Mai Zetterling: Actor, Director, Feminist

Mai Zetterling (1925-1994) was not only one of the first significant female directors of non-documentary feature films, but arguably deserves credit for being the first director of explicitly feminist films targeted at mainstream audiences – even if she herself decried the title of ‘feminist film director’ as a patronising label. Like Leni Riefenstahl before her, or her contemporary Jane Arden, she began her career as an actor. The story of her early life in her native Sweden (detailed in her excellent autobiography, All Those Tomorrows [1985]) was one of poverty and drudgery, and she left school at 13 to take up a series of menial jobs until her stage debut led to her acceptance at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre School. After her defining cinematic role in Hets, she was signed by the Rank Organisation to make Frieda, thus beginning an initially promising but ultimately unrewarding fifteen-year period of British filmmaking in mostly forgettable B-list films and television productions.

Fortunately, the shallowness of the roles which she was offered – increasingly typecast as the foreign seductress – led, through sheer frustration, to Zetterling’s decision to enter filmmaking from the other side of the camera. Swiftly training as a producer and director at the BBC, she came to immediate prominence with The Polite Invasion (1960), about the plight of Lapland communities. This led to her first work for cinema, 1962’s extraordinary The War Game, which launched her feature-film career as she returned to Sweden to make her extraordinary 1960s feminist trilogy: Älskande par (1964), Nattlek (1966) and Flickorna (1968). These films treated their subjects with equal amounts of insightful indignation at the inequality between the sexes and a biting, even sardonic brand of humour which was often (and perhaps willfully) misinterpreted.

From the 1970s to her death, she spent her life pursuing a number of diverse careers. Her works as a writer were perhaps even more uncompromising than those for the cinema, and included Bird of Passage (1976) and a collection of short stories, Shadows on the Sun (1975). As a director of documentaries for the BBC, she produced the captivating Vincent the Dutchman (1972), on the life of van Gogh. Her last two films as director were Scrubbers (1982), her only British film in this capacity and touted as the female answer to Alan Clarke’s Scum, and Amorosa (1986), an extremely personal work based on the life of Swedish author Agnes von Krusenstjerna (author of the book upon which Älskande par was based), which was censored for its British release. And, after her retirement from acting following her Broadway performance as Hedda Gabler, she returned for two stunning valedictory character roles in Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches (1989) and Ken Loach’s Hidden Agenda (1990).

This celebration of the early acting and directing careers of Mai Zetterling is a well-deserved tribute to a pioneering woman filmmaker as well as an acknowledgement of the Guild’s prescient championing of her acting career. Following the Guild’s extremely successful screening of Hets, Zetterling herself visited the Film Guild on 22nd February 1948, to speak at an event celebrating new Swedish cinema which included a screening of her film Driver dagg, faller regn (1946), as well as two works by documentarist Arne Sucksdorff. After this, the Guild was also responsible for staging the British premiere of Musik i mörker on 16th December 1951, which film is also included in this mini-season.


Alf Sjöberg | Sweden | 1944 | 101 minutes

Although directed by the (often-neglected) Swedish master Alf Sjöberg, Hets is more importantly recognised as the first film to have been produced from a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman. Its noir-influenced narrative sees emotionally-fragile shopgirl Bertha (Zetterling) becoming involved in an increasingly-complicated relationship with a young, naïve student (Alf Kjellin) who, in turn, is tormented by his gleefully sadistic Latin master, nicknamed Caligula (Stig Järrel). Often interpreted as his insightful allegory for fascism (produced, fascinatingly, whilst Sweden was still a neutral country in World War II), Bergman’s film debut also saw him take on roles as assistant director, script boy and, for a few additional exterior shots taken after the completion of principal production, as uncredited director. For Zetterling, meanwhile, it provided the acting performance which she lastingly considered her best, granting her the depth of characterisation in a complex, unsentimental and strong leading role which she was so often denied in almost all of her subsequent films as actor.

Music in Darkness/Musik i mörker

Ingmar Bergman | Sweden | 1947 | 87 minutes

Bergman’s fourth film as director was this unambitious journeyman production adapted from a popular novel by Dagmar Edqvist (made during the days when, as he put it, he would have ‘filmed the phone book’ had he been asked). Tellingly, its eventual success at the 1948 Venice Film Festival was seen as due more to Zetterling’s carefully-pitched performance than to any great achievement by its director. Here she plays Ingrid, a young woman torn between a tormented blind pianist (Birger Malmsten, who had also made his debut in Hets and was being shaped as Bergman’s first cinematic alter ego) and her macho boyfriend (Bengt Eklund). Still principally interesting more for its performances than its unashamedly and calculatingly populist plotting, the film features a host of eventual Bergman regulars such as the eternally-ancient Naima Wifstrand (Smiles of a Summer Night, Wild Strawberries) and, in a delightful if brief appearance as a disgruntled café musician, Gunnar Björnstrand – who had already had a brief cameo in Hets and would later go on to appear in Zetterling’s own films Älskande par and Flickorna.


Basil Dearden | UK | 1947 | 98 minutes

‘Would you take Frieda into your home?’ boomed the posters accompanying the launch of this neglected post-war British classic. A product of the first true annus mirabilis of Ealing Studios production (in which they also produced the prototypical Ealing Comedy, Hue and Cry, as well as Nicholas Nickleby and It Always Rains on Sunday), the film pitches Zetterling’s eponymous German immigrant between the airman who loves her (David Farrar, in the same year as his brilliant performance in Black Narcissus) and a xenophobic British public, particularly personified by a strident Labour MP (Flora Robson), reluctant to accept the peacetime integration of Germans. Thematically a sort of sequel to the questions raised in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Frieda provided Zetterling with her first and unarguably most significant role in her long and mainly unexceptional British filmmaking career.

The legacy of the Second World War was a subject which Frieda’s director Basil Dearden would return to several times, in such films as The Ship That Died of Shame and The League of Gentlemen, both included in the Guild’s Dearden mini-season.

Loving Couples/Älskande par

Mai Zetterling | Sweden | 1964 | 118 minutes

Described by Kenneth Tynan as ‘one of the most ambitious debuts since Citizen Kane‘, Zetterling’s feature directorial debut can perhaps be best viewed as a response to and reaction against Ingmar Bergman’s Nära livet (1958). Both films are set in a hospital ward where a number of pregnant women look back on their lives and their relationships, both films are written by women (Bergman’s by Ulla Isaksson and Zetterling’s by herself with husband David Hughes) and both feature strong performances from their female ensemble cast – indeed, Nära livet won an unprecedented joint prize for Best Actress at Cannes (as well as one for Bergman as Best Director). However, where Bergman’s film focused on the differing relationships between its women and their partners, Zetterling’s women (Harriet Andersson, Gunnel Lindbolm and Gio Petré) are completely united in their disdain for the men in their lives, revealed as they cast their eyes over their pasts with both strikingly sardonic humour and a sense of bitter regret in a film that treads an evocatively fine line between melodrama and satire. And yet, in what could potentially be the most backhanded compliment ever given, the film was to garner the famous reviewer’s comment: ‘Mai Zetterling directs like a man’….

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The War Game

Mai Zetterling | UK | 1962 | 15 minutes

Zetterling’s truly harrowing debut as a cinema director was this virtuoso, silent short film which transforms its increasingly disturbing children’s game into a compelling pacifist allegory. It deservingly went on to won the Golden Lion for Best Short Film at the Venice Film Festival and was also nominated for a BAFTA. Not to be confused with the later BBC film of the same title (and similar pacifist leanings) by Peter Watkins.

Night Games/Nattlek

Mai Zetterling | Sweden | 1966 | 105 minutes

When famously denounced by no less than Shirley Temple (then a member of the San Francisco Film Festival committee) as ‘pornography for profit’, Zetterling’s second film had already been banned from the Venice Film Festival ‘for scenes of sexuality, childbirth and vomiting’. Adapted from her first novel, the film still seems willfully controversial, even if some of its rougher edges have smoothed over with time. Treating the present life (Keve Hjelm) and childhood (Jörgen Lindström) of Jan, the film seeks out the events of a tormented upbringing which turned him into his neurotic and self-destructive self. As he recounts memories of humilition, incest and general perversities inflicted upon him by his mother (Ingrid Thulin) and aunt (Naifa Wifstrand again), he seeks freedom from them in the understanding and sympathetic Mariana (Lena Brundin) – who nevertheless steadily begins to resemble more and more the formative women of his youth…. Its complete self-assuredness in style and tone is remarkable even today, and the film deserves its reputation – as expressed at its EIFF screening in 2002 – as ‘one of the key feminist films of the 1960s’.

The Girls/Flickorna

Mai Zetterling | Sweden | 1968 | 100 minutes

Following her curious Doktor Glas (1968), a pessimistic adaptation of a 1905 novel which had already been filmed in Sweden in 1942, Zetterling’s fourth film, Flickorna, marked a return to form and to the preoccupations of her previous work. Her most clever and complex satirical work, it takes for its subject the world-changing ambitiousness of 1960s feminist theatre by juxtaposing scenes from Aristophanes’s protofeminist Lysistrata with the lives of three women (Harriet Andersson, Bibi Andersson and Gunnel Lindblom) involved in staging a touring production of it in modern Sweden. As in Älskande par, the main concern is with the relationships of its female leads to their respective and collective husbands and partners (Gunnar Björnstrand, Erland Josephson and Frank Sundström), but it was also to prove perhaps Zetterling’s first distinctly personal film, concerned less with intricate plotting and shock effects than with drawing direct parallels to her own life and career as well as the joys and frustrations of being any creative woman of her time and place. Almost universally panned on release, John Russell Taylor’s review for The Times nevertheless managed to describe it perfectly as ‘clear and vivid and often rather funny…an intelligent film without being aggressively intellectual…which gains an added dimension from the fact that its maker is a woman’.