Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema
Driven by a desire to forge a socially conscious Swedish cinema—one that broke with the inward-looking psychodrama of Ingmar Bergman to give dynamic expression to the everyday experiences of working-class Swedes—writer Bo Widerberg turned to filmmaking in the early 1960s, realizing his ambition in politically committed yet poetic works that merge social-realist themes with a refined, often breathtakingly beautiful visual sensibility. Dramatizing the struggles of ordinary people fighting to chart their own destiny, these four acclaimed, popular, and pivotal films from Widerberg’s most prolific period live and breathe with a rare vitality—and helped launch a new Swedish cinema.
For their latest director-centric set, The Criterion Collection presents Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema, featuring the filmmaker’s early works The Baby Carriage, Raven’s End, Elvira Madigan, and Ådalen 31, shown in their respective aspect ratios of 1.33:1, 1.37:1, 1.66:1, and 2.39:1. All four films are presented on individual dual-layer discs and come with 1080p/24hz high-definition encodes. Raven’s End and Ådalen 31 come from new 4K restorations. Elvira Madigan’s presentation is from a new 2K restoration, while The Baby Carriage’s is from an older high-def restoration. All four restorations were sourced from scans of the 35mm original camera negatives, with duplicate negatives filling in where needed for Raven’s End and Ådalen 31.
All four presentations are solid, even The Baby Carriage, despite its older master. This presentation does show a handful of digital anomalies, from slight shimmers on tighter details and patterns to a slightly weaker range in contrast that seems to limit the grays a little. Still, outside of that, the image is incredibly sharp with excellent detail levels, and the restoration has been thorough, cleaning up most damage. The only remaining issues are occasional marks and faint tram lines. Blacks look inky, though shadow delineation is hit-and-miss.
Raven’s End is a far stronger black-and-white presentation, delivering more range in the grays and a cleaner photographic look. The finer details are rendered effortlessly without any shimmering effects, and the film grain has a more natural appearance, even if The Baby Carriage’s handling is suitable for an older master. The restoration also appears to have been far more thorough, as I don’t recall any significant blemish ever popping up.
The two color films likewise look outstanding. Both do have warmer appearances, Elvira Madigan mainly. Both films also feature a slightly softer look compared to the other ones. However, it sounds like this is all intentional based on comments from cinematographer Jorgen Persson in an included interview. Despite the warmer look of both films, whites still look white, blacks appear deep and rich, and colors all look wonderfully saturated with some sharp blues, violets, and reds present. Again, the digital presentations are stable and clean, rendering grain nicely, and the restoration work has left very little of note behind.
Altogether, the presentations look outstanding.
The Baby Carriage (1963): 8/10 Raven's End (1963): 9/10 Elvira Madigan (1967): 9/10 Ådalen 31 (1969): 9/10
All four films come with Swedish monaural soundtracks presented in lossless single-channel PCM. I can’t say any of the individual tracks stick out from one another in any significant way. They all deliver adequate—if limited—range and fidelity. The dialogue sounds clean, as does the music, and there is no heavy damage or distortion.
I set aside an evening to go through the features, so imagine my surprise (and disappointment) when I managed to get through them all quickly. Despite the material being spread across all four discs, very little can be found in the end. Each disc sports what’s classified as an archival interview with director Bo Widerberg. However, they all end up simply being excerpts from news broadcasts or talk shows, running between a minute and a half (The Baby Carriage) and 7 minutes (Raven’s End). Each one relates to the disc’s respective film, Widerberg usually discussing his intentions for each. For Raven’s End (with his daughter beside him), he talks about his desire to make a “lighthearted” film that is about ordinary people as opposed to “refined society” (a dig at Ingmar Bergman, I suppose) before talking about his daughter’s performance in the film. For Elvira Madigan, he sits with a group of children who question him on the film, one of them curious as to how Widerberg got one actor to vomit. The segment that comes with Ådalen 31 (and the only supplement on that disc) appears to be from a news story about the film and concerns around how it will treat the material, with Widerberg sitting on a conference alongside Hjalmar Nasstrom—who was there for the events depicted in the film—to explain his intent.
They’re all well and good, yet just fragments scattered about. Thankfully the remaining material fairs better, including new interviews with actor Tommy Berggren (found on Raven’s End disc) and cinematographer Jorgen Persson (on Elvira Madigan’s), running 18 minutes and 21 minutes, respectively. Funny enough, both talk about Widerberg’s love of cinema (it sounds like that is all he ever talked about) and this desire, since school, to make Elvira Madigan. I enjoyed Berggren’s reflection on his role in the first three films, yet I found Persson’s discussion more engaging. He gets into how they experimented with the color film stock for Elvira Madigan, having never worked in color before, and his and Widerberg’s insistence on using natural light throughout. It was also here that I learned how, at the time, color was looked down on by Swedish film critics as it was felt it was best served for comedies and such. Persson and Widerberg made it their mission to show that color films could be art; Persson feels they accomplished precisely that.
(Interestingly, both interviews were filmed by Criterion in 2021, so it appears they’ve been planning releases of Widerberg’s films for a bit now.)
Elvira Madigan’s disc closes with about a minute of behind-the-scenes footage.
The remaining disc features are found on the disc for The Baby Carriage, including Widerberg’s first short feature he made alongside Jan Troell, The Boy and the Kite. The film features a very loose narrative focused on a day in the life of a young boy from a Swedish working-class family, and that day happens to be his birthday. Sadly, his mother is giving birth in the hospital, and his dad has forgotten all about it.
Troell provides a short 2-minute introduction, briefly recounting how the film came together, revealing that it received less-than-stellar reviews following its airing on television. I get the impression that Troell was more responsible for the film’s visuals and camerawork, and his imprint on it may be heavier. That said, Widerberg’s contribution is still clear through realistic depictions of its characters and settings, with Vivaldi appearing in the soundtrack.
Filmmaker Ruben Östlund then contributes a 15-minute introduction to the release, explaining Widerberg’s background and his work's impact on Swedish cinema. It ends up only being a surface-level overview, but thankfully, Peter Cowie fills in some gaps in his lengthy essay found in the 32-page booklet. His article gives an incredibly in-depth overview of Widerberg’s background and work before tackling each film in the set individually. Widerberg’s “manifesto” (a series of articles eventually assembled to form Vision in Swedish Film) comes up in Cowie’s essay and elsewhere in the features, so as a reference, Criterion includes excerpts of it here, with added commentary by Marten Blomkvist.
The material is pretty good, but it still feels so disappointingly sparse for Criterion’s introduction to the director. The booklet ends up being the most substantial addition to the release.
Booklet aside, the release is shockingly sparse on features. Thankfully the presentations are all rock solid.