Cultural diplomacy designates the use of cultural ‘soft power’ – rather than military or economic means – to influence or coerce. Historically, cultural diplomacy has been exercised not only by governments to advance foreign policy goals, but also through a range of unofficial activities within different cultural sectors. As Benjamin Martin and Elisabeth Piller observe, the politically and economically unstable interwar period saw a surge in cultural diplomacy efforts with the establishment of governmental cultural departments, cultural festivals and sponsored cultural exchange: ‘Through such efforts, states mobilised broad swaths of civil society in new ways, engaging artists, architects, scholars, religious leaders, advertising executives and schoolchildren in projecting the nation’s culture abroad.’1 In this sense, Martin and Piller argue, the interwar period can be described as ‘a laboratory for the testing of new “cultural” tools in international politics.’2 Media historian Nicholas J. Cull tracks the origins of what he phrases ‘cinematic diplomacy’ to Hollywood during World War I. Since then, Cull observes, film has been used diplomatically chiefly in three ways: first, as a prestige object and as a cultural ambassador on behalf of one’s own country; secondly, as a negative with complaints toward other film industries with regard to misrepresentations or increasing foreign influence in one’s own industry; or, thirdly, as a ‘chess pawn’ where films have been withdrawn from film festivals due to political and strategic considerations.3 While previous research on film as a cultural diplomacy tool has focused mainly on the film festival circuit,4 less attention has been placed on the role of film societies in such cultural exchange.

This article investigates the role of cultural diplomacy within the Swedish film society movement. First originating in France during the 1920s, the film society movement began to flourish in Sweden during the 1930s with increasing domestic exchange, and soon thereafter international connections started to become more central. This study centres on Lund Film Society’s travels abroad during the 1930s: to Nazi-Germany in 1935 and in 1938 respectively, as well as to the Soviet Union in 1936. Through international exchange, Lund Film Society did not only get access to artistic and politically radical films but also an increased insight into the international film industry. In the historiography of the film society, those trips appear almost mythical. On the one hand, they have been highlighted as examples of the film society’s thrift and sense of adventure. As Gösta Werner, the society’s long-time chairman and later a famous filmmaker and film historian, writes: ‘The air above Lund was high. Our contacts reached out over Öresund and into Europe, rather than just to Stockholm and Uppsala.’5 On the other hand, persistent rumours have flourished regarding the film society’s ‘Pro-German’ attitude during the interwar period, with Werner cast as the role of the main target of these accusations. 6 This raises questions about how Lund Film Society, both in its daily operation and in connection to the journeys, conceptualised their relation to the contemporary film culture in Germany and in the Soviet Union.

The study centres on the following research questions: How did the participants from Lund Film Society present their encounter with the history, culture, and dominating ideologies of these counties? The focal point of the present study is the travelogues that the participants published both in daily newspapers (Sydsvenska Dagbladet, Lunds Dagblad and Arbetet), and in specialist trade journals published nationally (Biografbladet and Biografägaren). Another purpose in studying the connections with Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union is hence to understand how the international relations functioned for the film society. Under the headline ‘Film and politics in 1930s Lund’ I will analyse, in chronological order, the film society’s three trips during the interwar period. Finally, I discuss the importance of international exchange for the Swedish film society environment during the interwar period.

Film and politics in 1930s Lund

During the autumn of 1929, a group of cinephile students wrote a declaration in the social democratic newspaper Arbetet that Lund Film Society had been formed, while encouraging other film enthusiasts to join them: ‘In academic circles, the interest in film is extraordinary and naturally of a theoretical kind.’7 Film and theatre critic Stig Almqvist and the then student and later experimental filmmaker Gösta Werner were among the founders, who were inspired by the rise of so-called cinéclubs and film societies in Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam.8 In Sweden, film societies also formed in Stockholm, Uppsala and Gothenburg during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The film program for Lund Film Society during its inaugural season shows that international art cinema from France, Germany, the Soviet Union and Italy dominated the program, with the supply of films being highly dependent on the good-will of film producers and distributors (who lent films to the society) as well as other organisations (such as the workers’ movement or diplomatic legations). David Bordwell argues that the teleological history of the development of film narratives and style – what he describes as ‘the Basic Story’ – was promoted by the film culture during the 1920s and 1930s in film magazines, film societies and emerging film archives. 9 In 1936, Lund Film Society boasted 350 members, making it one of the most popular student associations in the university city.10

Figure 1 

Lund Film Society ex libris from the Lund Film Society Archive.

Meanwhile, the 1930s was a transforming time politically that made an impression on the cultural climate in Lund. Not least the rise of Nazism in Germany and, later, the National Socialist German Workers Party’s takeover of power was noticed in the student city. In the book Lund University during the Second World War: Contradictions, Debate and Relief Efforts (1996), historian Sverker Oredsson investigates the public opinion within Lund University and in particular how people regarded Nazism and the national socialists’ ideology. The political associations during the interwar period were many, and Oredsson shows that most, with few exceptions, could be placed ideologically either on the radical left or the far right of the political landscape.11

To the left side of the political spectrum were, among others, D.Y.G (The Younger Old Man) and Clarté. Whereas the social liberal association D.Y.G. at the end of the 1920s and the start of the 1930s was an active force in the Lundian political flora, during the 1930s it was increasingly pushed out by the more radical Clarté, which was the most active leftist organisation at the time. To the right of the political spectrum, activity increased noticeably among existing associations during the 1930s and new organisations emerged. These include the National Youth League of Sweden, (Nationella ungdomsförbundet, founded in 1918), The November 30 association, (30-novemberföreningen, founded in 1921), The Lund National Student Club (Lunds nationella studentklubb, founded in 1924), The Swedish-German Academic Association, (Svensk-tyska akademiska förbundet, founded in 1922), The National Socialist Student Club (Nationalsocialistiska studentklubben, founded in 1930) and The Young Swedes Student Association (Ungsvenska studentföreningen, founded in 1934).12 In their own publications, representatives reported on their growing popularity among Lund’s students.13 Several historians have also shown that many people in the university cities, especially in Lund and Uppsala, had a keen eye to the New Germany.14 This raises the question of how Lund Film Society navigated in this political tug o’ war. Against this background, a closer look at Lund Film Society’s choice to travel to both Nazi-Germany and the Soviet Union seems warranted.

During the 1930s, the debate about the Peoples Home (Folkhemmet) continued in Sweden. At the same time, political turbulence shook several European countries. Many Swedish intellectuals chose to visit the scenes of these upheavals, such as the Soviet Union Spain, and Nazi Germany, and often told of their experiences when they returned to their home country. Historians Marie Cronqvist and Agneta Edman have described the travelogue as a popular literary genre during the 1930s that allowed the authors to relate to changes in Swedish social development: ‘Through travel and encounters with the other, which is both partly familiar and completely foreign, one’s own attitude, one’s own identity, is carved out.’15 In a similar manner, the travelogues published by travellers from Lund Film Society point to prevailing attitudes on issues of ideology, politics and, not least, the view of the film medium, the modern medium par excellence.

Lund Film Society’s travel to Germany in 1935

During the pre-war years and during the Second World War, the universities became the scene of a cultural-political propaganda war that Nazi-Germany actively supported.16 In the book The Nazi-Fascist New Order for European Culture (2016), historian Benjamin G. Martin studies the emergence of Nazi institutions, associations and networks whose stated goal was to shape the cultural-political agenda through international exchange, and he shows that the Nazi elite valued the networks highly.17 Therefore, different forms of cultural exchange formed an important part of the Nazi regime’s cultural propaganda, a concept that has become particularly central to the historical scientific research on this subject. As Maria Björkman, Patrik Lundell and Sven Widmalm note: ‘In science, media and culture, every form of exchange was regarded as part of the cultural propaganda – not necessarily propaganda for the Hitler regime or Nazi ideology but for the New Germany in a wider sense, whose legitimacy was strengthened through international cooperation. Put in more modern terms we could say that the objective of the cultural propaganda was national brand building.’18 International cooperation, Martin points out, was a priority not least in the field of film, where the International Film Chamber had far-reaching ambitions.19 After the takeover, contacts with the official Germany were basically contacts with Nazi Germany.20

The same was true for the German film company Ufa, which came to extend invitations to Lund Film Society twice during the interwar period. The company was founded in 1917 and during the silent film era it became one of Germany’s leading film companies and took a central position in the international film market.21 In March 1933, Joseph Goebbels became leader of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, which was established by Adolf Hitler. In the coming months, the National Socialists came to consolidate their power over the German film industry and not least Ufa. The consequences were many: the industry was rebuilt economically and structurally, films began to be regulated on the basis of the political and moral compass of national socialism, and Jewish employees – from directors and actors to various officials – were forced to leave the German film industry. Klaus Kreimeier and other media historians have argued that the Nazi state took almost total political and ideological control over the film industry.22

How did Lund Film Society view German film at this point in time? In this context, it should be remembered that at the time of the Nazi takeover of Germany, the exchange with Sweden was extensive and frequent, not least in the area of culture, and economic-historical research has shown that the relations were particularly lively before the outbreak of the war.23 From this point of view, it is not surprising that German films made up a large part of Lund Film Society’s film screenings around this time. Among the films shown during the seasons before the invitation to Ufa’s studios are both titles that were banned and praised by the Nazi regime. On the one hand, the crime film Hände aus dem Dunkel (Erich Waschneck, 1933) was screened, which was banned by the censorship after the Nazis came to power.24 On the other hand, the explicitly National Socialist film Hans Westmar: Einer von vielen: Ein deutsches Schicksal aus dem Jahre 1929 (Franz Wenzler, 1933), was also shown. The film is about the Nazi martyr Horst Wessel and the Nazis’ street fights in the years before the power takeover (within Nazi mythology known as Kampfzeit or Kampfjahre) and it was clearly anti-communist.25Hans Westmar was put at the film society’s disposal by the German legation in Stockholm, one of relatively few occasions during which diplomatic legations provided the film society with propaganda.26 During the 1930s, diplomatic legations and foreign film companies exerted pressure toward the National Board of Film Censors (Statens biografbyrå) in questions surrounding film censorship.27 Drawing on Swedish foreign policy, the film censors’ task was to assess whether imported films could harm Sweden’s relations to other nations, in which case the films should be banned or partially censored. As a consequence, the film censors paid close attention to the propaganda content in foreign films. While all films that were distributed in Swedish cinemas passed the censorship bureau, private film screenings for member clubs, film societies and other associations did not require such approval. Private screening, such as the screening of Hans Westmar, were commonplace both before and during World War II. In addition, during the seasons 1933 and 1934, a number of pre-war films by well-established German filmmakers, such as L’Atlantide (G.W. Pabst, 1932), Unmögliche Liebe (Erich Waschneck, 1932) and Don Quixote (G.W. Pabst, 1933) were screened.28

Early in the spring of 1935, Lund Film Society received an invitation by Ufa to visit one of their studios in Neubabelsberg in Potsdam outside Berlin. During a meeting at The Academic Association in Lund, chairman Werner informed the members of the invitation and provided the proposed preliminary program, where the visit to the film studios was seen as the highlight. Lunds Dagblad observed: ‘Finally, it should be pointed out that Ufa’s invitation indicates a high and fair appreciation of the work of Lund Film Society and its leading position in our country, because the Ufa studios are currently closed for visitors due to heavy workload.’29 During the 1935–1936 season, the German film companies struggled to produce film at the rate Goebbels demanded, which led to a hectic pace in the studios, and with that in mind the invitation to visit the studios was thus seen as even more honourable.30 The 50 spots were quickly filled with potential participants. During the time before the visit, the film society screened a number of German films that now was lent to it by Ufa, Du sollst nicht begehren (Richard Schneider-Edenkoben, 1933) and Liebe, Tod und Teufel (Heinz Hilpert and Reinhart Steinbicker, 1934), and in a study circle (which was organised regularly for a smaller number of members at the Academic Society in Lund) a lecture on the film situation in Germany was held.31 These thorough preparations were emphasised when the students came to Germany.

On April 14, 1935, 58 members, a mixed group of both men and women, travelled to Copenhagen to continue by train to Berlin. Students from all faculties were represented: theologists, legal scholars, medic students, philosophers and students from the sciences.32 While the participants themselves paid for travel and housing, Ufa provided guided tours of their premises, several film screenings, and other acts of hospitality. Once there, the group came to be taken care of by several representatives of Ufa, including the press chief R. Panunzi33 and the advertising manager Carl Opitz, whom Biografbladet described as ‘well known for his many visits to Stockholm’ and who later came to be known for shaping the image of Zarah Leander in the German press.34 Opitz, who came to guide the group throughout their visit, was described in Biografägaren as ‘a gracious and knowledgeable cicerone’ who ‘kept his watchful eye on the group at all times.’35 Björkman, Lundell and Widmalm describe ‘tours’ of facilities and institutions, like Ufa’s film studios in this case, as a common feature of Germany’s cultural propaganda, and in addition, ‘every foreign guest was taken care of by a special “sponsor” who served as an escort in the Nazi cultural life.’36 This description fits well with Lund Film Society’s experiences in Germany.

Figure 2 

Members of Lund Film Society outside of Ufa’s studios in Neubabelsberg. From the Lund Film Society Archive.

During the first day, film society members got to see a program of 22 short films, mostly advertisements, and the operetta Barcarole (1935, Gerhard Lamprecht). In the evening, the guests were invited to Ufa’s grand premiere cinema Ufa-Palast am Zoo to see Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial film about the National Socialist Party’s party days in Nuremberg, Triumph des Willens, 1935, which premiered just over two weeks earlier.37 The film, which is often highlighted as an aesthetic masterpiece, made a great impression on the participants from Lund. In Biografägaren, an anonymous reviewer from the film society wrote:

‘149,000 meters of film were recorded. It has been edited down to 3000! Remarkably good were the pictures of ‘der Führer’ himself. The images of Hitler we are used to see back home are hardly chosen to present his appearance in the best light. But in Triumph des Willens you got to see a Hitler that did not only look angry and grim, but could also be smiling and playful. In short: One got a sympathetic impression of Hitler as a person.’38

Gösta Werner was also impressed. In a causerie titled ‘Reportaget får ej vara målet’ (‘The Report must not be the Goal’), published in Biografbladet and written under the pseudonym Ciné, he discussed the film report in relation to art and then described his experience of Triumph des Willens:

‘[Y]et the film was under long periods not just a report – for the Germans the Report with a capital R – but grew beyond the report. It simply became an inspired and in brilliant images translated anthem to the positive and constructive forces of national socialism. From the images of the vast marches and the public, a definite feeling grew ever stronger: this is how the National Socialist advance in Germany came to be. Just like this, young and old, high and low, have opted for it.’

As a sceptical Swede (promised by our own Nazis a trip to a concentration camp as soon as possible!) one says to oneself that the perception may be false. But what does that have to do with the experience being true?39

Historians have emphasised that the Nazis were extremely aesthetically conscious.40 In a number of articles written for Frankfurter Zeitung, later published in the anthology Das Ornament der Masse (1963), film theorist Siegfried Kracauer analyses a number of modern forms of entertainment in the Weimar Republic – from modern gymnastics shows to film – to illustrate how the individual is organised into a whole, a phenomenon which he calls ‘the Mass Ornament.’41 In his famous study From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (1947), Kracauer links this phenomenon to Nazi aesthetics and the way the masses are portrayed in, for example, influential works such as Triumph des Willens: ‘Whenever Hitler harangued the people, he surveyed not so much hundreds of thousands of listeners as an enormous ornament consisting of hundreds of thousands of particles.’42 Although Werner was neither the first, nor the last, to be impressed by the aesthetics of the mass movements, it should be pointed out that it was a recurring motif in his journalism from this time. With his lively reports about Triumph des Willens strong influence and its artistic merits, Werner joined the many Swedish colleagues, including Bengt Idestam-Almquist, Knut Jeurling and Ragnar Allberg, who expressed scepticism about the boycott of German film that the Swedish Trade Union Confederation (LO) had argued for.43

Figure 3 

Ufa’s advertising manager Carl Opitz (left) and Lund Film Society chairman Gösta Werner (right). From the Lund Film Society Archive.

Figure 4 

Ufa-Palast am Zoo ahead of the screening of Triumph des Willens. From the Lund Film Society Archive.

Figure 5 

Unidentified members of Lund Film Society socialize with German SS-men. From the Lund Film Society Archive.

On the second day, the film society members got a guided tour of the film studios and Carl Opitz showed how effective the film factory Neubabelsberg really was by bringing the delegation to the recording sites for several major film productions, including the operetta Amphitryon (Reinhold Schünzel, 1935) and Ich liebe alle Frauen (Carl Lamac, 1935). Ufa also offered food and drink generously. The signature Émile, Gunnar Dahmén from Halland’s nation and later chairman of the Lund Student Union, wrote happily about the experience in the student newspaper Lundagård: ‘[C]an an ordinary mortal objectively judge a movie made by a company, which for a whole day showed him all their delights, offered a charming lunch with lots of delicious German beer, coffee and brandy, and immediately thereafter placed him in a comfortable armchair in a noble showroom, completely draped with warm red velvet drapes?’44 It is clear that the hosts put on their best efforts to impress the guests.

After returning to Lund, the visit came to the attention of both Swedish and German press, which was especially appreciated by the inviting party. In the Berliner Lokalnachrichten, Werner talked about the film society’s meticulous preparation for the trip – and the fact that the propaganda film Hans Westmar was shown in the film society – and the fine impression the Swedish participants got of German cinema.45 The prestigious magazine Lichtbild-Bühne, whose Jewish editor Karl Wolffsohn later lost control of the magazine when it was ‘Aryanised’ in 1936, greatly appreciated the visit and made it front page news.46 The magazine further noted that in addition to Ufa, the students had also become acquainted with the beauty of the state capital Berlin and the new cultural direction in the New Germany. ‘With these impressions from Germany and its cultural orientation and creativity, the Swedish students will now return to their homeland. They do not return immediately to the university, but each go on to celebrate Easter in their own home region, some to the northern parts of the country, others to the south. Everywhere they will tell people about what they have seen in Germany. This mutual acquaintance will also foster the relationship between the people,’ wrote the German film magazine, and emphasised how important this was at the time.47 Newspaper reports such as these undoubtedly indicate that Lund Film Society’s visit was seen as part of a cultural-political propaganda war.

In the fall after returning home, the friendly relations between Lund Film Society and Ufa were further developed. In November 1935, Ufa’s press chief, Carl Opitz, visited Lund Film Society, and Lunds Dagblad described him as a ‘long-heralded and long-awaited guest.’48 Among other things, the film society arranged a film screening and a reception for the press where Opitz advertised Ufa’s upcoming new films on their repertoire, which resulted in longer articles in a couple of Scanian newspapers.49 Also present was Ufa’s representative in Sweden, Elis Sundell, head of the Stockholm branch since its establishment in 1925.50 Together, Opitz, Werner and Sundell embarked on an academic lecture tour with stops both at Stockholm Student Film Society at Stockholm University and The Aesthetic Association at Uppsala University. The latter lecture was described as easy-going in Upsala Nya Tidning, and here Opitz also focused on marketing the company’s movie stars and upcoming major investments, something which the newspaper interpreted as a new direction for the company: ‘The press chief throws himself into the subject of Ufa. He more or less mentions in passing that the company has now fully absorbed the recording work for the international market. It would seem that gone were the days when German film mainly focused on internal propaganda and tendency films.’51

It seems like Ufa representative Opitz’s charm offensive was, in many ways, about selling the German film as apolitical, and in particular in contrast to the overtly political national socialist films produced in the early 1930s. In light of the international criticism directed at the Nazi regime, Björkman, Lundell and Widmalm argue, it was of great importance to show the outside world that Germany still was a nation of culture and that the intellectual activity in the country still could be apolitical.52 Opitz’s lecture tour is yet another example of how this theme was centrally emphasised in German cultural propaganda. From a marketing perspective, the lecture tour to the student clubs was a successful venture. Arrangements in academic contexts, in Uppsala probably as much as in Lund, tended to be extensively discussed in the local press, often accompanied by positively charged adjectives.53 Author Ola Larsmo, for example, describes that in the 1930s, ‘the universities were yet another hatchery for those who regarded themselves as the next generation’s social elite.’54 In other words, the fact that Ufa’s marketing was targeted at this group was no coincidence.

Figure 6 

The film magazine Lichtbild-Bühne reported on Lund Film Society’s visit to Germany.

Lund Film Society’s travel to the Soviet Union in 1936

During the spring of 1936, Lund Film Society travelled to Leningrad and Moscow. The program before the trip to the Soviet Union was just as eclectic as it had been the year before with borrowed films from several well-established Swedish film companies combined with short animated advertisements, information films and educational films. Although most of these films lacked a political tendency, there were several propaganda elements in the program. This season, not only did diplomatic representatives of Germany contribute film to the film society, but so did their Soviet counterparts. In the first instance, it was yet again the German Legation, this time in Copenhagen, that provided the film society with films. The contacts with German film companies and diplomats appear to have been well-established by this time.

Lund Film Society revered the Soviet montage film, in particular silent films such as the Bronenosets Potiomkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925), Konets Sankt-Peterburga (Vsevolod Pudovkin and Michail Doller, 1927), and Zemlja (Aleksandr Dovchenko,1930). These canonised films were circulated in the European film societies and they were relatively easy to borrow or rent from neighbouring countries’ film societies, and as a result Soviet films were screened frequently also in Lund. During the 1930s, the Russian film underwent radical changes, with the state and Josef Stalin taking greater control of the film industry.55 Like the German films discussed above, the Soviet films shown by Lund Film Society had strong propaganda features. In the spring before the trip, for example, the adventure film Aerograd (Aleksandr Dovchenko, 1935) was screened, one of the Stalin era’s most explicitly anti-Japanese propaganda films.56 The film portrays the Japanese more or less as lower-standing and the film is permeated by gross racism. The film screening garnered a lot of attention. Sydsvenska Dagbladet described the film as ‘robber’s propaganda’ and according to the reviewer, its only merit was that it could serve as ‘good propaganda for the military defense.’57Biografbladet stated that ‘[f]rom the point of view of a Swedish audience, the blatant communist character of the content should make the film pretty – exclusionary.’58 Even among the members there was some dissatisfaction and after the show a member of the audience is said to have erupted: ‘How could you screen such a film?’59 Just like the German legation, the Trade Representative of the Socialist Soviet Republic’s Union in Stockholm was ready to contribute film propaganda to the film society’s program. Although some reviewers and members expressed their reservations about the screening of Soviet propaganda, there is much that suggests that films with political tendencies, such as censorship-prohibited films and artistic avant-garde films, had some allure for the members during the interwar period.

In April 1936, 55 people travelled with Lund Film Society via Stockholm and Helsinki to the Soviet Union.60 Unlike the journeys to Germany this trip was open for all members of the Swedish Film Societies National Association (founded in 1936) and for this reason senior and professional members formed a considerable part of the group.61 The trip was initiated by the Soviet tourist agency Intourist, who contacted the film society management and offered a discounted package price for a study trip in the country. During the interwar period, there were several state organisations that organised trips for tourists in the Soviet Union. While VOKS (Institute for Cultural Relations) was the most prominent organisation, and the one that focused specifically on cultural relations, Intourist was an organisation that primarily took care of ordinary middle-class tourists.62 Previous research shows that these Soviet institutes planned study visits and made sure that participants got to see what they wanted or what they should see.63 Some of the stops on the ten-day trip were undoubtedly tailor-made for the film society, such as visits to the nationally dominant film company Mosfilms’ and the German-Soviet film company Mezhrabpomfilm’s studios in Moscow, but the stops also included tourist destinations such as the Hermitage and the Revolution Museum. Just as in Germany, prominent people in the business acted as hosts to the film society’s delegates. In this case, it was Boris Shumyatsky, a then-leading figure in the Soviet film industry, later one of those executed by Josef Stalin, who welcomed the Swedes.64

The trip garnered a great deal of attention in Biografbladet and under the heading ‘Young forces,’ the film society in Lund was praised for not being passive in the face of ‘the still lacking opportunities for the youngsters’ theoretical education ahead of a possible practical pursuit but rather taking the matter into their own hands.65 In a longer travelogue in the same issue, Werner, under the signature Ciné, discussed the film society’s decision to go east.66 Of particular importance, Werner argued, was the increased awareness of the possibilities of studying practical filmmaking in the Soviet Union. Besides the film studios, which he judged to be far behind their Western European and American counterparts, Werner was impressed by the All-Russian State University of Cinematography (VGIK), one of the world’s oldest film schools, and the resources invested in its education.67 Werner lamented the lack of similar institutions in Sweden and noted that the prospects for Swedes to study practical filmmaking abroad, for example in Russia, were small.68 In the Stockholm University student magazine, Gaudeamus, Werner developed his thoughts on the film academy and at the same time emphasised its shortcomings: ‘They are not – as it may be easy to believe – of a political nature, so that the propagandistic aspects of cinema are not constantly put on a pedestal. The shortcomings are more profound and definitely less dependent upon our times. They lie in the Slavic race’s respect for organization and the consequent tendency to try to push also the unorganizable into the organization.’69 In other words, Werner criticised the school’s inefficiency, something he saw as a manifestation of the mentality of the Russian ‘race.’

In the 1930s, many Swedish intellectuals chose to travel to the Soviet Union and several travelogues were published on the subject.70 While some travelogues were criticised for their outsider perspective, especially because of their authors’ lacking language skills, this criticism could not be made in the present case.71 Gösta Werner’s interest in Russia originated with his student times. He studied Slavic languages for a while, and participated in a longer study trip to Hungary, Bulgaria and the Balkan Peninsula.72 As a result of his studies, he thus had some basic knowledge of the language. Other stories from the Soviet Union were received with scepticism with reference to the traveller’s attitude towards the country. The sociologist Paul Hollander has coined the term ‘political pilgrims’ to describe the phenomenon of Western visitors to communist dictatorships, pointing out that this kind of traveller, often with a positive attitude towards the visiting country, tends to ignore repression and totalitarian traits.73 In fact, many contemporary travellers were aware that they could be accused of being prejudiced, that is, of being political pilgrims.74

The leadership in Lund Film Society also showed an awareness of this risk, and before the departure they tried to emphasise their political neutrality in several ways. Firstly, the board did not allow just anyone to join. For example, a potential participant, a former member of the Communist Youth League in Sweden, was refused to join on the basis of his political sympathies.75 In addition, their apolitical attitude was emphasised in various travelogues. For example, in Dagens Nyheter, a film society member stated that they were trying to be aware of prejudice about the host country: ‘Whether traveling to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union without too much preconceived notions, the utter unreliability of professional journalism must be noted here, as in most areas.’76 In Biografbladet, Gösta Häggström, the new chair of the film society, emphasised the film society’s multifaceted programming: ‘We are completely politically neutral – if we screen Pudovkin’s The Deserter on one occasion, then we will show the German film Horst Wessel next!’77

Figure 7 

Invitation cards to The Deserter and Hans Westmar. From the Lund Film Society Archive.

The picture painted by the members of the film society appeared ambivalent regarding the Soviet Union. On the one hand, several members were pleasantly surprised by how the Russian cultural heritage had been treated after the revolution, which is perhaps not surprising given that cultural life was the aspect of the building of the new society that participants were exposed to above anything else during the journey.78 On the other hand, a number of travellers complained about Russian food, hygiene and perceived inefficiency.79 As one participant commented in Dagens Nyheter: ‘The impressions oscillate continuously from the wildest enthusiasm to the deepest disgust and dislike.’80 In other words, although the reception was considered to be good, the Soviet Union emerged in many ways as a foreign, essentially separate and, in many ways unmodern country.

Figure 8 

Invitation cards to The Deserter and Hans Westmar. From the Lund Film Society Archive.

After returning to Lund all communication with the Soviet Union’s film industry ceased. Unlike the relationship with Ufa, where the highly regarded Carl Opitz personally had a good eye to film society, the contacts with Mosfilm and Mezhrabpomfilm never became lasting.

Lund Film Society’s travel to Germany in 1938

Towards the end of the 1930s, the political tensions intensified in Lund. Sverker Oredsson elaborates on how several new German-oriented organisations were started as resistance in the Jewish refugee issue increased.81 Lund Film Society’s program was as diverse as before, and the German films that were screened were primarily canonised classics of the Weimar era.82 No tendency in either direction of the burgeoning world political conflict can be discerned. However, it is noteworthy that before the second trip to Germany, the film society collaborated with organisations that historians have labelled as pro-Nazi. For example, Lund’s Film Society together with the Swedish-German Academic Association in Lund, one of the active student associations on the right of the political spectrum, arranged a joint meeting at the Palladium cinema in Lund where an animal film was shown along with a presentation by an invited German speaker.83 Although German and Russian special programs preceded both the trip to Germany in 1935 and the Soviet Union in 1936, this type of collaboration with politically active associations was unusual in the film society.

On April 6, 1938, participants from Lund Film Society began the journey that would take them to Berlin, Dresden and Prague. This trip was also open to members of the Stockholm Film Society and Uppsala Student Film Society. Whereas the Lund Film Society focused mainly on theoretical issues, the Stockholm and Uppsala film enthusiasts were comparatively more interested in making films themselves.84 Despite the invitation to Stockholm and Uppsala, the participants were significantly fewer than the previous two trips, only 23 people.85 The visit began with a screening of the adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s Das Mädchen vom Moorhof (1935, Detlef Sierck, later Douglas Sirk) based on her short novel Tösen från Stormyrtorpet (1908), at Ufa-Zentrale in central Berlin.86 Unlike the earlier trip to Germany, which was preceded by an official invitation from the film company Ufa, this second trip was planned in collaboration with Nordische Verbindungsstelle, a German institution for cultural propaganda in the Nordic countries, which was in close contact with both the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry.87 Judging by the travelogues, most of the time in Berlin was spent not in film studios, but at various newly built facilities around the city. The travelogues from the first day largely concern the presentation of new major construction projects such as the new National Office, Hermann Göring’s Ministry of Aviation, and the Tempelhof Airport.88 In addition, the participants visited the Nazi’s renowned exhibition on ‘degenerate art,’ Entartete Kunst.89

A visit to Ufa’s studio in Postdam-Babelsberg was also made.90 Here, the Swedes were impressed by the high quality of German film teaching, and the fact that it combined theoretical and practical perspectives. On the second day, a study visit was made to Ufa-Lehrschau. This was a newly opened, permanent exhibition created to illustrate how modern film production worked, accompanied by a large collection of film literature and an archive.91 In March 1938, Goebbels announced the plans for a national German film school, Der Deutschen Film-Akademie und das Arbeitsinstitut für Kulturfilmschaffen, intended to train filmmakers and technicians in the service of national socialism.92 The grand ambitions of the German Film Academy were also presented to the Swedes during the tour in Potsdam. In an article in The Nordic Family Book’s Monthly Chronicle, Werner wrote in depth with appreciation of its arrangement:

[W]hen Goebbels, during the usual trumpet fanfares on March 4, 1938, laid the foundation stone for a German Film Academy, he received a more favorable public image in all political camps around the world than he may have ever received. The new German Film Academy is the first of its kind in the world, even if it has had some predecessors. With their usual systematic accuracy, the Germans have thoroughly considered and thought of all forms of filmmaking and what could possibly be related to it.93

Given such a setting, Werner argued, the medium of film could be taken seriously as an art form. Even though the school was only open to students who could prove their Aryan descent, the author thought he could perceive ‘a broad-minded attitude’ among German filmmakers, which he attributed to an increased appreciation for exiled German filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch.94Biografbladet reported that the German Film Academy also was opened to foreign students and that five scholarships were dedicated to Swedes.95 In a commentary on these scholarships, Werner emphasised the benevolent German attitude towards Sweden: ‘The interest shown by the German film authorities in recent years, in particular by the large Ufa company through the Swedish student film movements’ trips to Berlin (1935 and 1938), indicates a pronounced benevolent attitude to Sweden when it comes to film.’96 However, Goebbels’ academy came to be short-lived and most likely no exchange was ever established between Sweden and Germany in this area.97

The stay in Berlin finished with two screenings. First, Karl Ritter’s First World War film Urlaub auf Ehrenwort (1938) was screened, a film that was markedly propagandistic. In a text about Karl Ritter and Wolfgang Liebeneiner’s film art, Werner discussed the film and stated that the former ‘expresses in his style of filmmaking the harsh German spirit, which does not shy away from strong effects and harsh responses, brutal and cynical as it often is and even more often is called.’98 The evening ended at the Marmorhaus cinema in Charlottenburg. Before leaving for Prague, the friendship with Ufa was confirmed and Lund Film Society elected Carl Opitz as an honorary member.99

A few months after returning home, Lund Film Society publicly announced that they had invited Germany’s great director Leni Riefenstahl that fall.100 In October, she performed at Studentafton, an important forum for speech and debate in Lund, in the Great Hall of the Academic Society. The visit was made in connection with the Swedish launch of Riefenstahl’s documentary film about the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, Olympia (Olympia 1. Teil – Fest der Völker & Olympia 2. Teil – Fest der Schönheit, 1938).101 As the author Lars Åhlander has stated, reports in the newspapers were overwhelmingly positive.102Sydsvenska Dagbladet stated that the event was ‘a great hit with the audience’ and that the hall was filled to the brim.103Lunds Dagblad’s report was even more enthusiastic:

She won over Lund’s students completely, fully and without pity. Miss Riefenstahl turned out to be both woman and artist, charmingly girlish and a manly expert with a disarming smile, which warmed everyone up. Her shy curtsey at the end of the lecture elicited ovations, which testified that Saturday’s student evening was one of the greatest in a long time.104

Representatives of the film society, such as Emanuel Lillieroth, were also delighted with Riefenstahl’s visit: ‘She turned out to be a charming revelation, appearing without any diva tendencies, and that’s why she took her audience by storm.’105 The event was concluded by Gunnar Dahmén, who at the time was chairman of Lund’s Student Union but who previously served on the board of Lund Film Society, presenting a memorial gift to the speaker made by designer Wiwen Nilsson.106

Through the International Film Chamber and the creation of several other cultural institutions, Nazi Germany sought to shape European cultural policy. As Benjamin G. Martin writes, the Nazis used international exchange even though their political purpose was antithetical to the movement commonly labelled internationalism.107 The exchange with Lund’s Film Society ought rather to be seen as a tool for increasing German influence in Sweden. During the second trip, the bond between Lund Film Society and the German film industry was deepened. In view of the travelogues from Berlin and Dresden, it is obvious that the German hosts put a great deal of effort into satisfying the Swedes. In return, German hospitality gained a lot of publicity in the Swedish press and in film industry magazines. In addition, Leni Riefenstahl’s visit to Lund can in this perspective be understood as an example of the mutual exchange that was strengthened during several years. While the connections between Lund Film Society and Ufa subsided in the following years, the personal relationship between key actors in this network, such as Lund chairman Gösta Werner, the Ufa advertising manager Carl Opitz, and the head of the Swedish Ufa branch Elis Sundell continued into the war years, when Werner was recruited to edit the newsreel Ufa-journalen from 1941 and onwards.108

Figure 9 

Article on Leni Riefenstahl’s appearance in Lund, in Lunds Dagblad 17 October 1938.


Although historians have carefully examined the academic environment of university cities such as Lund and Uppsala and the relationship with Nazism, little attention has been paid to how the political upheaval affected the growing film society movement. Similarly, most scholarship on film as a tool for cultural diplomacy has focused on the film festival circuit, rather than film societies and the cultural exchange that they were engaged in. In this article, I have analysed the activities of Lund Film Society during the interwar period, with special focus on the trips to Germany and the Soviet Union. The main question examined is what function the journeys had for the film society. Whereas Lund Film Society’s connections to Germany have been dealt with previously, their travels and events have primarily served as illustrations for ‘German-friendly’ trends in the university city of Lund. To better understand the specific conceptions, views and aspirations that characterised the film society at this point in time, I have studied previously overlooked archival material from its ten first years and the travelogues that participants wrote about their experiences abroad. In this way, I have intended to in a more nuanced picture describe Lund Film Society’s relationship with German and Soviet films, respectively.

My examination of Lund Film Society’s programming during the interwar period shows that both German and Soviet films with strong propaganda tendencies were screened regularly, largely as a result of such film material being made available to them by the German Legation and the Socialist Soviet Union’s Trade Representation. This resonates with Nicholas J. Cull’s notion that a central tendency within ‘cinematic diplomacy’ is the use of films as cultural ambassadors on behalf of one’s own country. At the same time, the analysis shows that the program was multi-faceted, which indicates that the film society did not prefer any particular political extreme. Just like censorship-prohibited and artistically challenging films, politically radical films also attracted the members of the film society and the screenings gave the film society attention in the press. In this way, it can be argued that the diplomatic legations of different countries played a greater role than previously claimed in the historiography of Lund Film Society.

The trips to Germany and the Soviet Union fulfilled several important functions for Lund Film Society. The film society was theoretically oriented and the possibilities of exploring the film medium practically were limited. During these journeys abroad, the film society managed to gain insight into how modern film studios worked in several different countries. At the same time, interest in cultural exchange was mutual. Nazi Germany worked purposefully with cultural-political propaganda and the extent of Ufa’s hospitality vis-à-vis the film society confirms that the trips were also given great importance by their host. Similarly, the Soviet Intourist reached out to the film society and arranged a tailor-made trip with visits to several film studios. The response from the members was great and the trips also attracted attention in the press.

The travelogues reveal a strong fascination for the large investments in film in the host countries. The ongoing activities at the film schools All-Russian State University of Cinematography and Ufa-Lehrschau were considered to be indicative of film’s transformative potential as a medium. At the same time, there were significant differences between relations with Germany and the Soviet Union. The visit to Mosfilm and Mezhrabpomfilm, which was praised in later historiography, was short and never resulted in a deeper relationship. In the case of Ufa, however, relations were also cultivated at home in Lund and the important representative Carl Opitz was not only elected as honorary member of the film society but also went on a lecture tour in Sweden and promoted German film. In terms of the travelogues, it is also clear that there was a marked scepticism about the Bolsheviks’ Soviet Union at the same time as many travellers were attracted by ‘the New Germany’ and its aesthetics. For Ufa and the Soviet hosts Mosfilm and Mezhrabpomfilm, the study trips functioned as an opportunity to showcase important film works, such as Triumph des Willens, to the ‘next generation’s social elite,’ to reiterate Ola Larsmo’s description of the Swedish universities of the 1930s. In other words, the cultural exchange with Lund Film Society functioned as a chess pawn in the competition over influence in the Swedish film sphere, one with a considerably higher cultural pedigree than the battle over market shares on the open cinema market.