‘A Day at the Archives…’: Life Writing in the Swedish Film Institute Archive

Emil Stjernholm, Lund University, Sweden

12 June 2018


For the past four and a half years, I have been doing a PhD in film studies, spending most of my time tracing the biography of the enigmatic Swedish cinephile, filmmaker and historian Gösta Werner (1908-2009). During this period, I have visited a range of archives––from the makeshift archive of the Lund Film Society which is stored in boxes in the cellar of the arthouse cinema Kino a stones throw from my office at Lund University to the all but complete company archive of Universum Film AG (Ufa) at Bundesarchiv in Berlin. In this piece, however, I would like to focus on my experiences working with Gösta Werner’s large personal archive, which is deposited at the Swedish Film Institute (SFI) in Stockholm.

Gösta Werner was an omnipresent figure in Swedish film history––as a theorist, filmmaker, and scholar. In the postwar period, he gained recognition as a director of sponsored films and next to the well-known documentarian Arne Sucksdorff he was probably Sweden’s best-known short film director during this period. In Werner’s own narrative about his career, the war years are glossed over. Instead, the canonized experimental short film The Sacrifice (Midvinterblot, 1945) has habitually (and wrongly) been labeled as the director’s debut film. However, long before the release of this film, Werner began to pursue filmmaking under the auspices of the Nazi controlled German company Ufa and he participated in the shooting and editing of the German Swedish-language newsreel Ufa-journalen that was distributed in Sweden between 1941-1945. Accordingly, one of the main aims of my dissertation is to investigate what Werner’s role was in the production of German propaganda and how these transnational film practices affected the authorial discourse surrounding him during and after the war. After his filmmaking career, Werner became a scholar and prominent film historian. In fact, he became the first to earn a PhD in the newly instated subject filmvetenskap (film studies) in 1971. In this sense, I argue, his life and work shines light on the formation of Swedish film culture.

The archive and its origins

Gösta Werner’s personal archive is deposited at the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm so let me first say a few words about the place where it is being held. The film archive at the SFI is one of the oldest in the world and the foundation also holds a number of special collections. The special collections range from a number of major company archives, like the silent film company Svenska Biografteatern’s archive, parts of the major film company Europafilm’s archive and Svenska Biografägarförbundet’s (Swedish Association of Cinema Proprietors) archive, to the personal collections of filmmakers like Victor Sjöström, Arne Mattsson and Sven Nykvist. A big part of both the film archive and the special collections comes from an organization called Svenska Filmsamfundet (“The Swedish Film Society”) which was founded in October 1933 with the ambition to preserve the legacy of Swedish silent film, an era oftentimes referred to as the Swedish golden age of cinema. Like many other European countries, Sweden had a large film society movement in the 1920s and 30s, and a number of leading critics, filmmakers and cinephiles active in Stockholm film society aimed to promote the standing of film, release publications and create a forum for public debate and to establish an award for outstanding work within the film industry. From a scholarly point-of-view, however, one of their most important initiatives was the creation of an archive where they collected manuscripts, press clippings, photos and other types of film paraphernalia. In 1940, the archive became a more independent entity and it was given the name Filmhistoriska samlingarna (The Film Historic Collections), and the collections were transferred to Tekniska museet (The National Museum of Science and Technology). In 1964, the collections were taken over by the then newly established Swedish Film Institute (founded in 1963).

The Swedish Film Institute is located in the Film House on the borough Östermalm in Stockholm. From T-Centralen, which forms the heart of the Stockholm metro system, it is just a five-minute train ride followed by a ten-minute walk from the metro station Karlaplan. The archive is located in a large Brutalist building which was designed by the architect Peter Celsing. During one of the early meetings planning the house, the founder Harry Schein allegedly said that he did not want “no ordinary bloody building”, and the Film House indeed catches the eye of the passers-by. Besides the SFI, the Film House caters to a number of film production companies and also has two major cinemas where Cinemateket screens films daily.

The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.

The personal archive and beyond

The material that my dissertation builds on chiefly consists of two components: the personal archive that which the filmmaker deposited at the SFI in 1993 (and later complemented with additional material in 2005) and Gösta Werner’s films. The well-organized archive – approximately 20 running meters of documentation from his career – was structured by the filmmaker himself and deposited at the age of 85.  It encompasses a great range of materials –manuscripts, drafts, contracts, drawings, photographs, correspondences and financial records – of which a majority is annotated. These materials range from notes from his earliest assignments as an assistant director on the drama film Skepparkärlek (Ivar Johansson, 1931) to his research on the work of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller in the late 1980s and 90s. One particularly interesting feature is the carbon copies of letters, which documents the director’s relationship to producers, critics and other filmmakers. Regarding Werner’s films, one must note that a number of them, more specifically 6 out of 45, are considered lost films, while the rest are held in the Swedish Film Institute’s film archive and have been made available to me digitally with the help of the National Library of Sweden’s Division for Audiovisual Media.

When I began this project I was not fully aware of the controversies that surrounded Gösta Werner’s persona. Even though rumors about his past political sympathies have been persistent throughout his career, Werner’s connections to Nazi Germany have never been explored in-depth. Here, one should note that the personal archive contains relatively few traces of his activities during World War II. Instead, the starting point for my investigation into this topic was a five-page dossier on Gösta Werner assembled by the Swedish intelligence agency (Allmänna säkerhetstjänsten). The fact that I discovered this file, more than two years into my research education, led me to explore other sources of archival material and research literature. This has been challenging because there is no comprehensive archival collection from Ufa’s Stockholm branch, neither in Germany nor in Sweden. Moreover, there is little information overall concerning Ufa’s operations abroad because the so-called ”UFA-Zentrale“ located at Dönhoffplatz in Berlin, was badly damaged by Allied bombs in February 1945, whereupon a large part of the archive material was destroyed in a fire. Given this, it is impossible to fully reconstruct to what extent the German company controlled the Swedish branch, and also to know exactly what Werner’s duties were at Ufa.

Given that he became a scholar himself and published biographies on several Swedish authors and filmmakers––such as the author Stig Dagerman, playwright Hjalmar Bergman and director Mauritz Stiller––I would argue that Werner could be seen as a particularly self-assured agent when it comes to the organization of the personal archive. Therefore, the personal archive that I am working with is in itself not a neutral place but actively constructed. Art historian Joan M. Schwartz and Archive scholar Terry Cook has argued that: ”Whether over ideas or feelings, actions or transactions, the choice of what to record and the decision over what to preserve, and thereby privilege, occur within socially constructed, but now naturalized frameworks that determine the significance of what becomes archives.” The gaps and absences concerning the most controversial and vexing period in his life – the war years – raises questions about what is included and what is excluded in the archive. While research in the Military Archives in Stockholm, the Swedish secret service archive (Allmänna säkerhetstjänstens arkiv) at The Swedish National Archives and at the Bundesarchiv in Berlin have helped me piece some parts of the puzzle together, many questions remain unanswered.

Even though Werner and his contemporary Ingmar Bergman are on opposite spectrums of the Swedish film canon, one being an appreciated legend and the other being marginalized, stigmatized and forgotten, their archives bear a striking resemblance in terms of the collector’s meticulousness and eagerness to save for posterity. Today, Bergman’s massive personal archive, also located at the Swedish Film Institute, attracts scholars, journalists and filmmakers from all over the world whereas Werner’s archive is full of unopened folders and envelopes. In other words, Werner took his artistic process seriously and considered himself a figure worthy of serious academic study, even though his filmmaking career never lived up to his own expectations.

Gösta Werner’s archive, The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.

The Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm, author’s own photo.


Emil Stjernholm is a PhD Student in Film Studies at the Centre for Languages and Literature, Lund University, Sweden. His areas of research include documentary film, propaganda studies and media history. His doctoral dissertation focuses on the Swedish film pioneer Gösta Werner (forthcoming in the book series Mediehistoriskt arkiv (Media History Archives), http://mediehistorisktarkiv.se, in 2018). He has published articles in journals like Journal of Media, Cognition and Communication, Studies in European Cinema and BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies.


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