Remote in the chilly northern reaches of the globe, Scandinavia is the land of the northern lights, Vikings, breathtaking national parks, reindeer, and not least, a remarkable cinematic history. Ethereal, innovative and startling, Scandinavian cinema has witnessed some of the most esteemed films of all time.
Of the Scandinavian countries, Denmark was the first to garner a prominent position in the film industry during the early 1900s, with Sweden and Norway following shortly after. Since the turn of the century, modern Scandinavian directors have become increasingly recognised for their innovative and captivating approaches to cinema, attracting global audiences and admiration far beyond Scandinavia’s icy boundaries.
In chronological arrangement, the following list will contemplate ten cinematic masterpieces from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, that collectively demonstrate the unique and enchanting vision that is Scandinavian cinema.
1. The Phantom Carriage (1921)
Released one hundred years ago this year, our celebration of Scandinavian cinema opens with Victor Sjöström’s silent horror film The Phantom Carriage, which is among one of the earliest masterpieces to emerge from Scandinavian cinema. Combining inspiration from Dickens, Christianity and even folklore, The Phantom Carriage is a spellbinding reimagining of the 1912 novel “Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness!” by Swedish author, Selma Lagerlöf. Ingmar Bergman himself referred to The Phantom Carriage as the “film of all films,” citing it as an important influence on his own work.
The film opens on New Year’s Eve, with a dying woman and her final wish to speak to a man by the name of David Holm, who is uncannily played by Sjöström himself. What follows is an intricate exploration of Holm’s troubled character, examining his life as if through a kaleidoscope, from varying degrees and angles.
The film techniques and flashback narrative structure are undoubtedly ahead of their time. The film’s strategic use of double exposure punctuates the haunting quality of the narrative, symbolically separating the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural. A discordant conglomeration of piano and violin notes adds subtle touches of horror to the film’s mystical events.
Though produced a century ago, the film does not feel at all outdated, and remains a pivotal influence in Scandinavian cinematic history. Inventive and enchanting, The Phantom Carriage is a must-see for enthusiasts of early cinema and the horror genre.
2. The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Widely regarded as a landmark masterpiece in not only Scandinavian but global film history, The Passion of Joan of Arc is a silent historical film from acclaimed Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer.
As a silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc communicates the psychological intensity of its narrative powerfully, proving that verbal words are not always necessary for articulating passionate and violent emotions in film. The film re-enacts the true events of the tragic trial of Joan of Arc, utilising historical transcripts of the real trial, which culminated in her eventual demise in 1431.
Lacking the traditional romantic elements and visual cues of historical films and instead utilising startling montages of facial expressions, Dreyer ensures that the film maintains an atmosphere of tension and unease accurate to the real events. The lead actress, Falconetti, received extensive praise for her performance of Joan of Arc, which many consider as among the finest performances in cinematic history.
Dreyer’s startling and innovative use of camerawork, editing and sound uphold him as a director wholly in control of his artistry. The Passion of Joan of Arc is an essential Dreyer film, unshifting and uncompromising in its visionary magnificence.
3. Persona (1966)
While the majority of Ingmar Bergman’s films could be classified as masterpieces, his 1966 psychological thriller Persona is undeniably a stand out, written by Bergman himself.
Elizabet Vogler, a celebrated stage actress, suddenly blanks midperformance and without explanation, becomes mute. She appears to decide that there is little difference between the deception of theatrical performance and performing an action or mannerism in real life. Bergman’s experimentation with perspective and technical manipulation of smoke and mirrors throughout the film, shrewdly exposes the deceptions and lies of cinema itself.
By the advice of her doctor who believes Elizabet is suffering from a breakdown, she is sent away with her nurse Alma, to a cottage to recover. Elizabet’s persisting silence carves an imbalance between herself and her nurse Alma, who eventually begs her to speak. As Alma confides further in Elizabet she begins to find it increasingly difficult to distinguish herself from the mute actress.
Persona is an early psychological exploration of Jungian dualities and the merging of personas, one silent, the other desiring sound. Unlike many psychological horrors, Persona does not rely on dialogue to produce tension, but rather the lack of it. Sounds exist aurally throughout the film; the dramatic musical underscore exemplifies the lack of dialogue.
A visually captivating and confrontational film that explores the dualisms of human nature through silence and sound, Persona is rightly hailed as an enduring masterpiece of Scandinavian cinema.
4. I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967)
Often regarded as the launch of the New Wave of Swedish films, Vilgot Sjöman’s 1967 I am Curious (Yellow) is a revolutionary film about sexual exploration, class struggle and the search for independence during the political turmoil of the sixties. I am Curious (Yellow) is the sister film to I am Curious (Blue); the titles indicating the colours on the Swedish flag.
Protagonist, Lena Nyman, envisions a new Sweden. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., Lena actively engages in vocal protests in an attempt to change the Swedish government, while a film crew follows and films her actions.
The sexual openness of the film was particularly bold for the time, generating controversy in Sweden after its release and being classified as pure pornography in some cases. The erotic and sensual scenes between Lena and her lover Börje challenge the sexual taboos of the time, and predicate the sexual liberation and freedom of the following years.
While I am Curious (Yellow) may be considered too taboo for some, the film’s encapsulation of Swedish life during the sixties and the political vision of the time more generally, makes it an essential must-see film on this list, both historically and socially.
5. The Ice Palace (1987)
A fairy-tale like dream of snow and solitude, The Ice Palace is perhaps unmatched in its delicate balancing act of tragedy and beauty. Based on the 1963 novel of the same name by acclaimed Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas, Per Blom’s 1987 cinematic reimagining of The Ice Palace presents a sensitive onscreen portrayal of girlhood, loneliness and loss.
After her mother’s sudden death, Unn relocates to a small town where she befriends Siss. Just-adolescent girls, Unn and Siss have a one-time sexual encounter in Siss’s room, which humiliates Unn who begs Siss to keep her secret. The following day on her way to school, Unn notices a frozen cavern that resembles an ice palace. She wanders deeper and deeper into the melting labyrinth of icy rooms and hallways, and does not return.
With very little dialogue or development beyond the film’s initial action, Blom strategically utilises the cold stasis of the Norwegian winter to accentuate the paralysing effect Unn’s sudden disappearance has on Siss. Siss gradually withdraws from those around her, becoming a living symbol of the cold ice that similarly imprisoned Unn.
The cinematography is both striking and unusual, exhibiting innovative camera angles and prolonged scenes which advance with the gradualness of snow melting. The Ice Palace achieves its beauty in its ethereal symbolism and unconventional structure, situating it as a sensitive, understated masterpiece of Scandinavian cinema.
6. Insomnia (1997)
From Erik Skjoldbjærg’s 1997 feature debut Insomnia, emerges a darkly nuanced tale of light, stasis, and the foggy depths of the human psyche. Skjoldbjærg himself described the film as a “reversed film noir,” utilising light rather than darkness to produce its dramatic effects.
The premise is familiar: a detective arrives in a quiet town to investigate the death of a teenage girl. But it is the unsettling permanent daylight of the landscape, set above the Arctic Circle during the six-month Scandinavian summer, that sets the plot apart from other films of the crime genre.
Permanently exposed in bright opaque light, there are perceivably few hiding places for crime in this landscape. Yet, as the detective trails the impassively lit streets for a clue, he finds he is descending into a hallucinatory game of cat and mouse with the killer himself.
The film’s title is a reference to detective Engström’s inability to sleep while the invasive summer sunlight constantly seeps into his hotel room. He lies awake at night, attempts to shut out the light by taping the blinds down, but nothing works. His insomnia soon dissolves into restlessness and delusion, as he commits a crime of his own.
While Insomnia is a film of unending daylight, it is also paradoxically a film of unending mystery and concealment. Illuminating few of its secrets, Insomnia takes its rightful position as a masterpiece of Scandinavian cinema.
7. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2009)
Electric and unrelenting, Oplev’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is undoubtedly one of the most iconic films to emerge from Scandinavian cinema. An unforgettable reinvention of the thriller-crime genre, Oplev’s film is a faithful adaptation of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s intricate novel, and has garnered recognition from worldwide audiences.
Henrik Vanger recruits journalist, Blomkvist, and hacker, Lisbeth Salander, to investigate the disappearance of his niece forty years earlier. Like many of the Scandinavian films on this list, the film is deeply concerned with secrets. Their investigation ultimately leads them into the complex and mysterious history of the Vanger family’s secrets. Iconic heroine, Salander, carefully guards her own secrets and identity while exposing the secrets of others. At three hours and six minutes, the truth is a long way off to this gritty descent into depravity.
Oplev does not hold back in his depiction of the explicit themes encountered in Larsson’s novel. Sinister and grisly, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is confrontational in its pervasive, graphic scenes of violence towards women, the struggles of welfare agencies in Sweden, torture, and murder. Though shocking, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo addresses very real issues persisting in Scandinavia, and across the world, even today.
While many will be familiar with David Fincher’s 2011 remake, the original The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo indisputably reigns, as an accomplished masterpiece from a modern Scandinavian master.
8. Melancholia (2011)
A cataclysmic blue planet swings steadily toward the earth. Birds tumble out of a stormy sky. On a wind-torn hillside a woman clutches her son, bracing for impact. This is how Melancholia begins: with the end of the world.
From renowned Danish director Lars Von Trier, Melancholia examines the lives of two sisters, Justine and Claire, after they learn of an approaching planet called Melancholia, which is on course to collide with earth. The plot revolves around the sister’s disparate views of the inevitable end of the world, and the tensions formed between them leading up to the apocalypse.
Deeply personal, the apocalyptic symbolism of Melancholia is partially inspired by director Lars Von Trier’s experience of life-long mental illness, specifically, melancholia. At a suitable snow-laden pace, enchanting cinematography traverses ethereal, desolate landscapes of misted valleys and winnowing reeds. A subdued palette of moss greens and pearly whites punctuate the sullen tone that permeates throughout the film.
Melancholia is a poetic effort to encapsulate the internal symbolism formulated from moments of devastation and depression. In this way, the film is an innovative addition to the history of apocalyptic films, successfully situating physical catastrophe alongside the hardships of individual human experience. Melancholia is an indispensable Scandinavian film for fans of cinematic pieces that prioritise emotional experience, and the lyrical over the unlyrical.
9. The Hunt (2012)
What would it feel like to be wrongly accused of a crime? How would you live with the accusation? Crucial questions around criminal conviction and innocence are raised in Thomas Vinterberg’s engrossing 2012 tragedy, The Hunt.
Vinterberg revisits a central theme explored in his early film, Festen: child abuse. The difference being that this time, the alleged paedophile is shown to be innocent from the outset of the film. The Hunt opens on Lucas, a divorced day-care worker who lives a relatively comfortable life in a small Danish community. When Lucas is wrongly accused of sexually abusing one of his pupils at the day-care centre, his life and social reputation rapidly unravel, as he fights to defend his innocence.
Mads Mikkelsen, who portrays Lucas, won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival, for his emotionally torn performance of a man struggling to come to terms with the reality unfolding around him. The permanence of the accusations against Lucas are startling: he is ostracised by his community as a paedophilic sexual predator. Vinterberg seeks to give the misrepresented representation in The Hunt, telling the tale from the side of the truth.
Fast-paced and arguably flawless, the film manages emotional depth and frenzy without ever leaving the stark reality of the tale it tells. The Hunt is a remarkably moving contemporary Scandinavian masterpiece; a cautionary account of the shattering not-so-innocent consequences of seemingly innocent lies.
10. The Day Will Come (2016)
Jesper Nielsen’s tragic but moving cinematic portrayal of the true events that took place at Dutch reformatory orphanages during the sixties could not escape this list. Upon its release in 2016, The Day Will Come received immediate attention and praise, receiving six prizes in 2017.
After their mother is hospitalised and no longer able to work, ten-year-old Elmer and his thirteen-year-old brother Erik are sent to the Gudbjerg boy’s orphanage in the countryside. This pivotal moment alters the brothers’ lives forever. Within the orphanage, the boys encounter abuse, victimisation, and are constantly vulnerable to the exploitative actions of the orphanage headmasters.
The original film has since been edited into a three-part mini-series, following a triptych structure that divides the time the brothers spend within the orphanage. The cast of The Day Will Come present truly impressive portrayals of the terrifyingly real events that would have occurred within the walls of this institution. Though unavoidably tragic, the film manages to find inspiration in the boys’ courageous fight back against oppression and hardship.
The Day Will Come is a truly distressing and heartbreaking film to endure, but the disturbing truth of the tale it voices situates it as a crucial film on this list, depicting a very real moment in Scandinavian history that deserves acknowledgment and apology.