BBC Culture

Scandinavia’s sexy cinema

(Sandrews, Zentropa, Svensk Filmindustri, Cambist)

(Sandrews, Zentropa, Svensk Filmindustri, Cambist)

Sweden and Denmark have a long tradition of risqué filmmaking. But what effect did these movies have on the rest of the world? Nicholas Barber looks back.

There aren’t many films like Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. It’s five hours long; it’s been edited down into two volumes by its producers; it’s sexually explicit; and its sex scenes are interspersed with learned discourses on fly-fishing, Bach, the Fibonacci sequence, and the Russian Revolution. It may feature Stellan Skarsgård, who crops up in The Avengers and Thor, but no one’s going to mistake it for a superhero blockbuster.

As groundbreaking as von Trier’s film may be, in some respects it’s part of a venerable tradition of Scandinavian erotic cinema. Exactly 40 years ago, Skarsgård co-starred in Anita, an X-rated Swedish drama in which a beautiful sex addict talks him through her traumatic love life. The description that could apply just as easily to Skarsgård’s role in Nymphomaniac. And by the time Anita came out, in 1974, Scandinavia’s reputation for risqué films was already firmly established.

Rickard Gramfors, whose Klubb Super 8 DVD label specialises in Swedish exploitation movies, traces this tradition back to 1951. “Sweden was definitely the front runner,” he says, “thanks to Arne Mattsson’s One Summer of Happiness. It included a glimpse of naked breasts, which helped make it an international success.” In 1953, One Summer of Happiness was followed by what Gramfors calls “a copycat version”, Ingmar Bergman’s Summer with Monika. This another film with a Lars von Trier connection: its star, Harriet Andersson, went on to appear in Dogville, 50 years later.

Bergman’s artistic drama may be a far cry from anything we’d class as pornography today, but you can see why some viewers in the 1950s couldn’t see beyond Andersson’s naked curves. “Erotic films are almost as old as cinema itself,” notes Julian Marsh, founder of Britain’s Erotic Film Society. “But in the early 1950s, other than getting an invitation to a private stag show or a burlesque roadshow, the best hope most American or British cinema-goers had of seeing a flash of bare flesh was in an imported film, shown in an art-house cinema. Of course, the films seldom delivered what their lurid marketing promised, but audiences would drive all the way across a state to watch a supposedly racy title with a few seconds of naked swimmers diving into the chilly waters of the archipelago.”

Swede spot

And so it was that the Swedes were landed with their new image. As far as the world’s film-lovers were concerned, they were usually gorgeous, they had a guilt-free approach to casual sex, and they were partial to naked rambles along the shore. International distributors cashed in shamelessly. Summer with Monika was renamed Monika: The Story of a Bad Girl! for the American market. “Naughty And Nineteen,” drooled the posters. “The Devil Controls Her By Radar!” Two decades on, Anita was retitled Anita: Swedish Nymphet, and The Intruders (which also co-starred Stellan Skarsgård) became Swedish Sex Games.

Despite this cheeky salesmanship, Sweden’s proto-porn films weren’t just about healthy-looking blondes getting undressed beside lakes. Some of them, at least, had more serious matters in mind.

 “I Am Curious (Yellow), which came out in 1967, quickly gained a scandalous reputation overseas for its nudity and sexual content,” says Marsh. “But most of its running time consists of a critique of Swedish society expressed in an avant-garde, new-wave style, so I can’t imagine what audiences in search of cheap thrills made of it. And while Torgny Wickman’s Anita is undoubtedly an exploitation title, Wickman created a drama with a more complex and sympathetic central character than that might suggest. Another example would be Sweden’s Mac Ahlberg, whose 1965 Danish-Swedish co-production I, A Woman is a rather sombre, Bergman-esque study of a young woman’s sexuality.”

Denmark’s biggest contribution to Scandinavia’s erotic film industry came in the summer of 1969, when its government passed laws abolishing the censorship of images. The landmark legislation has been studied by Jack Stevenson, an American film critic who lives and works in Copenhagen. “The Danes threw a huge ‘coming-out’ party called SEX 69,” says Stevenson. “It was a porn trade fair that attracted 100,000 paid admissions and 200 foreign journalists. Directors from many countries came to make ‘porn documentaries’ in Denmark, and Danish directors started tailoring films for foreign markets.”

Sexual revolution

Suddenly, Scandinavian sexploitation cinema didn’t just mean unclothed frolics in the Swedish countryside. It meant hardcore intercourse. But because these Danish-based films were presented as documentaries about a European sociological phenomenon, they could be watched and discussed by respectable British and American audiences. In Stevenson’s view, such films played a key part in America’s sexual revolution. “Danish and Swedish films were important in breaking down censorship barriers,” he says, “and, in rare cases, they introduced a more sophisticated and adult view of sexuality. Certainly films like I Am Curious (Yellow), Gift, Danish Blue and Language of Love treated sexuality in a variety of ways that the puritanical Anglo-Saxons could never have duplicated. These movies helped make America a much more sexually progressive society.”

Not that everyone saw such progressiveness in a positive light. Language of Love, which was marketed as a sex-education film, was particularly controversial. “There was huge outrage in both the UK and the USA,” says Gramfors, “especially from the Christian right-wing. In Trafalgar Square in London, Cliff Richard headed a demonstration of 30,000 Brits who protested against the movie. On their signs it said: ‘Sweden – more pornography, more suicides, more alcoholism and more gonorrhea every year!’”

Nonetheless, Language of Love has a special place in mainstream cinema history: it’s the film that Robert DeNiro takes Cybill Shepherd to see in Taxi Driver in 1976. By that time, though, the exotic lure of Scandinavia was beginning to wane: the likes of Danish Dentist on the Job and Confessions of a Danish Cover Girl were falling out of fashion.

“The films got cheaper and cheaper as competition came along from USA, Germany and France,” says Gramfors. “The earlier ‘respectful’ titles were just too expensive to make, so the films that came along in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were generally very low-budget − no story, no production value, and a lot of sex. The real full-stop for erotic films in Sweden, as well as in the rest of the world, came with the breakthrough of home video. When you didn’t have to put on your rain coat and go down to your local grindhouse venue to watch porn, it was basically all over. Things just got boring.”

But now, perhaps, they’re getting interesting again. Explicit sex has been making a comeback in art-house cinema over the past decade − and, again, we can thank the Scandinavians. Lars von Trier started the trend with The Idiots in 1998, and he has since funded a range of pornographic films via his production company, Zentropa. And then there’s Nymphomaniac. In one sequence, the licentious heroine tries to settle down to married domesticity and motherhood, but she can’t stop having affairs, and eventually she abandons her husband and child. Bergman’s Summer with Monika had exactly the same plot, 60 summers ago.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.