One of the greatest Swedish comedians, Hans Alfredson, proved, not for the first time but now conclusively, in his 1982 film ‘The Simple Minded Murderer’, his ability to also be an intense tragedian. The film is worth returning to, for a number or reasons. Alfredson shows the greatest respect for the medium of film. His images are allowed to develop a free relationship to both expressionist and realist styles. Categories such as real and unreal are blurred, alongside time and space. This is evident in the very beginning when ‘the idiot’ Sven (Stellan Skarsgård) and Maria (Maria Johansson) sit in a car and three angels appear in the sky above them. The film treats cinema as primarily an oneiric art form in which consciousness easily slips in to unconsciousness and then back again. The music underlines the premise. The angels start singing Verdi’s ‘Requiem’, which has been playing under the first credits. This is a diegetic bridge between fantasies that will show itself to be central for the portrayal of one man (Sven) who has difficulties communicating with the outside in any other ways. The music is thus not merely a mood-setter, but also a real supplement to the dramatic conceptualisation.
Alfredson’s free relationship to chronology shows his faith in the ability of the audience to puzzle it all together. The film begins in the end and contains a complicated series of flashbacks. In this way ‘The Simple minded Murderer’ approaches a Freudian dream-text. The most evident example of this is not only the linear slides from the present (the end) to the past (that which leads to the end), but also the anachronistic scenes in the end where Sven walks through the contemporary (1980s) city of Ystad whereas the rest of the film has been set in the 1930s. This anachronism is underlined in the scene when the chauffeur (Gösta Ekman) is sitting reading a contemporary porn magazine. Sven is, throughout these events, followed by a troupe of baroque angels that have stepped down from the sky and into another fold of fantasy. The question is if Alfredson had seen Derek Jarman’s ‘Jubilee’ (1977) and ‘The Tempest’ (1979) in which the British director started to experiment with similar techniques. The Mohican of Skarsgård might be a hint that this was the case.
The cinematography in ‘The Simple Minded Murderer’ is by Rolf Lindström and Jörgen Persson (who had also worked with Roy Andersson on ‘A Swedish Love Story’ from 1969 and on several films by the Swedish director Bo Widerberg). Muddy Scanian fields have rarely seemed so cinematic. Persson would continue to do Billy August ‘Pelle the Conqueror’ (1987) from the same region and in similar grey-scales (and with similar artistic success). The greyness and apparent realism of the harsh landscape also brings Roy Andersson to mind, a director that equally has had no inhibitions in bringing the fantastic into a parallel relationship with reality. Playing the real against the fantastic was also something that Emir Kusturica would do in ‘The Time of the Gypsies’ six years later. Kusturica, like Alfredson, places as the protagonist a man partially enclosed in himself.
‘The Simple Minded Murderer’ had an international success. Back in Sweden, even Ingmar Bergman was impressed. Stellan Skarsgård won a Silver Bear for best acting in Berlin (shared with Michel Piccoli) and was thrown out into international fame. It was a fantastic feat of acting, of course, but there is also something inherently problematic in making playing mental retardation as the greatest test of a male actor. Dustin Hoffman would give it a go in ‘Rain Man’ (1988) and Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Gilbert Grape’ (1993). Thankfully Lars von Trier came and put an end to all of that in his own subtle way when ‘The Idiots’ came out in 1988.
(A slightly revised translation of a Swedish text of mine put on this blog in 2011)