In praise of Christina Lindberg, goddess of Swedish sexploitation


It all started with Exposed. I’m not sure what brought this 1971 Swedish sexploitation film to the suggestion portion of my Netflix account (presumably the roster of Jess Franco films recently added), but after reading the description, I figured it was worth a shot: “A pretty young teen finds her innocence lost when an unguarded night of revelry yields shameful secrets, and a stack of nude pictures that could ruin her life. But to get her hands on the negatives, she’ll have to expose herself even further.” That is indeed the basic plot of the film, which plays out exactly as one would expect for such fare. But what was unexpected while watching Exposed (also known as the much less enticing Diary of a Rape), was the 21-year-old star of the film. Her name is Christina Lindberg.

Exposed, for lack of a better phrase, is what it is. It delivers on everything its suggestive promotional material promises, namely nudity. While not exactly enraptured by its narrative (though I have certainly seen many a more flimsy premise), I nevertheless came away absolutely infatuated. Not by the story, not by the genre, not by the era or country in which the film was made. It was this Christina Lindberg. Now of course, I must confess she is a knockout, a stunning beauty who combines the most erotic of allure with the most innocent of charms. Yet there is something more. Those who are familiar with Lindberg only in passing may dismiss this, knowing her simply as the often-nude sexpot—looking back on these films, she said she had a “natural way to cope with no clothes”—but there is genuinely something captivating in her performance. Her presence frequently gave even the most sub-standard film a surprising degree of watchablity.

Lindberg was born Dec. 6 1950 in Gothenburg, Sweden. She began modeling in the late 1960s, while still in high school, first in publications relatively innocuous, then in the more scandalous likes of Playboy, Penthouse, and others. This led to her first acting role in Maid in Sweden (1971), also while she was still in school (though she was 18), followed by Rötmånad (AKA Dog Days and What Are You Doing After the Orgy?, 1970), which was actually released prior to her debut. About two dozen films followed, 17 just in the 1970s, and six released in 1973 alone. While some of the movies were barely better than atrocious, when Christina Lindberg appears, all is forgiven.

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As a whole, Maid in Sweden isn’t bad. It’s a standard coming of age tale (a premise that figured into many similar sexploitation movies), and as such, it gives Lindberg a chance to play up her expressive naiveté. Anyone familiar with Lindberg and her film or modeling work would probably find it amusing that she plays a chaste young girl unwise in the ways of sex, but that was, of course, the point: all the better to make her sexual awakening that much more, well, sexual. In one of several English-speaking roles, the pig-tailed Lindberg plays bewildered timidity extremely well. Ironically, though befitting the youthful lark’s titillating aspiration, Maid in Sweden takes her innocence and packages it in the most suggestive of apparel, as when on a date she wears a white dress that is comically revealing given her supposed purity (the evening ends with a sexual assault that strangely leads to mini-romance).

Maid in Sweden has several similar scenes that display the dual nature of Lindberg’s recurring screen persona. One prolonged sequence, for example, has her Inga character masturbating to the sounds of her sister and her boyfriend having sex (played by real life husband and wife Krister and Monica Ekman). The next scene then has the trio merrily ice skating, with Lindberg looking like a wounded puppy when she is tripped up. This back-to-back balance of blatant sexuality and childlike disorientation is an exemplary Lindberg trait. Off screen, she herself embodied this juxtaposition of being withdrawn and flamboyant. “I was very shy,” she has stated. “I was very shy and it seems a little bit odd when I take off my clothes and such, but I was very shy.”

Just after Maid in Sweden, Lindberg worked with the (in)famous American director Joseph Sarno on two films. She hardly appears in Swedish Wildcats (1972), but she is far more prominent in Young Playthings (1972), where she hardly appears clothed. In this rather odd film, her character, Gunilla, is unknowingly being primed for a threesome consisting of her, her boyfriend, and her best friend (the latter two of whom have already been having an affair). Gunilla, however, becomes far more intrigued by a woman who collects and repairs old toys. This woman, as Gunilla soon finds out, also hosts elaborate costume parties where attendees don make-up and various outfits then act out a variety of erotic folk tales…or something to that effect. Either way, while it takes some work to coerce Gunilla into the ménage à trois, her initial reticence toward that, and the sexually charged routines, is quickly lessened. Echoing the above point about thematic virtue in order to stress the sexuality, at one point she bashfully states, “I’m much too self-conscious.” This despite the fact she is frequently and unashamedly nude throughout the film.

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While not the star of the show, Lindberg has a supremely notable role in Sex and Fury (1973), where she plays opposite the first-billed Reiko Ike, quite the sexploitation icon herself. Overall, this might be the best film to feature Lindberg. Some may make a case for the cult classic Thriller (more on that later), but if one looks strictly for an interesting story, decent action, stylistic dynamism, better than average production values, and yes, sex, this hits more high notes than most. Even with Lindberg in a secondary role, her appearance is intoxicating. The film has one of her best entrances, as she descends a lavish staircase under spotlight, her face partly concealed by a mask, which she then removes to dramatic effect.

Sex and Fury is a wildly entertaining conglomeration of glorious bloodletting, a decently engaging revenge plot, political corruption and social upheaval, knife-wielding nuns, Lindberg dressed like Pocahontas whipping Reiko (seriously), fighting, nakedness, and nakedness while fighting. Lindberg’s character, an English woman fluent in Japanese—played by a Swede—is likewise a multifaceted individual. She is a sharp-shooting, ace gambler who has taken on the occupation of British secret agent in order to see her Japanese boyfriend. And of course, she often has to sleep with both men and women in order to sustain her cover. Still, while hers is not the primary story of the film, her romantic subplot is actually quite touching, a rarity in her work.

Making the most of her Japanese stopover, Lindberg followed Sex and Fury with The Kyoto Connection (1973). Like Dog Days, this is a Lindberg film I have so far only been able to view sans subtitles. Unlike Dog Days, the story here is pretty straightforward, negating any need for explanatory dialogue anyway. Lindberg’s character arrives in Japan and is abruptly kidnapped, raped, and held hostage. Through her sexual wiles, which need no translation, she eventually manages to break fee. That’s about it.

Though her films by no means count as “roughies,” certainly not in the pornographic sense, Lindberg, for whatever reason, often found herself on the brutal end of various physical encounters. Even in Maid in Sweden, her very first film, Lindberg’s character suffers the fate of degradation, there at the hands of her sister’s boyfriend, who mocks her backwardness but nevertheless pounces on her in the bathtub before the film’s conclusion. Lindberg acknowledges this as something of a theme in her work—the beautiful innocent girl abused in one way or another. Not really looking Swedish, the small, dark-haired Lindberg had an international appeal, so as for the recurrence of this harsh scenario, she attributes the frequency to the intercontinental financing of her films. Similar themes and characters were desired as producers from around the world put up money on the basis of a specific type of repeated character in a specific situation, however brutal it may be.

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And speaking of brutal. In 1973 came Thriller: A Cruel Picture, probably Lindberg’s most famous film, the one film of hers most people are at least somewhat aware of even if they don’t know who she is, and one of the most controversial films ever made. It is also somewhat complicated in terms of Lindberg’s filmography. On the one hand, the film is, as its title states, quite the cruel picture. The inserted shots of graphic sex surely stand out, as does some of the violence, the most cringe-worthy example being the on-screen piercing and off-screen removal of Lindberg’s character’s eye (the filmmakers actually used the real eye of a corpse). It should be pointed out, however, that the hard-core shots do not involve Lindberg. Contributing to her move away from acting toward the end of the 1970s was her rather admirable refusal to partake in straight pornography. Full frontal nudity was one thing, explicit sex was another, so stand-ins were used for the close-ups (and they are close up).

Thriller really stands alone in Lindberg’s body of work. If one can get by the unnecessary explicitness of these pornographic inserts, this is a classic 1970s revenge film, one of the best. Part of the reason it is so memorable is that Lindberg’s Frigga is horribly brutalized in just about every way imaginable, so by the time she does enact her sweet retribution, a lot of people have a lot coming to them. Frigga is first raped as a child, the trauma of which leaves her mute. She is then drugged, given heroin to the point of dependency, held hostage, forced into sex-slave labor, physically abused, and emotionally tormented. When she is eventually able to leave for a few hours, she secretly trains in hand-to-hand combat, firearms, and race car driving (Lindberg really did learn karate for the role, and as she did not have a driver’s license, she had to learn how to do that, too). Finally, the time comes. Frigga assembles a stockpile of weaponry, dresses in black from head to toe (including eye-patch), and embarks on a rigorous, blood-spattered rampage. The low angle shot of this angelic beauty turned kill-crazy vehicle for vengeance—adorned in a flowing black trench coat, guns in hand, leaves falling around her—is one of the greatest single images in all of Lindberg’s work. Hell, in all of cinema.

Thriller was actually the first Christina Lindberg film I had ever seen, about 10 years ago. I had no idea at the time who she was and only watched the film because of its reputation and because Lindberg’s patched eye was an inspiration for Daryl Hannah’s character in Kill Bill. Seeing it now as a showcase for one of Lindberg’s most complex performances, and one of her most enjoyable, all those other elements fade away. Its Tarantino-approved popularity is partly why it is also hands-down the Lindberg film in the best condition. No other DVD of her movies looks or sounds this good.

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In films like Schoolgirl Report Vol. 4 and Secrets of Sweet Sixteen (1973), Lindberg had relatively smaller roles in multi-part compendium features, which told a variety of sexy stories usually dealing with promiscuous young nubiles. Full disclaimer, I have not watched any of the segments of any of these films if they did not contain Lindberg, and therefore can’t judge any of these titles as a whole. In terms of what I look for and enjoy in a Chistina Lindberg movie, however, Secrets of Sweet Sixteen is just so-so (Lindberg is there, looking great, but the film and her specific character aren’t terribly interesting), but Schoolgirl Report certainly has its moments. There she looks even better, and while the story of her character’s incestuous relationship with her brother may be a bit off-putting, it’s a reasonably entertaining segment. Besides, if nothing else, as the DVD proclaims, it also has “psychedelic dreams with bloody naked nuns and a firing squad.” So, there’s that.

Lindberg’s last great featured role was in Anita: Swedish Nymphet (1973). Not quite to the violent degree of Thriller, Anita still has one of her darker characterizations. Interesting about this film is that it is one where her sexuality figures into the essential plot of the film; rather than just being a film that features a lot of sex, this film is actually about sex. Lindberg plays, as the title suggests, a 17-year-old nymphomaniac. Her insatiable sexual quest leads her down a dark road of despair where she is ostracized and tormented by a lack of self-worth. Somewhat in opposition to those films where Lindberg is the submissive, mistreated girl, here she has an aggressive sexuality that leaves her on the comparatively forceful end of her amorous meetings. Yet through it all, she remains pathetic and psychologically weak, chiefly because she is burdened by an inner turmoil that does not, in most cases, make the sex pleasurable. It is more a stolid routine that corresponds to the nature of addiction.

Certainly, Anita’s sexual promiscuity is exploited in the film, but only to a degree (like when she performs a striptease in front of her parents and their dignified houseguests, many of whom encourage the routine—“It’s not as bad as it looks,” her father assures her stunned mother). As often as not, the affliction is actually treated with a reasonable seriousness, especially as Anita’s sole friend, Erik (a young Stellan Skarsgård), tries to explain and “cure” her illness, approaching her with sympathy and understanding. As far as Lindberg’s performance is concerned, her expressed nymphomania, as dismissive as one might be to the malady, gives her some psychological complexity to work with, further proving there is genuine talent behind the doe-eyed beauty. She quite capably conveys Anita’s desperation with a pitiable quality reflected by the film itself, which is gloomy and generally joyless. Anita, like the movie, has the look of a cold morning after. What this does, and one sees this is several Lindberg films, especially those where she is treated poorly, is it creates a sense of viewer engagement beyond the frivolity of the film’s nature. One sees this poor girl, this small, cute, seemingly helpless individual, and one can’t help but want to comfort her.

Of everything that came after this for Lindberg, I have only seen Around the World with Fanny Hill and Sängkamrater (Wide Open), both released in 1974. There isn’t a whole lot to say about these two films, as Lindberg does not have much of a presence in the former and only first appears 20 minutes into the latter, popping up infrequently and marginally thereafter (though her first big scene is definitely striking, by which I mean she gets very naked). In any case, for the last two major films of Lindberg’s career, both are unfortunately rather unremarkable.

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Christina Lindberg was the perfect actress at the right time for a certain kind of movie. While this helped give her a briefly noteworthy career in the 1970s and she is something of a cult figure today, I can’t help but feel her status in her respective field was and remains a hindrance. In most sexploitation fare, the actors are there to do what they do and to do little else, which is fine. Those movies and those performers have their place in cinema history and this isn’t to belittle the work. But many of these actors are seldom able to rise above the common filmic territory (save for someone like Skarsgård). When watching Lindberg, there appears to be a sincerity running counter to the triviality of the films, and a talent, or at least the potential for talent, that has been left underexplored and underrated because of the type of movies in which she appeared. Her films are not “great” by any means, and I definitely would not suggest her acting range was in any way overwhelming. But if qualifications for being a memorable and enjoyable star include leaving a strong impression no matter the size of the role and making even a lesser movie better, she more than fits the bill.

Still, her acting isn’t terrible, especially for what she has to do and what she had to work with. One of the defining traits of Lindberg’s work is the impression that even she knows she is better than what she’s dealing with. While most everyone else in these films seem to be phoning in their performances, not trying too hard, perhaps knowing what type of movie they’re making after all, Lindberg acts with an earnestness that transcends her role and the material. This even seems to be the case with her bigger-name co-stars, like Ulla Sjöblom, who in 1958 starred in Ingmar Bergman’s The Magician, and Heinz Hopf, who had quite the television career before starring as villainous characters in Exposed and Thriller (and later also working with Bergman on Fanny and Alexander). “When I worked I was very serious,” Lindberg said. “I tried to do my best.”

For all intents and purposes, Lindberg’s short-lived acting career was nearing its end before she was 30 years old (an even shorter singing career yielded just two songs). She started studying journalism soon thereafter, wrote a number of articles for several publications, and began working for her soon-to-be fiancé Bo Sehlberg at his aviation magazine Flygrevyn, which she took over as owner and editor-in-chief following his death in 2004. As her IMDb biography sums up, she is today “a keen mushroom picker… an animal rights activist, an environmentalist, and a vegetarian.”

During a few glorious years in the 1970s, though, Christina Lindberg was really something else.

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