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Obituary: Bo Widerberg

Some film-makers begin as writers and go on to the making of films. It is as if for such writers mere words are not enough to express their vision of life's moving images.

Such was the case of Bo Widerberg, who started writing as an adolescent, contributing essays and reviews to provincial Swedish journals, until in the 1950s he had his own columns of literary and film criticism in the popular Stockholm newspaper Expressen. Then he started publishing short stories and novels. There was an autobiographical novella, En Stuhl, Madame (1961), and among his novels were Erotikon (1957) and Den grunen draken (1965). They were all works of their period, and have not worn well.

But his film criticism led to the composition of an important work in the history of the Swedish cinema, Visionen i svensk film (1962), a collection of virulent essays that was a ground-breaking attack on the domination of state organisations in the production of Swedish films, which had reached a low watermark of mediocrity. With the arrival of the nouvelle vague, young aspirant directors began to question the domination of official systems of funding and distribution, and also the supremacy of older directors.

Widerberg even assailed Ingmar Bergman, accusing him of "giving credence to all the most wretched myths about us and our compatriots, and encouraging false preconceived notions of Swedish culture that foreigners expect to see confirmed in their films". He demanded a new cinema dealing with contemporary issues and neglected social themes. Among the young directors who supported him were Vilgot Sjoman and Jorn Donner, who prepared the way for others in the Sixties like Mai Zetterling, Jan Troell and Henning Carlsen.

In the same year, Widerberg made his first television film, a short called Pojken och draken ("Little boy with a kite") - one of his hobbies was kite-flying, an enthusiasm often embraced by people with original minds. Again in 1962 he went on to make his first feature, Barnvagen ("The Perambulator") about a young unmarried mother who refuses to shackle herself with a useless husband just for convention's sake. The film has a dark, stark social realism. The scripts were written by Widerberg, who used his experience as a novelist to create scenarios with imaginative, hard- hitting dialogue.

Nineteen sixty-three saw the foundation, by Harry Schein, of the Swedish Film Institute, to encourage the teaching and production of films. Widerberg was now able to direct his first really important film, Kvarteret Korpen (Raven's End, 1963) which brought him international recognition and starred his discovery, the young actor Thommy Berggren, who appeared in several of Widerberg's works (he had already played one of the young lovers in Barnvagen).

This remarkable evocation of the sombre lives of workers in the Thirties in Widerberg's home city, Malmo, was shot in gritty black-and-white, with documentary realism. Berggren plays Widerberg himself as a youth determined to become a writer in a working-class world where his parents struggle to make ends meet. The contrast with themes in such Bergman works as Sommernatans leende (Smiles of a Summer Night, 1955) and Jungfrukallen (The Virgin Spring, 1960), created shock waves in Sweden, but this and the two films that followed, Karlek (Love 65, 1965), about the sentimental problems of a young director, and Heja Roland ("Hello Roland", 1966), did not have any significant international impact.

It was in 1967 that Widerberg had his greatest international success with an extraordinarily beautiful film, a tragic love- suicide tale, Elvira Madigan. To the music of the Elvira Madigan theme (Mozart's Piano Concerto No 21), a young married cavalry officer falls in love with a beautiful circus high-wire dancer. He deserts and they elope into the forests of northern Sweden - the script was based on an actual event that shocked 19th-century Swedish society. It is the sort of Wagnerian tragedy that could only happen in northern climes: one cannot imagine it happening in the sunny south. It is an idyll sumptuously photographed in impressionistic style, with magnificent performances by Berggren and Pia Degermark, who was awarded the Best Actress prize at Cannes.

Anita Bjork starred in Widerberg's next movie, Adalen 31, which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 1969 and the Best Foreign Film award by the US Film Critics' Guild. It marked a return, after the exceptional Elvira Madigan, to documentary realism. It chronicles the tragic strikes at a paper mill at Adalen in the far north of Sweden in 1931, that are ended when the army is called in and a number of strikers are shot dead. It is the same motif, passionately proletarian, emotional rather than ideological, that is seen in Raven's End and that was continued in his next film, the underrated Ballad of Joe Hill, made in America in 1971, about one of the revolutionary heroes of the American trade union movement. This film also won a prize at Cannes, but failed to extend the director's international reputation.

Widerberg turned to making a series of thrillers, competent but well below his best. It was not until 1987 that he was able to make another film in his old lyrical style with Ormens vag pa halleberget (The Serpent's Way), based on a sombre novel by an author from the deep north, Torgny Lindgren, describing struggles for power in the little village of Vasterbotten. This tale is a social melodrama that is also a parable about political and commercial rapacity, showing that Widerberg's original talents of the 1960s remained intact. But by this time, the Swedes and the rest of the world were beyond shock, and the film had little commercial success.

Nineteen ninety-six saw Widerberg's final return to the screen, with Lust och faegring stor (All Things Fair), again set in Malmo and telling the true story of an adolescent boy who has a love affair with an older woman, his school teacher, played with luminous restraint by Marika Lagercrantz. Widerberg's son Johan played a part in this work, which was nominated for an Oscar in the category of Best Foreign Film.

Throughout his career, Widerberg made a number of superb television adaptations of classic plays, among them Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire, Strindberg's The Father and Ibsen's The Wild Duck. His work is the unique heritage of an artist who was remarkable for his part in the rejuvenation of Swedish cinema, for the integrity of his social commitment and the grandeur of his cinematic vision.

James Kirkup

Bo Widerberg, writer and film director: born Malmo, Sweden 8 June 1930; married 1953 Ann-Mari Bjorklung, 1957 Vanja Nettelbladt; died Aengelholm 1 May 1997.