Friday, 19 June 2015

Mai Zetterling

Before the 1960s only six women had made feature films in Sweden. Anna Hofman-Uddgren was the first, she made a handful of films 1911-1912 (and only one remains today, based on August Strindberg's play Fadren). During the 1920s Pauline Brunius and Karin Swanström also directed some films (almost all of Brunius's work is lost) but they were more powerful in other positions, Brunius as head of Dramaten, the Royal Dramatic Theatre, in Stockholm and Swanström as head of production at SF, Svensk Filmindustri. In the 1940s Bodil Ipsen directed one film, Bröllopsnatten (1948) and in the 1950s Mimi Pollak and Barbara Boman directed one film each, Rätten att älska (1956) and Det är aldrig för sent (1958). It then took another six years before Mai Zetterling, made her first film in 1964. That was Loving Couples (Älskande par) and it is an extraordinary film, one of the best of the 1960s.

Zetterling begun as an actress, first in Sweden and then in Britain. She graduated from acting school in 1945, when she was 20, and worked at Dramaten after that (which is when Pauline Brunius was its boss). Her breakthrough performance in a film was 1944 in Hets, written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Alf Sjöberg. In 1946 she played the female lead in one of Sweden's biggest commercial hits of the 1940s, Rain Follows the Dew (Driver dagg faller regn, Gustaf Edgren). Then she moved to London. In 1947 she played against David Farrar in one of Basil Dearden's first socially conscious dramas, Frieda. She plays the German wife of a pilot in the RAF, and has to face anti-German sentiments in the small English town.

For a while she would act in both Britain and Sweden, and also in a few films in Hollywood, which she did not like. In Britain she married David Hughes, and eventually she began to direct, working closely with Hughes. First was The War Game, a short film about two little boys who fight over a gun. It was made in the UK together, and it won an award at the film festival in Venice. The second one was Loving Couples, which she wrote with Hughes although it is a Swedish film, and it has several of the most celebrated Swedish actors in the main parts. It is about three women at a hospital, waiting to give birth, and remembering their pasts, and the men who are the fathers. Consequently it is similar to Bergman's So Close to Life (Nära livet 1958), which was written by Ulla Isaksson. But although similar, Zetterling's film is much better, astonishingly accomplished and powerful. Like most of her work it combines anger, emotional rawness and a strong, expressionistic visual style. There is a powerful critique of both male chauvinism and war, but she was attacking all forms of conformity and imprisonment, and it ends with a real birth, shot at the hospital.

The three women were played by Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindblom and Gio Petré, and other parts were played by, for example, Eva Dahlbeck, Anita Björk, Gunnar Björnstrand and Åke Grönberg. They were of course already part of Bergman's stock company, and in her next film Zetterling would use two others, Ingrid Thulin and Jörgen Lindström, the boy in The Silence (1963) and Persona (1966). The film is Night Games (Nattlek 1965), and her style has become rather flamboyant, a mixture of Fellini and Joseph Losey (she has claimed that Fellini and Buñuel were her favourite directors). Night Games is about a man, played by Keve Hjelm, who is about to get married but first he must come to terms with the loss of his domineering mother (Thulin), with whom he had a too close, borderline incestuous, relationship. This has made him conflicted and sadistic in his relationship with other women, but his fiancee is trying to help him get rid of his demons. It is mostly set in the house in which he grew up, and moves back and forth between when he was a boy (played by Lindström) and now when he is grown-up. Night Games is more experimental than Loving Couples, and too baroque for some tastes, filled with bizarre characters and histrionics, but it is a powerful, unsettling film.

Night Games

In 1968 Zetterling made two more films, Dr Glas and The Girls (Flickorna). The first was an adaptation of Hjalmar Söderberg's novel with the same name, and the other was Zetterling's most outrageous film (according to contemporary critics). It was more provocative and political than her earlier work, and with strong feminist views. It was yet again a cooperation between Zetterling and David Hughes and again the focus is on three women, played by Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom. They play three actresses who are touring Sweden with a production of Aristophanes' play Lysistrate, and again war and rebellious women are in focus, as it was in Aristophanes' play. The critics' concerns were that the film was too didactic and forced, although that was probably Zetterling's intention. A full frontal attack. Here is an illustrative scene.

Zetterling and Hughes had remained in Britain through these years of filmmaking in Sweden and after the financial and critical ordeal of The Girls Zetterling took a break from both Sweden and fiction filmmaking. Instead she spent the next 15 or so years making documentaries, including one, produced by Canadian television, about Stockholm, She was also active in promoting female filmmakers and in 1975 she was one of the founders of Women Film International. Her first work of fiction after The Girls was Scrubbers (1982), made in England and produced by Handmade Films. It is a compassionate, although somewhat shrill, film about young women at a borstal, a detention centre, and is reminiscent both of British realist cinema of the time and of prison dramas in general. A similar film is Scum (Alan Clarke 1979), also set in a borstal. But the fact that the inmates in Scrubbers are all women and most of them fighters (some of them call themselves the Hellhole Bitches) gives the film an added edge.

Loving Couples was based on stories by the Swedish writer Agnes von Krusenstjerna, a writer who was very important for Zetterling. Her last feature film, a return to Sweden, was about Krusenstjerna's life, and it was called Amorosa (1986). Unlike The Girls it was a critical success, and it was also different from her work in the 1960s in that it was gentler and even lyrical at times. Stina Ekblad gives a fantastic performance as Agnes, and is in almost every scene. Like much of Zetterling's earlier work though at times to film becomes too much, slightly repetitive and excessive. But it is still a major achievement. The cinematographer was Rune Ericson, whom Zetterling worked with on all but one of her Swedish films, the exception is Loving Couples which was shot by Sven Nykvist. Ericson was perhaps Zetterling's key collaborator, as well as one of Sweden's foremost cinematographers.

Amorosa was to be Zetterling's last feature film. She did some TV productions after it and she also acted on occasion, for example in Nicolas Roeg's adaptation of Roald Dahl's The Witches (1990), together with Angelica Huston. The last film she directed was the short Sunday Pursuit (1990), with Denholm Elliott and Rita Tushingham. She died in 1994.

Zetterling in The Witches.

Zetterling was an international filmmaker, and she is not to be pigeon-holed. She was committed, self-assured and always trying to put her message across, against conformity, war and oppression, in which ever form it came. Things are often fluent and flexible in her films, including gender and sexuality, and she could be called a queer filmmaker. Her style of filmmaking was also her own, a mixture of different styles and inspirations, and almost always aiming towards expressionism. But she could also on occasion be crude, or didactic, or excessive; not always successful. But at least Loving Couples is exceptional, and her importance as an inspiration for women, filmmakers and others alike, around the world is unquestionable. One of her fans was Simone de Beauvoir, and apparently she and Zetterling was working on making a film or TV-series based on de Beauvoir's book The Second Sex, but nothing seems to have come of that. But then Zetterling's career path was littered with abandoned projects. For those projects that were completed, a blu-ray box would be something to treasure.

It is unclear why it is called "trailer", it is just the opening sequence.

In an interview by Susan J. Brison with de Beauvoir, reprinted in The Cambridge Companion to Simone de Beauvoir, she says that "I have a really big project, making a film based on The Second Sex with a Swedish director named Mai Zetterling, who's done some excellent feminist films. She did a film called 'The Girls.' Have you seen it? Well, it's really beautiful. So, we're going to take two years to do it and try to look at different aspects of the condition of woman."

Associate producer on Frieda was Michael Relph, who also did the production design. It was his and Dearden's second film as a creative duo, following The Captive Heart (1946), and they would later make for example Victim (1961), a frank look at being gay in Britain when homosexuality was illegal, and Sapphire (1959), about racism. Another good film of theirs is the intense jazz drama All Night Long (1962), inspired by Shakespeare's Othello. Alas Frieda, although well-meaning and with some very fine scenes, is not one of their best. The acting is often awkward and the dialogue the very opposite of subtle.

There is something called the Mai Zetterling Digital Archives, to be found here.

Loving Couples and The Girls are available on DVD in the US and in France. The French titles are Les amoureux and Les filles.


  1. I saw NIGHT GAMES last year - a very strange film, perhaps the kind that could only have been made in the '60s or early '70s. As a friend of mine says "the '60s: the gift that keeps on giving." It's the only Zetterling film I've seen. Is any of her other work nearly as oddball?

    1. Well, not as oddball, but they're heading in that direction, except Loving Couples perhaps.

      Incidentally, I think every decade is a gift that keeps on giving.

  2. That's probably true. At a certain point, I thought I had seen every worthwhile film from the '80s - at least every worthwhile film that got anything approaching mainstream US distribution - but I keep being surprised by gems from that decade.