In 1952 Hasse Ekman was in Paris doing post-production work for his film The Fire-Bird (Eldfågeln 1952). The film was a colour experiment, shot in Gevacolor, and the centre piece of the film is a ballet sequence, based on Stravinskij's original work. Ekman had to do the post-production abroad since no laboratory in Sweden was properly equipped to handle it. Whilst he was in Paris his wife Eva Henning left him, which was a huge blow, personally as well as creatively. She was not only his wife but also the leading actress in most of his best films. When he came back home he wrote a play on the failure of the marriage, but it ends with them reunited (much as Alvy Singer in Annie Hall (1977) writes a fictional version of the failed relationship between Alvy and Annie Hall). But in 1954 he wrote and directed a film, Gabrielle, about a marriage that collapses when the husband is in Paris. This is not a happy film, it is filled with remorse, anger and sadness, and it does not end well. Eva Henning plays the wife, Birger Malmsten plays the husband, and Hasse Ekman himself plays a man whom the husband believes the wife is having an affair with.
This is a typical example of how Ekman worked. A large number of his films are based on elements of his own life, and he used his art to engage with, and deal with, his personal problems and anxieties. It is also noteworthy that the character he plays himself is his fictional self's enemy, this is a film ripe for Freudian analysis if you are in to that sort of thing. It is also a very good film. Some think it is Ekman's last great work.
His was a personal cinema, a cinema often portraying loneliness and longingness, and escape. It is also a cinema of crazy humour and anarchy. There were two sides to his artistry, the serious, introspective filmmaker, and the comedian. He was always working, but he also found the time to be out on the town. He was once voted best-dressed man of the year and could be seen driving around in a yellow sports car (yellow because nobody else had one in that colour). He was an avid art collector, with a focus on contemporary modernist art. Many of these paintings appear in the films, as do painters, actors, directors, writers, and all kinds of performative artists.
For 25 years he made films, 1940 to 1965, and then he moved to Spain, to a life in voluntary exile. He was only 50 years old when he left, and had 40 more years before he died, in 2004.
There were many reasons for why he stopped making films and leaving the country but one was that making films were not fun any more. He had been working too much, he was worn out, and he was getting bad press. And then there was Bergman. Ingmar Bergman.
Bergman made his first film in 1945, five years after Ekman's first film. It was called Crisis (Kris), and although not an immediate success Bergman quickly made a name for himself. And he and Ekman were locked in competition. Ekman had been considered "the best", now there were two who aspired to that position. Some critics preferred Bergman, some Ekman, and if Ekman's film was voted best of the year, Bergman's would come second, or vice versa. They were competing technically and artistically, and Bergman once complained that Ekman got all the beautiful women (and this from Bergman of all people). In 1949 Ekman made what he called an "anti-Bergman film", The Girl From the Third Row (Flickan från tredje raden). The competition came to a full stop in 1956. Ekman throw in the towel, and sent a telegram. "Just so you know, I give up." he wrote. He did not stop making films, but there was a change. The last films were witty, well-acted and successful, and some are very good, and most of them are as personal as they ever were, but he did not take as much pleasure in it any more and he would focus on being funny, with the occasional return to the serious and introspective. Bergman on the other hand became a global phenomenon. And eventually, while Bergman was winning Academy Awards and Palme d'Or's, Ekman was playing boules in Fuengirola.
In 1965 Ekman was interviewed in a Swedish newspaper, under the headline "Have you failed artistically Hasse Ekman?". A somewhat hostile question, but I think the answer is "No.". He had an astonishing career, being extraordinary creative. Beside the films he was also a theatre director, but unlike Bergman he always felt like he was cheating when he directed for the stage instead of the screen. In addition he wrote music and books, and made Sweden's first sitcom, in 1965. Then, when he felt he had nothing more to offer, he retired and lived a quiet, and happy, life, far from his previous life, when he would be writing scripts in a state of creative frenzy in cocktail bars, sometimes scribbling down ideas on napkins.
All of the above is what I discuss in my thesis. I also discuss Swedish society, how Ekman dealt with it, and his ambivalent view of many of its key aspects. Another thing I discuss is Swedish cinema in the 1940s in general, and I suggest that it might be called a New Wave, with Ekman at the centre of it, together with Bergman, Alf Sjöberg, and a few others. But I leave that out of this blog post. You will just have to read the entire thesis. This is just a snapshot, or a teaser if you like. I will end with a quote. When asked about the new waves in the 1960s, Ekman said "They're trying to do what we did in the 40s."