Danish biopic explores hidden suffering of ‘Pippi Longstocking’

A dark secret long held by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren led her to create one of the most beloved heroines of children's literature, Pippi Longstocking, according to a new biopic at the Berlin film festival.

Danish biopic explores hidden suffering of 'Pippi Longstocking'
Danish film director Pernille Fischer Christensen speaks during a press conference to present the film "Becoming Astrid" in Berlin on February 21st, 2018. Photo: AFP photo/Stefanie Loos/Scanpix DK

'Becoming Astrid' (Unga Astrid) by Danish filmmaker Pernille Fischer Christensen exposes the little-known backstory behind one of the world's most enduring girl characters, with her gravity-defying red plaits, abundant freckles and superhuman strength.

While still a teenager in conservative Sweden in the 1920s, the then Astrid Ericsson had an affair with her boss, the married editor-in-chief of the local newspaper, and fell pregnant.

The film examines the wrenching choices she was forced to make as a result, and the life lessons she drew.

“What happened here in this story made Astrid a really, really strong person,” Fischer Christensen said. “One of the things she might have learned from this is you have to think for yourself.

“(Englightenment philosopher Immanuel) Kant also said this but Astrid Lindgren says these things in a very, very simple way that just enters you when you are a child.”

Fischer Christensen, 48, who called Lindgren “one of the most innovative and influential artists of our time”, said Lindgren and her characters set an example for generations of people.

“I would not be the same person if I had not had Pippi,” she said.

The movie, which drew enthusiastic applause and a lot of tears at a press preview, introduces Astrid as a teenager living on her family's farm in a close-knit but judgemental tiny community.

Taken with her writing talent and independent streak, the editor, Blomberg, offers her a job but quickly falls in love with her and they begin a discreet affair.

When she becomes pregnant, Blomberg insists he wants to marry her, but his wife refuses to give him a divorce and threatens to press adultery charges.

Meanwhile the parents' land in the southern province of Småland belongs to the Protestant church, leading them to fear they could be cast out if Astrid's out-of-wedlock pregnancy comes to light.

She flees to Copenhagen to give birth to her son, Lasse, in secrecy, and then bids a painful goodbye to him as she leaves him with a Danish foster mother, Marie.

The separation is agonising for Astrid, and although she makes frequent visits, the toddler calls Marie “Mama” when he begins to speak.

But when Marie falls ill, Astrid has to take custody of three-year-old Lasse as a single mother struggling to get by in Stockholm on a secretary's salary.

After Lasse contracts whooping cough while Astrid is trying to juggle motherhood and her full-time job, the film imagines that she begins to invent fanciful tales to comfort him.

The bedtime stories, telling of people who only drink soda and say “good morning” to each other all day long, form the foundation of the massive body of work about Pippi, among the most translated books in children's literature.

As told in the film, based in part on a groundbreaking 2015 biography by Jens Andersen, Astrid's traumatic experience left its scars.

But it also liberated her from many of the oppressive conventions of her time, making her an early trailblazer for gender equality.

Only decades after she became a literary superstar and a national icon, in the 1970s, did Lindgren first tell the story to a female journalist.

Danish actress Alba August, daughter of Oscar-winning director Bille August, said she was drawn to the role of Astrid because she was a “rebel”.

“To start with she was just a role model for every girl her age where she lived,” she said.

“And she ended up being a hero in Sweden and a mom to every child in the world — a very powerful, brave and sensitive woman who affected all of us who have read her books.”

Lindgren only began writing down the tales in the 1940s, during World War II, and they were first published in 1945.

They were revolutionary not only for their female protagonist, but also for insisting that children and their concerns should be taken seriously, the director said.

The film begins and ends with Lindgren as an old woman, opening sacks of hand-drawn birthday cards sent to her from children around the world.

She died in 2002 in Stockholm, almost a complete century after her birth.

“Becoming Astrid” is screening in the Special sidebar section of the Berlinale, which runs until Sunday.

READ ALSO: Astrid Lindgren family plans apartment museum

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Russia smears Pippi Longstocking author as Nazi in propaganda posters

Russia has launched a poster campaign in Moscow featuring ostensibly pro-Nazi quotes from the Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren, the film-maker Ingmar Bergman, and the Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad. "We are against Nazism, but they are not," the poster reads.

Russia smears Pippi Longstocking author as Nazi in propaganda posters

Oscar Jonsson, a researcher at the Swedish Defence University, tweeted out a picture of photograph of a Moscow bus stop carrying the propaganda poster, which has the word ‘they’ written in the colours of the Swedish flag. 

Another poster accuses King Gustaf V of being a Nazi. 

Jonsson told The Local he was certain that the posters were genuine, but suspected that they were intended for Swedish consumption, as at least one of them had been placed outside the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. 

“They’re more of a provocation to Sweden than something for the Russian people,” he said. 

Mikael Östlund, communication chief at Sweden’s Psychological Defence Agency, argued the opposite case, that the posters were primarily designed to justify the war in Ukraine to Russia’s own population. 

“Accusing western countries of Nazism is a part of the justification for their own war,” he said. “This is probably directed towards its own population. This has been one of the justifications for the war in Ukraine as well.” 

Others even suggested they might even be a preparation for military action .

“Are there any limits to these guys? Or are they preparing a ‘denazifying’ operation against Sweden as well?” tweeted Sweden’s former prime minister Carl Bildt

The Swedish foreign ministry said it was aware of the posters, but refused to comment. 

“We have no intention of engaging in a public polemic with the Russian organisation ‘Our Victory’, which is reportedly behind these posters,” a spokesperson told TT.  “In Russia, smears about ‘Nazism’ have been used repeatedly against countries and individuals who are critical of Russia’s actions.” 

At a press conference in Germany, Sweden’s prime minister called the campaign “completely unacceptable”. 

“But it is important to say already right now that Sweden could become the target of an influence campaign by foreign powers,” she said. “It’s important that all Swedes, and not least those of you in journalism, recognise that there is a risk that foreign powers will try to influence the Swedish debate climate.”