Summer With Monika: Pre-sixties youth revolt in a changing Europe

Summer With Monika, directed by Ingmar Bergman, tells the story of two Stockholm teenagers, Harry and Monika, who fall in love and agree to escape from the drudgery of their lives by running away from home and living a nomadic existence sailing around a series of deserted islands. It takes the form of a classic runaway film, with a pair of young lovers fleeing from the responsibilities of adulthood, but also reveals a truth about life in post-war Europe, and the prospect of changes to come.

Monika ostensibly runs away from home to escape the oppression of her family life. She lives with her violent and alcoholic father, her mother, and her loud and mischievous younger brothers. Their apartment is cramped, the children all sleep in cots in the kitchen, and their poverty is emphasised by the excitement generated when the father can afford to bring home ‘a bottle’ one evening.

When Monika first meets Harry, it is in the setting of a workman’s cafe near to their respective workplaces. Later, see see Monika sexually harrassed by her workmates; she is the subject of lewd jokes, and several times she is touched inappropriately, leading her to break down in tears. Harry, working nearby, also has a hard time at work, and seems to despise his boss and the general drudgery of his life. He is also subjected to bullying at the hands of a cruel foreman. When Monika and Harry first meet, they both fantasise about escaping from the drudgery of their lives, signified in their boredom and harrassment at work, and the oppressive nature of Monika’s family life.

Later, after her father hits her, Monika runs away from home and arrives at Harry’s apartment, suitcase in hand. Fearing the watchful gaze of his visiting aunt, Harry sets them both up in the cabin of his father’s boat. Monika quits her job, and the next day Harry does the same after an arguement with the bullying foreman. They both meet back at the boat, and Harry says,

‘Remember what you said about travel? Well, to hell with the others now. Let them slave away, what do we care.’ To which Monika answers, ‘I’d like to kill all those who want to hold us back and make us crawl.’

They agree to leave, and sail away on the boat to begin a summer of roaming adventures, sailing to and living on various deserted islands in the seas around Stockholm. They have run away from the world of work, obligations, and have chosen to disengage with society. It is here that we see Summer With Monika in its curious historical epoch. Made in 1953, and, strangely for a country that remained neutral during the war, Summer With Monika presents an almost perfect vision of the post-war melancholy and malaise of Europe, personified in its two main protagonists. Stuck between the old world of war and ideology of the first half of the 20th century, and the ‘new world’ of individualism, consumerism and uprooted social attitudes of the 1960s, we see both the history of the old world and the future of the new.

Their decision to flee the world is a basically individualist one; they are alienated from society (work, family, their own poverty) but instead of attempting to change these conditions, they merely commit themselves to voluntary exile to live a life of blissful isolation. They invert their alienation from the world and completely disengage from it. This attitude shows us the future; that it has been a hallmark of alienated Western youths in the latter half of the 20th century to form subcultures to try to create a world separate from society itself. Harry and Monika’s breaking away to live their own nomadic existence resembles most easily one of the central concepts of the hippie movement, which would have been in full flow only fifteen years later. But while hippies disengaged from society and travelled, or founded rural communes, it was usually framed in the language of a vague spirituality. Their reasons were given as esoteric or metaphysical, as manifested in the slogans to ‘find yourself, and ‘return to the Earth’. An interesting, if unintended indication of the new freedoms and changing social mores of the 60s can be seen in the controversy surrounding Summer With Monika on its release, namely its frank depictions of sexuality and nudity. Controversial at the time, the depictions of nudity would probably not have raised an eyebrow a decade later.

Harry and Monika’s motivations are different, and strikingly materialist; they have left their lives in Stockholm because they experienced poverty, the daily drudgery of their lives at work, and the fraught problems of family life. Here we see the past; the base problems that the ideological battles that pre-war Europe sought to resolve. In 1953, most of Europe was still rebuilding and coming to terms with the legacy of the war, and being pulled East or West in defense of opposing geo-political interests in the burgeoning Cold War. Whatever idealism had existed in the socialist movement of the first half of the century was gone, buried by the Stalin years and the transformation of European Communist parties into mere proxies for the Soviet state. It is easy to see, in a hypothetical Summer With Monika made twenty years earlier, Harry and Monika’s complaints against society and their own poverty being absorbed by the socialist and trade union movement, which formed a strong Europe-wide opposition for working-class people throughout the first decades of the century. Or for the more dramatically inclined, an action film where our protagonists join cells of a leftist terrorist group, a Swedish Narodnaya Volya.

Like many who now look back on Europe in the 1950s, Summer With Monika, feels like a film trapped in the remains of the past and the seeds of the future. Harry and Monika’s alienation from society is purely material, but lacking the ideology of the pre-war era, they cannot confront them, but instead choose the path of escape to lead a nomadic existence, something more suited to the esoteric motivations of post-war youth subcultures. These subcultures, whose opposition to society was clear (and remains to be), saw that attempts to change society were useless, and, lacking the language in a post-ideological world to express this frustration, merely formed their own socieities outside of it, often based around things like music or fashion, with corresponding values.

Harry and Monika’s response is individualist and non-political, and if the film were made in later decades we could imagine them becoming hippies, or punks, or a member of any other pyriad of subcultures in Western Europe. As it is, Harry and Monika exist in a kind of time warp that reveals the changing world of Europe in the 20th century, one that could never return to the past, and had only a bright, brave future to march towards, leaving Monika to wander somewhere between a picket line and a muddy field of bongo enthusiasts.

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