Olof Palme – Sweden’s most famous politician – was shot to death on a February evening 1986 on the streets of Stockholm. In one night, the country of Sweden was transfigured. Palme is about his life and times, and the Sweden he created. About a man who altered history. For the first time, his entire family appears on film. 

Palme was an upfront politician with a courage that put Sweden on the international map. He was raised in the intellectual and cultural environment of upper-class Södermalm in Stockholm – so he really understood the interests of power. In his younger days he travelled around Asia and saw with his own eyes what Western colonialism did to those regions. He also witnessed the backyards of capitalism when travelling around the US for several months after completing college in Ohio. His studies had trained him well in argumentation culture and back in Stockholm he fast became Prime Minister Tage Erlander’s personal secretary. Palme trod the boards of the political stage and in 1969 became Sweden’s youngest prime minister.

In the documentary Palme we witness the political group around him looking a little naive at first. But they successfully fulfilled the task of establishing the Swedish welfare state, which Erlander had embarked on during his 23 years as prime minister.

The two film directors Maud Nycander and Kristina Lind say their motive was to tell new generations who Palme really was. It’s a classical doc with the well-known character-driven chronological narrative. The film circles around Palme’s adolescence and adulthood with a large selection of archival material and interviews with family and politicians close to him. Nycander is an experienced doc filmmaker in Sweden, also known for Closed Psychiatric Ward (2010) from the closed psychiatric institution at St.Görans, where, over one and a half years, she followed the patients who had been committed. She and her director Lind have now spent years on Palme, for which they also convinced his wife Lisbeth to participate in interviews. They chose to avoid getting too deep into the murder mystery and the shoddy police work that followed but start the film with a BBC interview where Palme is asked what should be written in his obituary and end with some scenes and sounds from the night of the murder.

Olof Palme

The film – well edited by the Dane Niels Pagh Andersen and others – never loses your attention. And if your eyelids should start to droop, you will surely be roused by some of the bomb sounds from the soundtrack that make the cinema shake – underlining that we live in a violent international world.

 Selected from 350 hours of film archives, the film shows us Palme in several interesting political situations. The multiplicity of the film should definitely satisfy a large audience, or new generations, but I do miss some deeper insights into a few of those situations.

Let me mention some of those political situations. Palme’s public resistance to the Vietnam War; the US shelling of Hanoi in 1972; Apartheid in South Africa: his criticism of the Franco regime; the Prague spring of ‘68; and the Pinochet’s ’72 coup-de-etat. Palme was clearly outspoken, he also received internal criticism for breaking with Sweden’s “neutrality” line.

Although we see the young Palme travelling with Prime Minister Erlander to Kremlin, and later meeting Castro in Cuba, he was no communist. If you take a step back from the film and read what Wikipedia has to say about when he was student, he travelled and met international communist fellows – but then returned to tell his union to distance itself from what he felt was communist propaganda.
But what did Palme  do when he visited Castro, and helped celebrate Vietnam and Cambodia’s liberation from Western domination in 19751 as we see in the film? Should he have known about the misdeeds of Pol Pot – information that had already been out for a couple of months? Nearly 2 million out of a population of 7 million died in terrible ways.
Palme did neither criticise Mao nor the several authoritarian leaders in the Arab world. And when he visited Honecker in East Germany he spoke about “friendship and security” without mentioning the population’s loss of freedom.
There is not so much such criticism in the film. Nonetheless, I respect Palme for his political deeds. The film displays his advanced rhetoric, his charm and intellect. But again, if you want to go deeper, as I do, you can also read the book Vi sees igjen kamrater,2 (See You Again Comrades) to dig deeper into his political strategies and detailed knowledge. For example in his speech “Apartheid cannot be reformed, only be abolished” at the Swedish “Folkrigsdagen” (The War Day) in 1986, he wisely talks about Sweden’s boycott of commerce, their import/export prohibition, the release of Mandela, mixed marriages, and why 87 percent of fertile land was reserved for the 15-percent white population. But he also continues talking about passport restrictions, unjust imprisonment, immigration, education, violence and goes into detail about named commando groups, aid money, United Nations and the role of the Security Council. As a politician, he was not superficial.

Why do the Swedes have so many political personalities who were brave enough to speak freely – and were killed for it? Palme openly criticised authoritarian states, just as Folke Bernadotte and Dag Hammarskjöld did before him. Couldn’t they hide the truth? When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 Palme did compare the situation of the Palestinian children to the one experienced by Jewish children in Nazi concentration camps and ghettoes. He also supported the PLO at the time. From prosperous Sweden their prime minister had the strength to criticise. One reaction was the United States recalling their ambassador for a time.
When the Social Democrats were replaced by neoliberal politics for a period, Palme used his years in opposition to travel internationally and gained popular support for his views. But during those years you could see – in the film – that his charming and intelligent smile disappeared a little. He fought for free abortion, shared parenting rights, immigration and anti-racism – he was often compared to Kennedy. But when as a modern man he supported nuclear power he lost support. The cultural and intellectual elite turned their backs on him. But still, internationally and in the third world, everybody loved him.
As a controversial and paradoxical politician, in today’s commercial and consensus-driven time, he wouldn’t have had a chance in Sweden.
To illustrate: At the Palme Centre you can read about how in the 1950-60s he criticised membership in EEC (EU) for limiting the space for acting in solidarity with weak and persecuted groups nationally and internationally. The Swedes said no to EU membership in 1971.3 Today what you can read on the Palme Centre’s web site is that when the Nobel Prize was awarded to the EU some months ago, both Urban Ahlin (the foreign ministry spokesperson in today’s Social Democratic Party), and the Palme Centre’s General Secretary, Jens Orback, nominated the EU for the prize.

Palme himself had really deserved the Nobel Peace Prize – if the unreasonable rule not to give prizes posthumously could only be abolished. Like Gandhi, most people who shout out the truth risk being killed for it.

Olof Palme
Interestingly Palme worked with the Willy Brandt Commission for International Security,4 which concluded that peace is not achievable when mutual extermination is possible (The Cold War) – and rather asked for a change to cooperation for shared survival. Three years after Palme’s death Reagan and Gorbatsjov met in Reykjavik repeating word for word this change of strategy.
Palme gave everything to his country but met agitation and bullying at the end of his life. Sweden was changing, economy and morals changed in the 80s. At the end, the documentary exposes how his new enemies made fun of him in vicious ways – like mean caricatures and dolls which were tramped on. One of his sons also tells us that people would yell at him that his father should have been killed.
When this masterfully drafted film ends, we hear Palme’s voice in the background: “Democracy is well grounded in this country. We respect fundamental free rights. We see ourselves as without prejudices and as tolerant. But it isn’t that simple. Prejudices don’t need to be explained through a hideous theory. Prejudices are always rooted in daily life.”
As one of his friends says in the film: was Palme too intelligent for Sweden? His long fight for a better humanity was defeated by some other interests – when he was nearly 60 years old.

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.