Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Scandinavian Blue, by Jack Stevenson

Scandinavian Blue: The Erotic Cinema of Sweden and Denmark in the 1960s and 1970s, by Jack Stevenson. Trade paperback, 304pp. $49.95. 2010. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Oh for the glory days when downtown theater marquees sported such tantalizing titles as Days of Sin and Nights of Nymphomania(1962), Relations — The Love Story from Denmark (1969), and Do You Believe in Swedish Sin? (1970) (short answer, we do: also, in American sin). These titles serve as suitable taglines for the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, a period documented cinematically by Jack Stevenson in this lively history.

Sweden and Denmark are the obvious starting points for much of what would bloom internationally in the two prime decades of the counterculture. From Sweden, in 1951, came the “naturist” arthouse classic One Summer of Happiness in 1951. In 1967, Denmark boldly rejected censorship for written material, and two years later did the same for visual material (including films and magazines). Both these countries had a history of more bucolic fare and lightweight comedies that, as documented by Stevenson, morphed into more daring works that incorporated — sometimes in major ways, sometimes in minor dabs, and sometimes gratuitously — images of naked, bouncing Scandinavians. Initially the films were set in natural locales like the seashore; later they would take place in more urban environments and invade every genre and feature every imaginable degree of sexual frankness, from gauzy softcore to experimental works to hardcore fetishism.

Stevenson (who, full disclosure, has contributed a few articles to Bright Lights over the years) structures the main narrative around individual films, with detailed descriptions (drawing on rare sources in the contemporaneous Swedish and Danish press) of the films, the people who created and acted in them, the production circumstances, budgets, and critical and popular reaction. Within these vignettes he includes sociological background, archival information, and references other films being released at the time. The result is a thorough account of a vibrant moment in cultural and social history.

Some of the films here have obvious interest sociologically (I Am Curious Yellow) or as part of the oeuvre of a noted auteur (Bergman’s Summer with Monika or The Silence, the latter noted in the book for its famous female masturbation scene). Others, like The Sinful Dwarf, are legendary as examples of the over-the-top grossness that would run alongside the more “wholesome” and “liberated” films. Still others, such as I, A Woman, have significance as precursors of the soft-core art film a la Radley Metzger. But what’s surprising in the book’s revelations are the breadth and sheer ambitiousness of some of the Swedish and Danish films made during this time. For example, in 1963, 28-year-old Mogens Vemmer made Street without End, a seamy tale of prostitution that presaged the Dogme movement with an amateur cast (the lead actress was a prostitute), location shooting, and syched sound. According to Stevenson, Vemmer often used hidden microphones and cameras, and had to race with crew and camera in and out of locations to avoid being caught.

Running through the book’s meaty narrative (the details can be dizzying at times) is the story of how individual filmmakers like Vemmer challenged censorship at every turn and increasingly began to export their work worldwide. They found their most receptive audiences, according to Stevenson, in places like South America and southern Europe. One of the major markets, of course, was the United States, which was also in the throes of the counterculture by the late 1960s and, despite intermittent setbacks in particular states and court rulings, ultimately showcased Scandinavian “art”/porn films in most urban venues. It’s hard to imagine now, but mainstream publications like Time and Variety were as likely as Screw or the Los Angeles Free Press to review some of these films. Even in 1964, magazines like Newsweek reflected some of the sophisticated reaction that occurred outside America’s prudish bible belt. In reviewing the Danish film Weekend, for example, the bemused Newsweek critic objected not to the presence of a (supposed) “orgy” but to the fact that the orgy was “so dismal as to be boring.”

Scandinavian Blue includes several appendices, one of which traces the intriguing history of a much-discussed hard-core film that, sad to say, was never made, The Sex Life of Jesus. The obvious cause would be the seemingly incendiary subject matter (though a similar film, Jesus Is in the House, was in fact made in 1975 though it seems impossible to find), but Stevenson shows how the eccentricities of the man who proposed the project, Jens Jorgen Thorsen, played as big a role as appalled Christians in its failure to be made. Other appendices cover Ole Ege, the “gentleman pornographer” responsible for the infamous bestiality film Bodil, a Summer Day in 1970; the Wet Dream Festival; and a series of short biographies of key figures of this loose movement. Numerous photographs, many of them rare, as well as a detailed index enhance the text.

Note: Order from Amazon or directly from the publisher (800-253-2187).