Unlike most of us in Western nations, the Swedes have not been confined to their homes, glued to television screens for escape during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The prosperous Scandinavian nation has taken a dramatically less stringent approach to the coronavirus, with no mandatory lockdown. The result has been a greater quality of life. The downside, however, is a much higher death rate, especially among the elderly and those in assisted living facilities. It’s a trade-off the pragmatic Swedes are apparently willing to accept.
So it’s ironic that those of us still facing at least two more weeks of quarantine, and looking for a change of pace from Netflix’s intense thriller Fauda, can turn for some relief to the award-winning Swedish series The Restaurant. The show is an engrossing soap opera with an unlikely, but compelling, Jewish plot line.
Although Sweden was officially neutral during World War II, the country had a decidedly uneven wartime record, including its response to the Holocaust. The government allowed German troops to transit the country from Norway en route to invade the USSR, Wehrmacht soldiers on leave could travel in the country, and Swedish companies sold iron ore to the Nazis. In addition, an estimated 38 tons of Nazi gold, and more in stolen diamonds, were transferred to Sweden during the war.
On the other hand, the Swedes permitted Resistance fighters from Occupied Europe to train, especially—more pragmatism—after the tide of combat turned against the Germans.
Swedish officials looked the other way when German-owned companies fired Jewish employees. But, after barring all but 3,000 European Jewish refugees in the 1930s, Sweden accepted nearly 10,000 from Norway and Denmark after the war broke out. Swede Raoul Wallenberg and Hungarian Valdemar Langlet were credited with saving 100,000 Hungarian Jews near the end of the war.
Around the same time, Count Folke Bernadotte, Wallenberg’s business partner, then with the Swedish Red Cross, negotiated the release of 30,000 starving inmates of Theresienstadt concentration camp—an estimated 10,000 of them Jews.
Among them were the remainder of Danish Jews not rescued in the initial evacuation, and all were brought to Sweden. (Tragically, while serving as a UN mediator in Jerusalem in 1948, Count Bernadotte, a member of the Swedish royal family, was assassinated by members of Lehi, a right-wing, Zionist paramilitary group also known as the Stern Gang). In the years following, more Jewish refugees arrived in Sweden from Eastern Europe, although with them were thought to be fleeing Nazi collaborators and war criminals.
The Restaurant, a subtitled, three-season series now streaming on Sundance Now (via Amazon Prime), weaves much of this ambiguous history through its first season. One persistent element is the genteel anti-Semitism among Stockholm’s elite, moneyed classes in the late 1940s, personified by Helga Löwander, the matriarch of the family-owned restaurant of the title.
More compelling, however, is one of the central plot lines in the first season—a star-crossed romance involving Peter Löwander, the family’s young scion. While a soldier, assisting at one of the resettlement camps for those rescued by Bernadotte, Peter falls in love with a deeply damaged French Holocaust survivor named Suzanne Goldstein.
“Something happens immediately when Peter introduces Suzanne [to his family],” writes Tora Liliedahl, in TV Dags, a Swedish television commentary website. “It’s the beginning of a series of incredibly beautiful scenes between them—the little jokes between all the seriousness, the conversation that changes between French and Swedish. The tenderness that is there all the time along with consideration and difficulty.”
When The Restaurant launched in Sweden in 2017, the website Drama Quarterly said that the series “is as brave, bold and ambitious as they come. A sprawling ensemble drama that opens in the aftermath of the Second World War and runs across two decades, it is an emotion-filled family saga that charts the fortunes of the owners and staff of Djurgårdskällaren, a high-end restaurant in the heart of Stockholm.” The show’s first season won the Kristallen Award for Best Swedish TV drama.
Years after Suzanne’s breakdown separates her from Peter, the couple has a bittersweet reunion in the second season, when she returns to Stockholm to promote her best-selling memoir of her life in the camps and after. Suzanne’s handwritten inscription to Peter reads, “I would never have survived without you.” When they meet again, at the family restaurant, Peter’s eyes fill with tears, betraying the rare emotion on his normally placid, passive countenance. Suzanne is the love of his life, he later tells his sister.
Several scenes in the series take place in Stockholm’s Great Synagogue, Beit Hatfutsot, a magnificent building where many members of the 19,000-member Swedish Diaspora still worship. (Prominent Swedish Jews include actor Erland Josephson, a favorite of director Ingmar Bergman, and the 1966 Nobel-Prize- winning poet Nelly Sachs, who escaped from Germany in 1940.) And if you don’t blink, there’s even a Swedish Jewish doctor named Levin with a walk-on role.
While Jewish elements in The Restaurant are not as central to the plot as they are in A Place to Call Home” (reviewed previously here), there are literal echoes of the Australian series. One is aural: Minor key music on both soundtracks signals a shift to Jewish content. Both the Australian and Swedish series take place in the post-war time period, when society is going through some of the same great changes, including class friction, struggles against homophobia and anti-immigrant prejudice. The Restaurant also tracks the rise of the Swedish Social Democratic welfare state, including a cameo by a young Olof Palme (Prime Minister of Sweden from 1982-1986), as well as appearances of early IKEA furniture and plastic Lego toys.
I’m neither a gourmet nor a foodie, but some quarantined viewers who miss their favorite restaurants, or those doing more elaborate home cooking as a diversion, may also be attracted to The Restaurant. There are many scenes of food preparation of classic Scandinavian dishes in the Djurgårdskällaren’s frenetic kitchen.
In her first acting role, Hedda Rehnberg, who studied as a postgraduate at the Drama Studio London, prepared for the part of Suzanne in much the same way as Marta Dusseldorp did in A Place to Call Home. Rehnberg reached out to the Jewish Association in Scania, Sweden, which put her in touch with a woman who had been a concentration camp inmate. “I tried not to play a victim, and balance her vulnerability with her inner-strength,” Rehnberg tells the Swedish website nordicfilmandtvnews.com. The experience apparently worked for Rehnberg. “Rehnberg makes an incredibly beautiful and touching portrait of the low-key survivor Suzanne,” writes TV Dag.