An unknown killer is claiming young Stockholm men in their prime in 1989. Like the latest Scandi noir sensation, with a looming menace and disorientating alarm set to a pulsing score and shot on grainy film, Swedish drama Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves opens with a young, curly-headed man, Rasmus (Adam Pålsson), writhing in agony on a hospital bed, his skin blistered and sore.
He's attended by two doctors in full medical gown and facemasks, plus plastic shield guards. One takes off her gloves, reaches out and wipes away Rasmus’s tear, only to be chastised by her senior. Gloves are to be worn at all times.
A narrator announces, “It’s like a war fought in peacetime, in a city where most people went on as if nothing happened.”
No psychopath, sadly the terror unleashed in this lauded three-part miniseries is the early and rapid assault of a yet-to-be fully identified HIV/AIDS crisis. Rumours swirl within the gay community, with one community paper suggesting poppers (amyl nitrate) might be responsible for the outbreak of Kaposi sarcoma lesions among the men who frequent the city’s small but thriving underground gay scene.
Directed by Simon Kaijser and written by Jonas Gardell, who collaborated on inter-generational family drama The Half Hidden, Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves offers glimpses of clubs behind closed doors that require expensive membership fees. Outside, men from across the country’s most remote regions cluster near porn shops, waiting on passing cars, and hook up in dark parks and train station toilets.
Rasmus, 19 and freshly arrived from rural Värmland, follows whispered promises to the station’s Fairy Ring, a circular mezzanine level where men meet anonymously. It’s here that he first encounters Paul (Simon J Berger, Call Girl), something of a fairy godfather who collects waifs and strays, connecting them with each other as much as he indulges his own desires.
A decidedly non-practising Jewish man, he hosts a Christmas party that brings together what Armistead Maupin would call a logical family of gay men who might not otherwise have anywhere to go. Rasmus, who has only just lost his virginity, meets Jehovah’s Witness Benjamin (Adam Lundgren) at this joyous dinner, even as, ominously, several guests relay strange ailments.
Unlike Rasmus, who innately knew his nature and counted the days until he could escape to Stockholm and explore, Benjamin, largely thanks to his religious upbringing, is deeply closeted. Nevertheless, Paul picked him the moment he delivered pamphlets to his door, both unnerving and awakening the young man. Rasmus and Benjamin are immediately drawn to one another, the impending horror of Rasmus’s illness hanging heavy over his elated early days with Benjamin.
Further layering the emotional drama, Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves uses flashbacks to tease out their very different childhoods, often heartbreakingly so. A scene in which a young Rasmus (Germ Rembe-Nylander) breathes on a window to write his own name in the condensation is mirrored by a doctor checking his adult self’s near-gone breath with a compact mirror as he lies slowly and painfully dying – all unspooled within the first five minutes, ensuring the emotional wallop of what’s to come hits hard and fast.
Much like Tony Kushner’s seminal play turned TV miniseries, Angels in America, explored the intersection of sexuality and belief, the lessons instilled in a young Benjamin (Jonathan Eriksson) also haunt his future as he faces unimaginable loss and the revulsion society pours like scorn on his love. And it’s his youthful doorknock preaching alongside his mum (The Half Hidden star Marie Richardson) many years before his fateful appearance at Paul’s door which gives us this beautiful series’s title.
An aching promise from on high that stings, Benjamin relays to his father (Gerhard Hoberstorfer) the passage he read to one man from the book of Revelation. “He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.”
Stream Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves at SBS On Demand now: