Summer Interlude: Love and Death in the Swedish Summer

Summer in the Nordic countries is a magical season, running to around eight weeks at most. During June and July, with the sun high in the sky, Swedish city dwellers flee to their cottages in the countryside and in the archipelago, escaping not just from the daily grind but also from a spiritual malaise that the long, dark winter can generate. There they seize the chance to relish the natural world and, perhaps, shed their cold-weather inhibitions. Some of Ingmar Bergman’s richest films are set primarily in this so fleeting of seasons: Summer with Monika (1953), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Wild Strawberries (1957), and—most poignant of all—Summer Interlude (1951). The Swedish title, Sommarlek, literally means “Summer Game” or “Summer Play,” but the English-language release title conveys better the transitory nature of the affair at the core of the film, between the young student Henrik (Birger Malmsten) and the aspiring ballet dancer Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson).

During his teens, when he was still accompanying his family to their summer house on Smådalarö—one of the thousands of islands that lie in the Baltic Sea to the southeast of Stockholm—Bergman had a brief but intense love affair with a girl who later contracted polio. At the age of eighteen, he wrote a short story about her, and it was this tale he returned to in 1949 when he decided to make Summer Interlude. In the beginning of his career, Bergman’s works had all turned around a male protagonist, often disagreeable even if attractive to women. Gradually, though, his interest had been shifting toward the couple, with the woman becoming more assertive and more of a crutch on which the antihero could lean (in such films as Port of Call [1948], Thirst, and To Joy [both 1949]). For Summer Interlude, he decided to change the story of his youthful love to have the male lead, Henrik, die as the result of an accident, while Marie, his girlfriend, is left to rue her loss. In so doing, he became aware of his preference for studying women, and for virtually the rest of his career, he would focus on the female psyche, with most men dismissed as rather feeble, often craven personalities (for example, Harry in Summer with Monika, both the Egermans in Smiles of a Summer Night, or David in Through a Glass Darkly [1961]).

Catering to nostalgia, Bergman decided to use locations on Smådalarö in Summer Interlude (even if the screenplay refers to it as Blåkråka). Ironically, the sun shone sparingly during the summer of 1950, and the crew was obliged to rush out to the island whenever there was a break in the weather. Bergman, normally a studio-bound director, relied on the natural world to reflect the mood and the sentiments of the movie, as he would in his next two films, Waiting Women and Summer with Monika (shot back-to-back in 1952). The silence at dusk and the translucent water lapping at the shore define what Marie calls “days like pearls: round and lustrous, threaded on a golden string.” In contrast, the hoot of an owl, the caw of a crow, and the soughing of autumn winds suggest pain and loss.

Like many Bergman films, Summer Interlude focuses on a struggle between divergent attitudes toward life. Marie finds herself caught between the diffidence of Henrik, the malevolent sophistication of her uncle Erland, and the offhandedness of David, the journalist with whom she finally agrees to live. While Alf Kjellin, the handsome young lead in Torment, portrays David, the more vulnerable Malmsten is given the role of Henrik. Bergman claimed that he was never much interested in this part and that the student was merely a “coat hanger” for the story. But Henrik is a projection of Bergman himself, of a youthful set of notions that he once entertained. He is the idealist, a forerunner of Block in The Seventh Seal (1957). Yet he is a blithe spirit, as evanescent, and doomed, as summer itself. Henrik may seem at first glance like a nerdish student, but he becomes the embodiment of the bright days of life and someone who provokes in the more exuberant Marie feelings hitherto dormant.

Henrik’s diary, delivered to Marie in her dressing room, unexpectedly opens the door to a vanished past. Like many films of Bergman’s early period, Summer Interlude shifts back and forth in time, suggesting that only by reliving the past can one expunge the doubts of the present and open the way to a positive future. Marie’s impulsive visit to the island, on a boat pretty much deserted except for the local pastor, arouses wistful memories. She must ward off harbingers of death and decay, such as the sight of Henrik’s black-clad aunt walking across the autumnal landscape, and her uncle Erland, who took advantage of her vulnerability in the wake of Henrik’s death. Ranged against these ominous signs, in a kind of psychological struggle, are images of hope and hedonism, like the wild strawberry patch and the unexpected sequence in the cottage when Marie and Henrik “imagine” their future through animated drawings on a record sleeve. Thus the journey serves as therapy, as it does in several other Bergman films of the 1950s.

Maj-Britt Nilsson remains, undeservedly, the least recognized of Bergman’s actresses. Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Eva Dahlbeck, Ingrid Thulin, and Liv Ullmann all acquired a worldwide reputation. Nilsson had met Bergman at a Stockholm restaurant with their mutual friend Stig Olin (who plays the ballet master in Summer Interlude). Her sincere, expansive features were ideal for the part of Marta in To Joy, and she radiated a sense of kindliness and reason to which the Bergman antihero of the forties aspired. With its wide spectrum of moods, and its frequent use of close-ups, Summer Interlude made even more exacting demands on Nilsson’s talent. She must veer from insouciant youth to despair and disillusionment. For her, the summer with Henrik is so intoxicating that she imagines herself enclosed within a soap bubble, immune from reality. Years later, however, she is sunk in gloom. “It’s like being a painted doll on strings. If you cry, the paint runs. Go now. Let me mourn my youth in peace,” she tells the ballet master.

Nilsson’s performance persuades us that, in the course of the story, she matures from a girlish pertness to an acknowledgment of life’s inadequacies—the finite nature of her career, the onset of autumn, the certainty of death. “I’d like to cry all this week and next. Cry away all my shabbiness and all the wasted time . . . Funny . . . I can’t seem to cry . . . If I really search inside myself . . . I’m actually . . . happy!” are her final words before she trips onstage for Swan Lake, abandoning herself to the liberating ascendancy of Art (or, as Bergman the realist might chuckle, to show business). Marie has paid to the past the ransom demanded for her liberty in the future.

During each phase of his career, Bergman selected an actor through whom he could channel his anguish as well as his aspirations. Stig Olin was the first—a bohemian rebel and Bergman’s alter ego in works like Crisis (1946) and To Joy. Then came Birger Malmsten, with his romanticism and naïveté, in films like A Ship to India (1947), Music in Darkness (1948), and Prison (1949). He was followed by Gunnar Björnstrand, with his courtly mien and rather foolhardy escapades. Next came Max von Sydow, with his imposing physique and yearning for faith. And finally there was Erland Josephson, who revealed the more artful and sardonic side of Bergman’s personality. Malmsten in Summer Interlude embodies Bergman’s insecurity before his stage triumphs at the Municipal Theatre in Malmö (beginning in 1952) and Summer with Monika and Sawdust and Tinsel (1953) established his true importance.

Olin’s sinister ballet master harks back to the fabled little man in Bergman’s childhood closet, nibbling toes in retribution. Another character stemming from Bergman’s childhood is the pastor Marie encounters on a couple of occasions, who must be based to some degree on Bergman’s own father, a prominent pastor in Stockholm. This figure hovers just short of cynicism when he tells Marie that he plays chess with Henrik’s cancer-stricken aunt because he has the feeling of “rubbing elbows with Death himself” and draws professional interest from observing the crone’s inexorable decline.

By the time he made Summer Interlude, Bergman had already assembled a loyal team of technicians, many of whom would continue to work with him through the 1950s: Oscar Rosander, the editor who was a master of the dissolve as much as the shock cut; Nils Svenwall, the art director who worked with Bergman from 1948 to 1952 and who designed and furnished so well the scenes at Marie’s family manor; Erik Nordgren, whose music adds such mood to The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, and whose use of strings and woodwind imbues Summer Interlude with pathos as well as urgency; and Gunnar Fischer, crucial in creating the look of Bergman’s work during the 1950s. Fischer’s achievement has been forced into the shadows by the international acclaim for Sven Nykvist, his successor as Bergman’s cinematographer. But over the course of a decade, and through a dozen films, Fischer became the eye of Bergman, eight years his junior. He adored black and white, and his lighting honored an expressionist tradition that Bergman, such a fan of the German silent cinema, could adopt. His images are crystal sharp, even on location, and range from a mysterious, magical long shot of a peacock gliding through an orchard to a claustrophobic sequence in Marie’s dressing room in which she gazes into the mirror while the ballet master pontificates on art and artifice.

Summer Interlude marked a watershed in Bergman’s life and career. It was made with a new confidence and optimism—demonstrating a quantum leap forward in his command of the language of cinema—as though the new decade were beckoning him toward greater things. By his own admission, it was only with Summer Interlude that he felt able to express himself. “I was what people would call not at all very good technically,” he said later, “but rather anxious, uncertain, and fumbling.” And just as the film’s subject involves “the first great love,” so its warmth of feeling seems to bid farewell to the Sturm und Drang of the 1940s. Its premiere was delayed for almost a year due to a studios’ strike, but when Summer Interlude did appear, Bergman’s signature was writ large for all to see—for perhaps the first time.

You have no items in your shopping cart