After a number of false starts, I was finally able to upload Bo Widerberg’s “Adalen 31” to Youtube, a film that I saw when it came out in 1969 and that has lingered in my memory all these years. The title is a reference to a general strike in the Adalen district by paper mill workers in 1931 that led to the first in a series of Social Democratic governments that for many people defined the word socialism. What I took away from the film, besides its stunning artistic power, was the idea that there was a dialectical relationship between revolutionary struggle and reform. If not for the four men and one young girl who were shot down in the village of Lunde on May 14, 1931, it is altogether possible that the modern Scandinavian welfare state never would have been born.
Yesterday I watched the film for the first time in 46 years and realize now why it has stuck with me. Despite the languid and pastoral quality of the first two-thirds of the film, which typified Widerberg’s “Elvira Madigan” made two years earlier, the final third is a powerful recreation of the armed attack on a demonstration that resonated with the struggles taking place around the world in 1969. And it will resonate now with people watching it for the first time who have the Marikana massacre fresh in their mind, or any other military attack on protesters in the Middle East and North Africa.
The film opens in the house of Harald Andersson, a man who has been out on strike for a number of months. He has three sons, the eldest of whom is named Kjell and is in his late teens. Kjell plays trumpet in the trade union marching band but probably prefers playing jazz.
The primary drama in the film revolves around Kjell’s romance with the daughter of one of the paper mill owners, a blonde girl named Hedvig who is troubled by the bitter strike but not to the extent of breaking with her father.
Widerberg is obviously interested in tensions between the personal and political since another story line involves Harald giving first aid to a wounded scab worker in his home. When he is confronted by his fellow trade unionists, he makes the case that violence undermines their cause and insists that negotiation was the only way forward.
When the army is brought in to defend the scabs’ barracks, the union organizes a march on their stronghold with the marching band in the front ranks playing the Internationale. In an interview with the NY Times’s Mel Gussow in October 1969, Widerberg revealed that 3,000 extras were used in the scene and that he developed the action just two hours before shooting began.
Despite the absence of the word Communist throughout the film, there is little doubt as to the affiliations of the leadership of the strike and many of the rank-and-file workers. Axel Nordström, who served 2 ½ years of hard labor for his role as a strike organizer, was a Communist member of Parliament from 1937 to 1940. In an article on the Adalen general strike that appeared in the Swedish section of Alan Woods’s International Marxist Tendency (http://www.marxist.se/artikel/adalen-31-det-vi-aldrig-far-glomma), there’s a report on the killings that day from Harry Nordlander, a member of the Communist youth group in Adalen:
As we approached the ferry pier near the meadow, where we said that we would turn, a soldier on horseback charged us. The rider shouted something and then fired his gun over his shoulder, probably frightened by a banner that fluttered. Some of the marchers saw bullet holes in the banner. Then we heard clearly a loud command: Fire! The bullets began to whistle through the air. They did not come from the front, but from the side a few yards from the lead.
Then we saw how one of the musicians rushed forward in the hail of bullets and blew “cease fire” [recreated by Kjell in the scene]. The guns fell silent. It was the young Communist Vera who showed courage and presence of mind to stop the killing. But there were already five comrades dead or dying and several more wounded. One of those killed was a young girl who stood in the garden at the side of the road. Her name was Eira Söderberg and was a member of our youth club in Svanö.
The best account of the Adalen struggles can be found on the Global Nonviolent Action Database located at Swarthmore University. Interestingly enough, Axel Nordström is cited in this article as being opposed to violence against scabs—this despite the fact that the CP’s were aligned with the Kremlin’s ultraleft turn at the time:
In the fall of 1930, the management of a sawmill in Lunde in the Ådalen Valley announced wage cuts for all workers. In response the laborers began a strike.
The workers continued their strike through the fall, shutting down the mill. The director of the Lunde mill also had investments in two pulp mills in nearby towns. In January 1931 the laborers in these two mills began a sympathy strike. Meanwhile workers and management held ongoing negotiations.
Axel Nordström, a communist leader, was one of the leaders of the strike campaign and the workers also had ties to LO.
On May 12, when management called in outside strikebreakers to commence work in the three mills, the strike leaders immediately put up fliers against the strikebreakers. These fliers also called for further protests, work stoppages in other industries, mass demonstrations, and a meeting scheduled for the next day.
The county government ordered police to protect the strikebreakers and sent several officers to the meeting. At the meeting Axel Nordström called for demonstrations, but did not condone violence against the strikebreakers. The strikers decided to march and demonstrate at one of the mills where workers were holding a sympathy strike. Once at the mill another leader spoke and a band played the workers’ theme song. The demonstrators there decided to get rid of the strikebreakers.
Police asked Nordström to prevent the protesters from hurting the strikebreakers, but he was no longer in control of the situation. Demonstrators pulled strikebreakers from the mill, and inflicted some minor injuries. The strikers then chose to hold another meeting the next day and follow it with a march to the mill in Lunde where the strike had begun. They continued protests that day, throwing stones at the strikebreakers’ barracks and knocking out electricity for the city of Lunde.
Bo Widerberg is pretty much a forgotten figure today with very poor representation on the usual sources. None of his films are available on Netflix or Amazon, and in the well-stocked Columbia film library you can only locate “Elvira Madigan”. Despite the fact that his films are now in the public domain, the only one that could be seen previously on Youtube was “Joe Hill”, a 1971 film about the martyred IWW member who was born Joel Emanuel Hägglund in Gävle, Sweden.
Widerberg died on May Day 1997, a symbolic date for the radical filmmaker who was born into a working-class family in Malmo sixty-six years earlier. He started off as a film critic professionally, creating controversy with his 1962 book “The Vision of Swedish Cinema” that took aim at Ingmar Bergman and his followers for being “preoccupied with problems that didn’t interest me and my generation of comrades.” He found that the Sweden Bergman represented was “not contemporary at all”.
Clearly Widerberg was tuned into the Marxist detective novel authors that I wrote about for CounterPunch back in September 2014. Fortunately his 1976 “Man on the Roof” that was based on the Martin Beck novel co-authored by Marxist husband and wife writing team Per Wahloo and Maj Sjowall can be seen with English subtitles at Daily Motion, something that I hope to see along with “Joe Hill” the first chance I get.