Sensitively written and directed, and also brilliantly edited, by Bo Widerberg, Ådalen 31 depicts an actual event in 1931 that shifted Sweden from conservative to Social Democratic governance, transforming it into a welfare state. This is the attack of the military on a demonstration by sawmill strikers following a violent confrontation between the strikers and imported scabs. Widerberg’s finest achievement took the Grand Prize of the Jury at Cannes.
Early on, the strike is indicated by a circular movement of the camera around the top of the factory’s smokeless tall smokestack—visual accompaniment to the silence of the idle compound. The film focuses on the working-class Andersson family, whose members support the strike. The film’s protagonist, Kjell Andersson, has retained his job in the office of the mill’s manager, but Harald Andersson’s eldest child becomes radicalized when his father is among those killed by the called-in troops. Indeed, in what may be a swipe at Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), Widerberg initially shows Kjell to be straddling a delicate fence between opposing classes. Extending to him noblesse oblige, the wife of the factory owner introduces Kjell to Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Chopin, and the boy is in love with Anna, her daughter, whom he impregnates. (Anna learns that she is pregnant by reading a book!)
The film consists of brief, highly particular scenes the accumulation of which fuses non-documentary and documentary styles. The detail emphasizes human behavior and activities.
Everyone in the film has a reason for what he or she does. Harald bestows first aid to a bloodied young strike-breaker who is desperate to earn money for his wife with heart disease. He feels he is simply being humane, but, enraged, feeling betrayed, fellow strikers turn on him, breaking his windows. Anna’s father brings in the scabs because a large order (from the U.S.) needs to be filled and shipped. But professed “reasons” may strike us as rationalizations, as when the owner and his ilk refer to the “little shareholders” for whom the strike must be squelched.
Jörgen Persson, the color cinematographer of Widerberg’s earlier Elvira Madigan (1967), performs similar visual magic here. The lush, verdant surrounding is aurally accompanied by the chirps of birds; to devastating effect, Widerberg erases this charming sound when the outdoors action darkens. Workers marching and singing the Internationale are similarly silenced by the violence targeting them. Delicately, Widerberg thus identifies labor with Nature.
Closing script notes that Sweden has not yet attained social equality. There is more work to do. (Kjell opines that what workers need to do is read more books!) Ådalen 31 is one contribution of Widerberg’s to this effort. It aims to remind him and his fellow and sister Swedes of some of the twentieth-century history to which they are obligated. It is a film about activism, and it is also an activist film.
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