One of the most critically acclaimed movies in Swedish history catapulted director Bo Widerberg into prominence, but this wasn’t really the one that made him famous outside of Sweden’s borders. That didn’t happen until Elvira Madigan (1967). Raven’s End was shown at the Cannes film festival, but French critics didn’t much like it. It did go on to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, but didn’t win. Raven’s End deserves to be better known, for its moving portrait of a father-son relationship and stark depiction of working-class life in the 1930s.
The year is 1936 and we’re in the poorest neighborhoods of Malmö. The war won’t come for another three years, but the looming threat is present whenever Hitler’s speeches are broadcast on the radio. This is where Anders (Thommy Berggren) is growing up, a young man who dreams of becoming an author. He’s written down colorful stories about his neighborhood and is hoping for a publisher to understand his brilliance. His father (Keve Hjelm) is an out-of-work salesman who drinks too much and has a very high opinion of himself; he may not have a job and has always failed at providing for his family but still fancies himself as too good and sophisticated for the poverty that surrounds him.
Anders’s mother (Emy Storm) has always been there for them both, working hard and accepting her station in life. Then finally, a letter arrives from Stockholm, an invitation to Anders from a publishing house…
Sense of authenticity
The movie wasn’t based on the director’s own upbringing in Malmö, but does feature bits and pieces from it that provide the basis for a fictitious story. Widerberg took advantage of old working-class buildings that were about to be razed and amateurs in supporting roles provided an additional sense of authenticity. The director’s social message is clear – there’s a tremendous concern here for the people who live in this milieu, struggling to get by, and who may fall for the glamour and power that radiates out of Hitler’s great propaganda event that year, the Berlin Olympics, as heard on the radio.
In the end, Widerberg’s call to action becomes more urgent as it’s made clear that the only hope for these people is voting for the Social Democratic Party, but he makes his point long before that happens. The movie is beautifully shot in Malmö by cinematographer Jan Lindeström who creates a poetic impression, especially in Anders’s interactions with friends and children in the neighborhood. Music written by the classical Italian composer Giuseppe Torelli becomes a symbol of Anders’s intellectual interests and his longing to escape this dead-end part of the world and make something of himself. That turns into a source of conflict with his mother, but focus lies on the relationship with his father. They are not predictable enemies; Widerberg has a refreshingly loving way to look at his characters. Anders looks up to his dad, but is old enough to know that he’s full of shit, that he’s not treating his wife right, and often tries to gently reason with him.
When they do clash, there’s a realistic sense of sadness in Anders’s approach; this is after all still his dad. Where the film is headed comes as no great surprise, but it doesn’t matter – Widerberg crafted a moving drama that has become an enduring Swedish classic.
Storm is excellent as the mother, but Berggren and Hjelm dominate their every scene in what is likely their finest performances ever. Watching them together, sensing the balance between love and frustration, is certainly a treat.
Raven’s End 1963-Sweden. 101 min. B/W. Written and directed by Bo Widerberg. Cinematography: Jan Lindeström. Cast: Thommy Berggren (Anders), Keve Hjelm (The Father), Emy Storm (The Mother), Christina Frambäck, Ingvar Hirdwall, Agneta Prytz… Fritiof Nilsson Piraten.
Trivia: Original title: Kvarteret Korpen.