Bo Widerberg (1930–1997) was confronted with the dilemma of carving out his own niche in Swedish cinema as the anti-Ingmar Bergman. Bergman himself had been confronted with competing with the legends of Swedish silent film, Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, finally incorporating Sjöström into his oeuvre by casting him in Wild Strawberries. Bergman was essentially worshipful of his predecessors, even going so far as to try to break into the English language market. (Stiller and Sjöström had gone to Hollywood in the 1920s, with mixed results.) Widerberg treated Bergman with respect, but from a distance. He said, “Neither I nor my friends saw very much in him. We didn’t find the issue of God’s existence that damned important.” (As critic Peter Cowie points out, “Religion is entirely absent from Widerberg’s films.”) Widerberg’s attack on Bergman, in his book Visions of Swedish Cinema, helped him launch a career as a director, leading quickly to Raven’s End.
Like so many early works by auteurs, the film is probably very close to the filmmaker’s true perspective, its purity to be diluted in subsequent films. It is a work of social conscience and rebellion, in some respects the complete antithesis of the sumptuous Technicolor romance he made only four years later, Elvira Madigan. Political engagement, however, became a major theme throughout his work (Adalen 31, The Man on the Roof, Joe Hill).
Although the film is set before the Second World War (1936, the year of the Berlin Olympics), it has been suggested that Raven’s End provides something of a self-portrait of Widerberg as a struggling writer. The film is set in a relentlessly grim ensemble milieu, a neighborhood of struggling to survive—or maybe even escape. (The actual location in Malmo, Widerberg’s hometown, was torn down shortly thereafter.) It reminds me a bit of King Vidor’s film of Elmer Rice’s play Street Scene (1931) or Akira Kuosawa’s early depiction of postwar Tokyo, Drunken Angel (1947). The protagonist, played by Thommy Berggren, an essentially good person determined to survive, bends his moral sense, much as Stathis Giallelis does in Elia Kazan’s depiction of his uncle’s epic journey to escape European oppression for his salvation in America, America (also made in 1963). There is also a kinship with Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman and Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night—the failing alcoholic father, betrayed by his dreams, visiting a low-key but ongoing hell on his family.
One is mindful, too, of the British social realist films of the period, the works of Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, etc. Thommy Berggren is not much like Richard Harrris, Tom Courtenay, or Albert Finney, but his background is quite similar to the role he plays in Widerberg’s film. His impoverished parents were both socialists, and his father became an alcoholic. Berggren became so prominent in film and theater that a documentary called The Bricklayer was made about him in 2002, which also recounts his commitment to political and social causes. Over many years, he was Widerberg’s most reliable leading man, in spite of occasional work with Ingmar Bergman.
Bergman, by the way, outlived Widerberg by more than a decade.