Thursday, September 06, 2018

Disowned by Bergman: This Can’t Happen Here

Scandinavia and the Baltics are ethically and socially similar, but their Twentieth Century history could not be more different. The great auteur Ingmar Bergman was keenly aware of that Scandinavian-Baltic divide. He was married to Estonian concert pianist Käbi Laretei for five years—a good run, by his standards. He also helmed this 1950 curio about Soviet spies infiltrating the Baltic refugee community in Sweden, featuring many Baltic refugees in the cast. As Bergman’s stature grew, he did his best to keep his odd little espionage film out of circulation. Fortunately, it still survives—and has even been digitally restored by the Swedish Film Institute. It is bucket list time for Bergman devotees, because This Can’t Happen Here is now screening at MoMA.

Like an episode of Law & Order, many of the names in TCHH have been changed to protect the guilty and the innocent. For instance, Atka Natas (anagram alert) is a ruthless spymaster for Liquidatzia, a transparent analog for the Soviet Union. He has come to Sweden (which is still Sweden, but was Norway in Waldemar Brøgger’s source novel) with an attaché case full of documents in hopes of defecting to the West. However, it seems his real goal is to continue tormenting his estranged wife Vera Irmelin, a chemist granted political asylum.

Not surprisingly, Irmelin wants none of him and will do what it takes to protect herself. Of course, the Liquidatzians want them both back, unsafe and sound. Frankly, they are openly contemptuous of the Swedish authorities. Nevertheless, her rather chaste Swedish romantic interest (a forensic chemist with the C.I.D.) has a bit of fortitude, despite being hopelessly polite.

Taken at face value, TCHH is an undeniably creaky but diverting little film noir that also functions as a nifty visual time capsule of its period. However, the context and subtext that go along with it are fascinating. First of all, this is a Swedish anti-communist film, which alone makes it rather special. Signe Hasso is also terrific as Irmelin, in a Swedish homecoming performance. Although she had not exactly been the toast of Hollywood, she had prominent roles in films like Heaven Can Wait, A Double Life, and The House on 92nd Street.

Yet, all the talk in the film about refugees and expat communities sounds especially timely in 2018, as Sweden struggles with huge influxes of refugees from the Middle East. Apparently, the Baltic refugees were much easier to assimilate, even with Soviet agents running amok, shooting at them.

Ironically, TCHH was conceived for the export market and largely funded with tax credits, but it reportedly only screened in a handful of UK theaters. You could chalk it up to Swedish socialism, except Sweden has never been as socialist as leftists like to think (especially not in 1950). (FYI, the land of Bergman and Saab currently ranks #15 on the Heritage Index of Economic Freedom, while the USA comes in at #18. Historically, Sweden has spent a good deal on welfare programs, funded with progressive tax rates—as Ingmar Bergman’s notorious tax problems can attest—yet there is comparatively less regulation and property rights are scrupulously respected, but perhaps we digress.)

That all makes TCHH an even weirder, less likely bit of Bergmanalia. At times, Bergman stages it like an out-and-out farce, but Gunnar Fischer (his first great collaborating cinematographer) frames some strikingly noir images. Particularly notable is the use of Stockholm’s King Charles XII statue, which famously points towards Russia, in what is widely considered a call to vigilance regarding a longtime historical foe.

Bergman keeps it all surprisingly spry, while Ulf Palme chews the scenery with sinister glee as Natas. It is highly watchable in an old-fashioned kind of way, but there is no way it would screen for a week at MoMA without the Bergman connection. Regardless, there just are not going to be a lot of opportunities to see TCHH, so anyone interested had better get to MoMA this week. Recommended for its historical interest and some game performances, This Can’t Happen Here screens daily through Tuesday night (9/11), at MoMA.