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FREETHINKER, THE (Fritänkaren) (V)(director/writer: Peter Watkins; screenwriters: Hedvig Blidberg/Charlie Kristiansson/Niklas Westergren/story by Mr. Watkins; editor: Peter Watkins; cast: Anders Mattsson (August Strindberg), Lena Settervall (Siri von Essen), Yasmine Garbi (Harriet Bosse); Runtime: 276; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Peter Watkins; New Yorker Films; 1994-Sweden-in Swedish with English subtitles)
“A unique nonlinear biopic on August Strindberg.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A unique nonlinear biopic on August Strindberg (1849-1912); it tells in great detail about the life and work of the idealistic Swedish playwright (one of the fathers of modern theater), novelist, and painter. It covers his messy personal life and his revolutionary works of art that challenged the conventions of the time. It was produced and directed by Peter Watkins (“The War Game”/”Edvard Munch”/”Punishment Park”) over a two-year period with the aid of 24 high school students from Sweden’s Norden Folk High School. It’s a result of a work commissioned by the Swedish Film Institute and the Swedish TV that was aborted because of a lack of funds, but after doing two and a half years of research and script writing Watkins reached an agreement with the Nordens Fhsk to produce the film as a video course for the high school. The cast is largely non-professional actors. The production values were on the cheap, with the students making the costumes, operating the machines and raising the funds for a professional quality video. The script is written by Watkins, Hedvig Blidberg, Charlie Kristiansson and Niklas Westergren. Considering the mixture of amateur and professionals, the collaborative project turned out much better than these things, probably, usually do. It covers Strindberg as the author of The Freethinker (believed to be the first play he wrote), Miss Julie, Inferno and The Dance of Death. Much time is spent covering the volatile relationship he had with his first wife, the Finnish-Swedish actress Siri von Essen. It also covers his troubled childhood (with his shipping agent father and bourgeois family), his own questionable relationship with his many children, his anarchist and socialist beliefs and his neurotic behavior, many of his more forgotten works (The Red Room, The Son of a Servant and Swedish People at Work and Play), his marriage to the much younger Norwegian actress Harriet Bosse in 1900 and in his last years living in solitude in the “Blue Tower” apartment building in Stockholm.

The film’s slow-pace and unfriendly cinematic look might scare off some folks, but the film is designed as a learning experience, refreshingly (if you may) academic in tone, that gives you a chance to reflect on the controversial artist’s life and reach out for more than the usual things found in a typical biopic. There’s also a dual aim, besides providing information, to raise questions of the mass media today and in the way it manipulates and controls the news and that for the most part the news organizations are owned by a few giant corporations or moguls. Strindberg was also critical of the media during his time, and the filmmaker easily morphs into the rabble-rousing Strindberg taking on the modern despots who oppose free thinkers.

REVIEWED ON 11/30/2007 GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”