In honor of global celebrations for International Women’s Day, we share a guest post from Mariah Larsson. Her recent book, A Cinema of Obsession, is the first to focus on the life and career of notable Swedish director and auteur Mai Zetterling.
As representations of women in film have been heatedly debated, Mai Zetterling’s life and career provide important perspectives. When Zetterling’s first feature film, Loving Couples, premiered in 1964, she was one of very few women filmmakers in the world. After having worked as an actress for more than twenty years, she entered into the European art cinema scene and struggled to claim a space as an auteur, a film director who was also considered a great artist. During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, she would break a long and winding path, beginning in the male-dominated art cinema institution, continuing into television and documentary, feminist film festivals and filmmaking, and commercial television as well as feature films, ending with ceaseless struggles to finance various projects during the final years of her life.
Provoking controversy and scandal on several occasions until her untimely death in 1994, Zetterling was prolific in her work on documentary, short film, feature fiction films, and television, while also writing novels and short stories. Politically, she claimed to belong within a leftist intellectual tradition, and she was for a while under investigation by the MI5 (the United Kingdom’s counterintelligence and security agency). Nevertheless, the ideology expressed in her films dealt with a deep romanticization of cultures on the margins of mainstream Western society. Her films are visually striking and their narratives often controversial, focusing on gender relations and alienation. Representations of sexuality and gender were both conservative and radical at the same time; paradoxical, often strongly symbolic.
Zetterling made many of her films in her native land of Sweden, though for the majority of her life she lived abroad. She is associated with the country of Ingmar Bergman and films with adult material. Her years as a film star in Sweden were brief, as she moved to England in 1947 shortly after a successful guest appearance playing the titular role in Basil Dearden’s Frieda (1947). In contrast to Ingmar Bergman, with whom Zetterling had worked (starring in Music in Darkness in 1948) and with whom she was often compared, there has been very little or even near to nothing written about her for an international audience.
One reason for Zetterling’s overlooked position in film history is that her work, to a large extent, seems to have fallen between the stools. It is no coincidence that the feature films she made within her native art cinema institution are the ones of her oeuvrebest recorded in film history: Loving Couples, Night Games (1966), The Girls (1968). Feature films were for a long time considered the highest form of moving image storytelling, and European art films were categorized in accordance to nationality. In addition, as the women’s movement in film began to highlight Zetterling’s work in the 1970s and 1980s, her films featuring female protagonists were the ones that were screened and remembered. However, Zetterling’s career was independent of national borders—as well as independent of genres and formats. She worked in Denmark, Greenland, the UK, France, and Canada. Her various productions focus alternately on male and female protagonists and Doctor Glas (1968), Vincent the Dutchman (1972), or her contribution to the 1972 Munich Olympics documentary, Visions of Eight (1973), are no less engaging than The Girls or Scrubbers (1983).
Zetterling navigated the changing industrial and contextual structures of the film and television industries during her career, sometimes successfully, at other times less so. Her path was, indeed, winding, but it mirrors the experiences of several other women directors, even today.
[Note: A collection of Mai Zetterling’s films with English subtitles is now available in a DVD box set: Mai Zetterling’s samlade verk, released by Swedish Studio S Entertainment (region 2).]
Mariah Larsson is a professor of film and literature at Linneaus University. She is the author of The Swedish Porn Scene: Exhibition Contexts, 8mm Pornography and the Sex Film, and the coeditor of Swedish Cinema and the Sexual Revolution: Critical Essays.