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When it comes to world cinema, Jonathan Rosenbaum has tartly observed, many American critics are strict isolationists. At least for national film industries judged too exotic or marginal, a rule of “one director per country” seems to apply. By this shorthand, Andrei Tarkovsky was the only Soviet worth cultivating in the post-Eisenstein era, while Satyajit Ray’s chaste humanism supplied an alibi for blanket ignorance of Bollywood. At present, Pedro Almodóvar conveniently deputizes for Spain, so forget Víctor Erice or Julio Medem. Such lazy tokenism perhaps goes some way toward explaining the eclipse of Alf Sjöberg—lauded as the chief agent and motor force of a revived Swedish cinema in the 1940s and ’50s, yet now barely earning a footnote in movie history. As late as 1970, Peter Cowie declared Sjöberg’s boldly experimental 1951 adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie as inaugurating “a new cinematic language.” If so, it has become a dead tongue. According to the principle that these fjords aren’t big enough for the both of us, the elder genius was overshadowed and finally ousted by a young pretender. His name was Ingmar Bergman.
Born in 1903, Sjöberg caught the tail end of a golden age. From the early teens to the mid-1920s, Swedish film stunned audiences everywhere with the majestic beauty of its landscapes and the delicate realism of its acting. For a brief spell, masterpieces like Victor Sjöström’s The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and Mauritz Stiller’s Sir Arne’s Treasure (1919) offered a pristine, vital alternative to the already congealed artifice of silent Hollywood. Recognizing the threat, the imperialist enemy snapped up the competition. Sjöström and Stiller (along with his protégée Greta Garbo) were inveigled by fat contracts at MGM, leaving the native studios broken-backed and almost literally directionless. Having trained at that great chrysalis for celluloid talent, the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sjöberg caused a sensation with his very first work, The Strongest (1929), an intense fable of seal hunters in Greenland. But the mortal blow to the industry had been struck, and he retreated to the boards, mounting acclaimed, innovative productions of Strindberg and Shakespeare through the 1930s. Meanwhile, Swedish cinema entered a struggling, populist phase. The smash of the decade was Gustaf Molander’s glossy soap Intermezzo (1936), soon to be remade for David Selznick (who sustained the piratical tradition by plundering its ingenue star, one Ingrid Bergman).
Ironically, Sweden’s neutrality during the Second World War turned the grim situation around. A ban on foreign imports deemed propaganda (that is, nearly everything from the Axis or the Allies) gave domestic filmmaking a sudden shot in the arm. Determined on a renaissance, the visionary head of Svensk Filmindustri, Carl Anders Dymling, symbolically enthroned a repatriated Sjöström as the company’s artistic supervisor, then wooed another indispensable auteur. Sjöberg had been tempted back to cinema for an urgent, antifascist melodrama, They Staked Their Lives (1940), and consolidated his prestige with The Road to Heaven (1942), a stark medieval allegory that holds more than an embryonic hint of a later folktale about a certain chess-playing knight. At the time, the author of that classic was a hustling junior in the script department of SF, and Dymling had an inspiration: why not arrange a creative marriage between this whiz kid Bergman and the veteran Sjöberg? By a tidy symmetry, the glorious heritage of Swedish cinema would intersect with its limitless future. The result was Torment (1944)—a suitable title, in that the confused, dual ownership of the movie tears it apart.
Sjöberg’s directorial credit appears in the shape of his flourished signature, but you can’t help noticing how screenwriter Bergman’s name (in massive lettering) is the first you read. For all the studio’s loyalty to the past, its publicity similarly favored the upstart, which made commercial sense. In Sweden as elsewhere, the war’s ferment had ignited the preliminary sparks of youth culture—and though Bergman could be profitably sold as a rebel, Sjöberg willy-nilly represented the establishment. The plot of Torment concerns a disaffected student, his tyrannical Latin instructor (known as Caligula), and a proletarian waif who, impaled on the triangle, boozes herself to death. In line with the romantic schematism he would ply in such apprentice pieces as It Rains on Our Love (1946) and Port of Call (1948), Bergman shows troubled juvenile idealists contending heroically with a senior generation of despots, hypocrites, and benign weaklings. The narcissism of the target market was duly flattered, and Torment scored a major succès de scandale. Yet the sharper resonances of the film belong to Sjöberg. Whatever might be said of Bergman’s luminous qualities, a political consciousness was never among them. His script fudges the issue of whether the teacher’s cruelty is normal and systemic or just the psychosexual kink of a perverse sadist. But in the teeth of much vacillating, equivocal dialogue, the mise-en-scène delivers a categorical answer. Not simply the school—the whole society is a prison. Sjöberg had drunk greedily at the well of 1920s German expressionism, and he visualizes corridors and staircases as penumbral, Escheresque labyrinths that permit no escape.
Bergman would absorb the technique for Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) and The Silence (1963), eventually conceding that “Alf Sjöberg . . . taught me a great deal.” If it was a case of oedipal rivalry, then momentarily the father outpaced the son. Screwed over on Torment, Sjöberg recouped with Iris and the Lieutenant (1946) and Only a Mother (1949), plangent dissections of class injustice that exhibit a spectacular virtuosity in camera mobility and deep-focus framing. He took a breather to stage Miss Julie at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, and inevitably the notion dawned on him of translating it for the screen. So began the steepest challenge of his career. How to honor the spirit of Strindberg’s brooding chamber play—set entirely in a kitchen—while keeping faith with the extrovert capacities of film? Aestheticians have wrangled for a century over the knotty dialectical relationship of theater to its younger cousin, and there are two leading philosophies. The first (propounded by André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, and Erwin Panofsky) celebrates cinema’s liberty to travel anywhere, to bring the wide world up close and so reveal its dense material existence. Comparatively, the theater is a slave, not only to speech but to a confined architecture that must trick out reality through stylization and fakery. In the flip-side argument (most eminently advanced by Hugo Münsterberg), drama is the truer physical register because its actors stand bodily in front of us. Cinema is peopled with ghosts and chimeras who weightlessly defy the boundaries of space and time. This abrogation of external laws pulls the medium into the realm of introspection, imagination, and dreams.
Miss Julie hedges its bets and pursues both options. Sjöberg’s unfastened eye roams freely over the grounds of the heroine’s noble estate, witnessing trees, statues, swans, and water lilies in rich, solid detail. But matter is a thin fabric, perpetually yielding to memory or fantasy. Now and again, Sjöberg effects the supernatural transitions with shock cuts (à la Russian montage) or old-fashioned dissolves. Otherwise, he maintains a vertiginous continuity. As tortured, neurotic Julie (Anita Björk) meditates on her ruined life, one or more of the powers responsible will amble casually into the same shot. This device reaches its dizzying apogee in a late scene when she tells her valet lover Jean (Ulf Palme) how the countess taught her “to hate and mistrust men.” While she ponders, the camera draws back for a longer view, and her dead parent enters the rear of the image, carrying a sleeping child—Julie. In a reverse shot, the somber matron exits, passing by a mirror in which can be glimpsed her adult daughter’s former fiancé. Jean’s line “One fine day you got engaged to the county attorney” is that dignitary’s cue to stroll into the frame, bearing his Christmas gift—a caged bird. Not much doubt about the semiotics here. Julie is the captive flutterer, variously in the grip of her mother’s spiteful training, her betrothed’s bovine complacency, and Jean’s eager social climbing. Sjöberg attests to the symbiosis of psychic influences by manifesting all four of them on a single plane.
Strindberg had Julie and Jean simply talk about the past in blistering monologues, and the critical question is whether the Swedish filmmaker’s “opening up” of the play dilutes its concentrated fury. Mike Figgis’s 1999 British version adopts a fundamentalist approach that never budges from the scullery; yet its raw, pseudo-vérité style tends to demonstrate how less isn’t necessarily more. A consummate studio professional of his time, Sjöberg would have failed to see the point of such grungy minimalism—Cassavetes and Warhol (let alone Dogme 95) were, after all, still light-years away. But his instinct to “improve” Miss Julie was basically sound, for Strindberg’s dramaturgy itself looks forward to cinema. The playwright ordained a small house with no distorting foot lamps, thereby anticipating filmic verisimilitude and intimacy. He required further that the kitchen table be placed diagonally onstage, so instituting camera angles. The upshot is a heightened voyeuristic illusion, and seizing this ball, Sjöberg runs with it. The 1888 original was billed “A Naturalistic Tragedy,” which signified among other things its scrapping of conventional acts and intermissions. Julie’s swift path from coquettish flirtation with Jean to suicide on a razor’s edge would unfold in relentless duration, affording the mesmerized spectator little opportunity for cooler thoughts.
This hallucinatory absorption is equally protocinematic, and Sjöberg follows through. His Miss Julie includes a smattering of long, uninterrupted takes that allow full stint to Björk’s ugly arias of fear and loathing (her performance ranks with the most devastating of the 1950s). But more typically, the quick, associative editing transports us hither and yon. As film scholar Birgitta Steene has noted, Sjöberg was ultimately less obedient to Strindberg’s early naturalism than to his subsequent “dream plays”—melting phantasmagorias like A Dream Play (1901) and The Ghost Sonata (1907) that abandon corporeality for the fleeting movements of the mind. Admittedly, even Strindberg cheated a bit on the unified conception of Miss Julie by laying on ballets and interludes where the servants gallivant wordlessly around the kitchen. Sjöberg picks up the clue and enlarges the role of these supernumeraries, transforming them into malign instruments of fate who jealously spy on the indiscreet nuptials of Jean and Julie. But the play is essentially a three-hander between the illicit pair and Kristin, the respectable, church-going cook. Sjöberg adds speaking parts—a bibulous groom (played by a young Max von Sydow) and the farmworker Viola, a third candidate for Jean’s love.
We also see and hear the count, and that’s probably a mistake. Strindberg left him suggestively in the wings as an absent presence whose polished boots and clamorously ringing bell are synecdoches for the aspirant Jean’s class anxiety. In lending the character flesh, Sjöberg reduces his potency. The director commits still more solecisms. A couple of the flashbacks—the boy Jean’s near drowning in a river or the girl Julie’s rescue from a fire set by the loony countess—pitch at a gaudy suspense that reverts to precisely the nineteenth-century, blood-and-thunder histrionics Strindberg was trying to break with. Yet the least comfortable aspect of Miss Julie for contemporary viewers springs from the source. By Strindberg’s reckoning, Julie is a degenerate “half woman” (the term he uses in his famous preface to the play) whose natural femininity has atrophied under the twin determinisms of her father’s neglect and her mother’s warped, emancipatory ideas. The 1950s wasn’t a halcyon period for gender politics either, and unsurprisingly Sjöberg does nothing to tone down his forebear’s sour misogyny. In some ways, he amplifies it—choosing, for instance, to close the film on a portrait of the smirking matriarch, as if that sewed up the case. And when, in retrospect, the vengeful she-devil orders the male hands to do humiliating women’s chores (and vice versa), Sjöberg’s concrete imaging of an aberration merely reported in the text seems to render the evidence all the more irrefutable.
Still, going with the flow of Strindberg’s reactionary poison, he accomplishes a vibrant, expressionist mise-en-scène. For starters, there’s an intricate vein of phallic symbolism involving maypoles, horses, upstanding topiary, and those swarthy boots (which the script can’t resist describing as “stiff and cocky”). Julie’s hermaphrodite status is implied with the fluctuations in her wardrobe: black for a past where she stole the masculine initiative (commanding the fiancé to jump over her riding crop), white for a present where she is a virginal lamb being led by Jean to the slaughter. And reprehensible though it may be, the shot of the mother’s funereal glove emerging from screen left to clamp the infant Julie’s shoulder—possessing her forever—is worthy of Nosferatu. Strindberg indicated the festive atmosphere of the solstice as the clincher in the tragedy, and Sjöberg magisterially conjures a tipsy, overheated evening in which inhibitions are lowered and anything can happen. It’s fair odds that Bergman consulted Miss Julie for his own more lightly carnal Smiles of a Summer Night (1955).
Sjöberg’s movie was an international hit, tying with Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan to scoop the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1951. His later films Barabbas (1953), Karin Månsdotter (1954), and The Father (1969), another Strindberg adaptation, were generally well-received and display a superb plasticity in their visuals. Yet technically immaculate as he always remained, Sjöberg had turned into a back number by the 1960s. He wasn’t the kind of film artist who bared his soul, exploiting the screen as a form of public catharsis. He arrived just before the era of the great, personal auteur, and on this level Bergman outstripped him for all time. With a measure of poetic justice, Alf Sjöberg died in a road accident in 1980, on his way to a rehearsal at the Royal Dramatic Theatre. Completing the circle, Bergman staged a triumphant production of Miss Julie at the same venue in 1985. Strindberg, whose play depicts the immortal striving of the generations, would have appreciated the irony.
Peter Matthews is Senior Lecturer in Film and Television at the University of the Arts London and a regular contributor to Sight & Sound.