The term “Stockholm Syndrome” has become ubiquitous. Although mostly now used in a jocular sense, it describes a person who begins to identify and sympathise with, her captor, abuser, or kidnapper. But few of us now know where the term comes from.
In 1973 a lone-wolf, previously small-time safe-cracker by the name of Jan Olssen decided to rob the Kreditbank in Norrmalmstorg Square, in the heart of Stockholm. Storming the bank armed with a machine-gun, he took several hostages. During the stand-off with police, the unusual decision was taken to send in notorious bank-robber Clark Olofsson, on furlough from prison, to try to negotiate with Olssen, whom he had met in jail. Eventually, four hostages, Olssen, and Olofsson were holed up in the bank, with armed police surrounding them, for six days. The incident saw not just the coining of a new psychological term, but an examination of the way in which hostage-situations are dealt with, and has had many screen treatments, both feature and documentary, including a Swedish Netflix series released this year.
The Day Stockholm Became a Syndrome is a punchy one-hour documentary. It is woven around three significant interviewees: Olssen, Olofsson, and hostage Kristin Enmark. Now all in their 70s, it is a profound experience to hear them talking about the incident from their particular point-of-view. For Enmark particularly, the emotions are still strong. Director Olivier Pighetti lets the participants speak for themselves. There is no voice-over narrative, and only basic flash-card information at the beginning and end of the film. What he really brings out is that the hostages were not so much sympathizing or siding, with Olssen, as they were more scared of being killed by the police, than by the criminal. And with good reason it would seem. The armed response was almost at a military level, and the mentally unstable Olssen was being pushed to the limit. Olofsson and even the hostages themselves, took over some of the negotiations, Enmark even demanding to speak to then Prime Minister, Olaf Palme (who would go on to be assassinated in 1986). Palme himself wanted a quick end to the situation, as he had an election looming three weeks later.
This short impactful film is a fascinating exploration of hostage psychology, and what can happen to even our best selves when we are under life-threatening stress. It is also a slice of history: the early 70s seemed to be a “golden” time for hostage-taking and hijacking, therefore delivering police, politicians, and negotiators many hard lessons in how to deal with these crises.
The Day Stockholm Became a Syndrome is available from tomorrow on iwonder.