Ådalen 31

Director: Bo Widerberg
Screenplay: Bo Widerberg
Stars: Peter Schildt (Kjell Andersson), Kerstin Tidelius (Karin, his mother), Roland Hedlund (Harald, his father), Marie De Geer (Anna), Anita Björk (Hedvig, Anna’s mother), Olof Bergström (Anna’s father), Jonas Bergströ (Kjell’s friend)
MPAA Rating: X
Year of Release: 1967
Country: Sweden
Ådalen 31 Criterion Collection Blu-rau
Ådalen 31

For writer/director Bo Widerberg, there was no question about the need for a film about the Ådalen shooting, which occurred in the Swedish sawmill district of Ådalen in 1931 and resulted in the deaths of five strikers and a seismic shift in the country’s center of political power. “It’s one of the turning points in our country’s history,” he declared in a 1968 interview. “You have to make a film about it. You simply have to.” He had decided that he wanted to make the film while he was completing editing on his second feature, Raven’s End (Kvarteret Korpen, 1963), but it took four years to make it a reality.

The resulting film, Ådalen 31, was a resounding international success, winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and netting an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It took some lumps from critics who demanded that its revolutionary qualities surpass its artistic qualities and also from critics who felt that its politics were too didactic. Some of the critical barbs regarding the film’s aesthetics were sharpened by the fact that Widerberg was best known internationally for the beautifully shot, lyrical romantic tragedy Elvira Madigan (1967), rather than his earlier, gritty social-realist dramas like The Baby Carriage (Barnvagnen, 1963). And it is true that his overall concept of the capital-versus-labor tension is not too far removed from 1920s Soviet agitprop films, which frequently depicted pre-revolution factory owners as portly, cigar-chomping villains and the workers as noble, upstanding exemplars of grounded humanity. However, while Widerberg’s political sympathies are certainly evident, he is no purveyor of simple caricature, instead allowing for some nuance in his portrayal of various characters on both sides of the conflict.

To give the historical atrocity a more intimate, human dimension, Widerberg grounds it in a fictional narrative involving the Andersson family, whose father, Harald (Roland Hedlund), is on a sympathy strike to support workers in the local pulp mill who are striking against their wages being reduced. He and his wife, Karin (Kerstin Tidelius), manage their family well despite the hard times, which is a change for Widerberg, whose previous depictions of nuclear families leaned heavily into tension and dysfunction. There is a real sense of warmth in the Andersson home as they struggle to make ends meet without a paycheck, and Widerberg is often at his cinematic best when visualizing the dignified everyday routines of their working-class life, whether it be washing the front steps or serving a bigger-than-usual meal.

The Anderssons’ oldest son, Kjell (Peter Schildt), is a teenager who has an office job at the local saw mill and falls in love with the owner’s daughter, Anna (Marie De Geer). Much of the narrative involves Kjell and his best friend Nisse (Jonas Bergströ) trying to figure out the opposite sex, which gives the film a coming-of-age dimension, parts of which have not aged terribly well. It is understandable that Kjell and Nisse are consumed with trying to understand girls and erogenous zones, but the scene in which Nisse hypnotizes a girl into a deep sleep and takes off all her clothes—which is most likely responsible for the film’s X rating from the MPAA—plays very creepy today.

The painterly romanticism of Elvira Madigan is certainly present here in the depiction of the relationship between Kjell and Anna, and Widerberg conveys a real of sense of beauty in young, inexperienced love, even as it results in an unexpected pregnancy (a social reality that played a major role in both The Baby Carriage and Raven’s End, as well). The blunt, practical response of Anna’s mother (Anita Björk) to her teenage daughter being pregnant radically realigns her character, as we had previously seen her as a teacher to Kjell, instructing him in French Impressionism. There is a sudden coldness there that dovetails with Widerberg’s depiction of the sawmill owners, whose practicality and concerns with their own economic status are fundamental to the oppression of the working class.

Widerberg and cinematographer Jörgen Persson, who also shot Elvira Madigan and would go on to a prolific career, shooting several more of Widerberg’s films and eventually working with Lasse Hallström and Bille August, move confidently between a lyrical, impressionistic aesthetic and a documentary-like approach, especially once the workers start marching and the bullets start flying. Widerberg is blunt with the film’s violence, and he also uses it to complicate any simple good-versus-evil dichotomies we might want to draw (or assume he is drawing). The Swedish military, who are deployed to protect the workers brought in by the mill owners to replace the striking workers, are clearly in over their heads and not prepared to managed a civilian protest. Their very presence relates directly to the violent actions of the striking workers, who attack the scabs in increasingly vicious ways and even turn on Harald when he attempts to render medical aid to one of them who is bleeding and in fear for his life. The film does more than just imply that violence begets more violence, and Widerberg can’t help getting explicitly didactic in the film’s closing moments, using Kjell as a mouthpiece for the argument that education is key to raising the social and economic prospects of the working class and finding some common ground of equality. It is a good argument, but one that you can’t help but wish that Widerberg had made in a less self-conscious display.

Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema 4-Disc Blu-ray Set
Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema Criterion Collection Blu-ray SetThis four-disc Blu-ray set contains four films: The Baby Carriage (1963), Raven’s End (1963), Elvira Madigan (1967), and Ädalen 31 (1969).
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 (The Baby Carriage, Raven’s End; 1.66:1 (Elvira Madigan); 2.39:1 (Ådalen 31)
  • Swedish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural (all four films)
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Video introduction to director Bo Widerberg by filmmaker Ruben Östlund
  • Video interviews with actor Tommy Berggren
  • Video interview with cinematographer Jörgen Persson
  • The Boy and the Kite (1962), a short film by Widerberg and Jan Troell, with an introduction by Troell
  • Swedish television interviews with Widerberg from the 1960s
  • Behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Elvira Madigan
  • Essay by film historian Peter Cowie and excerpts from Widerberg’s 1962 book Vision in Swedish Film
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 22, 2023

    All four of the film’s in Criterion’s four-disc Blu-ray set Bo Widerberg’s New Swedish Cinema are listed as “new restorations” and they all look excellent, although there are some differences in how each transfer was done. The Baby Carriage was transferred in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative; Raven’s End was transferred in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and a duplicate negative; Elvira Madigan was transferred in 2K from the original 35mm camera negative; and Ådalen 31 was transferred in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and a duplicate negative. There is a great deal of visual difference among the four films, with The Baby Carriage and Raven’s End being gritty, black-and-white, Academy aspect ratio films, while Elvira Madigan and Ådalen 31 are lush, color, widescreen films. The grayscale and contrast of the two earlier films give them a strong, realistic presence and work well with their grim subject matter, while the beautiful color cinematography on the latter two films is impressive in its saturation and wide-ranging palette. All four films look generally clean in their restorations, with little or no print damage of signs of age and wear. All four films feature clean monaural soundtracks in Linear PCM. As for the supplements, there isn’t a ton here, but there is enough to help contextualize the films and the role that Widerberg played in invigorating and expanding Swedish cinema in the 1960s. There is a 15-minute video introduction to Widerberg’s career by filmmaker Ruben Östlund (The Square, Triangle of Sadness) that is essential viewing if you are unfamiliar with his work. We also get The Boy and the Kite, a 30-minute film from 1962 by Widerberg and Jan Troell, with a brief introduction by Troell (who would, of course, go on to become a major director, as well). The set also includes new video interviews with two of Widerberg’s most consistent collaborators: Tommy Berggren (18 min.), who starred in eight of Widerberg’s films, and cinematographer Jörgen Persson (21 min.), who shot six of his films. Widerberg himself appears in four interview excerpts from Swedish television: he discusses The Baby Carriage on a 1963 episode of the show Aktuellt (2 min.); that same year he and his daughter Nina discuss Raven’s End on the show Filmkrönikan (7 min.); in 1967, in what is arguably the most intriguing interview, Widerberg is interviewed about Elvira Madigan on the show Filmrutan by a group of schoolchildren (5 min.); and, finally, in 1968 he discusses Ådalen 31 in a press conference on the show Aktuellt with labor-union chairman Hjalmar Näsström, who was present at the actual event (4 min.). There is a tantalizing and all-too-brief minute of behind-the-scenes footage from Elvira Madigan, as well as a hefty insert booklet with a new essay by film historian Peter Cowie and excerpts from Widerberg’s 1962 book Vision in Swedish Film.

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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