As the film version of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ opens, Stephen Armstrong reports on some shocking truths about Sweden.
“Part of Sweden’s problem overseas is that everyone thinks we’re like Abba and Ikea,” says Stockholm-based stand-up comedian Magnus Betner. “We’re a nation of beautiful people singing happy songs in stylish modernist apartments. But that’s not how we Swedes see ourselves. We have a very, very dark side, and I think you’re only just finding out about it now.”
Betner, the vocal leader of Sweden’s surprisingly large stand-up comedy scene, has just been booked into this summer’s Edinburgh Festival where, consciously or not, he’s part of a subtle cultural invasion by one of Europe’s oddest nations. Everywhere you turn – in film, music, literature, fashion and design – there’s a powerful Swedish presence.
Recently, for instance, impatient shoppers were hospitalised following a mob surge at a new Ikea store opening in North London. High-end style junkies, meanwhile, crave furniture from Frant, an all-girl interior design company. Clubbers across the UK queue for hours to hear hip DJ team Swedish House Mafia, who will dominate Ibiza this summer with their night at the island’s fashionable nightclub, Pacha. In pop, on the other hand, Swede Max Martin has ruled the charts for the past 10 years – writing hits such as Baby One More Time for Britney Spears; I Kissed a Girl for Katy Perry and So What for Pink.
Now there’s a surge of interest in Swedish crime fiction, perhaps prompted by the BBC’s wildly successful adaptation of the Wallander series of crime novels by Swedish author Henning Mankel, which stars Kenneth Branagh as the grumpy policeman. Mankel’s comptatriot, Steig Larsson, meanwhile, died from a heart attack before seeing his international bestselling Millenium Trilogy catapult him to the rank of second-bestselling writer on the planet.
This week sees the film adaptation of the first book in Larsson’s trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, released in Britain. So far, more than 2.5 million Europeans have seen the movie, and No Country For Old Men producer Scott Rudin has just inked a deal to make the Hollywood version. By the time Rudin has finished, many millions more will have followed the story of investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist and chaotic, freewheeling computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. What they find at the end of that story, however, may shock them.
Tattoo begins as a slow-moving, gently unfolding detective story but ends with scenes of horror beyond anything Hannibal Lecter could imagine. Throughout the book version, Larsson keeps dropping genuine figures relating to violent crimes against women in Sweden. The Swedish title for the book is Men Who Hate Women, and footnotes quote real-life incidents to explain how the fictional Salander – whose civil rights are removed at the whim of a judge – is based on real incidents.
Larsson, as with Betner and Mankell, spends much of the time pulling apart the stereotype of happy-ever-after, perfectly educated, socially democratic and joyfully tolerant Swedes enjoying wild sex lives and perfectly cooked meatballs. The Millennium Trilogy tracks Blomkvist and Salander’s attempts to uncover mysterious murders in neo-fascist billionaire families as well as state-sanctioned violent sexual abuse, paedophilia and rape. Larsson himself was a campaigning anti-Nazi journalist who set up his own version of the British anti-fascist magazine Searchlight, so you can see why he’d take this path. Mankell, however, was a well-established mainstream author before he created Wallander. He did so in order to investigate pedophile rings at the heart of Sweden”s security services and expose public and institutionalised racism.
“Wallender was born in May 1989 out of a need to talk about xenophobia. So the story came first, then him,” says Mankell. “I was writing the first novel out of anger at what was happening in Sweden at the time – the rise of xenophobia. That was my ambition. And, since acts of xenophobia are a crime, I needed a police officer.
“Even after the second and third books, I really wasn’t thinking of a series. Then I realised I was creating a tool that could be used to tell stories about the situation in Sweden in the Nineties.”
Wallander and Blomkvist also wade through some of the extremely unpleasant undercurrents beneath Sweden’s tranquil social order. In Larsson and Mankel’s stories, both men encounter Neo-Nazis who collude with Sapo, the Swedish version of MI5 and MI6 combined. In their version of Sweden, racism is rife, violence against women is commonplace, while the trafficking of children for sex is facilitated by highly placed lawyers and doctors.
One would be forgiven for dismissing these plotlines as pure fantasy. After all, in 2007 Sweden was rated best practising democracy by The Economist, least corrupt nation by Transparency International, most equal in gender relations by the World Economic Forum, and most generous donor of overseas development aid by the OECD. Even the legend that the country has an unusually high suicide rate isn’t true. Coming about 35th in the world, Sweden comes in lower than France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand. And yet, can it merely be coincidence that last year’s runaway Swedish movie hit, Let the Right One In, portrayed a child vampire as a more innocent and sympathetic figure than the bullying, ignorant authority figures she encounters in 1980s Swedish society?
In 2007, the US State Department recorded 6,192 cases of child abuse in Sweden by November of that year. It also reported homophobic crime was on the rise, and tens of thousands of rapes and domestic violence incidents in a population of just nine million. “Violence against women remains a problem,” its report concluded. Likewise, a 2006 report from the group Global Monitoring on the commercial sexual exploitation of children found systemic faults in Sweden, including allowing child pornography to be viewed, although not downloaded, and failing to care properly for children caught up in sex trafficking.
Little of this would come as a surprise to Larsson, Blomkvist or Salander, who encounter all of this and more while investigating the brutal murder of a child, apparently at the hands of her rich, Nazi-sympathising family. “Sweden has yet to come to terms with its Nazi past,” says Anna Blondell, who runs a Swedish restaurant in London. “We were neutral during the war, and our Nazi party still lives on. In fact, I think it will do well at the next election, under a different name. Many people in the older generation were very sympathetic to Nazi ideas like eugenics but, unlike Germany, we have not so open about this.”
Certainly the country practised forced sterilisation of women deemed unfit to be mothers until as recently as 1975. Branded low class, or mentally slow, they were kept in Institutes for Misled and Morally Neglected Children, where they were eventually “treated”. In 1997, the government admitted that 60,000 women had been sterilised.
Meanwhile, Ikea founder and Sweden’s richest man Ingvar Kamprad revealed his youthful Nazi sympathies in 1994, confessing to a nine-year friendship with Per Engdahl, the openly pro-Nazi leader of the Neo-Swedish movement. Kamprad claimed he couldn’t remember if he’d joined the Nordic Youth, Sweden’s equivalent of the Hitler Youth. He apologised to staff in an open letter: “Perhaps you find something in your youth you now, so long afterward, think was ridiculous and stupid.”
Kamprad also admitted to a widespread Swedish vice – alcoholism. In a bid to restrain binge drinking, the government has a monopoly on off-licences and closes them at 7pm. Drinking in the streets is illegal. Copenhagen, just over the water from the Swedish town of Malmö, receives hordes of booze-cruise Swedes every weekend.
So have we got Sweden all wrong? Is it still essentially a nation of Vikings? Mankell bristles at the suggestion. “I would like to emphasise that Sweden is a very decent society to live in,” he insists. “It would be ridiculous to say anything else. But we could have been better today if we had been different before – if we hadn’t thrown a few babies out with some of our bathwater. I would like to change that and we can only change by discussing. We know that if our system of justice doesn’t work, democracy is doomed. I think we are worried about that, so maybe that is why detective stories are so popular in Sweden.
“Until recently it was a very cold isolated culture. Our art can’t bring about social change, but you cannot have social change without arts.”