Per Åhlin, Director Of Sweden’s First Animated Feature, Dies At 91
Legendary Swedish filmmaker Per Åhlin died on May 1, 2023. He was 91 years old.
Åhlin was born in 1931 in Hofors, Sweden, and raised in Åby in the Småland province. He dropped out of secondary school to become a draftsman before moving to Malmö in 1952. There, he worked as a freelance illustrator and became a self-taught animator.
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he illustrated for cultural stories in the Swedish newspaper Sydsvenskan’s Sunday pages. He also illustrated a children’s book written by his friend Åke Arenhill.
“Those works were important, and it was also during those years that I started to develop my own style,” Åhlin told Sydsvenskan in 2007. “I probably didn’t find myself until the mid-60s. Before that, I was influenced too much by other illustrators.”
Having been mesmerized by Snow White as a child, Åhlin felt compelled to make his own drawings move after becoming an illustrator. He tried to research how Disney did it but the company then, as now, was tight-lipped about its techniques. So, Åhlin built his own camera and taught himself the craft. “At least I understood the principle,” he recalled.
Åhlin made his first animated clip on his kitchen table in the late 1950s. That piece made it onto tv and caught the eye of the popular comedy duo Hasse & Tage, who recruited him to work on their film Svenska bilder (Swedish Portraits), released in 1964. He continued to work with the duo many times over the following years.
“Hasse & Tage were already icons in the entertainment world, and we communicated on the same wavelength,” Åhlin told Sydsvenskan. “It was a mutual exchange and the meeting with them is an important explanation for why I am doing what I am doing today.”
Åhlin made history in 1968 when he directed the animated scenes in Sweden’s first-ever (mostly) animated feature I huvet på en gammal gubbe (Out of an Old Man’s Head), written by Hasse & Tage. Of the film’s 77-minute runtime, 50 minutes are entirely animated. According to animation historian Giannalberto Bendazzi, Åhlin’s contribution to the film was historic in more than one way and can be considered one of the “first examples of erotic animation in Europe.”
Jürgen Schildt’s review in Aftonbladet was effusive with its praise for the film upon its release, saying: “The cartoonist’s style can be somewhat reminiscent of both Dalí, Saul Steinberg and Stephen Bosustow. It is childish and exuberant, rich in associations and jabs, i.e. in its best parts numbingly funny. Go and watch Per Åhlin’s jet-powered angels!”
In 1974, Åhlin directed the animation in another live-action/animation hybrid film titled Dunderklumpen. The fantasy film about a good gnome living in the northlands where the sun doesn’t set won a special achievement award from the Swedish Film Institute’s Guldbagge Awards.
In 1975, he directed what is probably his best-known work, the Nordic holiday classic Christopher’s Christmas Mission, which still plays on tv in Sweden, Norway, and Finland each Christmas Eve.
Another example of Åhlin’s wide-ranging artistic talents came in 1978 when he contributed to the surrealist Swedish comedy The Adventures of Picasso, but not as an animator. The film needed numerous fake paintings from the great Spanish master, so Åhlin was recruited and made each of the works that appeared in the film.
Three years later, he co-created and directed the series Alfons Aberg (Alfie Atkins), based on the children’s books of Gunilla Bergstrom. In 1989 he put out another fantasy feature titled The Journey to Melonia, an ecological twist on Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
In 2000, Åhlin returned to feature animation with Hundhotellet (The Dog Hotel), a crime mystery set in a dog hotel. Over the coming years, he would direct numerous Lilla spöket Laban shorts, as well as several other stand-alone pieces.
Åhlin is best known, in Sweden and abroad, for the work he did in children’s animation. At heart, however, he always believed that the medium was meant for adults as well, evidenced by his early work. In 2009, Tarik Saleh’s Metropia was billed as the first Swedish animated feature for adults. At the time, Åhlin explained to Svenska Dagbladet:
From what I can understand, Metropia takes a big step forward on the path that has always been obvious to me; namely that animation is indeed a great medium for children, but that animation should also be thought of and made for a more adult audience. It was not Disney that inspired me to make animation, but more grotesque and advanced animations from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Japan. It is a graphic style that is close to my heart and that shows poetic, absurd worlds.
Throughout his career, Åhlin developed several other films which were never made. The one that really got away though was Hoffmanns ögon (Hoffmann’s Eyes), based on Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann. When asked by Sydsvenskan if he was disappointed about not being able to finish his dream project, he answered:
You can’t go around being bitter, even if it has taken several years of your life. It’s expensive to make cartoons and my big concern has been finding the right producers. Swedish money alone would never have been enough, but I still believe that Nordic productions could have been made. I can’t let go of Hoffmanns ögon completely. I still do it there and draw from time to time.
Åhlin was honored countless times over his decades-long career. In 1990, he was recognized with the Guldbagge Awards’ creative achievement award. In 2004, the Fredrikstad Animation Festival gave him the Il Tempo Gigante Award alongside Jannik Hastrup and Priit Pärn. In 2006, he was given the first-ever Guldbaggegalan Gullspiran Award for an individual who has made a tremendous contribution to children’s films.
Pictured at top: Out of an Old Man’s Head