A Half-Century of Friendship with Finnish Renaissance Man Jörn Donner

A Half-Century of Friendship with Finnish Renaissance Man Jörn Donner

Had Jörn Donner been born anywhere other than Finland, he would have been world-famous. As it was, he dominated the Finnish cultural scene for several decades. Prolific writer, film critic, director, and producer, as well as a politician and the cofounder of the Finnish Film Archive (at the age of twenty-four), Jörn stayed a close and cherished friend for more than fifty years. 

We first met in Stockholm in the fall of 1964, when I interviewed him about his first features as a director, made in Sweden—notably To Love, a romantic comedy with the Polish heartthrob Zbigniew Cybulski. Jörn was a Swedish-speaking Finn, one of a minority of some 6 percent in Finland. He wrote in Swedish and had been appointed film critic at the Stockholm morning newspaper Dagens Nyheter in 1961. He had made an auspicious debut behind the camera for Sandrew studios in Stockholm with A Sunday in September, which won the Opera Prima prize at the Venice Festival in 1963, and I knew of his reputation as one of the first in-depth interpreters of Bergman’s work. Throughout his life he remained fascinated by Bergman, and we called on his expertise at Criterion on numerous occasions, for example when he and I discussed Smiles of a Summer Night for a supplement for Bergman’s classic comedy. He also contributed a ninety-minute documentary on Bergman for the Criterion edition of Wild Strawberries.

A year after our first meeting, when I was back in Stockholm writing about new Swedish cinema for the Financial Times, he called me one evening at my hotel and suggested he show me some clips from his film in progress, Adventure Starts Here (1965). The chain-smoking young man of thirty-two who drove me at breakneck speed out to the laboratory that night was charisma incarnate. Sardonic, egotistical, and remarkably knowledgeable about world affairs, Jörn obliged you to take him on his terms or not at all. But some of his earlier works, like Adventure Starts Here and Rooftree (1967), were austere and humorless to such a degree that they flopped at the box office, even though they starred Harriet Andersson, by then Jörn’s partner. She would dominate perhaps his most thoughtful film, Anna (1970), about a doctor, recently divorced, going out to an island to reflect on her situation.

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