Muppets and free love: The bizarre documentary that shaped the image of Sweden

Muppets and free love: The bizarre documentary that shaped the image of Sweden
"Sweden: Heaven and Hell" portrayed Swedes as sexually promiscuous. Photo: Film Poster
Who knew that Mahna Mahna, the Muppets' much-loved exploration of scat jazz, came from Sweden? Or at least from Sweden: Heaven and Hell, a bizarre 1968 Italian shock-doc portraying the country as a land of uninhibited public nakedness, government-approved pornography and swinging couples.

The film, called Svezia, inferno e paradiso in Italian, was a so-called “mondo documentary”, a genre of highly sensationalised shock documentaries, often featuring sex or death, which emerged in Italy in the early 1960s, inspired by Mondo Cane, literally “Doggish World”, a travelogue showing immoral behaviour around the world. 

The director, Luigi Scattini, is probably best known for War Italian Style, Due marines e un generale, featuring Buster Keaton. 

Purporting to be a critical documentary about sexual liberation, the film is really little more than an excuse to show scene after scene of semi-clad blonde Swedish women, and to exploit the reputation for wild, uninhibited sexuality Sweden had gained through films such as One Summer of Happiness (1951), The Silence (1963) and I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967). 

It starts off with a Lucia procession in a middle-class Swedish home. 

“Heaven,” the narrator says approvingly of the pretty, singing young women. “And in real life is she a nurse? Does she teach in kindergarten?”

Then his voice hardens to something close to disgust. 

“Or are these angels the type who change their bed partners every night in the sexiest Swedish films?” 

The scene featuring ‘Mahna Mahna’ (or mah na’ mah na’ in the original Italian version), is a transparent ruse to show a group of naked young women having a sauna or bastu and then bounding out naked over the snow. 

This is the scene that begins the trailer, and it gives a good idea of the film’s mix of feigned shock and salaciousness. 

“In America, you don’t see beautiful girls bouncing boldly out of the sauna into the snow,” the narrator declares. 

He then lists the other shocking scenes in the film you wouldn’t see in America, a little like a fairground barker drumming up customers.

They include: sex shops with government-approved porn, female parking attendants who moonlight as nude models, a topless female rock band, a “swap shop” where married couples swap partners “on the turn of a card”, a “floating sex lab”, where 15-year-old girls are taught sex education, a lesbian club and motorbike gangs violently attacking young women. A word of warning: the trailer below is exaggerated to laughably bizarre levels, but it does also contain some scenes that readers may find offensive, disturbing, or all of the above.

“In America, you won’t see any of these,” he ends. “But you can and you will when you see ‘Sweden: Heaven and Hell’. This is Sweden, where anything and everything goes! Where the new morality is old hat!”

The film did quite well internationally, and helped strengthen the image Sweden had already won as a place of wild, liberated sexuality (presumably leading to some disappointment among the young American men who fled to Sweden to avoid being drafted to fight in Vietnam).  

But the greatest success came to the Italian composer Piero Umiliani, whose song Mah na’ mah na’ spent six weeks on the US Billboard chart (peaking at number 55), and was then featured in the UK’s Benny Hill Show, Sesame Street in 1969, and then on the Muppet Show in 1977. 

Was Sweden ever this racy and sexually liberated? If Swedes who came of age in the late-1960s are anything to go by, it seems unlikely. 

Meanwhile, here’s the Muppets: 


Member comments

Become a Member to leave a comment.Or login here.