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He Was Curious Red

Olof Palme, the radical social democrat who led Sweden in the 1970s, first came to international prominence in an unexpected place — a cameo in the notorious 'sex film' I Am Curious Yellow.

Olof Palme (who played himself in an uncredited role in the movie) and Lena Nyman, taken at the Guldbagge Award ceremony.

‘How would you like to be remembered?’ a fresh-faced David Frost asks the soon-to-be Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme, calmly draping his arms around his chair. I don’t mean that you’re going to die tomorrow, thank God you’re not, but what would you like your obituary to say? Gazing into the middle distance, Palme responds, ‘The moment people begin to think of their obituaries, they start to be scared; they don’t dare to do things and they lose their vitality. As we are here, doomed to be on this earth, we should try to make life as decent as possible. That is, very simply, the basis of my political ideology and what politics is about.’

David Frost’s 1969 interview, which briefly features in Maud Nycander and Kristina Lindström’s 2012 Swedish-language documentary, Olof Palme: loved and hated/ älskad och hatad (featuring music by ABBA’s Benny Andersson) largely represents how Sweden was and continues to be perceived on the global stage — a harmoniously socialist, neutral, peaceful nation, a shining beacon of glorious social democracy.

Palme’s ministerial years remodelled the socio-political fabric of Swedish society; expanding the country’s generous welfare system supported by high taxation, openly challenging nuclear armament and U.S. interventions in Vietnam and propagating the notion of Sweden as a ‘humanitarian superpower’ in the international zeitgeist — a phrase recalled as recently as 2014 by Sweden’s former liberal conservative Prime Minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt in a speech asking the Swedish people to open their hearts to people ‘fleeing towards Europe, fleeing towards freedom, fleeing towards better conditions.’ Despite being born into Sweden’s upper class, Palme’s described himself as ‘belonging’ to the labour movement, ‘I got there by working for the working class on its own terms,’ he told reporters, ‘By joining the movement working for freedom, equality and fraternity among people.”

As the title of Nycander and Kristina Lindström’s documentary fairly indicates, Palme’s reputation was as mixed as a bag of ‘lördagsgodis’. His enemies spanned continents, owing to his open criticisms of South African apartheid, U.S. foreign policy and Franco and Pinochet’s respective dictatorships in Spain and Chile. In 1972, when Palme compared Nixon’s orders to bomb Hanoi around Christmastime with the Third Reich, the Swedish ambassador for Washington was swiftly expelled.   Returning to Frost’s interview, the subject of Palme’s recent appearance in the film I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) is raised. ‘You’re clearly a very great attraction in New York, Mr. Palme,’ he smirks. Palme insists, bashfully, that it is not ‘his’ film, but that he simply he gave an interview, and that he has not seen the film.

Speaking on her husband’s appearance in this film — cinematically canonised as a ‘porn film’ owing to being the first film to feature an explicit sex scene to have been on general release in the US — Lisbet Palme later admitted that ‘it was more important for Olof not to criticise an artistic production than to openly admit he was tricked.’ I Am Curious (Yellow) has been immortalised as a filmic byword for European smut (the film was referenced in an episode of Mad Men). Yet despite its debauched reputation, Sjöman’s film is far more nuanced than its lazy classification as a ‘porn film’ would indicate.

After studying in the US, its director, Vilgot Sjöman, began his career assisting the legendary Swedish Director Ingmar Bergman. His appetite for making sexually provocative films became well established early on, with films including 491, My Sister, My Love and The Mistress earning him black marks with the Swedish National Board of Film Censors. With I Am Curious, Sjöman and his co-star Lena Nyman strove to create a film born from contemporary Sweden and the tapestry of its politics. As Nyman recorded in her diary shortly before production began, ‘His new movie is going to be made in a new way. With a somewhat young company and going on forever. It will be freaky and nuts and we are going to get all of Sweden into the film.’

After a lengthy censorship trial at the U.S. Supreme Court, I Am Curious (Yellow) became an international commercial success; it remained the most successful foreign-language film in the US until the 1990s. The film is a playful, textured portrait of the interplay of the personal and political, comically laced with a scathing critique of greedy consumerism, ruthless tabloids and political violence vs. nonviolence. ‘Buy our film, buy our film. The only film that exists in two colours. Buy the yellow! Buy the blue!’ Sjöman pleads as the feature opens. Lena conducts lightning-quick interviews with Swedes from all social stratas on social justice, Sweden’s class system and gender equality. This stern political commentary is spliced with comic parody voice-overs, ‘Guess what Lena has in this bag! First prize — a solo trip to Spain, Second prize — a luxury cruise around the world…’

In a moment which charmingly captures the stereotype of casual Scandinavian nudity, Lena asks a Butcher whether Swedish society has a class system. ‘It depends on the people,’ he considers, ‘Undress them and they’re all alike. Dress them and you have a class system.In Palme’s segment, the Politician appears as himself; a 39-year old Minister for Transport, mysig-ly perched outside his family home in the company of Lisbet, one of their young sons, and his toy rat. ‘We have an income class society,’ he tells Sjöman simply, ‘the reasons for this are clear: lower rural income, lower income for women and lower income if you’re older.’

Beside the camera operator, away from the section’s ‘subject’, Nyman becomes irritable, groaning, ‘I can’t listen to Palme, I don’t know what he’s talking about’. Lena prefers the 37-year old Martin Luther King, who features in a brief interview outlining the value of nonviolence. ‘I like him, he talks about much better things than Palme’ Lena thinks to herself, later building an odd, pseudo-fetishistic shrine in the name of MLK.

Lena appears on both sides of the lens. She is restless, mocked, intellectually confused and ceaselessly horny. She detests Franco’s regime with spitting vengeance and chronicles every sexual conquest in a numbered organiser. After Lena’s new sexual partner, Börje, helps her run away from a commune, they have sex inside cramped apartments, the gaping recesses of dead trees, and tepid lakes; which, as Martin Steyn claimed, ‘pioneered a new cinematic concept: sex in a political context’. Through blending fact/fiction in this hybridised documentary format, Lena’s sexual enthusiasm evades objectification through the lens of the male director. As Linda Williams explains in Hard Core, ‘the notion that the female character is ‘used’ by men suggests that it is improbable that a woman would engage in fellatio of her own accord’.

Despite Palme’s feigned innocence, Maaret Koskien confidently argues that the politician was privy to Sjöman’s directorial reputation after fall-outs over explicit films. The young Palme’s controversial career-move was, as Koskien suggests, rooted in a combination of Palme’s ‘crass media-savviness, coupled perhaps with a touch of arrogance’ and, a willful allegiance to ‘those new, liberal, and rational forces in matters, political and sexual, that were also on his own political agenda […] These men in power, all in their prime so to speak, who very consciously encouraged media exposure of their intimate family spheres, a domain that previously had almost exclusively been identified with femininity.’

Thirty-four years after his assassination,  Palme remains a contentious figure. On the left, he is remembered for the legacy of his expansive welfare system, his impassioned speeches declaring his commitment to socialism and equality, and his government’s reforms to Sweden’s 1809 constitution; reducing the role of the monarchy and ending Sweden’s ‘ethnic hygiene’ programme, which forcibly sterilized 63,000 people between 1934 and 1976. But for many in Sweden’s far-right circles, Palme’s death was met with cheer. In 2009, a video surfaced of the far-right Sweden Democrats party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, enjoying a drunken sing-a-long which paired lyrics describing Palme’s shooting (The shot fired, the blood ran, Olof Palme disappeared!) with the tune of ‘Deck the halls’.

Palme’s curious decision to appear in Sjöman’s film may well have been a calculated PR stunt, but despite the critical and political uproar, I Am Curious (Yellow) successfully advertised the ideals of the nation Palme would later lead to a global audience. In life, Palme may have been resistant to his memorialisation, but his earnest socialist principles were recorded here — principles which were to transform the landscape of Swedish politics forever.