Monday, August 9, 2010

Girl with Hyacinths (1950)

Flicka och hyacinter or Girl with Hyacinths
Director: Hasse Ekman
Sweden 1950
89 min
Starring: Eva Henning, Ulf Palme, Birgit Tengroth, Anders Ek and Marianne Löfgren, among others.

Often mentioned as one of the finest Swedish films in history, especially if one was to exclude that Bergman director who always gets the spotlight, Girl with Hyacinths has been strangely forgotten. Once in a while it is shown on television, and perhaps a film festival every now and then has a Hasse Ekman special and praises it - but outside of Sweden? Time to do something about it.

There was actually a time, in the 1950's, when the public loved to try figuring out who was the best Swedish director: Ingmar Bergman or Hasse Ekman? "Ekman, who?" is your response (and even if you have heard of him, please let me believe that I know everything).

Hasse Ekman was the son of a highly respectable and talented stage actor, Gösta Ekman Sr. Gösta was kind of a Swedish Lon Chaney, a master of disguise. He mastered the role of a young aristocrat as well as that of an old, dirty beggar. You may have seen him in the title role of Faust (F. W. Murnau, 1926), or opposite Ingrid Bergman in her Hollywood ticket Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander, 1936). After the German character actor Emil Jannings, ironically playing the evil Mephisto in Faust, introduced Gösta to cocaine he slowly died the usual Hollywood death - without having been to Hollywood, of course.

Hasse Ekman (1915-2004) and father, Gösta Ekman (1890-1938).

Then there was the dapper son, Hasse Ekman. Oh, I'm so in love with him. He acted, wrote scripts and directed. And as I mentioned earlier, even was a "rival" to the great Ingmar Bergman. While Bergman cast Hasse in sadistic sociopath roles in his own films (see Sawdust and Tinsel, 1953), Hasse made fun of Bergman's crazy being with loopy characters in his films. Even though the media at the time wanted to believe that they hated each other intensely, the truth was that they had the highest respect for each other. And rightfully so.

Then Hasse went and had a son of his own, Gösta Ekman Jr., that is a beloved comedian and actor in Sweden since the 1970's. But enough about the prestigious Ekman family.

The handsome director of the film.
Looks a little bit like Robert Montgomery, doesn't he?

This brings us to what is known as Hasse Ekman's finest directorial achievment - Girl with Hyacinths. Think of it as a Swedish film noir, if you will. It is most likely inspired by films like Laura (1944) and other Hollywood successes at the time, but with the typical dark humor and off beat tone of (good) Scandinavian films.

The film begins with an almost entirely black scene. A dialog is heard while the camera follows a bottle of champagne to a female hand holding a glass. The camera pans down to her feet and follows her across the room to a piano, where the title role silently plays a gloomy tune. She is later identified as Dagmar Brink (Eva Henning, the director's wife at the time and one of Sweden's finest actresses).

Man: One more glass...?
Woman: Pour it up. I've drunk stronger men than you under the table.
Man: Germans can't take much.
Woman: I've partied with all nationalities.
Man: And more than that?
Woman (in English): Mind your own business, brother.

After a while Dagmar leaves the badly lit party and goes home by herself. She sits down in a chair and lits a cigarette. She looks up at the ceiling and notices a hook. The scene cuts to the next morning, when her maid discovers her body hanging from the hook.

The protagonist in the story is Dagmar's neighbor, amateur writer Anders Wikner (Ulf Palme). Surprisingly, he and his wife Britt (Birgit Tengroth) is informed by the police that Dagmar's belongings now are in their possession, as Dagmar had written in her suicide note. Anders' curiosity is awoken: Why did Dagmar kill herself? Why did she entrust her belongings to her neighbors?

The rest of the film contains of Anders' detective work, as he tries to unravel Dagmar's past and her reasons for committing suicide. As her story unfolds through acquaintances of the deceased, scenes of the past are depicted and gives the viewer more information and explanations - as well as more questions, of course. The Wikner couple may as well be one of the cutest married couples in film, apart from Nick and Nora Charles of course.

Ulf Palme and Birgit Tengroth investigating.

Eva Henning as Dagmar Brink, and what is often called her best performance ever.

Girl with Hyacinths is an intriguing story with many of Sweden's finest actors. For the one who has seen many Ingmar Bergman films, there are a lot of familiar faces to be recognized - especially Anders Ek as the alcoholic artist Elias Körner, the one who portrayed Dagmar ("Miss Lonely", as he called her) in a painting he named "Girl with Hyacinths". Even though being Ekman's supposed enemy, Bergman had following to say about the film:

"An absolute masterpiece. 24 carats. Perfect."

Elias Törner: Merry Christmas! Merry fucking Christmas!

Not only is the film beautifully written and acted, but the mobile camera work is pretty admirable for the time and place and the musical score is wonderful. Another interesting aspect of the film, as it unravels Dagmar's past in the 1940's, is its depiction of WWII Sweden. Being a neutral country in the war (and every war since Napoleon), one hardly thinks about how it affected people then (or even that it affected anyone).
At one time Dagmar's husband turns on the radio, where news about Germany's invasion of Paris is being reported. How this is relevant to the story is not for me to spoil, but Dagmar looks terrified, turns off the radio and says that this is appalling. Her husband disagrees:

Capt. Brink: No worse than when they entered Brussels, Amsterdam or Warsaw.
Dagmar: They're vile.
Capt. Brink: But damn good soldiers. That rotten and corrupted France needs some cleaning up.
Dagmar: You sound like a Nazi.
Capt. Brink: I admire them, as an officer.

These conflicting attitudes toward Nazi Germany returns later in the film, and may or may not have something to do with Dagmar's sad ending.

All in all, this is a film worth being seen outside of Sweden. As you can see from the screenshots, subtitles are available if you know where to look. Give it a shot - especially if you are traumatized by having thrust yourself into Bergman films too early and think that all Swedish films are either existential migraine or 1970's exploitation.
Girl with Hyacinths is good stuff - even though Hasse Ekman never appeared in front of the camera, which makes me a little sad. But give it a shot if you have the opportunity.

Until then, you can always check out my new wallpaper with Hasse Ekman and Eva Henning. Married couples can be cool:


Dan Humphrey said...

Please tell me which DVD copy of this has English subtitles. I'd love to have access to it as a film professor for my students here in the US, but thus far, the only DVD I've seen for sale on the internet mentions nothing about English subtitles.

Anonymous said...

yes I two would love to find an english subtitled version of this movie, but can not find it

Unknown said...

I've been looking to either order the dvd or find a version with subtitles on the internet, no luck on both fronts, the best i could get was a 23 minute preview.. which made it all the more frustrating when I couldn't see the rest. where should I direct myself ?

teafruitbat said...

Go to for a version of this film with English subtitles.