By Daniel Lindvall.
It is frequently said that respect is something you have to earn. Proffered as a life-rule this is an unusually stupid thing to say. On the contrary, respect is something we’re morally entitled to from the moment we’re born. Savage (jointly written and directed by Martin Jern and Emil Larsson) is a powerful indictment of a society that has long since forgotten this.
Kim is a young man living with his girlfriend at his petty criminal father’s house on the outskirts of a two-mule town. He is trying hard to escape his social heritage and his own past as a juvenile delinquent. He keeps his head down, works hard at a storage house and resists his dad’s attempts at involving him in the latter’s violent activities.
His friend Jesper lives in an old bus. He scrapes a living selling webcam sex to gay men but is always behind with his rent (yes, he rents the wreck of a bus). ‘Nobody wants me’, he answers when Kim asks why he doesn’t get a proper job. With twenty-five per cent youth unemployment on the national level, and doubtless a much higher figure in the depressed countryside where they live, this is simply the truth, not a poor excuse. Jesper is intensely insecure, but also comes off as a kind, warm person and anything but violent. Still, it is he who agrees to replace Kim, swinging a baseball bat at the service of Kim’s father. He does so less for the money, one feels, than in order to be recognised, respected, as ‘a man’.
Susanne lives with her mother on a small dreary housing estate in the middle of nowhere. She practices pole dancing in her room, preparing for an audition – a strip club is opening up in town. But she fails to get the job, as the club’s manager thinks her dancing doesn’t convey the right impression of her wanting to sleep with the punters.
Ylva is a waitress living with her strictly religious parents. She’s torn between her sexual desires and the intense feelings of guilt her parents work hard to install in her. She’s attracted to Jesper. When he borrows the shower at the restaurant she works in, she walks in on him and fondles him, herself still fully dressed. Jesper seems truly fond of her, but material circumstances, and clumsiness, conspire to make their sexual gropings abusive anyway.
But it is Kim that commits the ultimate savage act, taking someone’s life. He wants nothing more than a home of his own to raise a family in, but low wages and insecure employment, together with the western world’s last surviving housing bubble and a complete lack of social housing policies, make that a dream beyond his reach. In a pitiful scene he drags his girlfriend along to look at a terraced house that is up for sale. It is a small seventies house in the kind of ubiquitous, dull yellow-brick row, one step up on the social ladder from Susanne’s housing estate, that is at once a symbol of the achievements and the limits of the capitalist welfare state at its height. She walks away, knowing they can’t afford it and are never likely to do so. Later she walks out on him. She says she’s fed up with Kim never having any money and simply doesn’t love him anymore. Kim and the viewer are left to puzzle over whether the one led to the other.
The following morning Kim arrives late for work. He starts making excuses, telling his boss about the difficult day he’s had, but is met with abuse. He answers back and is promptly fired. In the evening he goes to his boss’s house and, swallowing every remnant of pride, apologises for losing his temper and begs for his job back, but meets only with more abuse. With an almost superhuman effort he refrains from a violent reaction. But the pressure of humiliation builds up inside him until he can no longer control it.
Much like last year’s best Swedish film, Babak Najafi’s Sebbe, Savage focuses on the lives of the lower rungs of the Swedish working class. But where Sebbe took place in Sweden’s second city, Gothenburg, Savage portrays the de-industrialized countryside. This is where we find the voters that saw to it that the xenophobic, far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) made it into parliament in last year’s elections: young men and women, victims of unemployment, of the casualization of the labour force, the dismantling of worker’s rights and the increased difficulty of even qualifying for unemployment benefits. They are abandoned both economically and politically. With 20-30 per cent of the electorate (a third or more of the working class) either abstaining or voting for the pseudo-fascists of SD, the Social Democrats continue to slide rightwards, chasing the ‘middle class vote’. It is all too predictable, the moral outrage of mainstream media smug and insincere.
We see Kim and Jesper partying to white power music. But they are no ‘savages’, nor ‘beasts’ or ‘brutes’ (more literal translations of the film’s Swedish title, Odjuret). These words conjure up images of someone/some-thing not (yet) incorporated into the social structures we label civilisation. But when Jesper or Kim commit savage acts it is the result of what passes for civilisation, not its anti-thesis. They are caught in a vicious circle of disrespect not of their own making. Disrespect leads to disrespect. Young men treated as expendable and superfluous, humiliated and pressured into positions of extreme subordination, will ‘repair’ their crushed egos by acts of violence. But this physical violence is only the symptom of the greater social and economic violence of a society where respect is not about recognising the inviolable humanity of the other but, on the contrary, must be gained at the expense of the very humanity of your fellow humans. With the social gains of a hundred and fifty years of struggle by the labour movement being rapidly rolled-back, humans are increasingly reduced to breathing commodities; carriers of labour power, bodies for the sexual gratification of others. When no longer sources of adequate profit or pleasure we are threatened by the ultimate fate of the commodity; being, like Kim, simply discarded. Can we then be surprised when he behaves like something less than human?
Acting in Swedish films is often harshly criticised in Swedish film studies circles (as opposed to in popular media), as characterised by overacting and theatricality or, the opposite, lack of nuance and screen presence. But the four young actors playing the leads in Savage, with barely a handful of credits between them, contribute among the best performances I’ve seen in a Swedish film. With the smallest of means they convey the strongest of feelings. They do not make the mistake of trying to push emotions onto us, but instead give us space to enter into their minds gradually. In the end I come to identify entirely with the emotional journeys of the main characters. I feel the mounting pressure of shame until I, myself, want to lash out at the world. I can almost hear their fragile psychological shells cracking inside my own head. And I recognise them from my own childhood and youth (though Sweden twenty-odd years ago was still a more forgiving society). I knew them. I was friends with some, got beaten up by others when my ‘punkish’ appearance threatened their insecure masulinity. As Kim, Magnus Skog is particularly impressive. He makes us understand the inevitability of his character’s final violent explosion without for a second letting us forget that Kim is a fully human being. He is you and I, never ‘the other’.
Savage, which was inspired by real events, will never make it into the world’s multiplexes. But if you have a chance to see it on the festival circuit or at the local art house cinema, I urge you to do so. It is a dark drama, but, I would argue, not a depressing one. By showing us that the darkness surrounding us is of our own making it also raises at least the spectre of hope.
Savage had its Swedish premiere on March 11.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.