found leading to grave chambers in Roman catacombs.

 

To sum up, the entire Skandia Theatre was designed as if it had been a gigantic and exquisite jewel-case made in the Swedish art deco style that later came to be known as Swedish Grace. It appears as if Swedish FilmSF, had not been stingy when it came to create Sweden´s most luxurious film palace.

 

This unique piece of art was three years after its opening to the public completed by Charles Magnusson´s purchase of a mighty Wurlitzer Organ, which sound was amplified by a huge funnel placed under the ceiling and crowned by a sculpture representing Lady Luna, created by Gunnar Torhamn.

 

 

The to me earlier completely unknown Gunnar Torhamn (1894-1965) was one of those Swedish artists who during the first half of the last century spent quite a lot of time in Italy and created a mixed output of fresh and sun-drenched Mediterranean and Nordic landscapes.

 

 

Quite often Torhamn furthermore succeeded in capturing the essence of both Rome and Stockholm.

 

 

He was a diligent decorator of cinemas and over time Torhamn was, like many of his contemporary artist colleagues, often hired as a church decorator, painting altarpieces and frescoes in churches all over Sweden, and even in Norway. Torhamn´s religious art is generally quite different from his earlier more impressionistic and occasionally expressionistic style. It is more compact and robust.

 

 

In 1933, Torhamn decorated the Grand cinema. Since it was not far from my workplace at Sida I went there quite often. Most of Grand´s original interior design disappeared together with most of its art deco decorations when it in 1970 was converted to Sweden´s first multi-cinema with three different salons.

 

However, Torhamn´s original doors to the main salon have remained intact. I was fascinated by those doors and it now irritates me that I did not photograph them and at the time of writing I now have to content myself by reproducing one of Torhamn´s sketches and a bad photo I found on the web.

 

 

The doors are an elegant and professionally executed work of inlay with different species of wood, depicting contemporary movie stars made to represent four different continents; Joan Crawford stands for America, Greta Garbo for Europe, Anna May Wong (even if she was born in Los Angeles) for Asia, and finally Josephine Baker (born in St Louis, Missouri) for Africa.

 

 

While mentioning Joan Crawford I cannot refrain from mentioning the strong impression Sudden Fear from 1952 once made upon me while I many years ago studied cinematography at Lund University. I was particularly impressed by the solid craftsmanship. This was Hollywood noir at its best. Carefully told, the story was filled with unexpected twists and turnsEvery scene, each detail, was essential and meaningful within a complicated puzzle of sophisticated images. The camera work was perfect and professionally connected to every single part of a dynamically told story. I have seldom seen such a seamless application of all tricks used by cinematography – an uninterrupted flow of close-ups, long shots, low angles, bird´s eyes views, tracking, deep focus, you name it, and all of it combined with a dramatic and sophisticated lighting that made a maximum use of deep shadows and sharp streaks of light. Quick cuts and short sequences were followed by patient presentations of meaningful dialogues and unexpected, well-adjusted sequences that illustrated thought paths or made use of double exposures. I could not understand why I had never heard about David Miller, who still appears to be a quite unknown movie director, even if he was extremely multifaceted and devoted himself with everything from screwball comedies to psychological thrillers, salvaging the talents and peculiarities of so different characters as the Marx brothers, John Wayne, Doris Day and Kirk Douglas.

 

 

Miller´s ability to create a good relation with his actors leads me to Jack Palance och Joan Crawford, whose empathy with the characters they visualize in Sudden Fear leaves nothing to be desired A specific spicing of the film is that these characters – Palance´s role and work as an actor and Crawford´s as a writer are allowed to direct how the film develops, both characters use their respective job as an essential ingredient of their plans and behaviour. Palance executes the role as a loving husband, while Crawford in the role as a successful writer executes a complicated intrigue to murder her scheming and demonic husband. Their performances become examples of excellent method acting. There is a not second when Joan Crawford is not allowed to expose her voluminous register of suppressed anger, hot desire, wild panic, chilly observation and patient abidance.

 

Crawford has been accused of being too emote, though that can be nothing else than evil slander of one of the last century´s greatest movie stars. She was endowed with an uncanny fingertip efficiency when it came to identify with her roles and maximize their expressions without going over the top. She explained: ”You want to bring the audience in so close you want to put them in your own lap.”

 

 

My enthusiasm concerning Joan Crawford´s professionalism made me read Mommie Dearest, written by Crawford´s adopted daughter Christina in which she describes Joan as an alcoholic mother out of Hell. Capricious, unreliable, and dangerously narcissistic Joan Crawford was apparently extremely unfitted to take care of a child. The book created quite a stir and was filmed by the beginning of the 1980s with Faye Dunaway in the role as Joan Crawford. I have not seen the film, but would like to do it since it is said to depict Crawford´s acting as almost ridiculously emote.

 

 

When I recently revisited Sudden Fear I found that it had lost nothing of its appeal. All details remained refined and this time I also paid attention to Elmer Bernstein´s flexible and dynamic music accompaniment. Once again I was struck by Miller´s ability to provide Crawford with impressive cameos in which she was given free reigns to expose a wide range of expressions. Especially in a scene when Crawford´s author is listening to a dictaphone, which by mistake had been left open and in her absence had registered a conversation between her beloved husband and his lover. While she is listening, her husband is revealed as an unscrupulous imposter who plans to murder her. During the dicatphone´s playback the camera interacts with Crawford, who almost like in a silent movie, accompanied by the soundtrack of the dictaphone expressed every utterance with a display of various emotions.

 

By successively learning that she has fallen for a parasitizing predator Crawford´s author does during a short timespan air a wealth of sentiments and passions. There is loving tenderness, unveiled happiness, followed by bewilderment, negation, and deeply felt humiliation. Doubts and disbelief become replaced by disillusion that soon turns into panic and rage. In the end she rushes into the toilet to vomit.

 

 

All this might easily turn into cross-border acting, getting out of control, becoming comic instead of tragic. However, Crawford does not fall into that trap. She succeeds with her precarious balancing act by being in total command of every, single emotional expression. Such a scene could be studied in detail by any director or actor to realize what truly professional play-acting might achieve.

 

To be able to watch and listen is probably the most important faculty for an actor. While the dictaphone in Sudden Fear mercilessly and mechanically reveals her husband´s fraudulent acting and how she has fallen for it Myra/Crawford is forced to listen, unable to intervene and can only react in accordance to the dictaphone´s ongoing revelations. The spectators can discern how Myra/Crawford violently struggles with herself to understand what has happened to her and what actually is happening during the very moment she is listening to the dictaphone. She is alone and cannot, does not have to, control her emotions. Both her mind and body react to what she is hearing. Her reactions are both psychological and physical. This is far from being comically excessive, it is professionalism based on decades of experience.

 

While I was studying the doors at Grand with their depictions of movie divas from a bygone era, recalling Joan Crawford and all those cinema noir movies about crimes committed by overly tense or chilly, manipulative characters I came to remember that John Ausonius during some years had worked as projector machinist at Grand. He had been known as the Laser Man and driven by an unreasonable hate against ”immigrants” he had during five months, with a laser binocular sight equipped rifle, in several places in Stockholm and Uppsala tried to murder several of them. He succeeded in severely wounding ten persons and killing at least one. It was also at Grand that the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 had watched the, in my opinion, quite bad Swedish movie The Brothers Mozart the hours before he was murdered some hundred metres further down the street. A murder that remains unresolved.

 

 

With these quite gloomy information I return to the cinemas along the fashionable Kungsgatan where I began my essay. When Ivar Lo wrote his novel with the same name Kungsgatan was Stokholm´s most cinema dense street, foremost among them was the Palladium that opened in 1918 and Royal from 1937, these two film palaces have now disappeared. However, Saga, that opened in 1937 and Rigoletto from 1939 are still there. They are now closed due to COVID-19, though they remain quite intact and sincerely hope they will be opened again.

At the Saga I had sometime by the beginning of the century a strange experience. I had remained at the office until quite late. When I left the building the rain was pouring down and I felt alone and uncomfortable. When I was passing Saga I stopped my steps and watched the posters, maybe I could warm myself by a good movie? Among other films they were presenting the Korean horror film A Tale of Two Sisters. I have a certain faiblesse for well executed horror movies and decided to buy a ticket. The film had already begun when I entered and apart from two girls sitting five seat rows in front of me, the salon was empty. But … what was this? It was not Corea I saw on the screen and I assume the actress was Naomi Watts, the place could have been somewhere on the northern U.S. west coast.

Already when Watts enters unnoticed in an ambulance to pull away the sheet from the face of a corpse and reveal a grotesquely distorted, grey face of a dead youngster, the girls in front of me started to scream. They repeated their terrified shouts time after time and I cannot deny that the film consisted of patiently built up scenes that culminated in sudden horror effects, like then the creepy ghost of drowned girl appears in the mirror of a public lavatory, apparently tranquil deer cross a street only to run amok and demolish a car with its terrified passengers inside, a small boy is left alone in a bathtub only to be dragged down under the water by a rotting, long-haired corpse. Or when Naomi Watts ends up in the bottom of a deep well while the same rotten corpse appears and at a high speed creeps along the well´s stony walls attempting to drag Watts with her to a certain death. The girls horrified screams began to affect me and even if I consider myself to be a seasoned connoisseur of horror movies I squinted when a creepy scene was evolving towards its climax.

When I somewhat confused, staggered out of the cinema I discovered that I had ended up with Ring Two by Hideo Nakata, instead of Jee-wo Kim's Two Sisters. I later found out that Ring Two had received bad reviews, being called incoherent and badly conceived, something I found not to be entirely fair since Nakata's film like Sam Raimi's more horrifying Drag Me to Hell quite skillfully utilize the technique of several other psychological horror films to inexorably and patiently build up an eerie unease until everything explodes in violent climaxes of unbridled fear.

This trick is widely used in horror films from Hong Kong, Korea and especially Japan. In the latter case, fear is often combined with natural phenomena, preferably in the form of water, and I assume that the disturbing nature of such films may be due to the fact that even in modern times there are people who believe in kami, sacred forces that manifest themselves as natural phenomena. Kami might have their evil counterparts in yokai, monsters, evil ghosts and demons which are numerous in Japanese folklore. This spiritual presence, which has also penetrated modern cities, can be the reason why ”oriental horror” is so much more obvious and disturbing than most of the American, Spanish and Italian splatter movies I have seen over the years, where horror is portrayed for the sake of effect and not as an integral part of the inner worlds of actors and directors.

When I saw Ring 2, I was unfamiliar with its predecessor in which an enchanted VHS, without a title, turns up in the homes of puzzled teenagers who when they are watching it see how a disgusting ghost slowly rises from a well to approach them. It all ends with crackle and white sparks before the TV screen turns black. The horror consists in the fact that everyone who has seen the video will eventually receive a phone call, without a voice at the other, and when they hang up, they will inexorably die.

When I left the cinema and had begun waking home in the desolate rain, my mobile phone rang. It was long past midnight and I realized that it was my oldest daughter calling me from her apartment in Brighton. She must have felt lonely and become upset by something. Her room mate had temporarily gone to Sweden and my daughter had found that she had left some VHS behind that she had not watched yet. One of them lacked a title and when my daughter started to watch it late at night it turned out to be the crackling unfocused video from Ring One with the horrifying, menacing creature emerging from the well. My daughter had seen Ring One and knew what it all meant. How had it ended up in her apartment? Certainly a joke, but still somwaht scary for my lonely and quite sensitive daughter who around two o'clock in the morning in the far away and equally gloomy and rainy Brighton called her lonely father, who with wet feet walked along a deserted Kungsgatan. Of course, she did not think that watching the VHS would cause her death, but finding it had nevertheless upset my daughter and she had felt compelled to call me to get some company in the gloom. Sorry to say it did not calm her down much when I told her that I had just come out of a cinema where I had ended up watching Ring Two when in reality I had intended to watch a quite different movie. Furthermore, had seen the movie in the sole company of horrified and screaming youngsters. Some coincidences are completely incomprehensible.

Crawford, Christina (1979) Mommie Dearest. New York: Berkley Publishing. O´Malley, Sheila (2017) ”World-Class Acting: On Joan Crawford and Sudden Fear,” https://www.rogerebert.com/features/world-class-acting-on-joan-crawford-and-sudden-fear McCullers, Carson (2009) The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. London: Penguin Classics. Paulson, Arvid (ed.) (1968) The Strindberg Reader: A Selection of Writings of August Strinberg. New York: Phaedra Inc. West, Nathanael (2018) The Day of the Locust. London: Penguin Classics. For Swedish sources you might consult the Swedish version of my essay.

 

 

 

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