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The Freethinker

  •  - Sweden
  •  - Nordens Folk High School, Biskops Arnö
  •  - 1992 - 1994
  •  - 4 hrs 30 mins


‘THE FREETHINKER‘ was originally conceived under the title ‘August Strindberg’ as a full-length feature film which I was commissioned to make by the Swedish Film Institute and the Swedish TV in the late 1970s. As well as looking at certain aspects of Strindberg's work as a dramatist and polymath, I planned to portray the author's troubled childhood and his relationship with his first wife, the Finnish-Swedish actress Siri von Essen.

After two and half years of research and script work, the project collapsed, and as far as I can tell most of its budget was diverted by the SFI to Ingmar Bergman's 'Fanny and Alexander', which was short of cash at the time. Swedish TV refused to continue financing my project, and a few years later managed to find the funds to produce their own soap-opera mini-series on the life of August Strindberg.

Some 15 years later, the old script was given a new lease of life. With the invaluable support of Birgitta Östlund, Rektor of the Nordens Folk High School (at Biskops Arnö outside Stockholm), ‘August Strindberg’ became a unique two-year video production course which involved 24 students. The result, a four-and-a-half hour film entitled ‘The Freethinker’, is based on the original manuscript, with many new scenes and important facets developed by the students themselves, who researched, directed, filmed, recorded, edited, costumed and principally organized the production and funding of this major pedagogical project! Among many aspects of the high standard of work by these students, was their research into social conditions in Sweden during the 1870s.

‘The Freethinker’ endeavours to show: a) how non-orthodox filmic language forms can expand our view of history, and our way of relating to people on the screen, and to each other b) that there are ways to produce audio-visual material other than according to the rigidly centralized methods used by the MAVM c) that, contrary to what we see on TV, there are potentially alternative processes for viewers as well - through which they can become individual participants instead of hierarchically dominated, passive receivers.

‘The Freethinker’ attempts, on a number of levels, to challenge the media problems described throughout this website, and to open up space for the audience. The film has a complex internal structure, and moves in an unpredictable and seemingly random way between four principal ‘time lines’: several periods in Strindberg’s childhood; his courtship with Siri von Essen and the early days of their marriage; exile abroad and the disintegration of their marriage; Strindberg as an old man, alone in a cramped apartment block in Stockholm. These biographical scenes are further intermixed with images from the political and social life of Sweden in the 1870s. The film develops a complex, spiral structure, ending with its beginning point, and in so doing offers the audience an open-ended process allowing for individual and varied reaction, rather than mass mono-reaction. This means that no two people in the audience will necessarily "see" or "read" ‘The Freethinker’ in the same way; the multiple layering is open to many levels of interpretation, based on one's own memories, childhood, and life experiences. The length of the film allows the audience time and space to reflect, consider, ask questions, and slip into fantasies and memories. In this way, the film works organically and alchemically with the audience - rather than via tight control, which invariably expects and achieves a uniform reaction.

The acting in ‘The Freethinker’ is vital to its process. Both Anders Mattsson (August Strindberg) and Lena Setterwall (Siri von Essen) play an essential part in the accessibility of the film; Anders was a seminary student when he was cast in the role of Strindberg, and Lena was a student of ecology at the Nordens Folk High School. Both contribute a great deal of their own feelings to the "roles" they play, and at times it is not clear where the role and the "real" Anders or Lena begins and ends. They both bring their life experiences to comment on, and to play the complex characters of Strindberg and Siri von Essen. The audience can sense this interchange (paralleled in the portrayals of Edvard Munch and Mrs. Heiberg by Geir Westby and Gro Fraas in 1973) as an alternative to the traditional filmic definition of "actor" and "character" which distances the actor from the role.

The interactive method of working with the two principal actors in ‘The Freethinker’ was extended to the other cast members as well. For example, in several long discussion scenes, where they debate creative responsibility, the young actors who portray the Unga Sverige (Young Sweden) writers’ group, had carefully researched their individual roles and interwoven the mixed sentiments these literary figures were known to have had, with their own feelings and opinions. Scenes of confrontation between Strindberg and two ‘media interviewers’, who challenge him on his selfish behaviour towards his family, are again based on an intermixing of historical evidence and personal feelings: the two actors playing the journalists having decided to use their own negative feelings towards Strindberg as a basis for the way they interpreted the scenes.

‘The Freethinker’ fuses a mixture of the following different forms and filmic devices, in order to break down and reveal the usual patterns of the Monoform, and to open up space and complexity for the viewer:

a) staged ‘interviews’ and improvised dramatic scenes, which appear to have a documentary ‘realism’; b) psycho-drama confrontations (‘realistic’ or ‘non-realistic’?) - e.g., certain scenes between Siri and Strindberg, and between Strindberg and his two ‘accusers’; c) theatrical dialogue from several of Strindberg’s plays; d) archival photographs of Strindberg and his family; e) written text describing various stages of Strindberg’s life and quoting from his works; f) several debates with the public who watched the filming - sometimes by personal invitation, sometimes in response to public announcements. These filmic forms, rarely presented simultaneously in one audiovisual work, aim to challenge our perception of the ‘seamless’ and invisible process of the customary Monoform.

On other levels, ‘The Freethinker’ is also working with the psychology of Strindberg, and its various filmic devices and processes thus reflect the constant search for alternative forms which engaged the author most of his life. Many of the ideas in ‘The Freethinker’ are analogous to concepts that Strindberg worked with in his dramas; although he moved in and out of several very reactionary periods (brought about in part by the depths of his own personal crisis) both in his early years and again shortly before his death in 1912, Strindberg struggled desperately to find a place for ordinary people within the power-hungry and hierarchical structures of his day.


‘The Freethinker’ was projected in a cinema in Stockholm for a few days. The video has been shown at several film festivals, notably the Festival of Festivals in Toronto (at the Art Gallery of Ontario), and in Manosque, France, at the invitation of organizer Pascal Privet. The film received several very sympathetic reviews in the Swedish press at the time, including by Ingamaj Beck in Aftonbladet. The following review appeared in the local Boston press after 'The Freethinker' was screened in a retrospective of my films at the Carpenter Center in Harvard University, January 2001:

'"The first, and greatest, of August Strindberg's misfortunes was his birth." This initial sentence of a 1960s biography on the Swedish playwright, poet, and social critic appears late in Peter Watkins's four-and-a-half hour video investigation of Strindberg, and by that time it makes a lot of sense. Born into a life of poverty and misery, Strindberg found his initial success as a writer soon followed by charges of vulgarity and blasphemy, that left him with a permanent sense of persecution.

The playwright also found himself caught in the complexities of several contradictions between Socialism and Christianity, intellect and emotion, and, most crucial, female and male. His opposition to some goals of the women's suffrage movement has made him one of the most perfect exemplars of misogyny in Western literature. These various antagonisms, and three failed marriages, led Strindberg to the brink of psychological collapse in 1896. From then until his death, in 1912, he created a gentler, more expressionistic art typified by A Dream Play ...

Watkins spent two years teaching video production to a high-school class near Stockholm; The Freethinker is the collage-like result of that class's work. Using scenes from Strindberg's life and plays, photographs of the writer, his family, and 19th-century Sweden, ad hoc discussions by observers of the issues raised in the narrative, and interrogations of characters by other observers, Watkins and his student cobble together a non-linear biographical study that is not east to grasp but rewards the effort. The extreme length of the work and its deliberate non-sequential pacing seem at first to be impositions, especially on those occasions when Watkins repeats a scene. But these repetitions allow you to reconsider what you believe you know, and to think more fully about what you're seeing than most films allow.' (The Boston Phoenix, January 2001)


All the usual international TV organizations, including Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish TV (which refused to help in any way during the school course), refused to show ‘The Freethinker’. Like much of the rest of my work, it now sits unseen. I tried to interest Swedish schools in the project, and wrote to SEVENTY gymnasiums and high schools (including media schools) throughout the country to ask if they would like to use this Swedish student-produced film - ONE replied. Once again, this lack of interest has little to do with the project itself, but is coupled with resistance - or disinterest - within the contemporary education system to initiate critical thinking among students - especially with regard to the mass audiovisual media.

I had hoped that the Swedish university system - or at least Strindberg scholars - would show an interest in the project, and use it. But once again I came up against the deadly wall of academia. ‘The Freethinker’ was screened at an International Strindberg Symposium in Moscow in 1996, and the comportment of most of the academics towards the film had to be seen to be believed! At a reception the day after the screening, most of the participants literally turned their backs when the students and I appeared, and behaved as if we did not exist. Most of these people apparently hated the film, and later one of them carefully explained that the scholars were not concerned with what the people (‘amateurs’) in the film had to say. This elitism - a complete lack of interest in the filmic achievement and work of Swedish Folk High School students - was extremely disturbing. The academics had clearly expected a series of cleverly written intellectual propositions on Strindberg - and were dismayed to find a film consisting of ideas and statements by various ‘unknowns’. They did not seem to grasp the irony of their intolerant reaction to ‘The Freethinker’ - especially given how marginalized August Strindberg was during most of his life in Sweden!

The success of 'The Freethinker' as a student production is arguably unparalleled in the history of the cinema; certainly it is beyond the level of anything ever dreamed of in the Swedish education system. High on the list of achievements in this film is the acting by a mixed amateur and professional cast, most of whom came from Stockholm and several neighbouring towns. Notable are performances by Anders Mattsson and Lena Settervall (both non-professionals) as August Strindberg and Siri von Essen.

In the years since it was produced, 'The Freethinker' remains boycotted by most of the Scandinavian educational institutions which could have shown it to their students - including the Dramatic Institute and the Swedish Film Institute in Stockholm. The various Scandinavian Ministeries of Education have also shown no interest in the film. It may be that 'The Freethinker' is being deliberately avoided simply because it threatens those responsible for the mainly conservative strands of media education in Scandinavia, all of which continue to teach the Monoform and a totally non-critical utilization of the mass audiovisual media to the overwhelming majority of their students. Fear and resistance on the part of many of the professionals in media education means that 'The Freethinker' remains unused, its potential for raising a critical debate among students completely untapped, and its achievement by a group of students shamefully unacknowledged.

However, I still believe that 'The Freethinker' has a very important role to play in the public media debate which must develop in the near future, in order to bring ideas - and a challenge - to the audiovisual crisis described here. This video project could make a marvellous pedagogical study, especially for students of media, history, and literature.

© Peter Watkins 2024