Swede Smell of Success

Hasse Ekman, Banketten (The Banquet), 1948, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 104 minutes.

IT’S BECOME SO CUSTOMARY for clickbait headlines to presumptuously refer to movies and filmmakers that the reader has “Probably Never Heard Of” that we tend to lose sight of what constitutes genuine rarity and undiscovered territory. To wit: I can’t say if you’ve heard of Hasse Ekman, subject of the retrospective “The Other Swede in the Room” which begins on September 9 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but I do know that not a one of the ten films playing are available on domestic home video—I’ve only been able to watch a handful of them—and if you haven’t seen any of Ekman’s deft, fleetly paced, scaldingly emotional films, you are in for a surprise.

While Ekman has reemerged from obscurity in his native country in recent years, even the existent biographical information on Ekman in English is rather sparse—I am indebted to the Swedish scholar Fredrik Gustafsson for assisting me in fleshing out my portrait. Ekman was born into a theatrical family; his father, Gösta Ekman, played the title role in F. W. Murnau’s Faust (1925) and was one of the greatest stars of the Stockholm stage in his day. Hasse, born in 1915, went into the family business; in Intermezzo (1936), Gösta and he played relations. The film also featured a young Ingrid Bergman, soon to head to Hollywood—as would Ekman, though he went in the lowly role of a film journalist, in which capacity he was able to rub elbows with the likes of George Cukor. He brought the influence of 1930s American screwball comedy and British drawing room farce à la Wodehouse back to his native soil, and directed his first film at the Wellesian age of twenty-five. However, in the earliest Ekman film that I’ve seen, 1942’s Flames in the Dark, about a jealous schoolmaster (Stig Järrel) at a boarding school who relieves his frustrations in acts of pyromania, the director is already trafficking in rather more disturbing material.

Ekman, then still in his mid-twenties and boasting a dashing, aquiline profile, plays one of the school’s students—he continued to act regularly in his own films, as well as those of other filmmakers. He has a particularly juicy part in his own The Banquet (1948), a family drama set in the days leading up to the sixtieth birthday of a Stockholm family’s banker patriarch, during which time we see ample evidence of the ways in which luxury and privilege have psychologically malformed his offspring. Ekman is Hugo, a parasitic art historian aesthete married to the family’s middle daughter, played by Eva Henning, then Ekman’s wife, and their caged animal domestic scenes together offer a startlingly frank portrayal of a sadomasochistic relationship. (Ekman, prone to strategically employed passages of caressing mobile camerawork, includes an offscreen seduction which combines telling audio with the image of an onlooking cockatoo.)

Hasse Ekman, Flicka och hyacinter (Girl with Hyacinths), 1950, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 89 minutes. Eva Henning.

Ekman gave Henning—alive today at age ninety-five—her greatest role in Girl with Hyacinths (1950), the first of Ekman’s films that I ever saw, and perhaps his best-known outside of Sweden. After the suicide of a lonely young woman (Henning), a neighboring writer and his wife investigate the events leading up to her last days, narrated by a procession of friends, enemies, ex-lovers, the flashback scenes gradually completing the larger mosaic of a life. Because of its structure, some have likened the film to Citizen Kane (1941), with the “Rosebud” mystery at the center being soured idealism and thwarted same-sex desire, though in eschewing Great Man mythology to investigate the case of a wasted woman, as well as its downbeat atmospherics, it might just as easily be likened to Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985).

Ekman’s immediately preceding work, The Girl from the Third Row (1949), exhibits Hyacinths’s same tendency toward complex interlocking narrative structure and concern with suicide—also evident in The Banquet—though here with an interest toward repudiating nihilism. A popular stage comedian trying his hand at tragedy (Sigge Furst) debuts an ill-received new work called Hell, which posits that life is infernal suffering and self-slaughter is the only release. After the curtain falls, he is confronted backstage by a mysterious woman (Henning) who tells him a series of stories about the passage of a ring between various hands, each affirming the basic decency of humanity and suggesting the existence of a benevolent cosmic plan.

The enormously moving The Girl from the Third Row most obviously shows the influence of Capra, who Ekman had met during his Hollywood sojourn, though it also bears the mark of a closer-to-home contemporary. Shortly before beginning work on the film, Ekman appeared in Prison (1949) as a shallow movie director who comes gradually to believe that life is a hell on earth. Like Hell, Prison was a box-office flop—later, though, it would come to seem the film which, more than any other, announced its director, Ingmar Bergman, as a major talent. It is Bergman, of course, who is the main Swede in the room averred to in the title of MoMA’s program, but for a shining moment Ekman was perhaps the best-known and most critically well-regarded filmmaker in the country, a public figure known for his yellow sportscar and bevy of beautiful escorts. Ekman and Bergman, three years his junior, had apprenticed together under the producer Lorens Marmstedt at the Swedish production company Terrafilm, where both went to work in turn. (After the debacle of Prison, Bergman moved to AB Svensk Filmindustri.) During the 1940s and early ’50s, the work of these two directors evinces a sort of friendly rivalry, replete with mutual influence: In Alf Sjoberg’s Torment (1944), from a script by Bergman, Järrel once again plays a sadistic Latin teacher very near to his Flames in the Dark character.

This back-and-forth continued until around the time that Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night was given a special award for “Best Poetic Humour” at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival—not quite a Palme d’Or, but enough to move Ekman to send his friend a congratulatory telegram which read: “Just so you know, I give up.” This wasn’t true, exactly; Ekman continued to show up to work, though, as consensus has it, with less and less consistent or convincing results. (The latest Ekman in MoMA’s series is 1957’s The Halo Is Slipping.) In 1964 he relocated to Costa del Sol in the south of Spain, sometime around when he directed the pilot episode of Sweden’s first sitcom, Niklasons (1965), and spent the forty years until his death in semiretirement, collecting art like The Banquet’s Hugo and occasionally returning to Stockholm to direct a stage revue with friends.

As much as a celebration of Ekman himself, MoMA’s program suggests the unknown riches of the Swedish film industry—too often reduced to the output of a single figure, Bergman—in the years during and immediately after World War II, much as their recent “Mexico at Midnight,” also the work of programmer Dave Kehr, showed the scope of that nation’s época de oro beyond familiar names like Buñuel and Figueroa. But most important, “The Other Swede in the Room” offers a chance to reappraise a director who, at least on occasion and for a time very consistently, exhibited a mastery of his medium. A story has it that Orson Welles once defended the legacy of another Swede, Greta Garbo, against the claim that she’d only made two great films, rebutting: “You only need one.” By my count, Ekman is at four and counting.

“Hasse Ekman: The Other Swede in the Room” runs September 9–18, 2015, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.