After World War II Swedish film reached new heights, approaching a second Golden Age. A considerable part of these successes was due to the female actors who emerged during this period. We asked film scholar Saki Kobayashi to elaborate.
During the silent era, Swedish film had its first Golden Age, highlighted by the masterpieces of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller based on literary sources. These films reaped worldwide success, but the glory days ended in the late 1920s with the advent of sound. It would take about a decade before a gradual change began in the Swedish film industry, one that would lead to a second era of greatness, suggested in the late 1930s and becoming a reality during the following two decades.
This second period of greatness is, however, a rather vague concept that is not as distinct as the Golden Age of the silent era. For lack of a uniform definition, it can be said to refer to the time when Swedish film regained its high quality and when a foreign interest would once again be directed towards Sweden as a film country. It was being buzzed about already during World War II, when some serious drama films were produced that deviated from the predominant trend that began in the 1930s with mostly good-natured and, according to the cultural elite, vulgar comedies. In retrospect it can be argued that it was not until the 1950s that Swedish film reached, and by far exceeded, a level that rose above the prevailing film landscape with internationally acclaimed films by, most notably, Alf Sjöberg and Ingmar Bergman. In any case it can and should be noted that the war and post-war periods were a significant and transformative time for Swedish cinema.
While discussions on this second heyday usually revolve around certain name directors, producers or company heads, one must not forget a significant asset of another kind, namely film stars. In particular, such starlight radiated from female actors, and reached in some cases far beyond the country’s borders.
Asked about the actor situation in Sweden, the great theatre man and director Olof Molander, who returned to cinema in the early 1940s, answered that it was “more vital – as always, by the way – among the maidens than among the jacks”. This was a valid observation, given the number of internationally successful actresses at hand. By the end of the 1930s, Ingrid Bergman was a rapidly rising star in Hollywood while Signe Hasso had also begun her American career. Zarah Leander and Kristina Söderbaum were megastars in Nazi Germany during the same period. Despite this, there was no domestic shortage of actresses during the 1940s and 1950s. Viveca Lindfors, Eva Henning, Gunn Wållgren, Gerd Hagman, Elsie Albiin, Mai Zetterling, Inga Landgré, Margareta Fahlén, Eva Dahlbeck, Gunnel Broström, Maj-Britt Nilsson, Anita Björk and others debuted and created memorable characters on the Swedish cinema screen. Several of the actresses mainly associated with Ingmar Bergman’s female types – Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersson, Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom – made their film debuts around 1950. As did Ulla Jacobsson, who came to personify the concept “Swedish sin,” following her leading role in Arne Mattsson’s world sensation One Summer of Happiness (1951).
Both during and after the war, these new Swedish stars were noticed by foreign film industries such as those in Germany, Italy, Great Britain and last but not least the United States. Those who tried their luck abroad included Lindfors and Zetterling. A bit unexpected – and today quite forgotten – is the fact that an unknown acting student, Märta Torén, was launched as an instant star in the USA. The Swedish press eagerly watched these new international stars and rumours continued to circulate about foreign film offers for the actresses here at home. A great, perhaps a little too great, expectation regarding new international stars could be observed in a poll in the evening tabloid Expressen in 1949 about the “New Ingrid or Greta”, where no less than 17 young actresses were mentioned as possible candidates.
The extent to which such a media circus reflects reality is uncertain, but it was still a flattering fact for Swedes that their female stars seemed to attract film industries abroad. Regardless of political ideologies in different countries, the beauty of the Nordic woman was idealised abroad. This “naturalness”, the main ingredient in Ingrid Bergman’s success, was an antithesis to Hollywood glamour. Acting competence with roots in the Swedish theatre tradition was another attractive factor: in 1946, the American weekly magazine Collier’s described the acting school of The Royal Dramatic Theatre as “a guaranteed springboard to Hollywood”.
Of note is that these actresses did not reach Ingrid Bergman’s star status or relevance in film history, with those who worked with Ingmar Bergman as the obvious exception. However, their characteristics can be interpreted as something more individual, i.e. not specifically nationally coloured. In other words, the actresses in Bergman’s films were part of the specific psychological landscape of auteur cinema, rather than something traditionally Swedish. But does that mean that these internationally less successful Swedish stars were not “good enough”? Perhaps – if you accept the Hollywood standard as a yardstick. Another way to put it is that in these actresses the dominant film star ideals met the Swedish ideals. That Ingrid Bergman’s huge Hollywood success did not always arouse admiration in Sweden at the time is revealing. Not infrequently, bitter comments were made about the actress who, according to Swedish criteria, has not reached artistic perfection. This divided attitude was perhaps a sign of a Swedish resistance towards the great power position of American cinema. From this point of view, these female stars during the second golden age can be seen as an expression of a distinctive Swedishness which Swedish cinema wanted to portray on the screen.
(originally published in Swedish in October, 2020; in English in February, 2021)
A selection of films with female stars
Gerd Hagman was praised for her portrayal of a young teacher and her struggles in a primitive island community. She was equally acclaimed for her performance in Hem från Babylon by the same director.
Gunn Wållgren debuted as a spunky juvenile delinquent with Elsie Albiin as her naive sidekick. Hampe Faustman, Wållgren's husband at the time, appears as a villain.
The first film adaptation of the well-known love tragedy. Eva Henning's beauty remains unforgettable in the title role of the high-wire dancer, as does Irma Christenson's sharp performance as the abandoned wife of the lieutenant.
A strong female study, featuring Viveca Lindfors. Her character's journey goes from being an unfulfilled vicar's daughter to becoming a celebrated theatre star. The approximately 40 different dresses worn by Lindfors in the film was a selling point at the time of release.
Maj-Britt Nilsson plays a country girl who dreams of becoming a movie star. One critic described the film as "a scorching reckoning with films in general and film star lustre in particular".
The women involved with a playboy character, played by the director himself, are among others portrayed by Margareta Fahlén, Eva Dahlbeck and Ingrid Thulin; in a film where a section of Stockholm's Old Town was made up to look like Paris with French ex-pats as extras.
Mai Zetterling and Gunnel Broström play opposing female types in the second adaptation of Strindberg's short story, not to be confused with Ibsen's play of the same title. Both actresses were, for a change, given the opportunity to shine as comediennes here.