Saturday, June 10, 2006

DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN 1969-2000 reviewed

Intimacy under a microscope in the Swedish instructional film Kärlekens språk (1969).


DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN 1969-2000
("Swedish Sin 1969-2000")
1999, Max's Films/Xploited Cinema, DD-2.0/ST/+, 189m 58s, PAL DVD-0

This is something I never expected to see: a three-hour-plus retrospective of Swedish erotic cinema and its evolution (or devolution, depending on your point-of-view) from 35mm film to DTV. It covers exclusively hardcore (XXX) and apparently only work that is owned by the Max's Films label, so that it ends up being a highly indulgent sampler of the firm's product rather than a full-fledged documentary.

Given these unspoken ground rules, DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN necessarily omits a lot of important erotic filmmaking that was done in Sweden. For example, there is no mention of Ingmar Bergman's contribution with films like SUMMER WITH MONIKA, Vilgot Sjöman's 491 or I AM CURIOUS films, Essy Persson, Marie Liljedahl, Christina Lindberg, or the many films that Joe Sarno has made there under his own name (INGA, DADDY DARLING, YOUNG PLAYTHINGS, BUTTERFLIES, etc.) -- all of which would have helped contribute to a fascinating and authentic documentary. That said, what is provided here is organized at least partly as an educational overview and I did learn a good deal from it.

DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN covers a total of 18 different films, giving us the main titles and a lengthy representative excerpt (10 graphic minutes, on average) from each, with informative background narration over the titles. The first two films discussed, Kärlekens språk ("The Language of Love," 1969) and its sequel Mera ur kärlekens språk ("More About the Language of Love," 1970), both directed by Torgny Wickman, are incorrectly described as the first films to graphically depict acts of masturbation and intercourse. (In fact, Matt Cimber's MAN AND WIFE [1969] beat Kärlekens språk into theaters by a few months.) No mention is made of Kärlekens språk being the movie that Robert de Niro drags Cybill Shepherd to see in TAXI DRIVER, but what goes around comes around: the choice of entertainment so offensive to Ms. Shepherd's character was recently the subject of a screening at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. It's interesting to learn how these two films got around the Swedish censor by presenting themselves as documentaries based on the research of sex columnists Inge and Sten Hegeler. The filmmakers may have been disingenuous in their approach, but that didn't prevent them from using the opportunity to make their films a valid educational tool as well as exploitatative. In hindsight, one can also see from these excerpts that their clinical approach influenced the Schulmädchen-Report ("Schoolgirl Report") films, a series of anthropological sex comedies that came out of West Germany the following year.

The film proceeds to cover a series of accomplished comedies -- clearly influenced by the Schülmädchen Report films -- made by the pseudonymous "Bent Torn," in fact Mac Ahlberg, who has since directed films under his own name and and today works steadily as a high-profile director of photography (John Landis's INNOCENT BLOOD, Joe Dante's THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, and several films for Stuart Gordon, including FROM BEYOND). Based on their excerpts, these movies -- including Porr i skandalskolan (1974), Justine och Juliette (1975) and Bel Ami (1976) -- had outstanding production values and better-than-capable comic performances, much better than were found in American or even West German sex films of the period. It's obvious that they were made for literate adult audiences who demanded to be entertained as well as aroused. The latter two films also featured the important adult film actress Marie Forså (whose surname, the film teaches us, is pronounced "For-show-a"), a wholesome-looking young woman who made only a dozen films in her career, could really act, and was notable for refusing to participate in hardcore photography though she was often filmed actually having sex with her co-stars.

"Marie Lynn" (Marie Forså) in Mac Ahlberg's JUSTINE AND JULIETTE (1975).

Included in this section is the interesting Den ''K- Släkten (1976), an erotic anthology film by Heinz Ahland which Ms. Forså only narrated. Also, an historic step is documented by the inclusion of Veckända i Stockholm ("Vacation in Stockholm," 1976), the only Swedish hardcore film ever directed by a woman -- Ann-Mari Berglund -- but she doesn't appear to have done much with the opportunity except to also star in it.

DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN arrives at its most compelling stretch with a discussion of two pseudonymous Joe Sarno pictures, Fäbodjäntan (1978, credited to "Lawrence Henning") and Kärleksön (1977, credited to "Hammond Thomas"), which are covered in reverse chronologic order for some reason. The narrator (female, incidentally) surprised me by describing Fäbodjäntan as "the most successful Swedish porn feature of all time," because it's considered an obscure title even among Sarno devotées. It's actually an outstanding example of his hardcore work, with elements of fantasy, and the sex is sometimes tantric in its intensity and spiritual dimension. Sarno had a knack for finding performers who were really into their work and it's clear they are not only enjoying themselves but exploring themselves onscreen. I found this source for a Swedish import DVD double feature of these two Sarno films, also on the Max's label; unfortunately this double-feature doesn't appear to offer English subtitle options, though the excepts from both features included here are subtitled.

A date is set between members of the young cast of Joe Sarno's Fäbodjäntan (1978).

After this, we're a little more than halfway through the program but it's sort of all downhill from there. What distinguishes the sex on view in the first half of the program is that it's all very egalitarian, healthy and unselfish. The women have desire equal to that of the men and pursue it with equal vigor. Just as importantly, it's all skillfully filmed and has a dramatic or historic context that involves you in what's going on. After the Sarno films, DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN embarks on what's hard not to see as a downward spiral, with video taking over from film circa 1986 and the innovations becoming more superficial. When Swedish erotica made the transition to video, it seems to have turned from warm and positive to cold and fetishistic. After a numbing series of mechanical trysts (that frankly had me leaning on my fast-forward key), the program ends with a prolonged, MTV-style encounter between a strutting blonde and a welding-masked stud in a auto repair garage, with sparks flying everywhere -- except between the viewer and the material.

The stage is set for a meaningful relationship in Mike Beck's ?? (that's the title).

Viewing this DVD the day after I watched THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION, I found the index provided by this chronological overview of Swedish erotica as a confirmation of J. G. Ballard's view that our world has become psychotic. DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN begins with material that is healthy and intellectual, instructional and humanistic, but it goes somewhere increasingly abstract, synthetic, and also mildly hostile. There's no trend toward silicone here (which is a plus over the current American porn stars), but pubic hair seems to become a thing of the past as the women become more purely imagistic and increasingly robotic in the second half; the men become less real too, masked phantoms with big muscles. The high-gloss scenarios on view are increasingly sealed off from reality, twisting its viewers' imaginations rather than liberating or indulging them. A near-exception is a "Reality TV"-like segment by Christer Frankell in which an on-the-street interview with a very cute girl becomes an "opportunity" for her to perform in an erotic "screen test." Here the prospect of an initially erotic encounter is soured by the extent to which Frankell and his cameraman exploit this young woman and put her personal safety at risk (they refuse to wear condoms, only promising "you won't get pregnant"). The male arrogance and female subjugation found here, which would have been unthinkable to the people who made Kärlekens språk, is a turn-off... though, with appropriate cynicism, we never doubt for a moment that the entire encounter is staged.

As the grabs included here will attest, the image quality is variable depending on the source. On the whole, the mostly standard ratio presentation looks good for such a densely-packed disc. Some of the clips are letterboxed, if only modestly. The Swedish dialogue has an English subtitling option, the only way a good deal of this material is at all available in English. (The subtitles sometimes lag a bit behind the dialogue they should accompany.) There is also a wealth of trailers for other Max's Film Swedish hardcore releases, one of which features a blurb (in Swedish) attributed to Woody Allen!


In short, not all of DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN 1969-2000 is necessarily of value, but it's a must for Joe Sarno collectors and a good place to learn more about a genre of serious filmmaking (initially serious, anyway) generally not accessible to English-speaking audiences. It does make one wish that a more genuine, non-partisan documentary existed on the subject, featuring interviews with the participants. Until that unikely chimera descends to earth, you can find DEN SVENSKA SYNDEN here.

POSTSCRIPT 6/15/06: Since this blog was posted, a couple of readers have independently informed me that the apparent "blurb" by Woody Allen is in fact a quotation from ANNIE HALL (1977), translated into Swedish: "Don't knock masturbation! It's sex with someone I love."

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