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||Jörn (Johan) Donner (1933-2020)|
Prolific Finland-Swedish writer, film director, actor, producer, and politician. Jörn Donner's novel Far och son (1985) won the Finlandia Award for Literature. As a film director Donner built his work on the European art film rather than the national tradition. His first four directorial efforts were made in Sweden. Several of Donner's novels deal with conflicts between different generations. Donner was called a Finland-Swedish Balzac, referring to his skills to combine social analysis with his portrayal of middle-class life and personal and financial intrigues.
He sometimes thought about death. Did it come perhaps like a color or a coldness, or in one's sleep at night. His life was not insured, his wife had often asked him to take her into consideration. If he had a heart attack, a cerebral hemorrhage or something else, was there really any point in thinking of others? They had the villa, after all, and a little money. They did not have him, but he was merely someone who came and went. (in 'Midsummer Eve,' 1961)
Jörn Donner was born in Helsinki to wealthy Swedish-speaking
of German descent. His father was Karl (Kai) Reinhold Donner
(1888-1935), a linguist and lecturer at the University of Helsinki, and
mother Margareta (Greta) von Bonsdorff. At the Swedish Lyceum in
Helsinki Donner showed his independence and received a warning due to
his article which was published at the school magazine Kamraten.
Rebelling against his bourgeois background, Donner coedited the radical
journal Arena (1951-54) with the writer Christer Kihlman and
contributed to the communist-dominated newspaper Vapaa Sana.
In 1954 he married the Swedish writer Inga-Brit Wik; they divorced in
1962. Later Wik has described her marriage in the novels Ingen
lycklig kärlek (1988) and Bryta upp
(1996). Donner's second wife was the journalist Jeanette Bonnier; they
divorced in 1988. In 1995 Donner married the journalist Bitte
Westerlund; they had two children. Donner had also four children from
his previous relationships, but he confessed in an interview that
he was never been close to them. When his daughter died Donner did not
attend her funeral. ('Hän on Donnerin poika' in HS Kuukausiliite,
helmikuu 2018) Donner's son Rafael, who became a filmmaker, has
said that his father's "office is his castle, his church."
Donner graduated in 1959 from the University of Helsinki,
studied under Jan-Magnus Jansson and Georg Henrik von Wright. Already
at that time Donner had made himself a reputation with his journalism
film criticism. He co-founded the Finnish Film Archive in 1957
established his own production company in the 1960. For three years he
edited the literary and political periodical Arena. His friends
included such older writers as Atos Wirtanen, Raoul Palmgren, Hagar
Olsson, Elmer Diktonius, and Gunnar Bjärling.
Välsignade liv (1951), Donner's first book, appeared when he was 18 years old. This early work from Sturm und Drang period attacked the traditions of Swedish-Finnish upper class – a theme which he took up in the opening volume of his family epic, Nu måste du (1974), a reminiscent of John Galsworthy's novel The Forsyte Saga.
In 1959 Donner began his service in hospital, assigned there
conscientious objector, and recalled his experiences in the diary, På
ett sjukhus (1960). Throughout the 1960s and later on Donner
wrote columns for the liberal Hufvudstadsbladet,
Finland's largest Swedish paper. His journalistic pieces have been
published in all the major newspapers and magazines, among them Helsingin
Sanomat, Aamulehti, and Suomen Kuvalehti. Donner's
numerous journeys in Europe produced such political travel books as Rapport
från Belin (1958, Report from Berlin), Rapport från Donau (1962),
Värdsboken (1968), and Sverigeboken (1973).
These works combined journalism and intimate observations with sharp
literary style. In West-Berlin Donner stayed at Hotel Pensionat at
Kurfürstendamm. His report from Berlin was published in the United
States with the foreword by Stephen Spender.
While visiting Uganda in 1971, Donner photographed himself on a beach with a naked young woman. The pictures, which were bought by Hymy, a sensation magazine, stirred up a lot of debate. When Donner traveled in East Africa in January 2011, he met Western development workers, businessmen and administrators, and asked the question, "Who owns Africa?"
In 1961 Donner moved to Sweden, where he became a film critic
for a leading Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. His short film
about the singer Monica Zetterlund, Vittnesbörd
om henne (1962), failed to convince the critics. Following a
study of the director Ingmar Bergman, Djävulens
ansikte (1962, The Personal Vision of Ingmar Bergman), Donner
directed his first feature film, A Sunday in September (1963);
it won a special prize at the Venice Film Festival. Harriet
Andersson, with whom Donner had an affair, starred in five productions.
Perhaps the best of them was Täällä alkaa seikkailu (1965, Adventure Starts Here), which was profoundly influenced by Antonioni. Harriet Andersson, one of Ingmar Bergman's favorite actressess and his life companion for a period, played a Swedish fashion designer who has an affair with a Finnish architect (Matti Oravisto). Dubbing, by modern standards, is rather clumsy in this introvert tale, which uses much inner monologues. Helsinki is portrayed as a state of mind. Donner interprets freshly the landscape of the city, hiding the fact that Helsinki has more Eastern European flavour than other Nordic capitals.
returned to Finland in 1967. In the same year he
published Nya boken om vårt land,
a sharp analysis of his native land. The title ironically
referred to Zacharias Topelius's (1818-1898) popular and patriotic book
Boken of vårt land (1875). This work was issued on the
anniversary of Finland's independence, and recommended a plan for a
competitive and capitalistic society. Donner's first film in Finland, Black on White (1968),
was about a salesman (Jörn Donnner) and his relationship to a young
girl (Kristiina Halkola). "The
arena of conflict here, as in Donner's subsequent films, is the bed,
whosesoever it might be. The point of departure is a family portrait:
an ideal image of happiness, a miniature of affluent Finland. The
protagonist borders on burnout, and the camera follows the drama of the
other disintegrating characters and relationships as if in a laboratory
experiment." (Peter von Bagh in Drifting Shadows,
Portraits of Women (1969), in which Donner played a pornofilm producer named Pertti. His giant penis, seen fleetingly in a long-distance shot, was actually a prop. Fuck Off!! – Images of Finland (1970) was a documentary focusing on people living on the margins of the society, poor, and politically active workers. The documentary, and its song lyrics written by Jarkko Laine, have not lost their critical edge. A man cannot be raped (1978), based on Märta Tikkanen's novel, told of a woman who has been raped and who in turn makes careful plans to revenge it, turning the roles of a victim and culprit upside-down.
Donner's talents as administrator were noted when he worked as the head of the Swedish Film Institute and the Finnish Film Foundation in the 1970s and '80s. In Sweden Donner produced Ingmar Bergman's Fanny och Alexander/Fanny and Alexander (1982), receiving an Oscar for the film. Following his father's footsteps, Donner made several journeys from 2003 to Siberia. The account of his experiences, complemented by excerpts from the diaries of his father, was published in a book form under the title I min fars fotspår (2006) and made into a television documentary, broadcast in 2007.
Most of his books Donner wrote in Swedish. Several of
them have been translated into Finnish by the writer and lawyer Jukka
Kemppinen. Nu måste du
(1974), dealing with the great firm United Metals, opened a series of novels about the fate of a Finland-Swedish industrial
dynasty. Donner's dissection of the Swedish middle class is merciless.
The saga begins from the eve of the World War II. Gabriel Berggren, the
central figure, is a man of humble origins, but he gains money and
power. Angelas krig (1976) and Angela och kärleken
(1981) told of a woman, Angela, and her wartime affair with a German
officer, who turns out to be bisexual.
Other novels in this cycle include Jakob och friheten (1978), which introduced Angela's younger brother Jakob, who is involved with Soviet agents in cold-war Berlin. Gabriels dag (1982), Far och son (1985), and Frihetens fångar (1988), which revolves around the plan of Gabriel Berggren's successor to rationalize and dehumanize the old firm. Angela ja ajan tuulet (1999, Angela and the winds of time), a television series in 12 parts, was based on Donner's novels Nyt sinun täytyy, Angelan sota, Jaakob ja kylmä rauha, and Angela ja rakkaus.
Far och son is regarded as the artistic highpoint of
series. A novel manuscript, left behind by the late Jakob, is read and
interpreted by the narrator, who in turn sets out in search of his own
father. In Hjärtat är en svekful vän (2001), the final volume,
the protagonist is a former bank director, Karl Oder, who says that he
represents the generation of losers. Oder meets Werner Lindberg, an old
journalist, through whom the story plunges into power struggles around
President Kekkonen, and the peculiar relationship between Finland and
the Soviet Union. Again Donner depicts high level intrigues, power, and
politics, and his own experiences in politics gives the work much
The literature critic Pekka Tarkka saw that Donner had
adopted in his narrative style conventions of television series, and
compared it to Balzac's romantic exaggeration, which attracted readers
of serialized stories published in newspapers. "Donnerin romaanin
sovinnaiset vuorosanat, merkilliset enteet ja haudantakaiset äänet
noudattelevat televisioyleisön tottumuksia samaan tapaan kuin Balzacin
romanttinen liioittelu houkutteli sanomalehtien jatkokertomusten
lukijoita." (Helsingin Sanomat, September 13,
2001) Although Donner had no plans to continue the family
story, he retuned to it in Son och
(2014). The central characters are David Anders, who is paralyed after
being shot in the back, and his son Erik, who sets out to learn the
reason for the assassination attempt.
From the 1960s Donner published several autobiographical books, recording his attitudes and views of the world. However, Donner said that he never managed to create a real alter ego. "In my books I'm like a constantly changing kaleidoscope," he wrote in his book of memoir, Livsbilder (2004). In Sommar av kärlek och sorg (1971) Donner discussed his rejection of his leftist phase. Author's self-analysis, combined with explorations into current social and political issues, continued in Jag, J.J.D. (1980) and Varför finns jag till (1998). Donner also introduced figures from political life into his narratives. In Presidenten (1986) the republic's long-time strong leader, Urho Kekkonen (1900-1986), is seen through the eyes of one of his mistresses.
Donner translated and edited works from such authors as Paavo Haavikko (Privata angelägenheter, 1966; Tala, svara, lärä, 1975) och Elmer Diktonius (Ringar i stubben, 1954; Kirjaimia ja kirjavia, 1956). Among Donner's long-time writing projects was a book about Middle-East and a portrait of the writer Elmer Diktonius, whom he knew in the 1950s. The biography, as well-researched as a doctoral dissertation, was finished in 2007. Other works include the long-waited and updated study of the director Ingmar Bergman, which came out in 2009.
from his student years, Donner was active in politics. Between the
years 1987-1995, 2007, and 2013-2015 he was
of the middle-of-the-road Swedish People's Party (Svenska folkpartiet i
Finland, SFP) in Finland's parliament. Later he complained that his
duties there were a great hindrance to his writing. Usually, he took a
nap in the afternoon. The greatest disappointment for Donner was
that he was never appointed culture minister, a position he wanted and
was more than qualified for it.
the 1990s Donner served as a diplomat, Consul General, in
Los Angeles – the title carried little official responsibilities. It
was a political consolation prize for which Donner did not feel obliged
to thank the taxpayers. In 1966 he was elected to the European
Parliament, representing Social Democrats. Against all expectations,
Donner was not elected to the parliament in 2003, this time trying to
make a comeback on the list of the SFP. The opposition Center Party was
the winner and Donner joined in protest the Social Democrats. However,
he sat in Parliament for a short period as a substitute for SFP's
member, who was appointed OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator.
At 77, Donner left the party, saying that men of his age, and with his
body of work and experience, are not very sought after in the political
his mind due to rise of the populist, anti-immigrant
and anti-EU party Perussuomalaiset, Donner decided run for the
Parliament again in the elections of 2011 on the SFP's list,
but did not win enough
votes; Astrid Thors took the seat. However, Donner returned to the
parliament in autumn 2013 when Thors was named the new OSCE High
Commissioner on National Minorities. He became the oldest member. On
the rare occasions when he was interviewed he looked more bored than
contrarian by nature, Donner dismissed both the opposition and the
government as incapable in his political diary (Lilla Mammuten, 2015) and
castigated Prime Minister Stubb as a
October 2012, Donner announced plans to make a film about
Ratia, founder of the textile company Marimekko. Donner himself had
member of Marimekko's board from 1967 to 1974. The film premiered in
2015. Making a traditional biopic did not interest him, but when
he got the idea about a theater group rehearsing a play dealing with Ratia's life,
decided to go on with the project. "The problems she dealt with still
persist today; women are being paid less than men, for example, but I
never consciously wanted to make a feminist movie. It’s just like that
by implication." ('Legendary Finnish Filmmaker Jörn Donner Looks to His Past and Film’s Future in ‘Armi Alive’' by Tina Poglajen, IndieWire, Feb 10, 2016)
Donner's over 1000-page autobiographical work, entitled Mammuten: efterlämnade handlingar
(The mammoth. Leftover business), came out in January 2013. Despite the ironical title, there is not much humour to be found. The
book is a kind of a collage of texts, fiction and nonfiction, arranged
in a nonlinear time sequence. The autobiography doesn't have an index,
but the appendix includes a photo of male genitals (obviously the
author's own private
parts). Oddly, considering Donner's achievements, the general tone is
that of disappointment, not joie de vivre.
In Sverige: resor i ett
främmande land (2015) Donner argued that swedishness is fiction
but not completely. Perkele 2 – kuvia Suomesta
(2017, Fuck Off 2 – Images of Finland) was Donner's follow up to his
legendary documentary from 1970. At the beginning it records his heart
operation. Jörn Donner died on January 30, 2020, in Helsinki. Speaking of death in March 2019 he said, "it's a sad thing."
For further reading: Ihminen on herkkä eläin by Rafael Donner (2018); Konnia ja huligaaneja: elokuvasukupolvien kohtaamisia, ed. by Sakari Kirjavainen, Marja Pensala, Kati von Zansen (2013); Rakastuva keski-ikäinen mies etsii itseään: moraalifilosofinen tutkimus André Brinkin, Jörn Donnerin ja Isaac Bashevits Singerin romaaneista by Marjo Ojajärvi (2012); 'Donner, Jörn,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol 1, ed. Steven R. Serafin (1999); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); A Way to Measure Time, ed. Bo Carpelan et al. (1992); 'Ett folk som blött' by Johan Wrede, in Den Svenska Litteraturen, Vol. 6 (1990); 'Jörn Donner – Action Man' by E. Lehtola in Books from Finland, 20, pp. 10-13 (1986); Jörn Donners skönlitterära produktion i finländsk och rikssvensk press 1951-1981 by Kaj Fredrik Eklund (1983); Jag Jörn Johan Donner, född den 5 februari 1933 i Helsingfors by Jörn Donner (1980); Mellan hammaren och städet by Sven Willner (1974); 'The Postwar Novel of Swedish Finnish' by G.C. Schoolfield in Scandinavian Studies, 34, pp. 85-110 (1962)
Selected films (as writer, actor, director, or producer):