Please read the curatorial essay below before watching the video essay.
Depictions of Guilt and “the Other” in Contemporary Scandinavian Film
by Cushla Standefer
“The Other” focuses on the depiction of ScanGuilt and immigrants in Sweden through the examination of The Square (Ostlund), A Pigeon Sitting on A Branch Reflecting on Existence (Andersson), World of Glory (Andersson), and Songs From The Second Floor (Andersson).
The Square tells the story of a prejudiced and morally conflicted Swedish upper-class man. The film uses the setting of the contemporary museum as a backdrop for contrasting the immigrant characters that are depicted throughout the film. The director, Ruben Ostlund is tactful with his implementation of “the other.” Imagery of primates and feral ape-like actors construct the perception of immigrants and non-whites in Swedish society. To explore the ways in which Ostlund depicts the ostracization and dehumanization of immigrants and those of different ethnic backgrounds, I juxtaposed Ostlund’s primate imagery to the images of migrants and non-whites side by side in the video to expose the visual similarities. The scenes of increased violence against non-white characters mirror the attacks against immigrants in Sweden by the Swedish Alt-Right. To explore the portrayal of cruelty against non-swedes I used the films’ depiction of the non-Swedish characters who were subject to increased violence by the “civilized” Swedish characters. In one scene Ostlund establishes the “other” through depicting the Swedes as refined tuxedo-clad individuals who are contrasted by an animalistic ape-like character. At first the characters are amused by the ape performer, but as soon as they realize that the performance is not staged, they beat the performer to death. This contrast of primate to human symbolizes the human-animal relationship that is present in Sweden’s racial tensions(Makedonas). The scene is also strikingly similar to footage of alt-right gangs attacking homeless migrants and is eerily reminiscent of the horrific crimes that have been committed again non-whites in America.
The construction of “the other” relates to the portrayal of non-Swedes and immigrants in Swedish film. “The other” refers to the racist treatment of non-white individuals through systems of oppression and unconscious bias. The ape metaphor is not only symbolic to internalized western racism but is a nod to the derogatory use of “ape” when referring to people of color and immigrants by whites.
Sweden has managed to remain relatively neutral throughout times of war and has historically proven itself to be progressive in both social and political respects. However, Sweden is not the utopian state that it is often thought to be. Swedish history often fails to include the country’s history of eugenics, racial cleansing, and their part in the holocaust. Sweden remained neutral during WW1 and therefore never took action to promote the mass killings of Jewish people in the holocaust; however, no action was taken to condemn or fight the Nazis’ actions. Scandals including the formation of Neo-Nazi groups and attacks by the far-right have blemished the headlines as of late. Experts on Swedish history and anthropology have written extensively on the idea of “ScanGuilt” which is described as the guilt and privilege held by Scandinavian people due to other nations’ suffering and poor quality of life (Oxfeldt). The ScanGuilt project discusses the past and current causes of “ScanGuilt” and how it is present in all parts of Swedish culture.
In particular, I chose to examine the way in which both directors use on-screen audience to depict the guilt surrounding non-interference and complacency that Swedes feel about the holocaust, slave trade, and mistreatment of immigrants. This lack of interference is represented as the passive audience. The “passive audience” is what I am classifying as the use of an audience who passively watches injustice and does not take action to intervene. The mise-en-scene is particularly important to the construction of “the passive audience” as the audience is often pictured around the focal point of violence or horrific actions against “the other.”
The examination of “the passive audience” is shown in both Ostlund and Andersson’s films. Andersson contributes to the model of “ScanGuilt” through his grueling long-take style, gray faced actors, and depressing vignettes (Yang). While Andersson depicts the “passive audience” through the passivity and callousness shown to immigrants in The Square. Ostlund and Andersson differ in their symbolic depiction of real events, Ostlund is less explicit in his reference to Sweden’s past and offers a satirical look at Swedish culture through the Museum’s odd exhibits. While Andersson often recreates scenes from Sweden’s past and the reference to each is explicit and aggressive.
Swedish film has established itself as an industry that is unafraid to critique society and face their issues head on. It has been celebrated overseas at international film festivals, with The Square winning a Palme d’Or in 2017, and has entered the playing field with other national cinemas. With a distinctive style and subject matter Swedish contemporary film achieves recognizability while maintaining versatility as a genre.
- Makedonas, Eleftherios. “Mocking the ‘Civilized’ Viewer-chimpanzee – Ruben Östlund’s “The Square.”
- Oxfeldt, Elisabeth. “Framing Scandinavian Guilt.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 10, no. 2, Apr. 2018, p. 1438725.
- Yang, Julianne Q. M. “Filming Guilt about the Past through Anachronistic Aesthetics: Roy Andersson’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence.” Scandinavian Studies, vol. 89, no. 4, 2017, pp. 573–96.