Remembering Sweden – a review of The Restaurant

Available from Sundance Now and on Amazon Prime Time, but, if you are a Canadian and have a library card, free on Kanopy, the Restaurant is a four-season TV series set in and produced, directed and acted by Swedes. It first aired in 2017. The subtitle – actually, the original title – is vãr tid ãr nu, “now is our time.”

The central character is a family restaurant, the Djurgårdskällaren, a high-end initially old-style and stuffy restaurant in the heart of Stockholm that goes through several name changes, including DK and Nina’s, as the Löwander family which owns the restaurant reconfigures it to keep up to the times. Thus, the events surrounding the family conflicts over the restaurant track but do not mirror in any depth the changes that Sweden went through immediately after the war through the next seven decades.

The family consists of a widowed mother who lives in a lavish apartment above the restaurant. She has three children. Of the two sons, the oldest, Gustaf, makes his appearance initially as a repressed, very obsessive and secret alcoholic who allows circumstances and lack of self-confidence to corrupt him. The second son, Peter, enters the story as a returning soldier who worked in the refugee camps and comes back to Stockholm accompanied by a French Jewish concentration camp survivor, Suzanne Goldstein, who is gradually revealed as the love of his life. He initially comes across as a placid man of virtue who turns out to have a very ruthless streak.

The third sibling is Nina, a distinct contrast with the repressed and schizophrenic males portrayed in Swedish society – except when it comes to Calle who begins as a helper in the kitchen and develops into The Chef. He is so honest that his honesty and need to confess his one slip, becomes perilous for him. The confession is made to Nina, his wife, the third sibling,and a spunky, spontaneous, social and very creative individual who is, perhaps, the most interesting of the three siblings in the family, though, in terms of drama, does not really evolve and change personalities as the family melodrama unfolds.

It is a very good series, excellently acted, well produced and with interesting plot lines and twists. In the first season, it won the award for the best Swedish TV series. However, my fascination was mostly about Sweden itself, my connection intellectually with that country as an insight into the last seven decades. For example, an episode at the end of the second season is set in 1968. Though the protests against the Vietnam War are part of the background of this episode, the 1968 Chicago riots in the United States following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. are not.

Instead, and understandably, the focus is on Sweden, and Stockholm in particular. I was in Stockholm is May of 1968. I sat in with 3,000 Maoists protesting and insisting on free pre-school support for children while in Canada we were fighting for freer higher education. I also accompanied an older group who were protesters against the Vietnam War and I, on their behalf, with Canadian media credentials, greeted the first deserters that arrived in Sweden having dropped out of the war when they were on leave in Japan and travelled to Russia to eventually receive asylum in Sweden. Although these were the first five deserters, there were already 160 American draft dodgers in Sweden.

The Maoists and a deserter play small parts in that episode. The timing is somewhat off, but that single deserter turns out to be a with-it optimistic American who is learning Swedish and gets a job as a DJ in the restaurant nightclub. He was unlike any of the deserters or draft dodgers I interviewed in Sweden. In the series, he is a very happy fellow indeed, a bit frustrated with mastering Swedish and adapting to Swedish electronics, but otherwise a caricature of the happy-go-lucky easy-going American.

My memory was of misfits and either 80 resigned and 80 discontented asylum claimants supported by the Swedish state. The misfits were all deserters rather than draft dodgers. These were the five deserters that I met as they landed in Sweden. I spent the whole of their first weekend with them. They had traveled through North Korea and Russia and had become believing communists without having any real clue about what Marx wrote, but were very much able to mouth slogans and denounce America.

The Swedish government was supporting the draft dodgers over two years as they studied the Swedish language and tried to adapt to Sweden. Half lived in quiet resignation trying to fit into a country far from the centre of the universe. The other half, wallowing in nostalgia, were vocal complainers. They shockingly seemed not to have a single clue about how lucky they were and how appreciative they should have been at the generosity of the Swedes.

But the most interesting was the Swedish reception team as well as the Maoist students. The TV-series does capture the aristocratic genteel paternalism of the Swedish leftists who supported these Americans. The episodes do a poorer job with the Maoists. In the TV-series, the latter are a disorderly lot, ready at hand with their slogans, leaflets and simplistic revolutionary doggerel, but what was missing in the series, and perhaps was invisible to Swedes, was the politeness and correctness of the Swedish radicals.

In 1968, as I sat with them, when asked by Stockholm mounted police to move from a huge street sit-in, they rose quietly and complied. And in the long night of speeches in the university auditorium as the students debated whether to allow the media to attend their meeting, not one student once interrupted another or shouted out of turn. They were the most polite and orderly radicals I had ever encountered.

What was more visible, and we get several glimpses, was the unusual feature of observing very well-dressed middle-class Swedes in white shirts, ties and suits, staggering drunk down a street. This was the Sweden of the Middle Way, the epitome of social democratic progress, but also a society that, on the one hand, conveyed avuncular kindness and geniality at the same time as the men, when they unravel, reveal anger of volcanic proportions – something captured wonderfully in the series.

Thus, although the series follows the standard pattern of a melodrama and traces the fortunes and failings of a family over time as a way of glimpsing changes in social patterns and attitudes, and although it has the advantage of excellent cinematography, I had other complaints about its efforts to portray a country adapting to the challenges of history. Certainly, there are the incidental references to lego and Ikea coffee tables that are delivered in flat cartons,

However, though much of the social-psychological insights into Swedish society I found very apt, there are many scenes in the series in which one character asks questions or offers an opinion or interpretation and the other character becomes very agitated and storms off to preserve the punishment of silence for years. In that regard, I know of no other society like it. So much empathy – mostly abstract – so much intellectual comprehension. At the same time, so much obtuseness and misunderstanding!

In that visit to Sweden in 1968, I was there to study their student housing and included my observations in my book, The Beds of Academe. From all appearances, the students had the best student housing I had ever seen – every student had his or her own room and, as well, their own small refrigerator and storage locker in the room where meals could be prepared. At the same time, I never interviewed students who confessed to feeling so lonely. It was as if they suffered from a loneliness epidemic. And the consequences to their mental health were significant.

These problems with mental health issues, alcoholism and drug addiction all become topics in the TV series, but while there is a great deal of attention paid to class as a social disease, there is little insight into the psycho-social dimensions of the way Swedes adapt to and manage in the world. So generous, so good to one another, and, at other times, so mean, and so trivially mean, so petty in their bitterness and yet so generous at other times. These moments are repeatedly glimpsed at from different angles throughout the series, but one watches with a sense that, yes, the Swedes see it, but, if the series provides any indication, they do not seem to have the least clue as to why this is the case. It is no surprise that viewers become somewhat frustrated when the subtitles are placed against a white background and you cannot read them, but even more frustrated when the characters learn so little.

However, this is a very romantic series. There is “true” love, love between each of the siblings and their partners, love between parents and children. Therefore, you are puzzled. If there is so much love, why is there so little understanding and tolerance of the other and, even more excruciating, a ridiculous lack of flexibility.Maybe that is what it takes for a small country to build wonderfully safe cars and rigid, repetitive manufactured products like lego and the furniture sold through Ikea.

There are, of course, production decisions that are exasperating. For example, at one point Peter runs off with his true love, Suzanne Goldstein when she reappears on the scene. Five years later, he is back with his wife. What happened? Why did it happen? Who did what and where? It is all a mystery. On the other hand, sometimes I felt like shouting out, no character would be so stupid as to do that, especially characters as intelligent and capable as these were. But my memories told me that my reaction was false, and the depiction held dramatic truths about Swedes and their perceptions of themselves.

After all, Sweden has a record of marching to its own drummer. During the COVID-19 pandemic, instead of going after a cycle of lockdowns or an objective of eliminating the virus in that society as Taiwan did with persistent testing and tracing while following widespread safety with great discipline, Sweden generally decided to stay open and let the disease run its course with the consequence that, proportionately, Sweden had a very high number of deaths among the elderly. But the program did not seem to have resulted in herd immunity. Sweden, a society which appears as the one exception in Europe in its willingness to live by strict rules, went to the other extreme and minimized the application of rules more generally.

Swedes may have changed over the last seventy-five years, but I suggest its pattern of appearing as a model of the Middle Way is belied by its actual practice of extreme mood swings.

Look at the Swedish behaviour during WWII, clearly indicated in the opening episodes with Nazi establishment sympathizers in quiet and suppressed conflict with pro-American and allied sympathies of others. During WWII, Sweden accepted 10,000 Jewish refugees – far more than either Canada or the United States. Raoul Wallenberg helped up to 100,000 Jews escape the Nazi death camps.

At the same time, Count Folke Bernadotte headed the Swedish Red Cross and played a controversial role in the release of Jewish prisoners from the Nazi Theresienistadt camp. Of the 31,000 Danes saved from the camp, only 450 were Jews. Yet in 1947, he was chosen unanimously to be the mediator in the struggle between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. However, he was a failure, and a vain one at that, flying around in his white plane and driving in his open white convertible in which he was shot and killed by the Jewish extremist Lehi group (the Stern gang) under the false belief that he was a spy for the British. He was simply a man in a white suit in love with himself who did not listen well.

Thus, Sweden during and after WWII was a country of genteel antisemitism, well captured in the series, yet a welcoming refuge for Suzanne Goldstein who had been so traumatized by her experiences. The problem is that when Suzanne disappeared from the scene, this man of virtue descends into ruthless self-interested behaviour, though we hope for his salvation and redemption when Suzanne re-enters the scene many years later. However, it did no work out and we are not told why. That seemed to indicate that the writers had not probed deeply enough into the Swedish psyche.

Rabbi Dow Marmur, when you get this blog, and if you read it, if you watch the series, you will surely recognize the beautiful Great Synagogue, Beit Hatfutsot, in the episodes. You were a refugee in Sweden. Can you explain the extremist dichotomy of Swedish men and Swedish society?. I believe that it certainly has a great deal to tell us about the emergence of female leadership in that polity.

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