Saturday, 19 September 2015

Feedback on Ekman

A special post today because the Hasse Ekman retrospective at MoMA is now over, and I am overwhelmed by the response it got. Sold-out screenings, lots of good articles about it (some links below), and an engaged and passionate audience. I had a lovely time in New York and I want to thank both MoMA (and Dave Kehr in particular) and all of those who came!

I would also like to get some feedback about the films. If anybody who reads this was at the MoMA screenings, or have seen the films some place else, you are more than welcome to write down your thoughts in the comment section below. I am thinking primarily of non-Swedes now, I have already had much engagement with Swedes about Ekman, but rarely with people from other countries because they would not have seen the films. But now some have, and others who were not at MoMA might have seen some films too, elsewhere, so bring it on.

Ekman was very prolific, and there are enough good films for another retrospective. The ten films shown at MoMA were not chosen because they are my ten favourite Ekman films; some of my favourites were not available. These are the ten films I think are the best:

Royal Rabble (Kungliga patrasket 1945), with Eva Henning
Wandering With the Moon (Vandring med månen 1945), with Eva Henning
While the Door Was Locked (Medan porten var stängd 1946)
The Banquet (Banketten 1948) with Eva Henning
The Girl From the Third Row (Flickan från tredje raden 1949), with Eva Henning
Girl With Hyacinths (Flicka och hyacinter 1950), with Eva Henning
The White Cat (Den vita katten 1950), with Eva Henning
We Three Débutantes (Vi tre debutera 1953)
Gabrielle (1954), with Eva Henning
The Heist (aka Rififi in Stockholm) (Stöten 1961)

Of the four not shown at MoMA, While the Door Was Locked is one of Ekman's multiple-character narratives, this time about the various people who live in one apartment block and what happens there during one night. The White Cat is like a Freudian nightmare, visually very striking (Göran Strindberg was the DP), with the usual Ekman actors and characters, although unusually conflicted and disturbed. We Three Débutantes is about three young poets, two men and one woman and each from a different class, who try (and fail) at being friends. It is also a suitably poetic depiction of Stockholm, shot by Gunnar Fischer. The Heist, finally, is about two young criminals, adrift, alone and very unhappy.

As you can see the bulk of his great work was in the first half of his career. But the second half is good too, only not as good. Of the 41 feature films he made I would say that more than half are really good, and even those that are unsuccessful are often interesting.

Here is my earlier post about the ten films that were shown at MoMA.

And here are links to some of the articles about Ekman:
Farran Smith Nehme for
Kristin M. Jones for Wall Street Journal
Nick Pinkerton for Artforum


  1. Congratulations, Fredrik. Your efforts have brought a gifted auteur to the attention of a bunch of Americans who had never even heard of him - like me! I am so happy to hear that so many of the screenings were sold out. I hope to see the 5 films I missed this time, as well as the ones you list here that weren't shown. Maybe MoMA can arrange an encore, or another rep house will want in on the act.

    I'm interested in Ekman's partnership with his wife, Eva Henning. She did remarkable work for him. In the course of your research, what did you learn about their working methods - as an excellent actor himself, how was he on the set? What was his way of communicating with Henning at work, or indeed the other actors?

    Thanks again. In my eyes, this series was a blockbuster.

    1. Thanks! You undoubtedly helped make it a success with your article!

      Unfortunately I haven't uncovered much about how he was with actors. The feeling I get is that he would let them do their own thing, and just watch and see what would happen. He would of course say whether he thought it was good or if there was room for improvement, but as you likely noticed the same actors appear again and again, not least Stig Järrel, so he knew most of them by heart, and vice-versa, and the direction was probably based on trust most of all. He knew what they could do and they knew what he wanted, and gave it to him. Improvisation I think was very important, regardless of whether it was comedy and tragedy, including the first meeting between Dagmar Brink and Elias Körner in Girl with Hyacinths. While carefully staged and beginning with the smooth camera movement, their conversation at the table grew out of Anders Ek's improvisations, adding and subtracting from Ekman's script from one take to another, until Ekman was satisfied.

      Perhaps his method was not necessarily directing as much as observing, and after a take saying "no, one more" or "that's just right". But more research here is needed! I believe though that he was very much appreciated, that everybody wanted to work with him because the atmosphere on set was so pleasant. Oh well, that's the best I can do for the moment

  2. That's amazing; that meeting scene is so clean, fluid and believable, and most improv isn't that good. There is an ease and reality to the performances in Ekman's movies, even the very melodramatic ones, that's unusual. I think it helps Banquet immeasurably, for example. Also, it's interesting that having written the script, he would let the actors improvise. Shows a certain lack of vanity, at least about his writing.

    1. The "ease and reality" is definitely one of Ekman's greatest strengths.

  3. Fredrick,

    I caught all ten films and I want to thank you for bringing Ekman's films to our attention.
    It was also my pleasure to meet the man behind the series and the blog. (And thanks to Dave Kehr and MOMA.) I can only hope the success of the series leads to a second edition.
    GIRL WITH HYACINTHS was my favorite because I'm a noir kind of guy. I was also knocked out by ROYAL RABBLE, GIRL FROM THE THIRD ROW, GABRIELLE, THE BANQUET, and WANDERING WITH THE MOON. The other four were all good, and very interesting and I'm glad to have seen them, too. Even THE HALO IS SLIPPING, which I was worried I would not like turned out to be very enjoyable and it didn't have to be coy about matters as the Doris Day films it was compared to (a very poor comparison.) It seems to me that his earlier films all seem to be variations of other films and their tropes, but with Ekman's own special view. I think GIRL WITH HYACINTHS was the film he really caught his own voice.
    To carry one of your ideas forward if WANDERING is Ekman's Renoir, then CHANGING TRAINS is his Carne, RABBLE is his Cukor, FIRST DIVISION is his Hawks, and GIRL FROM THE THIRD is his Capra (in its optimism, not form.)
    Apropos The Siren's interesting question about Ekman and his methods with actors, I agree with you. He had actors he could trust and I'm sure he'd give them the room they needed to work. That Ekman was a fine actor himself (and really good at cads it seems to me) probably made working with him pretty easy for the other actors. I bet he let Stig Järrel play around as the nutty playwright in ROYAL and the drunken painter/poet in HALO. It was hard to believe this was the same actor as the debonair pilot in FIRST DIVISION and the cold pyromaniac in FLAME IN THE DARK. (And IMDB tells us Eva Henning is still alive. Did you ever talk to her?)
    One weakness in his early films were the music soundtracks. They hit one over the head telling you “this is dramatic, or sad, or suspenseful.”) The problem went away later. An exception was Lars-Erik Larrson's score for FIRST DIVISION. The underscoring during the attempt to land the plane was truly thrilling. (I think he used the Prestissimo section from the 3rd movement of his 2nd Symphony.)
    One last note. After the screening of GABRIELLE a man sitting behind said to his companion in a tone of outrage, “How dare they compare him to Bergman.” To each his own.

    Foster Grimm

    1. To each his own indeed. Although I wonder if the man was thinking of later Bergman films like The Seventh Seal, Virgin Spring or Persona, which are very different from Ekman's work. To compare Bergman with Ekman in the 40s and early 50s, as the critics did, is not outrageous but obvious.

      Ekman said that, among filmmakers, he was most influenced by Capra, Lubitsch and Ford. There is very little of Ford in his work, but One Swallow Does Not Make a Summer is his Lubitsch, and a lovely film it is. Little Märta Steps Forward (Fram för lilla Märta 1945) is his most Capraesque film I think, although a mixture of Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Wilder's later Some Like it Hot (1959). Some suggested that The Girl From the Third Row was his Ophüls, maybe Julien Duvivier is another point of reference... (Meeting in the Night (Möte i natten 1946) has the same story as Fritz Lang's Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), but this is not Ekman at his best.)

      No, unfortunately I have never met or spoken with Eva Henning, only her daughter.

  4. And one other thing (and then all will be quiet.)
    Not only did Ekman direct and write films on serious subjects, he also wrote and directed comedies that are laugh out loud funny.
    Not every director can claim that.

    1. Oh no, let's not be quiet!

      I forgot the say that it was nice to meet you too! Also, since you saw all ten films, were there any prints that you thought were in bad shape? I haven't seen all of these particular prints.

    2. Oh no, let's not be quiet!

      I forgot the say that it was nice to meet you too! Also, since you saw all ten films, were there any prints that you thought were in bad shape? I haven't seen all of these particular prints.

  5. I thought they all looked pretty good. Some were better than others, but all were watchable.


  6. And one more question.
    Everybody calls it GIRL WITH HYACINTHS, but the subtitle on the film print itself was GIRL AND HYACINTHS.
    Google translate translates the title as GIRL AND... I know this seems a bit much, but there is a difference between
    "with" and "and" here and I'm wondering how it works in Swedish.

    1. You're right, "och" means "and", but as it refers to a painting like this, it feels appropriate with a "with" I think.