Eclipse Series 46: Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years

“Always Be Yourself, and Always Learn Your Lines”

“I was perhaps the most photographed child in Scandinavia,” Ingrid Bergman liked to joke. She was raised an only child, as two older siblings had died in infancy before she was born. She lost her German mother when she was just two years old, and her devoted Swedish father, Justus, an artist and keen photographer, went on to record as much of his daughter’s precious life on film as he could. It is easy to believe—watching Bergman’s soulful screen performances as women who have secrets, women who have suffered—both that she grew up in a home blighted by tragedy and that she was comfortable in front of a lens from an early age.

The young Ingrid enjoyed giving recitations for her family, but when she visited a Stockholm theater for the first time at eleven years of age, she was overwhelmed by the possibilities of drama: “My eyes popped out,” she later said. “I said ‘Papa, Papa, that’s what I’m going to do.’” The play she saw that day, The Rabble, was by the Swedish playwright Hjalmar Bergman (no relation); even in her excitement, she could hardly have guessed that she would later act in two film adaptations of his work. After her father died in 1929, a few weeks before her fourteenth birthday, the traumatized Bergman went to live with relatives. A lonely, melancholy teenager, she spent increasing amounts of time at the theater, nurturing an ambition to act: “That world of make-believe was the sanctuary I needed. I could submerge all my inhibitions and playact at being the things I was not.” When her father’s formergirlfriend, who worked as an extra, took her along to the Svensk Filmindustri studios one day, Bergman was given her first film role, as a face in the crowd in Landskamp (1932). She later gleefully noted that she had been given “ten whole kronor for having enjoyed one of the very best days in my life.”

After enrolling at the Royal Dramatic Theatre school in 1933, Bergman proved a self-assured and diligent student. Her talents were noted by acclaimed director Alf Sjöberg, who hired her for some small stage roles, causing envy among her classmates and rumors of an inappropriate relationship between the two. In fact, Bergman had fallen for someone else: the star of those plays, Edvin Adolphson, who was married, forty-one years old, and dazzlingly handsome. At the same time, she was being wooed by the man who would become her first husband: Petter Lindstrom, a good-looking dentist who was less glamorous than Adolphson but certainly more reliable. Adolphson pulled out a trump card, hiring Bergman for a light film comedy that he was codirecting during her summer vacation from drama school. It’s not the most wholesome tale of rising through the ranks, and Bergman’s publicist would later invent a cover story about the actor auditioning for Svensk Filmindustri’s artistic director, the veteran actor-director Karin Swanström.

The chambermaid role in The Count of the Old Town (Munkbrogreven, 1935)—a sparkling comedy of great charm and a little eccentricity, set in the run-down Monk’s Bridge district of Stockholm—was fairly flimsy, but Adolphson encouraged writer Gösta Stevens to beef it up. Conscientious Bergman, still a student in fact and at heart, apparently turned up on set every day for six weeks, not just when she was required to perform, to study the workings of the production and ask cinematographer Åke Dahlqvist to teach her everything she could absorb about cameras.

In the film, Bergman plays Elsa, a cheerful young woman who is seduced by Åke (Adolphson), a dashing stranger suspected of a jewel theft, who arrives suddenly at the rooming house where she works. Åke and Elsa fall in love against a backdrop of expertly bumbling slapstick from the older members of the cast, especially Valdemar Dalquist and Sigurd Wallén as the Count and Gurkan, amiable drunks who spend their days scheming how to get booze—not easy in the days of the Bratt system, when only those with steady work were granted a liquor ration book. The lovers’ first meeting is raucous, cheeky, and sexually charged, but as would become typical of Bergman’s work, her character is transformed over the course of the film, offering a very touching portrait of first love. There is even a balcony scene of sorts, a shameless but very effective piece of romance amid the ribaldry. It was a relatively auspicious debut for Bergman, with the young actor more than holding her own among a cast of veterans, spinning easily through scenes that require robust comedy, romance, or the expression of creeping doubt about her character’s new boyfriend. Even so, Bergman, who was five feet nine and encumbered with an unflattering striped dress for the first half of the film, was stung by reviews that described her as “hefty and sure of herself” and “somewhat overweight . . . with an unusual way of speaking her lines.”

Nevertheless, Bergman did not return to school that autumn. It took some nerve for her to tell Olof Molander, the director of the theater, that she was leaving, not least because she was going to work with his brother at Svensk Filmindustri. Probably more than anything else, Bergman’s professional relationship with Gustaf Molander defines her early work. He directed the majority of the Swedish features she made before officially moving to America and had a remarkable impact on the development of her career, beginning with the rather pragmatic advice she would later quote him as giving her early on: “Never try and be cute. Always be yourself, and always learn your lines.” Bergman credited Molander with teaching her to underplay emotion in her exquisite way, and he gave her some of her very finest roles—including in Intermezzo (1936), a showcase for her skill that would catch the eye of Hollywood. He was known as a filmmaker of rare quality in an otherwise decadent business, and celebrated for his witty comedies and sophisticated melodramas. Unlike his protégée, he would resist the call when Hollywood came looking for Intermezzo’s director and star.

Commercially, the Swedish film industry was in good health in the thirties. It was a time of growth, when twice as many films were made as in the preceding decade, and Svensk Filmindustri was the industry’s premier studio. The critics were not generally impressed with the quality of the output, however, comparing it unfavorably with that of the golden age of the teens and twenties, led by directors such as Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, and stars such as Greta Garbo and Lars Hanson, all of whom had thereafter departed for Hollywood (although Sjöström had returned to Sweden with the dawn of the talkie). One intellectual, writer Vilhelm Moberg, lamented: “We have been given the horrid gift of mass-reproduced infantilism and stupidity.” But as the films that gave Bergman her start illustrate, there was quality work to be found, and even the most lighthearted or romantic Swedish movies of the era could contain tinges of social realism and touch on complex subjects.

Bergman made ten films in Sweden between 1935 and 1940, with each one boosting her profile a notch and stretching her skills in new directions—in the six of those titles collected here, she appears as a lover, a villain, a femme fatale, even an actor. You’ll also see her sharing the screen with some of those stars of Sweden’s silent heyday, including Sjöström and Gösta Ekman. These films may have issued from an era considered a comedown for Swedish cinema, but they sparkle with sophistication and emotional depth. And they contain excellent, precocious work from Bergman. She is revealed as an actor of great sensitivity, able to portray shifting layers of emotion, with a fine aptitude for comedy. She maintained her assiduous approach from drama school, but she was also an instinctual actor who relied on her own empathy for a character in developing her performances. She studied her lines in solitude and arrived at each shoot with a fully formed character in her head. Watching these films offers a tangible sense of an actor perfecting her trade, and a young woman becoming a star. Across them, one can trace her development from an ingenue in a boisterous comedy to an accomplished lead actor with an astonishing range, and all before she turned twenty-five.

Perhaps the real reason these films have been underappreciated is that the main token we have of Bergman’s success in Sweden is the fact that she was able to leave and work elsewhere. “I never had the intention of staying in Sweden,” she admitted. “It was too far away and too small a country. I wanted to go to big places.” The joy of watching her Swedish films is seeing that blazing talent and fierce ambition as they are just beginning to spark.

The Marrying Kind

Every April 30, revelers in many parts of Europe celebrate Walpurgis Night. While in some nations bonfires are set ablaze in honor or defiance of witchcraft, in Sweden the rites are a celebration of the coming spring. Appropriately, the film Walpurgis Night (Valborgsmässoafton, 1935), directed by Gustaf Edgren, is a glorification of fertility in an era when the Swedish population was in decline. The influential sociologists Gunnar and Alva Myrdal had proposed a series of social reforms in response to the waning birth rate, and those arguments are referenced in this romantic thriller. The film’s ripped-from-the-headlines subject is illustrated neatly in its bizarre opening scene—nannies file down the street pushing prams, which an overhead shot reveals to be carrying newspapers, not infants.

Ingrid Bergman plays Lena, a secretary in love with her boss, Johan (Lars Hanson). He is unhappily wed to Clary (Karin Kavli), a healthy young woman who doesn’t want children. Lena’s father (Victor Sjöström) is a newspaper editor who believes the cure for the population problem lies in happy, loving families such as his own, not in government housing schemes. His values are sniffed at by his younger colleagues but not by Lena, whose youthful innocence and maternal instincts are emphasized from the beginning—whether she is reading a page from her diary lamenting the fact that men don’t notice women who yearn to be wives and mothers, or changing a diaper at a family celebration. Throughout, Lena and Clary are pitted against each other, not only for the love of a man but as opposing types of womanhood: honest and loving versus deceitful and cruel. After Clary leaves Johan and then furtively has an abortion, he spends Walpurgis Night with Lena instead. They dance, the streamers that wrap around them recalling the “invisible ties” Lena wrote about in her diary, and Johan says, “It feels like there was never anyone but you.” Thus, Clary’s unexpected return to the marital home positions her, not Lena, as the “other woman.” Eventually, she will kill to protect her secret, while Lena patiently abides people thinking the worst of her. Naturally, Clary ends up losing her husband to Lena, and at the close of the film the new couple are rewarded with the baby they’ve both dreamed of—an event that Lena joyfully records in her diary.

Even six years after its Swedish release, Walpurgis Night required several cuts toning down its controversial subject matter before it could be shown in the U.S. It’s a fascinating, politically earnest film that favors candid realism over sensationalism. The abortion leads to Clary and Johan being blackmailed, which adds violent crime to the mix of unsavory elements against which Lena’s virtue is juxtaposed. Bergman’s ability to evoke romantic passion from the scantest narrative is exercised well here; her love for Hanson is immediately convincing, and the intensity of her gaze prevents her from being overshadowed by her veteran leading man. Best of all are her electric scenes with Sjöström, in which the hero of Swedish cinema’s golden age brings out a new dynamism and confidence in the younger actor.

Perhaps Bergman sensed that she was stealing every scene in Walpurgis Night. Certainly, critics raved that the film heralded a new era of quality for Swedish cinema, and her lovelorn performance provides its gentle heart.

A Star is Born

“I created Intermezzo for her,” wrote director and cowriter Gustaf Molander, “but I was not responsible for its success. Ingrid herself made it successful through her performance. The truth is nobody discovered her. Nobody launched her. She discovered herself.” Released in 1936, this shamelessly romantic confection offered Ingrid Bergman her first lead role after her outstanding work in supporting and ensemble parts. More than that, it was specifically designed to show off her talents, and it achieved its goal, making her a major star in Sweden—at a cost to the studio that made it. Intermezzo’s popularity on its American release would catch the attention of producer David O. Selznick, who would eventually hire its luminous star away from her homeland.

Selznick’s first assignment for Bergman in Hollywood would be a very close remake of this breakout hit, directed by Gregory Ratoff and costarring Leslie Howard. The Swedish version is superior, though, with a softer, more lyrical and sympathetic tone, and greater chemistry between its lead actors. In the Swedish film, Bergman plays opposite silent film and stage veteran Gösta Ekman. If he occasionally indulges a tendency to overact here, it suits his charismatic character: Holger Brandt, a married violin virtuoso who falls in love with Bergman’s shy young accompanist, Anita. Though their passion is real and they escape to the South of France together, Holger feels the pull of his family, and Anita has her own career to consider. The relationship is destined to be an intermezzo in their lives: his midlife crisis, her youthful indiscretion.

With a romantic musical motif by the Austrian Heinz Provost (who won a contest to have his music featured in this film), seasonal nature imagery, and Bergman again in a quasi-maternal role (Anita teaches Holger’s beloved daughter piano), this is among the sweetest and most innocent of the actor’s Swedish romances, despite the fact that she once again plays the “other woman.” Molander praised Bergman’s “wonderful grace and self-control,” and it’s true that few actors could imbue this rather hackneyed scenario with such naturalistic passion and restrained allure. One Swedish reviewer called her performance a “new victory” for the young star. Perhaps it helped that the twenty-year-old Bergman was a little besotted with, or at least awed by, her illustrious costar during the shoot.

The themes of Intermezzo resonate deeply with the realities of Bergman’s own life. Like Anita, she had had to balance work and ambition against personal relationships, and this film was to be her ticket to a new career in Hollywood, a bittersweet opportunity that would mean leaving behind her family in Sweden to pursue her craft. She became engaged to Petter Lindstrom shortly after completing Intermezzo, and by the time she left for the U.S., like Holger, she would have a child at home. Although Bergman’s later abandonment of Hollywood, following the revelation of her affair with Roberto Rossellini in 1949, made headlines, her departure from Europe during its difficult war years may have been a far more painful decision for her to make. But that was all in the future—Bergman had four more films to make in Sweden before officially decamping to Hollywood.

Sweet Madness

Ingrid Bergman returned to ensemble acting for Dollar (1938), a Scandinavian stab at screwball comedy. She had just been voted “most admired movie star” of the previous year in a poll of thirty thousand Swedish film fans, and, after viewing the final edit of Dollar, director Gustaf Molander decided to put her name first in the credits, before that of the ostensible headliner, Edvin Adolphson. “Ingrid Bergman’s feline appearance as an industrial tycoon’s wife overshadows them all,” read the review in Svenska Dagbladet.

When she began shooting this American-style comedy—which garners some of its laughs from its depiction of transatlantic differences of temperament—Bergman had no way of knowing that her previous film, Intermezzo, was destined to spirit her off to Hollywood. Dollar borrows from the sophisticated antics of comedies by George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch, but it is too poignant and too fierce to be as sparkling as its Hollywood counterparts—and fascinating for that. The film concerns three monied married couples, flirting and falling out with one another at a ski lodge. The convoluted plot comes from a 1926 play by Hjalmar Bergman, but the movie’s references to falling shares recalled the headline-grabbing story of “match king” Ivar Kreuger, a Swedish entrepreneur who killed himself in 1932 after his business failed.

Bergman is Julia, the gorgeous actor wife of an industrialist, Kurt (Georg Rydeberg), who neglects her for his work. She continually lashes out at him and her female friends, while finding comfort in the company of one of their husbands, Louis (Kotti Chave), an inveterate gambler. The morally messy behavior of these couples comes under scrutiny when Kurt’s cousin, the American investor Mary Jonston (Elsa Burnett), arrives to bail out his business, only to enter into her own love-hate affair with a handsome doctor (Adolphson).

It was probably as surprising in the thirties as it is now to see Bergman perform such sharp comedy so well. She fires her audacious, not to say brutal, barbs at her companions with an exceptional flair for timing. With her mastery of complex emotions, though, Bergman can switch instantly between goading her husband into a compliment to slumping and whispering, “Sometimes you feel so miserable that you’d gladly beg for such small lies”—a line so sincerely delivered that it explains away and excuses all her previous aggression. At the conclusion of the film, with all the partners returned to their rightful spouses, it’s Julia’s story that feels most genuine, as she curls up in an armchair murmuring, “Oh, the sweet madness of love. Difficult to live with but so sad to be without.” It’s a remarkable achievement to make a character who could be so unlikable come across as both sympathetic and complex.

Possibly in keeping with the theme of marital disappointments, filming on Dollar overran and pushed back Bergman’s wedding to Petter Lindstrom from her preferred date of July 7 (chosen because of the lucky double seven) to July 10, 1937. No less a Swedish cinema heavyweight than Ingmar Bergman chose to write about Dollar for Aftonbladet in 2000, praising its “poise and perfectionism”—qualities that he felt typified Molander’s comedies. As for Ingrid, he pronounced her “beautifully alluring” in the film, and who could possibly argue?

The Face of a Villain

In her diary, Ingrid Bergman wrote that A Woman’s Face (En kvinnas ansikte, 1938) was “my own picture, my very own. I have fought for it.” Nevertheless, the star worried that her growing public would be horrified by this marked departure for her, which required her to play a blackmailer, a bitter woman with a disfigured face. “I wonder what people are going to say when they see me as this terrible witch,” she wrote. After all, she had already risked alienating her Swedish fan base by signing a contract with Ufa to work in Germany. After seeing the control the Nazis had over production there, however, she’d walked away from the deal after making just one film, The Four Companions (also 1938).

It’s true that Bergman had fought for A Woman’s Face. Dissatisfied with the parts she was being offered, Bergman had engaged in a little ransom of her own. Svensk Filmindustri wanted her to take the lead role in a romance called Only One Night, a script she dismissed as “a piece of rubbish” and agreed to do only if she could also star in the studio’s new prestige drama. It was a good deal for both parties. Adapted by Gösta Stevens, brilliantly directed by Gustaf Molander, and with very fine photography by Åke Dahlqvist, A Woman’s Face is a terrific film, with a captivating performance by Bergman and dramatic outdoor sequences shot on location in snowy Rämshyttan.

Anna, whose face was scarred in childhood by a fire that took her parents’ lives, is the leader of a blackmail gang that targets wealthy and indiscreet denizens of Stockholm. One night, a plastic surgeon (Anders Henrikson) catches her in the act of extorting jewels from his faithless wife (Karin Kavli), although the doctor believes what he witnesses is straightforward burglary. The wife offers her leniency; the husband, a new face. Her looks restored, Anna takes a job as governess to a small boy in a wealthy household—but only as part of a complex murder plot. Now that Anna is happier and more loved than ever before, however, her conscience begins to trouble her.

The film’s premise—that Anna must remain twisted on the inside until her face is no longer contorted—may initially register as simplistic or even offensive, but it becomes clear that her personality has been warped in large part by the cruelty with which society treats her when she’s unattractive, unmarriageable, unassimilable. Scowling Bergman, with her fingers hooked across her face to mask her scars, makes for a very watchable villain, and, as in Dollar, offers a convincing and poignant explanation for her cruelty.

The distortion of Bergman’s face was created with makeup as well as a brace inside her cheek (an invention of her dentist husband, Petter Lindstrom, who had a hand in managing her career at this point) and glue to drag her eye down. Molander’s direction is painstaking, and each glimpse of Anna’s scar retains its power to shock. There are two effective slow reveals of Bergman’s face: her initial appearance in the film, when she is preceded by her shadow and snarling voice, and the delayed unveiling of her mended features in the hospital. Bergman was soon to take that famous countenance to Hollywood, where this film would be remade starring Joan Crawford in 1941. With that in mind, the final scene, of Anna’s departure for foreign shores, carries an extra punch.

Swan Song

After shooting the Hollywood remake of Intermezzo in 1939, Ingrid Bergman returned to Sweden for one more film. June Night (Juninatten, 1940) offers one of her finest roles. This dark tale is pure film noir, from its opening burst of violence to its frankness about sex and emphasis on human cruelty—not to mention its chiaroscuro lighting and oblique camera angles. And Bergman’s Sara is a true femme fatale: a mysterious woman who fascinates men, arousing their desire and curiosity.

At the outset, Sara is diffident Kerstin, a young woman brought up in a small town by a watchful though unkind foster mother. No one, it is suggested, looked twice at Kerstin until she was caught up in a sex scandal that reached the national papers. In the film’s opening moments, Kerstin is shot by her lover, Nils (a lonely sailor played by Gunnar Sjöberg), after she terminates their brief affair. She survives the bullet through her heart, but when she swoons prettily at Nils’s trial, an unscrupulous reporter, Willy (Hasse Ekman), writes a lurid article calling her a “wounded swan.” To get away from the unwanted attention, Kerstin starts a new life under the pseudonym Sara in Stockholm, where people are fascinated by the stranger, sensing that she has a story to tell.

June Night was adapted from a novel by former journalist Tora Nordström-Bonnier, whose work always emphasized psychology and sex. It is a remarkably fierce condemnation of gender double standards, as Sara’s Stockholm girlfriends deal with feckless boyfriends, in faint echoes of her own history. The film examines all possible responses to Kerstin’s near-fatal fling. Back in the newsroom, the reporters (a clutch of idiosyncratic rogues) spin through a series of angles on the story: does it illustrate moral delinquency in the younger generation, or is Kerstin an angelic vision of tragic youth? To Willy, she represents a chance for advancement, while the women she encounters consider her sexual experience a threat. As is common in Bergman’s Swedish films, an unhealthy romance will be replaced by a more wholesome model, although the way Sara finds her new paramour offers a morally murky twist on love at first sight.

Bergman excels, leading a vivid ensemble cast by playing a romantic heroine with tragic depth, and reminding the Swedish film industry of what they were about to lose. A reviewer for Öresunds-Posten wrote, “Bergman . . . establishes herself as an actress belonging to the world elite.” Director Per Lindberg, who worked mostly in the theater but made nine films, also deserves credit, for tackling heavy material with a delicate touch. He shoots Kerstin’s assault with crisp, detached precision but moves to sensual close-ups for her love scenes—in which Bergman offers a foretaste of the ardor of her famous clinch with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946).

America would claim Bergman for the next decade, until she returned to Europe with Roberto Rossellini at the end of the forties. She wouldn’t make another film in her home country until the portmanteau feature Stimulantia in 1967. Her early Swedish films are no mere audition for Hollywood, though—they reveal one of the most distinguished screen actors of her generation flexing her talent, and constitute a body of work to be treasured for its own sake.

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