ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

STOCKHOLMSNATT and the Battle of the Swedish Telephone Booths

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Daniel Ekeroth

ANOTHER TIME, ANOTHER LIFE

Telephone booths. Does that ring bell? When was the last time you used one? Do you even remember them anymore? With that in mind, I guess it would be a good idea to start off with a brief history lesson to freshen up your memory. For younger readers, this just might be the first time you even hear about this antique device of communication.

You see, once upon a time telephone booths ruled the earth. Before cell phones were developed there were small cubicles scattered all around, with a telephone assembled inside of it. The phone was fitted with a slot in which you inserted coins to make your call. For decades, this was the dominating device used in order to connect with other people. Teenagers used it to phone parents (and lie about their whereabouts), while adults set up meetings and ordered taxis with it. It was also the main device used to alert the police, the fire brigade or an ambulance in case of emergency. Some girls even used it as a social outlet, bringing tons of coins to them in order to have lengthy conversations with their friends.



In Sweden the entire telephone business was controlled by the then government owned company Televerket (logo above), founded in 1853. Not only were they in charge of setting up and maintaining the telephone network and the booths, they actually had a monopoly of everything concerning telephones altogether. It was against the law to buy any machines but theirs, which Swedish Minister of Communication (!) Ulf Adelsohn found out the hard way when he was convicted and fined in 1982 for buying a high tech wireless telephone on a trip to Hong Kong. For about 130 years Televerket ruled the business with an iron fist, and there wasn't a cloud in the Televerket sky. But, as we shall see, things would get ugly.


APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION

In the early 80s, Televerket noticed that their phone booths were getting sabotaged at an alarming pace. Kids hellbent for thrills went out in droves, using their own home brewed version of cinematic martial arts to relentlessly kicking the boots to pieces, endangering Superman of losing his dressing room.





As a mean to restrain this development, Televerket launched the campaign, Stoppa Sabbet (Stop the sabotage). The primary part of Stoppa Sabbet consisted of forcing all school children around the nation to draw paintings, which was later used as covers for the telephone books. I remember this quite well, as the regular school day was put on halt for an entire day while we kids just drew away. It was a great day for us, since there were no boring lessons and a sense of freedom lingered in the air. Sadly, my own contribution was never admitted since I drew a bunch of punks lining up outside of a phone booth, armed to the teeth with crowbars and hammers. Still, the campaign obviously didn't do much to stop the destruction. To solve the problem you clearly had to dig deeper. Televerket went down to business to find the root of the evil, and luckily for them there was one just around the corner.

In late 1980, Swedish citizens had been made aware of the boom of video nasties after a rigged TV debate program called Studio S (later the name a Swedish DVD company specializing in releasing these nasties). The show consisted of a panel of outraged parents, politicians, writers and lawyers who were all dead against these films. In clips from a school yard, scared children told stories of nightmares to the velvet voiced interviewer (These interviews were later revealed to be rigged: the children, who had never seen any video at all previously, were forced to watch some nasty video clips by the researcher, and later given actual lines to say in front of the camera!).

Studio S immediately caused a massive national outburst of moral panic, and there was serious discussions of banning video technology altogether. Though this never came to be, virtually all the violent films was soon to be confiscated and prosecuted. Always the defender of confrontational culture, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme famously slammed his briefcase on the table and left the room in disgust once the new censorship law was accepted, overrun by his own party.

By the mid 80s, everything bad in society could effectively be blamed on video violence. Televerket simply jumped the bandwagon, pointed to films such as The Karate Kid (John G Avildsen, 1984) and everything involving Bruce Lee as the main suspects. Now that the cause for the destruction was identified, what was to be done?

FIGHT FIRE WITH FIRE

Believe it or not, this was the plan the good people at Televerket came up with to stop the violence: They would make a violent film of their own. Once the plan was locked in, they quickly got down to business. However, instead of hiring a competent director they went for the hack Staffan Hildebrandt, known from a slew of youth films infested with old morals and incompetent direction. His most recent movie, G (1983), had unexpectedly been a huge hit among youngsters, even though it blatantly preached that you should cut your hair, get a job, stay away from drugs, rock n roll and homosexuality. Televerket thought they had found a director with a solid moral foundation and gave this hack the green light along with a gigantic budget. Olof Palme had tragically been assassinated in February 1986, and you could plainly see that there wasn't a sane soul left in the government to stop the madness of its telephone company.



Staffan Hildebrandt's first decision when planning out his movie was to skip actual actors and instead hire notorious criminals for the leading parts. As the lead character he chose one Paolo Roberto, at the time regarded the second most dangerous youngster in Sweden. With a motley crew of juvenile delinquent actors (all simply portraying themselves) on board, Hildebrand cooked up an incredibly violent film about the lawless nights of Stockholm, aptly titled Stockholm Night. The film depicts teenage gangs ruling the street, kicking down innocent people (and phone booths) while getting rich and attracting lots of attention from girls in the process. In the end, they stop fighting and pick up break-dancing instead. Can you dig it?



Once the film was finished, in 1987, Televerket sat down with Staffan Hildebrandt to discuss what their next move should be. They didn't have to think very long, as they soon remembered their old scheme of making school children draw pictures for them. It was decided on the spot that the film should be screened in every school across Sweden, and that the screenings was to be mandatory. Since all violent movies were either banned or censored in Sweden at the time, and we were too young to enter the cinemas anyway, this was the first time most kids ever saw a really violent and disturbing film. I still remember the screening at my school with shivers, as it would indeed have a huge impact on the social structure of our little community.


ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE

As some of you might have already guessed, the impact was not at all the one that Televerket had anticipated. By portraying these real-life criminals as cool outlaws, Stockholm Night made everybody want to be one. A scene in which Paolo Roberto high kicks a cop was met with roars of cheers around the nation, and we all learned what it took to get the money and the girls through the film. Within days the schools were kicked to pieces, and violence ruled the schoolyards. Bruce Lee films became mandatory viewing if you wanted to hang out with the cool guys, and informal karate clubs popped up everywhere. To mimic the characters of the film, phone booths especially became popular targets. To destroy one was kind of an initiation ritual to the cool gangs of the school. Violence ruled.



The main star of Stockholm Night, Paolo Roberto (above), became a role model in the process, traveling all around Sweden lecturing at schools about his wild lifestyle. He was the hero for thugs everywhere (I actually met him while I was hitch-hiking during this time, but was left by the road when his gang of idiots realized I and my long-haired friends were not girls! I will never forget the cold hatred in his eyes as he was inspecting us).

As it turned out, the film created a whole national movement of "kickers:" youngsters in jogging suits, simply up to no good. The main target for these pumped up airheads became punk rockers and metal heads, just as it had been in the film (they always attacked peaceful groups, while leaving the likes of skinheads alone). Since I myself participated in the sprouting Swedish death metal movement, I had to run like hell to escape them on more than one occasion.

Televerket had effectively created a monster, their plan had misfired completely. All they could do was to hang their heads, contemplating what the hell they had done, surrounded by the smashed telephone booths they so desperately had tried to save. The entire Stoppa Sabbet campaign soon got so much criticism that they, in an act of desperation, changed most of their coin-operated machines with card operated telephones, which were supposed to be less vulnerable to sabotage. In reality, these machines turned out to be far more sensitive as shreds of glass tended to get stuck in the card slots. Thousands of cards were destroyed, along with the hands of several repair-men, which resulted in loads of law suits against Televerket.

In the end, the campaign had cost them over a years worth of budget. The battle of the telephone booths was lost.

EPITAPH

The screenings of Stockholm Night had to be stopped prematurely to restore some kind of order, and a planned video release was canceled. Televerket aborted the Stoppa Sabbet campaign and Staffan Hildebrandt was soon treated like the plague by the Swedish Film Institute, finding himself out of work and out of luck. Meanwhile, Paolo Roberto transformed himself into a national celebrity. Among his many adventures: further acting (lately in the celebrated Millennium trilogy, based on Stieg Larsons novels - he once again plays himself), a professional boxing career, assignments as a sports journalist for TV as well as tabloids, and as an author of cook books. As a stern catholic, he also participated in the vile 2006 religious campaign Bevara ─ktenskapet (Preserve the Marriage), the sole purpose of which was to prevent gender neutral marriages in Sweden. Recently, Paolo Roberto has hosted a cooking TV-program from Italy, in which his aunts makes the food as Paolo just strolls around doing nothing. He was also the most recent host for the reality show Robinson (which was sold to the US as Survivor).

In 1993 Televerket finally lost their monopoly, and faded into obscurity. In a turn of bitter irony, it was themselves who destroyed most of the telephone booths in the end, as the arrival of the cell phone made them obsolete. Televerket was later reformed as Telia, and introduced to the stock market. The government launched it as the people's stock, and urged everybody to invest. Many did. Within three days the stock had lost most of its value, and many citizens were ruined. Today the phone booths are basically forgotten, as are video nasties, Televerket, and Staffan Hildebrandt. The only thing still left from all this turbulence is probably the constant, annoying presence of Paolo Roberto.

Daniel Ekeroth is the author of Swedish Death Metal and the acclaimed Swedish Sensationsfilms. He is also known as a musician from the bands Tyrant, Insision, Diskonto, Dellamorte, Iron Lamb, Usurpress, and Onkel Kankel. He lives peacefully in Stockholm. 

c. 2011 - Daniel Ekeroth

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2011 Acidemic #7 - The Nordics

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