Central in the story are two working class people in the port city of Malmö in southern Sweden, about 100 years ago: Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), a Finnish-born woman and her husband Sigge (Mikael Persbrandt).
Originally, Sigge had been a sailor; then, a docker. As he cannot find work in the port any more because he had been on strike, he then works at a carter’s; then, at a quarry. Rich people often treat poor people horribly (both Maria and Maria and Sigge’s eldest daughter, the narrator role in the film, are assaulted sexually by a well off gentleman for whom they work as maids). Working and housing conditions are degrading. They often grind Sigge down. The first scene in the film in which his name is mentioned shows a beautiful ship model which he has made. Then, he himself comes in; being a music lover, he sings. However, it is the singing of a very drunk man. He always promises to stop drinking. However, then, at work, there is pressure on him to start drinking again. And he will give in, leading to him beating his wife Maria, his children, and his girlfriend. Sigge is not a socialist in the party political sense (if he would have been, it would have been even harder for him to find jobs). He does believe in workers’ solidarity though.
The Maria character is based on a relative of the director. Some of her photos of decades ago are in the film.
The pre-1914 period in Sweden was a period of struggle between bosses and workers in Malmö harbour. As the dockers are on strike, Maria, lacking money, tries to sell her camera which she had never used. A Danish photographer persuades her to, instead, make photographs herself. Being both foreign born residents in Sweden, they feel that they have something in common. At first, Maria is very surprised about the new world which her photos open to her. Later, her photos become better, and she can make some money from them. She also documents workers’ struggles: as a socialist marching band passes, playing the Internationale, she photographs them. In the film, that band is played by Röda Kapellet, a 21st century socialist orchestra from Lund not far from Malmö. The title of the film is from the moments, passing in themselves; but made “everlasting” by Maria photographing them.
The director’s love of photography is everywhere in the film. Also, Jan Troell made some of the photos for the film himself.
In 1914, the first world war breaks out. Though Sweden is not involved in the fighting, this leads to an upsurge in nationalism and a (temporary) downturn in the working class movement. Sigge is conscripted into the army. So is his best friend, an anarchist. Out of desperation (because there is war, and no immediate chance of revolution? Because he cannot find jobs because of political discrimination? Because his wife left him?) that friend hangs himself.
Disgusted by Sigge’s violence, Maria often thinks about leaving her husband. However, being from a pious Lutheran family (somewhat similar to the Danish pious Lutheranism in the novel and film Babette’s Feast) prevents her from divorcing. Also, there comes a positive change in Sigge’s behaviour. While years earlier, in a fit of jealousy, he had thrown Maria’s camera to the ground; near the end of the film, he shows his wife a new darkroom which he provides for her.
In the final scene, Maria looks at a butterfly on a window pane. A scene reminiscent of the butterfly which she saw projected in her hand during her first lesson in photography. Then, she opens the window, to free the butterfly. This happens just before Maria’s death.
Tristan Brosnan looks at the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium Trilogy”–and why millions are finding his characters and plots so compelling: here.